How to listen to a survivor

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By Rosemary Akpan

When someone in our lives has been sexually assaulted, we might not know how to console them. While we can’t always expect what they’ll need or want in that moment, there are still ways we can give them that support as best as we can throughout their healing process.

Approximately 70 per cent of sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, according to RAINN. Naturally, when a person opens up to you about their assault, Lesli Musicar, a psychotherapist at Counselling at the Carrot counselling centre, says it’s okay to react with shock and horror. “This validates the reality of the assault and the victim’s feelings,” Musicar says.

While many sexual violence survivors undergo various emotional and physical reactions, responses to them are not the same across the board. Musicar said this occurs when the person is still recounting the moments of their assault. Oftentimes, “it is likely they are still in shock, or perhaps they are doubting their own reality.”

The Government of Canada has reported that survivors of assault who re-tell their story of abuse often times experience re-traumatization when seeking help across sectors, organizations and service providers, or even when facing discrimination, marginalization or stigma.

In this case, we have generated a few do’s and don’ts from a mix of Musicar’s advice and the Women’s College Hospital, which will hopefully help you in your attempts of supporting someone who has been sexually assaulted.

Do’s

  • Listen without judgment:
    Don’t just listen—believe your friend. Show you care and have open body language.
  • Respect their decisions:
    Your own feelings are separate from theirs. They may not want to approach their assault the way you would. 
  • Take care of yourself:
    Recognize your own limitations. If supporting someone is starting to affect your well-being, you can direct them to resources that will support them instead.

Don’t’s

  • Ask “why” questions:
    Asking questions that imply blame on the survivor are harmful and can push them away.   
  • Be impatient:
    They may be struggling already to come to terms with their assault, so allow them to take it at their own pace.
  • Stop checking in:
    It’s always good to check in on them from time to time to see how they’re doing.

Tips courtesy of psychotherapist Lesli Musicar and the Women’s College 

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