Dear Isabel: People are Unprepared

Dear Isabel,

You are telling your story. You are opening up. You are owning your truth and sharing details with the world.

You are probably being hurt by misguided listeners who do not know what to say to you.

You will know that someone is unprepared to help you if they communicate with fear, guilt, or shame. This could be the church leader who minimizes your story by saying, “Not all churches have this problem.” Or it could be the family member who tells you to limit your social media expression to avoid making people feel uncomfortable. It could be the police officer who asks, “What were you wearing?” Or it could be the friend who compares your story to another survivor’s experience and tries to comfort you by showing you how someone has experienced “greater” harm.

Fear. Guilt. Shame. These are the feelings we are used to bringing to a conversation about sexual maltreatment. This is how we feel about the existence of sexual abusive people. We are afraid of them. We are guilty of enabling them. And we are ashamed that they exist. Terrified to put ourselves in the abuser’s shoes, we subconsciously put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, and reach desperately for justification that we are DIFFERENT than that person. That we live a life that could not experience abuse. This is why we shame victims. The abusers feel too difficult to ostracize, so we turn the survivors into the “other” instead.

It is possible to discuss sexual maltreatment without using fear, guilt, or shame. But you will probably talk to people who do not know what to say before you connect with the people who know what to say.

You have every right to be angry at those people. If someone makes it harder for you to process a traumatic experience and transition to a place of safety, it is natural to be angry with them, even if they do not understand how they are creating difficulty for you. So be angry, set boundaries, and do whatever you need to do to create a safe space.

But don’t stop sharing your story. Do not be silenced. There are people who are prepared to support survivors. There are leaders who are trained in trauma-informed care. There are friends who know how to keep the focus on you instead of making your experience about them. And there are experiences that the unprepared people in your life can go through that help them learn to become prepared people.

So next time you are talking about your experience and someone uses fear, guilt, or shame of any kind, gently tell yourself, “This is an unprepared person. I do not have to feel how they want me to feel.”

Then, when you are ready, try again with someone else, Isabel. Because you deserve to be heard.

With Love and Trust,

The Survivors

© Anna Westbrook 2019

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