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5 Ways You Can Help Emotional Abuse Survivors

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“A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.” – Steve Maraboli.

I like lists. Yes, I’m one of those people … the kind of person who dutifully fills out each space in my daily agenda with a detailed list of upcoming activities and commitments. I keep multiple lists on my phone and have a wall calendar complete with a white board where I continue my trend of filling out lists and writing things down.

Lists make things more digestible to me. They summarize and organize in a way that feeds my perfectionist soul and calms my anxious spirit.

The list I want to share today is a short and sweet set of suggestions to help the helpers when they are faced with supporting someone who has reached out to them or who they suspect is struggling with abuse. There are so many nuances to each individual and their specific experience, which means the actual experience of supporting an abuse survivor is undoubtedly going to be difficult, but keeping these tips in mind may help ease things along.

1. Listen first, respond second.

Abuse survivors are not used to having their voice heard. If someone has come to you asking for help and understanding, it’s important you give their voice a chance to be heard. The people I appreciated most when I was first disentangling myself from my abusive relationships were those who gave me space to talk it out. By listening first, you create a safe, judgment-free space where the person confiding can feel secure. Remember, this person already probably feels completely unheard and likely very confused, angry, hurt or sad. You need to let them get through these feelings and say what they need to without offering knee-jerk reactions or responses.

2. Validate their experience.

I remember how I felt when I first started coming to terms with my experience. It took years for me to accept what I had been through — I still grapple with insecurity around it to this day, in fact. What I needed to hear from my friends, family and therapists was what I went through was real and legitimate. I wasn’t “crazy.” My reactions had been reasonable responses to unreasonable circumstances. I needed them to make it clear they believed me.

Make sure you take time to validate the experience of the person who is coming to you. Let them know what they are saying matters and you hear them and believe them. Make it clear you are there to listen and support. Be honest and supportive in all your words and actions.

3. Ask what you can do to help, but don’t expect a clear answer.

This is a tough one, because there is a balance between wanting to “fix” everything for the person who is hurting, and ignoring their needs altogether. When sitting with someone who has just confided in you about abuse they’ve experienced, give them time to talk, then ask them what they need. Be patient after making this offer, though, because emotional abuse survivors often struggle with knowing their own needs and wants (they’ve been suppressing these things for who knows how long, remember?), so it may take some time for those needs or wants to come up. Continue to offer your support and help them however you can. Often, just knowing support is there when it’s needed can be enough.

4. Empathize, but don’t make it about yourself.

Another key strategy to supporting an abuse survivor is to offer empathy, but avoid taking space away from them by sharing your own stories or experiences. Yes, it is sometimes helpful to hear someone has gone through something similar to what you have, but share your own stories sparingly. Remember, this is a person who has finally found the courage to speak up about an experience that has likely caused them to question every part of themselves. They have often been made to feel utterly unworthy and insignificant. If you take over the conversation with your own stories, this pattern will simply be continued and they may feel they can’t confide in you anymore.

5. Make yourself available for follow-up and communicate this clearly. Then, don’t wait for them to follow-up; reach out after a day or two and check in.

When they have finished sharing, or when the conversation has come to its natural conclusion, make sure you offer further help. This may be as simple as reminding them they can call or text you anytime, or it may mean setting a date to get together again soon. If they are hesitant to make plans or don’t/won’t ask for further help, leave it for the moment, then follow-up a day or two later. Following-up can be a critical part of building trust between you, because it shows that you can be counted on.

It’s not at all easy to be there for someone when they are telling you uncomfortable things, when they are sharing experiences that may be scary or shocking to hear. But using the five strategies offered in this list can go a long way to helping make that conversation easier. It can help build a bond of trust, which is often exactly what an abuse survivor needs.

To all those who have helped or are currently helping an abuse survivor, my sincerest thanks and gratitude. You are the unsung heroes of our stories. You’re there when we need you and you are essential in creating a new narrative for our lives as survivors. Please keep doing what you’re doing.

Unsplash image by Roberto Nickson

Originally published: February 19, 2020
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