“It was my co-worker…”
“I was in college…”
“He came into my room at night…”
What do you say when someone tells you they’ve survived sexual violence? Most of us want to be supportive, but sometimes we can’t find the right words. Here’s a guide to the simple – but not easy – things to say.
Say to your friend, family member, co-worker, or whoever is sharing their experience with you:
• Thank you for telling me.
• I’m so sorry that happened to you.
• I believe you.
• You didn’t deserve it.
• You’re not alone.
• How can I support you?
What do these six sentences do? They let the survivor know that you support them, that you don’t judge them, and that they’re safe with you. Breaking the silence and the shame around sexual assault is a key part of healing. And research shows that how people respond, especially the first people a survivor tells, can make a big difference in their mental health and healing — and whether or not they go on to experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of course, when someone shares what happened to them, you might have big feelings: Anger, fear, sadness, horror. You might judge them or wish you could make it different. But this conversation is not about you.
It’s about the survivor, and your job is to listen.
It’s okay to cry with them, or affirm their anger, but keep it about them. Process your feelings with someone else.
It’s natural to want to try to make things better. This can show up as telling your friend or family member what will happen (“We’ll find you a good therapist,” “First you need to file a report.”).
This is a big no.
The essence of what happened to the survivor is that they had their power taken away. It’s important to let your friend be in charge of how they go through their experience.
There’s a chance that you, the one supporting your friend, are also a survivor. That can be a plus (empathy) and a minus (bringing up feelings about your own assault). Feel free to tell your friend that you, too, have survived sexual violence. If they want to hear what happened to you, you can share it, but without much detail. Keep the focus on them, and be sure to get support for any feelings that come up for you.
Harassment, abuse, and assault are isolating; they rupture trust and connection. Feeling heard, seen, and supported are the best gifts you can give.