Exploring Values with Trauma Survivors

If a person has been a victim of abuse, neglect or other forms of relational trauma, she has been taught that she does not matter. Her value lies solely in what she can provide for someone else, and she is not free to pay attention to herself. A survivor often has what some call an ‘external locus of control,’ meaning that she views other people and situations as the arbiters of what matters. Part of the healing process includes beginning to see herself as someone who gets to decide what she values and needs, rather than expecting that she must always defer to the values and needs of others. 

When I work with an abuse survivor, I love getting to explore what she cares about. Many times she has trouble even identifying what she enjoys and needs. As the process goes along, though, she begins to see herself as someone who matters. She works to forsake the influence of an abuser, who treated her as less-than-human. She realizes that others do not get to decide who she is. 

As I hear her expressions of these sentiments, I begin asking about her values. I have a list of values that she can look at, and she circles the five most important to her. Then I want to know why she circled those particular values. Again, these questions can be difficult for her to answer because she is not accustomed to exploring what she cares about. So I’m moving slowly with her, giving her space to be curious. 

For example, a client may circle the value of ‘justice.’ When I ask her about this value, she shares that no one ever stood up for her when she was treated unjustly, so she wants to be a person who always stands up for others. Her trauma has motivated her toward something good, which we should celebrate. At the same time, there’s a chance this value could lead her into unhealthy territory if we don’t think well about it. She could be tempted to forsake her own deep need for healing because fighting for justice seems more powerful and meaningful to her. She needs a holistic view of her values. 

I ask questions about how the value of justice affects her daily choices and relationships. She may say something like, “I watch the news a lot and have strong thoughts and feelings about what the justice system should be doing to help people who are marginalized.” This gives me an in-road to a conversation about whether watching the news brings flourishing. Does she feel more empowered to help and pray for others, or is it discouraging and disillusioning? How much time does she spend thinking about what she’s seen on the news, and what does she do with the feelings of frustration and anxiety that come as a result?

Hopefully you can see how talking about a person’s values allows her to explore the motivations, thoughts, feelings and behaviors that spring from these values. Then we have the opportunity to think about how these values align with her faith. If she is a Christian, we can discuss how God views justice. We get to study Scripture and learn the ways our desires for justice reflect the heart of the Lord and point us toward our heavenly home. We also get to pay attention to the fact that justice cannot be completely fulfilled in a fallen world, which can cause frustration and even resentment. Every step in this process points us toward being more fully formed into the image of our Savior. What He values becomes what we value.

If you’d like to utilize the tool I’ve created for understanding values, you can click HERE to become a member of Christian Trauma Healing Network. It’s only $15 per month, and you’ll receive new content every month to utilize in your care for others. In addition, our members are invited to a monthly online networking meeting to collaborate and encourage one another, AND you receive a 20% discount on all webinars we offer. We hope you’ll consider joining our community!

Are You a Compulsive Helper?

Compulsive behavior includes thoughts, urges or behaviors that persist despite negatively affecting health, job or relationships. Normally when we think of compulsions, we imagine a person who constantly checks the locks on doors or washes their hands all day long. But any behavior that is persistent and includes negative effects can be considered compulsive. So is it possible to be a compulsive helper?

My answer is yes. I can say this with confidence because my behavior as a helper was incredibly compulsive for many years. This doesn’t mean I disliked helping but felt obligated to do so – it means I had to help when I saw a need, regardless of whether it would be beneficial. This played out in many different settings: advising people about their purchases at the grocery store, agreeing to mentor four different people at the same time,  and volunteering for too many projects at my kids’ schools. And then I joined a church staff and started a private counseling practice. Imagine the opportunities to over-commit!

People who help others are often very compassionate and merciful. They deeply desire to serve in whatever way they can. This desire is often sparked by their own stories and experiences, including their testimonies of salvation. This type of person is essential in God’s kingdom as he uses his gifts to encourage and care for others. But motivation really matters. A person who compulsively says yes to helping opportunities is highly motivated by some sort of need. Often the compulsive helper is motivated by a need to feel loved and special, or by a need to have purpose and significance in life. 

These needs are focused inward in order to create personal security. Compulsive helpers usually feel genuine compassion toward those who are struggling, but the urge to help is fueled by some sort of deficiency rather than by Christ’s love. If a person serves others out of a need to be upheld, secured or loved, he is traveling a dangerous path that may damage others and himself. 

I was not aware of my compulsive helping behavior until I began to lose heart and experience extreme fatigue in ministry. I was advised to slow down and delegate opportunities to others, and I found these things almost impossible to do. Why? I had built an identity around serving people, so I would have no sense of self if I stopped. 

If this story seems at all familiar to you, I encourage you to spend time answering the following questions:

  • When a need arises, do I tend to assume I will be the one to meet it?
  • What types of needs do I believe I have to meet? Why do I believe I need to be the one to meet them?
  • How long has my helping compulsion been happening? When did it start?
  • What motivates my urge to help others?
  • How and when do I rest? Do I need to add more rest to my life?

Taking a hard look at ourselves can bring clarity and wisdom for how to move forward. Compulsively helping is not sustainable – it will bring about burnout or resentment (or both). Ask the Lord to search you and know your heart (Psalm 139:23). He will show you the truth. As you see yourself more clearly, ask Him to help you process the motivations of your heart honestly. Then ask Him to give you a way forward.

A few things started happening as I did this process. First, I understood more clearly the necessity of Sabbath. The whole point of Sabbath is for us to relinquish control and trust God with what is left undone. I desperately needed this habit of grace in my life. Second, I began to pay attention to the ways in which ministry had become obligatory. I recognized my own resentment and worked toward forgiveness and healing. And third, I began to notice the value and beauty of saying ‘no’ to opportunities that might not fit my gifts or capacity. This included learning to celebrate my limits and be grateful that I could not and should not do everything.

Forsaking my compulsive helping means that I have to listen to the Holy Spirit in my decision-making. Now when an opportunity comes my way, I choose not to say ‘yes’ right away, even if it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Instead, I take time to pray and ask the Lord to show me whether He wants me to say ‘yes.’ I try to remember that Jesus did not say ‘yes’ to every opportunity – in fact, he said ‘no’ to many people who wanted to be healed or served in some way. The only way to know the best decision is to listen to the voice of the Father. 

My prayer is that the love of Christ will compel us above all else (2 Corinthians 5:14), and that we will serve out of an overflow of the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in our lives. When we experience the need for approval, significance and love, may we turn to the Lord and ask for His love to nourish and strengthen us.

How to spot partner abuse

I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, and she was describing her anxiety. She said she felt like she couldn’t get anything right. No matter what she did, it didn’t seem like enough. She wanted to be a responsible person, a person who was loving and compassionate. But she just couldn’t seem to fulfill those expectations.

I told her that I struggle with the same things. I shared that I’m naturally a perfectionist who holds myself to astronomical standards and beats myself up when I don’t get everything right. I said I’m learning that the Lord created me to be finite and dependent on Him. It’s ok not to be perfect.

Then she started to cry. She said she didn’t know how to accept her imperfections. She wanted to be allowed to be human and finite, but she wasn’t sure she could have a more realistic standard. Something in the way she said it made me wonder. So I asked, “Do you hold yourself to an unrealistic standard, or are you trying to be perfect in order to please someone else?”

Her head went down. She stopped looking me in the eye. The silence dragged from seconds to minutes. I knew she wanted to say something, so I just waited. Finally, with eyes still lowered, she said, “I’ve lost track of all the ways I’m failing. And sometimes I don’t even know I’m failing till he gets home. I don’t remember till it’s too late.”

She’s not anxious because she’s a perfectionist. She’s anxious because she hasn’t followed all of his rules perfectly. She’s in an abusive relationship.

Sometimes partner abuse is hard to spot. It can be subtle. It can develop so slowly that it’s imperceptible to the observer. Many women who are struggling with anxiety are actually staggering under the weight of an abusive partner, but they don’t even know to call it that. To them, it’s just how relationships work. And in the Christian world, it can be even more devastating because partner abuse is happening under the definition of wifely submission.

It’s time for the Church to say some really clear things. Submission never means following someone’s rules to avoid punishment. It never means sacrificing the health and safety of yourself or your children in order to appease someone’s preferences. It never means laying yourself on someone else’s altar. This is not submission. It’s abuse.

In whatever ways we have allowed abuse to continue in the name of submission or humility, we need to repent. We need to learn what to look for and how to get help for those who are suffering at the hands of someone else. Abuse is happening right under our noses, to women and men and children. To the elderly and the disabled. We need some education, and we need boldness to advocate.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a great website. That’s where I’ll point you in beginning your education (click HERE). This website defines domestic abuse and gives warning signs to look for. You’ll also find the Power and Control Wheel, a very helpful tool that describes ways in which someone will exert power for selfish gain.

Here’s the Hotline’s list of signs your loved one may be experiencing partner abuse: (https://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/)

  • Their partner puts them down in front of other people
  • They are constantly worried about making their partner angry
  • They make excuses for their partner’s behavior
  • Their partner is extremely jealous or possessive
  • They have unexplained marks or injuries
  • They’ve stopped spending time with friends and family
  • They are depressed or anxious, or you notice changes in their personality

Of course, your friend or loved one may not exhibit all these signs, but if you notice even a couple of them, you can ask a few questions to learn more:

  • “I noticed him putting you down, and that bothered me. Does that happen a lot?”
  • “You seem worried about making him mad. Do you feel worried about that often?”
  • “He seems to get jealous easily. Do you see that with him?”
  • “I noticed that bruise. It looks painful. Because I love you, I need to ask – did someone give that to you?”
  • “You seem distant lately, and not because you want to be. I’m wondering if you feel pressured only to be with him, like you’re not allowed to spend time with your friends and family.”
  • “I can tell you’ve been down lately. I want you to know I’m here for you and would love to support you in whatever you’re going through.”

(In these questions, I’m using the female pronoun to describe the abuse victim, but keep in mind that abuse happens to both men and women. No one is exempt from the possibility of being victimized.)

If you ask a few of these questions and sense that the person’s answers may indicate partner abuse, trust your instinct. It’s not your job to investigate. It’s your job to support. You can simply tell your friend that you’re concerned about the relationship, that something doesn’t seem healthy. Ask her if she’s willing to share these concerns with someone more knowledgable, like a professional counselor. Offer to go with her. She may not want to do it, because she feels responsible for protecting her abuser’s reputation. If she doesn’t want to get help, ask if she’d be willing to look at some materials about healthy and unhealthy relationships. You can print some materials from the Hotline website to talk through with her.

I don’t recommend that you go behind your loved one’s back in trying to help her. She is living a life under someone else’s power. You want to communicate the opposite to her. She is her own person. She deserves to make her own decisions. She has dignity and worth. Ask her what she wants to do and give her options, but don’t make decisions for her and don’t pressure her.

If she shares with you that children may be endangered, you should report to CPS. Don’t wait, and don’t wonder whether it is actually happening or just suspected. The safety of children is always imperative, and it’s not up to you to figure out – only to report. To report child abuse in Texas, call 1-800-252-5400, or www.txabusehotline.org. The National Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-800-4-A-Child, or www.childhelp.org.

 

Questions to ask an abuse survivor

I’m encouraged by the number of people who want to be helpful. Even more, I’m grateful for those who are willing to take the risk of leaning into hard conversations, hoping to support someone who’s suffering. I’ve often received questions from people about what types of questions they should ask someone who has survived abuse. I’m learning that many people want to help but hesitate to step into the conversation out of fear that they’ll do or say something wrong.

If you’re someone who wants to support a survivor of abuse, thank you. Being fearful of saying the wrong thing is only natural. Feeling unprepared is common. The worst thing you could do would be to back away and hope someone else steps in. I’m happy to give you some jumping-off points in order to help you ask good questions. But first, allow me to give some words of caution.

When I first started sharing my story with others, I got a variety of responses. I was seventeen when I was sexually assaulted. I told two adults about it. The first one asked me what I was wearing when it happened. The second asked me if I was going to press charges. I have no doubt that both those adults thought they were being helpful. One thought she would shield me from further abuse by instructing me on my clothing choices, and the other thought she would help me get justice. My response? I walked away and never spoke to either of them again about my suffering.

Many people think they’re being helpful by offering advice or trying to “make right” what went wrong. Allow me to let you off the hook. You won’t fix anything. Ever. You can’t make the hurt end by any word you will say. You can’t create peace by bringing the perpetrator to justice. No human word or action fixes the brokenness caused by abuse.

I’ve counseled dozens of abuse survivors. Not one of them “got better” because someone asked the right questions or offered the best advice. We all journey toward healing for our whole lives. You may have the honor of walking alongside one of these beautiful people, and you’ll be better for it. But you won’t ever fix anything.

So my word of caution is this: first, check your “fixer” at the door. Ask yourself why you want to step into the conversation before you step in. The ultimate motive should be love, fueled by compassion and hope. Second, you shouldn’t ask these questions of someone with whom you haven’t already established a strong relationship. Healing happens in the context of safety. If you aren’t sure whether you’re a safe person for her, ask someone else to step in and support her. Third, you’re not an investigator. The point is not that you get all the information. The point is that you empathize with her. This means you may not have all the facts, but hopefully you’ll gain insight into her experience. And finally, you’re (most likely) not a professional counselor. Please don’t try to counsel her – it takes years of study and experience to know how to guide someone toward healing. You are there to listen and support. Leave the counseling to someone who’s trained and ethically bound to do no harm.

(Keep in mind that these questions are intended to be asked of someone who has shared that she was abused in the past. In a future post, I’ll share questions to ask someone who might be experiencing current abuse.)

  1. I can’t imagine what you’ve experienced, but I want to. Will you tell me more about what happened to you? (This is a purposefully open-ended question. She will share with you what she feels comfortable sharing. Don’t push for more.)
  2. What was it like in the days and months following the abuse?
  3. Did you tell anyone directly after it happened? How did they respond?
  4. What are some ways the abuse has affected your life?
  5. When you think about the future, is anything scary to you?
  6. Who has helped you in your healing journey. What has been helpful about their involvement?
  7. What are some unhelpful or hurtful things people have said or done as you’ve sought to heal?
  8. Who is walking alongside you now? Do you need additional support?
  9. Have you been involved in groups or counseling to help you heal? Is that something you want?
  10. How can I continue to support you as you heal?

 

Please share your comments and questions with me! 

How should men care for female survivors of sexual abuse?

“I was bit by a big dog when I was a kid, and now I’m afraid of all big dogs.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear this from my friend. It’s a natural instinct for her to recoil from something that reminds her of a dangerous situation. In fact, it’s a God-given instinct for survival. I don’t fault my friend for the way she feels – it’s just the way she feels. And I’m not defensive that she doesn’t want to be around my black lab, no matter how friendly or lovable. Her experience has changed her perceptions and interactions.

Since the recent news about perpetrators of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches, I’ve had several conversations with men about the experience of a female abuse survivor. These men are asking me questions because they know my story. They know I can relate.

I am a survivor of sexual assault. I was seventeen, and I was forced into a sexual encounter by a peer. The pain of that moment still grieves me, but equal to that grief were the horrifying days and months following the abuse, in which well-meaning Christians affirmed the dreaded voice that was haunting my every thought: “It was your fault.”

The damage is great. Vast and far-reaching. Since that season of my life, I have read and studied and met individually and in groups with countless women like me. Our stories are all different, but all with common threads. We all felt overwhelming shame, betrayal and fear. And we all heard the dreaded voice. We couldn’t make it stop. It told us we were to blame.

We were trying to make sense of something senseless, so we believed we caused the trauma. That allowed us to feel a sense of control, to build a system in which we could prevent further trauma if only we could do everything perfectly next time. But let’s be honest – we didn’t know any of that. We were just drowned in shame and fear, and we fought our way to the surface the best way we knew how.

In building this system, the creation of categories became a survival tactic. The location of the abuse was now off-limits. The clothing I wore, the size and shape of my body, the way I interact with the opposite sex…on and on. My list became very long, and it grew each time I had a flashback to the abuse. But at the top of my list was one word. MEN.

In the same way my friend recoils from big dogs because of her interaction with one bad one, I became afraid of men. I began to assume that they all thought of me as a piece of meat, not even good enough to be swallowed but only to be chewed up and spit out. This was not a true statement, of course, but my brain had created a category to keep me safe. Until healing occurred, this category was the only way for me to function.

So what should you do if you’re a man who wants to care for a female sexual abuse survivor? How do you interact with her? What does she need?

Use your ears.

If you are someone she trusts enough to receive her story, that’s a gift. The moment you know what she faced, you have become someone unlike her abuser. You have been trusted with something very vulnerable and tender. So there’s no need to defend your gender. There’s no reason to try to educate her or admonish her. These are moments of ministry – the ministry of listening. Whatever she shares is precious. Take it to heart, and let her know that you are honored to receive her story.

Believe the best of her.

The voice in her head takes a long time to go away. For some, it never goes away. She expects others to perpetuate that voice and tell her she was to blame for the abuse. She’s wondering what you think the moment you hear her story. She doesn’t have a personal vendetta against you because you’re a man. She has very good reason to believe that a man will betray and belittle and dehumanize her, because she’s experienced it firsthand. While you’re not to blame for the abuse, someone in your gender was. That means you can help by being someone who looks her in the face, who smiles kindly, who affirms that what she experienced was a vile and abominable evil.

Push below the anger.

Many men I’ve encountered are able to express their anger and disgust that someone could perpetrate sexual abuse. But I have found few men who are willing to dig below the anger into how they feel. Anger is a secondary emotion – it stems from something else. What do you feel beneath the anger? Is anger a shield that allows you to stand in righteous indignation without actually experiencing empathy?

Empathy comes when you admit that you don’t understand and humbly ask for help. Some think they are empathizing, but they’re actually just sympathizing (i.e., “I understand because I experienced something similar”). You cannot understand what someone has faced, no matter how similar your experiences have been. Empathy means you ask for understanding, desiring to sit in the ashes with someone. It means you want to experience it yourself alongside them. This is so painful to do, and many men refuse.

If you’re interested in experiencing empathy regarding a woman’s experience with sexual abuse, start with this question: What if she were my wife? my daughter? my sister? my best friend? my mother? my girlfriend?

Let that question sink in. All the way down to the core. What if? How angry would you feel? How sad? How terrified? How hopeless?

Now look into that woman’s face. She IS your wife, your daughter, your sister, your best friend, your mother, your girlfriend. She is.

Link arms with her

She may have been walking on the road to healing for a long time, or she may have just begun. Ask her how you can serve her. You are most likely not the person she’ll continue to talk with about her abuse, but she needs someone (or several someones). Find resources in your church and community that specialize in caring for abuse survivors. Help her access those resources, and then commit to walk alongside her as she heals. She needs faithful men in her life, men who combat the lie that all males dehumanize females. And remember that she may share her story with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically and completely safe. She needs other women, primarily, to be her support system. Operate as her advocate and resource-provider, and keep asking her how you can serve her.

I hope this post generates many other posts! Please send me your comments, stories, and questions.