Empowerment Through Empathy
By Chelsea Donohue
With a rate of one in three Canadian women and one in six Canadian men experiencing sexual assault in their life time, we must ask ourselves an important question. How do we respond to survivors of sexual assault when they come forward? When I say we, I am not merely talking about we as individuals; I am referring to we as a society, a system, a community. How do we collectively relate to survivors and assist them with seeking justice, security, dignity and hope? How do we supportively contribute to their journey towards healing? These are important questions that we must ask ourselves.
Unpacking trauma is a key component of the healing process. However, there are specific needs that must be met before a survivor is able to process what has happened to them. They need stability, safe places and compassionate people to help them begin to heal. They need systems that are set up to help them, not to oppress them or re-traumatize them.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that is not consistently survivor centred. We often protect the powerful systems in place before helping the people who depend on their support. We sometimes make assumptions about whether or not survivors are telling the truth. We don’t always recognize when someone is struggling and is in need of help.
Why do we do this? There are a few reasons that come to mind. First of all, we live in a society that is dominated by powerful systems and riddled with inequality. We too often determine a person’s value and validity based on their status and the power that they hold. The historical impact of Colonialism and patriarchy lives on in our systems and continues to create barriers to safety for women, especially Indigenous women and girls.
Secondly, in an effort to make ourselves feel more comfortable, we separate ourselves from people or situations that scare us. We may change the channel when the news becomes too violent or pick a movie that has a happy ending instead of choosing one that leaves us feeling unsettled or disturbed. If we haven’t experienced something traumatic first hand, we protect ourselves from seeing it happen to other people. Our brains are wired to run from pain and discomfort. The truth is, having comfort and security is a privilege that many people don’t have.
Another reason is that when it’s not our story, we don’t know what survival looks like. We misinterpret the behaviour of survivors because we don’t know the difference between “undesirable” behaviours and trauma responses. Some of the most common trauma responses include anxiety, fear, depression, increased vigilance, avoidance, disassociation and self-medication (substance use, alcohol, food, etc.). We might misinterpret this behaviour as being anti-social, irresponsible, aggressive or self-destructive. We see these behaviours and ask the person “what is wrong with you?” instead of reframing the question to ask “what has happened to you?”. Our own perspective dictates how we interpret and respond to other people’s behaviours.
Survivors of trauma also struggle with memory. We often expect a survivor of sexual assault to ‘prove’ that the assault happened to them by providing details of the traumatic event. We need evidence in order to pursue justice. Their credibility depends on how accurate their account of the incident was. This is especially true when charges are laid against their perpetrator and they begin to navigate the legal system. Survivors are often re-traumatized when seeking justice for the crimes committed against them. This also contributes to the prevalence of under reported sexual assaults.
The reality is that we can’t help people if we can’t see them for who they are or hear their story from their lived experience. We must understand what survival looks like if we want to be in a position to help survivors. Being blind to a survivor’s reality does not come from malicious intent; we truly mean well. Sometimes we aren’t able to understand a survivor’s perspective because we are filtering their experiences through our own world view. When we see people through our own truths we miss the opportunity to hear and see them for who they really are and to understand what they have been through. Meaning well just isn’t enough.
The #metoo movement, founded by Tarana Burke, was created by honouring the expressions of people’s wholeness; love, dignity and joy. The original tagline of the movement was “empowerment through empathy”. As a survivor, Tarana felt alone in her experiences and wanted to create a space where other survivors could be heard and seen. She built the movement to empower young women of colour in her community. Like herself, these women had experienced disproportionate levels of violence and oppression due to the historical context of racial and societal inequalities in the Southern Unite States, where she grew up. She wanted to empower survivors to heal, to know their worth and to know that they were not alone.
Tarana recognized the importance of empathy when supporting survivors of violence. Shame and blame push people apart, empathy and compassion bring people together. Empathy doesn’t exclusively come from sharing lived experiences with others. We can hold space for anyone, even those who have walked different paths in life. How do we empathize with people who have lived through difficult experiences when we haven’t? We pull from shared feelings.
In a recent interview, Tarana Burke stated that your ability to empathize with others is not based on what you went through, it is based on what that experience left you with. Anger, powerlessness, insecurity, shame, fear, loss, sadness, loneliness; these are feelings that most of us have experienced at some point in our lifetime. Empathy requires looking at things from another person’s perspective, being non-judgemental and recognizing the emotions in other people.
When we look at another person’s trauma through our own lens without considering their point of view we offer them sympathy instead of empathy. For survivors, sometimes sympathy can feel like ‘othering’. For many survivors, sympathy conveys sorrow and pity which can be isolating, disempowering and even insulting. We must be mindful of the way we engage with survivors of trauma. It is important to be aware of the impact of trauma and violence when supporting survivors of sexual violence.
Using a trauma and violence informed approach involves providing safety, empowerment, choice and autonomy. It is working collaboratively with others to make sure that survivors have wrap around care and support. Trust is hard for survivors of trauma. We must work hard as a community to prove that we are trustworthy, compassionate and empathetic.
Chelsea Donohue is a member of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce