Embodied Heart

Centering Survivors: #WhyIDidntReport and #WhatItCostMe

I’m finding myself feeling ambivalence in response to the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag. Survivors do not owe anyone their stories, and they should not feel compelled to be trotted out as political pawns. At the same time, moronic statements such as expecting a teenage girl to alert her parents and law enforcement after a violation, as if the onus is on her, rile me up beyond belief. This is a time for allies of survivors to show their solidarity, and, for survivors who wish to engage, to be surrounded by support if and when they choose to share their experience.

I’ve been scared to talk to others about the current political controversies, unless I already have a good sense of where they stand. A part of me doesn’t want them to fail at giving space and grace to the stories of survivors, because, by default, they are revealing their heart if they do so. Even in my nascent limited discussions, one inevitable aspect of the fallout has been to de-center from survivors onto perpetrators. “Why did they act like this?” “What about his career?” “Should someone’s “antics” as a teen define them?” and so on in defense of violence. I’ve written about expectations of forgiveness toward perpetrators as well as how allies can stand in solidarity, both of which are not purely survivor-focused topics. I want to center my story as a survivor directly here, instead of only engaging the periphery. To that end, for today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, here’s why I didn’t report:

  • I was violated by family members, including my parents.
  • I was silenced by the cruelty of witnesses.
  • There was no safe place to turn.
  • I was a preschooler when it started.
  • I dissociated until I escaped.
  • Shame is powerful.

It feels like an act of grace to myself to leave the list “unexplained.” Most survivors will likely be able to resonate with the unspoken details. The main point of my ramblings here is that survivors do not need to convince anyone who doesn’t “get it;” 100 to 1 they don’t “get it” because they don’t care or can’t be bothered, not because they fail to understand on an intellectual or emotional level. If you are a survivor, you deserve to be seen, heard and held without a laundry list defending the little self or selves who did whatever they needed to do in order to make it through.

When someone wishes to disavow a survivor’s story, there seems to be a limitless buffet of “no-see” available. If the survivor didn’t tell, it doesn’t count. If they told but it didn’t make it to court, it doesn’t count. If they made it to court but lost, it doesn’t count. If they won their court case, justice has been served and there is no reason to feel like a “victim” left. There is no space or grace created, no green forest left untilled, in which a survivor’s story can take root, be witnessed and around which others can rally. Survivors are left to hold each other and ourselves up in communion.

I think we need to go far beyond attempting to justify our lack of reporting, an act which needs no justification, to defining the price of survivorship (#WhatItCostMe) (the “it” is the abuse itself, not the failure to report). I feel self-pitying to tie some of my failures to my trauma, but, in reality, they are definitely related. The impact has been so pervasive and profound that I have no sense of who I’d be without having had the trauma I endured; I feel certain my life would have been more meaningful, impactful and happier. I reject as utter nonsense the musings of anyone who tries to tell me the violations I encountered “taught me lessons” or “were my destiny” or “made me who I am (in a positive light).” Invent a time machine, get sexually assaulted by your relatives, including your biological parents, at 3 at 4 at 5 at 6 at 7 at 8 at 9 without anyone to turn to, within an oppressive family system and religion, and then come back and tell me what a “blessing” it is.

The abilities and experiences it’s cost me:

  • Seeing humans as anything other than threats unless, over a long period of time and with much evidence, they earn my trust.
  • Screening out environmental stimuli such as smells and noises.
  • Thinking clearly under any level of stress.
  • Feeling hopeful for the future or content in the present.
  • A coherent and integrated narrative of my past.
  • A healthy and joyful sex life.
  • Self-regulating my eating, sleeping and spending behaviors.
  • My family, my religion, my community and culture of origin.
  • Nearly every close friendship or romantic relationship I’ve ever made.
  • A healthy relationship with my body.
  • A clear and consistent sense of the passage of time and memory for recent event.
  • An integrated inner world.

This is a cursory list I threw together quickly. I think I’d take up many pages if I really spelled it out. The exact price of being a survivor varies based on the severity, intensity, pervasiveness, etc. of the abuse itself, as well as the background of the survivor. Any cost exacted at the expense of another is too high. If you are a survivor, what has been taken from you and what have you missed out on as a result of your experiences? We often shy away from this (at least I do) for fear of complaining or being negative, but stories of triumph and “it was all okay in the end” can be used to keep us silent rather than to help us heal. Acknowledging pain is not the same thing as dwelling it in it forever. We’ve reached the point as a society that I think the cost needs to be amplified and the burden of bearing it redistributed to everyone who perpetuates rape culture, misogyny and patriarchy, rather than only on those onto whom the debt has been cast.

© 2018 All rights reserved, Suzanne Tidewater, Goddessing From the Heart

Inner Work

Going Deeper: Leveraging Empathy into Responsiveness

For today’s #InnerWork post, I want to delve into an exploration of the ways in which we can show up authentically for those with whom we are close in our lives. In order to care for another, we must already be engaged in inner healing in a way that puts aside excuses and denial and which calls forth vulnerability and raw emotion. One of the foulest enterprises on which a person can embark is to attempt to heal another as a way to scale their own inner walls; we have to be willing to fling open any door inside for which we invite another to ajar slightly.

I am going to limit myself here to an area of identity in which I’ve experienced invalidation on a regular basis, namely, that of being a trauma survivor. As such, my discussion is primarily aimed at those who are trauma survivors and who want to engage in inner work as well as those who desire to be support persons for a trauma survivor. I think there are potential parallels to other areas of oppression that people face, but the systematic nature of injustices such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on means that those experiences include additional factors beyond what I am addressing. Please see this page for an evolving list of resources in relation to systemic injustice and solidarity.

I also want to add a strong caveat that what I describe here is in no way a substitute for professional assistance such as therapy. It is not healthy or healing to try to act as a therapist to a friend, family member or romantic partner. One of the main differences between showing up for someone with compassion and being a therapist is that a therapist may try to elicit the memories and experiences behind the emotions the person is feeling and may try to lower internal defenses to draw out vulnerability. If a trauma survivor demands that you act as their therapist and will not seek help, I suggest finding a therapist of your own to help you navigate the relationship. There is a potential for significant damage for both of you otherwise.

If you are secure that you are acting as support person rather than a therapist, but you still get out of your depth, be honest! Let the person know this without sending them the message that they are the problem. It is healthy to set boundaries and to let someone know the specific ways in which you are able to be there for them. At the same time, if someone trusts you enough to show you their pain, holding space for them in a responsive way can move mountains for them internally (and, as I’ll describe below, we can be this for ourselves as well). This is why your own inner work needs to be non-negotiable; if you have significant unprocessed wounds that you’ve never addressed, you will likely harm more than heal if you try to be there for another who’s in pain.

Empathy: Witnessing with Compassion

In order to show up for others, we first have to give our undivided attention to the vulnerability in ourselves. I am increasingly of the mind that vulnerability should be invitation-only, both internally and externally. What I mean here is that any request for it in an area of suffering, beyond a gentle open-ended query, is likely misguided. Demanding that someone show us their pain, or that hurt areas inside of us crack open and reveal their secrets, is rarely effective or welcome. Once you are comfortable responding to your own areas of vulnerability with empathy and responsiveness, you will be more fully able to be there for others. You do not need to be 100% healed by any means, but if you style yourself as someone who always gives but neglects themselves, or as someone who is only critical of themselves, please spend some time working on self-care and self-compassion first.

If vulnerability shows up from another person, empathy is required. It astonishes me how quickly we can move away from this. “Oh, at least this didn’t happen to you too.” “Some people have it even worse.” “I wonder why they (insert traumatic behavior).” and so forth are spewed as a way to shut off that most uncomfortable of feelings—helplessness—and the mental confusion that it renders. I want to allow my heart to be broken by the lived experience of both myself and of others in terms of the anguish trauma brings. I of course place limits on how much I can serve as an effective witness, but I push through my inner desire to minimize as all it does is invalidate either myself or the other person. Acting as though suffering hasn’t happened doesn’t undo it, rather, it adds exponentially to it.

Empathy includes maintaining one’s focus on the individual who is sharing and letting them be in the messiness of their feelings. Immediately offering hugs and tissues and “supportive” words may send the not-so-subtle message that only a titrated amount of pain is allowed to show up, and that anything more is “too much.” I think our work here involves an emotional and a behavioral response.

On a “feelings” level, allow the emotions the person is showing to settle into an open spot in your heart, and reflect them back without becoming subsumed in them. Put yourself in their position (notice I didn’t say to tell them about the one time something only tangentially related happened to you) and let the feelings stir in you as you breathe through it. The most powerful moment of compassion I ever had was seeing my pain reflected in another person’s eyes—not them crying hysterically—but simply witnessing it in me.

Next, ask the person how they would like to be supported. That’s right, you don’t have to have all the answers! Some people struggle with knowing how they can be held in kindness—allow there to be a sense of expanse in terms of your willingness to learn with them. If they ask for it, feel free to share a few things that help you—some trauma survivors have never been met in this way and genuinely do not know what to do with it. This may be an area of discussion they decide to tackle with their therapist. If you’ve shown yourself to be a caring person who isn’t going to leave them at the first sign of issues, they may feel safe enough to begin to let you know what they need. Count this an honor, not a burden, as it is rare in our society for people to be direct and honest with each other. It is up to you to set your own boundaries and to be forthcoming if what someone needs exceeds your capacity (see the next section). You do not exist in a survivor’s life to heal or fix them; you exist to be in relationship with them. Do not delude yourself into thinking they would be lost or hopeless without you; we survivors tend to be highly adaptable and able to find a way through even the most difficult of situations.

Responsiveness: Compassion in Action

One of the least helpful therapists I ever subscribed to the viewpoint that empathy wasn’t sufficient for healing. She was right on one level—someone caring about our pain is not the only ingredient needed for healing from trauma—but she took this instruction too literally and straight up skipped past it entirely. If those of us who have suffered immeasurably at the hands of humans never receive the message that someone cares about our suffering, it is very challenging to move forward. At the same time, knowing that our pain matters can still leave us feeling stuck in the past if there is no sense of anything changing as a result. This is where responsiveness comes in. Responsiveness requires a depth of maturity and security in one’s self that challenges nearly everyone. What it looks like at times is sacrifice. Sacrifice engenders bitterness if it is not offered with an open heart. It is much, much better to “let down” a trauma survivor by sharing honestly in regards to your own boundaries than it is to pretend at a responsive façade.

Let’s walk through an example. Suppose the trauma survivor became triggered in a moment of physical affection. Perhaps you pulled them in for a kiss and this brought up feelings of being trapped for them. They let you know what they were feeling and, instead of getting defensive (this is where a large percent of people tap out right away), you were able to be with them as they expressed their feelings. Let’s say you even asked them what they needed to feel safe with you, and they shared that they would like to be asked before you kiss them, even though you are in an established romantic relationship. You are now at the moment of potentially offering responsiveness (as well as negotiating your own boundaries and needs). What you don’t get to do, if you care at all about the person (and if you’d like to claim to be a decent human being) is to say, “sure of course, I’ll ask” and then “forget” to do so on a regular basis, or to try to manipulate the person—“if you loved me, you’d trust me and would let me kiss you whenever I wanted to.” Let’s say, for the sake of argument, being able to be spontaneous in kissing is your most important thing ever and you cannot possibly be happy without it. In this case, you may need to renegotiate yourself out of the romantic relationship as it stands. You get to say “no, I need this instead” but you don’t get to (if you want to be a decent human who cares about the survivor) force them to gratify your needs. Or, you could make a sacrifice. You could (maybe temporarily as you decide together) allow your need for spontaneity to go unmet in order to respect the survivor’s boundaries. Survivors’ needs often look “controlling,” but they are only controlling if the person doesn’t let you walk away easily and deploys force/manipulation to keep you in a relationship that doesn’t meet your needs. Asking someone to limit their behavior because it triggers the other person isn’t controlling; engaging in a responsive reaction, in which you support the survivor’s healing, means that what’s brought you together is stronger than the inconvenience or disappointment of the “no/not now.”

So, how might we define responsiveness as it relates to being an “ally” of a trauma survivor? To me, it means taking seriously what a survivor tells you they need and doing your best to provide it without turning their need into an immediate demand of your own on an unrelated topic (in other words, not using it as a bargaining chip to get what you want). It means talking through needs if they conflict until you find a solution that honors everyone’s boundaries. It means replacing “controlling/telling me what to do” with “I’m making a choice to honor their needs in this area; it is a sacrifice I’m happy to make because I know it is what they need to feel safe.” If all that comes up in you is a mindset of “they need to get over it” or “I’m being manipulated by their problems” then get yourself to a therapist to sort it out. It has been devastating to me personally to have it take just about everything I have to share, in a moment of vulnerability with another person, the “real” shit that goes on in me and to have them get angry at me because, for a few short seconds, I wasn’t giving them what they wanted or I was treading too closely to their own unresolved feelings of inadequacy. If you are in a relationship with a survivor, expect to feel helpless, and welcome it as a sign of authenticity rather than using it as shame-fuel for your own problems.

Responsiveness may not be a boundary-setting experience, it may also be an invitation to go deeper in revealing your own vulnerability. Perhaps the survivor feels that what would be supportive to them would be to know if you’ve ever experienced the same thing as they have emotionally, or to know more about what came up in you as they shared about themselves. If you haven’t done your own inner work, this may feel like a challenge or even a threat. The more you are able to engage in self-care and healing, the more fully you will be able to respond with support to these experiences. Resist an urge to turn the entire conversation into a monologue about how things go for you; do make it known if you value the opportunity. Some survivors modulate their internal experience by hyper-focusing on the needs of everyone around them; this may take professional assistance to navigate if you find yourself in this situation on an ongoing basis.

I’ve written so much here yet I think I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. What I would find most helpful would be to hear the questions you would like answered if you are a support person of a trauma survivor. Please respect their story enough to not share personal details; let me know if there are general sticking points for which you think it would be helpful to read about in a post. If you are a survivor, what did I write that captures your experience? What is missing or different for you? How are you best supported in your areas of vulnerability?

Embodied Heart, Goddess Thealogy

What Goddess Spirituality Means to Me

I will soon be hosting a free Self-Compassion Summer Camp Virtual Circle for individuals who are interested in deepening their practice of Goddess Spirituality. I’ve written in the past about why I believe Goddess Spirituality has resonance for trauma survivors. As I’ve worked on preparing the circle, I realized it would probably be wise to share about my own belief and value system on a more granular level in order to give my offerings within the circle adequate contextualization. For today’s #Thealogy post, I will be delineating the specific way in which I define my spirituality as well as the core principles to which I adhere.

Labeling the Intangible

My spiritual identity is that of a person who engages in pantheistic nature-based Goddess Spirituality. I owe a debt of gratitude to Molly Remer’s Practical Priestessing class for elaborating upon the various belief systems within Goddess Spirituality to the point where I was finally able to put a specific terminology to my values. The pantheistic aspect of my practice means that I see the Divine in everything. In addition, Nature reflects spirituality and Deity to me; I would say that the core of my faith is touching the Divine in all Her forms through the natural world. Given this, scientific discovery and inquiry spurs on my spirituality, rather than standing in opposition to it. Lastly, I respond most fully to the Divine in the form of the feminine and female (both the psychological and physical aspects of womenhood).

I have found a few points of distinction within areas in the wider Pagan and Goddess Spirituality worlds that I think bear consideration. I very much value historical conceptualizations of female Deities, but I do not worship a particular Goddess per se or see Goddess as entirely separate from myself, for instance, as an entity whom I must placate through sacrifice. I also do not venerate both God and Goddess as some Wiccan practitioners do. My practice honors and values the developmental processes of those who are biologically women, such as menstruation, childbirth and menopause, but these transitions are not the center of my devotion. Instead, I incorporate a systemic view of natural cycles into my conceptualization of the Divine–Goddess as reflected in ecosystems. As a result, although I’ve limited my Summer Self-Compassion Camp to women as participants, I view Goddess Spirituality as accessible to all people, regardless of gender. Likewise, although I connect with each face of the Triple Goddess as Maiden, Mother and Crone, I do not limit myself to viewpoints of Goddess or of my own development to this presentation alone. Finally, I do not believe in anything resembling the Law of Attraction or the idea that I can alter reality through magical means alone.

As I’ve sat with a desire to communicate my values and beliefs, five specific core concepts have emerged. If you are interested in the virtual circle, I think you will find the most resonance if you identify with them as well:

  1. Embracing all of nature
  2. Living in compassion and love
  3. Appreciating the interconnectedness of all beings
  4. Attending to the margins
  5. Creating conscious community

Please see below for a full description of each value.

Embracing All of Nature

The heart of embracing all of nature is to me to acknowledge the dialectics within life. There are moments of beauty, but there is also death and decay. Similar to the darkness that is as much a part of the world around us as the light, I believe each of us has shadow—areas of our inner lives we’d rather avoid that in fact hold the key to our deepening relationship with Self. We needn’t have it all together or be “positive” at all times; making appearances of doing so is often a cowering from reality rather than an authentic state of being. Moments of experience where everything is going wrong or our best-laid plans result in failure are as vital to our spiritual journey as triumphs.

Embracing all of nature lends itself organically to practicing mindfulness. Living in the present moment is the surest way for us to access our experience as it is instead of as we’d like it to be. Contemplation of the past and future is also welcome and necessary; I seek to integrate my ideas of what has been and what will be into who I am in the present rather than to spend my time pining for past losses or future not-untils.

Walking with nature also includes physically experiencing it to the fullest extent to which we are able. We need bodily, emotional, mental and spiritual stimulation as humans, and there is almost always free access to it the moment we spend time with organic matter (I say this instead of green because I think there is something to be said for being around plants, etc. after the harvest has passed as well). Instead of using technology to perk us up or keep us interested, we can substitute the real thing for the artificially-generated. I value a slow and sustainable pace to life whenever it is feasible; my progress in this area is unsteady at times but, as it is rooted in my ancestral path, I know I will continue to open to it.

Living in Compassion and Love

I placed compassion before love in the section title because I think what the world needs is a greater capacity for compassion and empathy more than anything else. Liking is typically a prerequisite to love, but, if we open ourselves to it, we can feel for anyone, even those who are very different from us. Telling people that they are only acceptable to us, that we can only feel compassion for them if they change their beliefs, behaviors or other aspects of who they are to fit our needs is cheap grace—again, it is often easy to feel for those with whom we have much in common. Loving all whom we are lucky enough to have as close and dear to us and showing compassion to everyone we meet are intertwined reflections of Goddess for me.

Appreciating the Interconnectedness of All Beings

Gratitude grounds me in the realization that I am but one small part of the ecosystem of the Earth. Both on a physical and a spiritual level, I think everything and everyone is held in the Cosmic Web of life. No matter what my feelings of depression or trauma-based beliefs may tell me, I am not only a part of humanity, I am also in intimate relationship with all aspects of the universe, from the tiniest ant to the farthest galaxy. I hold that this is true for all humans without question. In this sense, we are all welcome and we each have inherent worth. My actions, then, take on heightened importance as the decisions I make affect everyone. I have a responsibility to the wider world as well as to myself; at the end of things, they are one and the same.

Attending to the Margins

Most of the individuals with whom I’ve interacted in the Goddess Spirituality world are very socially aware and care about society’s inequality and injustice. Some of these individuals, myself included, do not think the world in its current state is just. In other words, we don’t think individual people are solely responsible for everything that happens to them nor do we believe that people always get what they deserve. I am strongly opposed to the notion of karma on the scale of a human lifetime—we may not see things righted in each person’s life. Survivors of child abuse, for instance, did not cause their own victimhood, and their abusers will unfortunately not always be brought to justice. Likewise, people can be born into misery through no fault of their own.

On a cosmic timescale, I think there are discernible patterns of growth and entropy and that, even within the limited framework of human history, there are streams feeding the river of progress. Although justice is elusive, I believe actions such as tending to those who are less fortunate and speaking truth to power serve as outflows of the wellspring of hope and compassion which Goddess Spirituality provides for us. I hold that the feminine characteristics of empathy, cooperation and nurturance are vital contrasts to systems which focus on rightness, domination and conquest.

Creating Conscious Community

Having been raised in (by American standards) an extremely restrictive, patriarchal and collectivistic community, communally-focused activities can feel threatening to me. I’ve stumbled my way towards a recognition that my skills at instantly dissecting a group’s leadership and desiring to expose their inherent flaws need to be redirected to developing my own abilities in creating community for others. I expect to be humbled and have my “you’re doing it wrong” radar toned down a bit by the experience. There is a knowing in me that there isn’t a perfect community into which I will walk with a place carved out that suits me just right. Instead, I need to handcraft the vessel myself and pour out the libation to others who are like-minded.

Goddess spirituality practices are often egalitarian and focused on developing each participant’s inherent abilities. I hope to partner with others who hold a desire to become teachers and healers and spiritualists—those who want to cultivate their own leadership skills. The community model to which I am drawn asks and invites each individual who partakes to contribute that which they know is theirs to give and to take from the group that which is needed, trusting that most people will respond thoughtfully to such an offer. The innate effort, generosity and empathy of which most humans are capable is perhaps best elicited, paradoxically, by sharing with newcomers, rather than by demanding they earn their seat.

These five principles, along with the labels under which I feel comfortable placing myself, have taken me a few decades to collect and to then digest sufficiently to where I can begin to open myself up to others in their offering. I am certain they will change a bit as I continue my spiritual journey. I would love to hear from others who consider themselves practitioners of Goddess Spirituality, pantheism and/or nature-based spirituality as to their resonance and meaning for you personally, as well as the additional guiding philosophies to which you hold allegiance in your walk with Goddess.

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Resolving Expectations of Compassion Toward Abuse Perpetrators

A fellow blogger, Alexis Rose, shared an excellent post about her feelings on the word forgiveness.  As I read her post as well as the replies, I felt like the veil finally lifted on what I felt I had been accused of lacking in relation to my abusers by the various people with whom I’ve shared my story. It wasn’t forgiveness as no request had made to do so. Rather, it was compassion. Those of us who have been subjected to the most heinous acts humans can perpetrate are expected to feel empathy and to practice understanding for those who harmed us. In today’s #EmbodiedHeart and #SurvivingnThriving post, I will explore why this expectation may exist and outline best practices in responsiveness for those who wish to support trauma survivors in relation to this topic.

*Please note that I do dichotomize the condition of survivors and perpetrators in this post. I am aware that an individual could fall into both categories; I will not be fully addressing that complication.

But They Had a Rough Life Too…

To me, the function of pushing compassion towards abusers on trauma survivors is that it serves to dismiss any grappling with grief, pain, horror and estrangement by the commenter. If victims and perpetrators can reconcile, what need is there to fully acknowledge the awfulness of the actions and the destruction they cause for their victims? Within this mindset, the discomfort can be wrapped up quickly to move on to a world with less injustice.

As strange as it may sound, those who view abusers with complete hatred and malice—for instance, those who hope they get raped in prison—are simply the other side of the same coin. If the abuser is either monster or another form of victim, we are spared the gut-wrenching realization that all of us have the potential for evil within us as well as the difficult work of having to make meaning out of the actions of those who succumb to it.

Sex offenders (and, to a lesser extent, parents who physically abuse their children) are one of the few true pariahs of our society. The main impulse people seem to have towards them is that they should be banned from everywhere and imprisoned for life, if not outright killed. The hypocrisy, though, is mountainous when it comes to survivors, who are expected to be the ones to redeem them through their acts of forgiveness and compassion. I see value in restorative justice models; however, it is not my job as a survivor to fix the system or the situation for those who violated my being. I view it as an act of cowardess to extend an expectation of reconciliation to those who have been most wronged while absolving one’s self of any need to struggle with issues of evil or to create pathways to restoration. I suspect many such expectations are coated with a little bit of soot-shame: sure, it was the perpetrator’s fault, but isn’t the victim a little defective as well? And, if so, I (speaking here as if I were a non-sexually abused human) can leave the whole messy bunch to figure it out amongst themselves.

The current movement to rehabilitate the men rooted out by #metoo will, I suspect, fall victim to the “fix it yourself” crowd. If such an ill-conceived project as Charlie Roses’ talk show occurs, I fully anticipate a woman who has been sexually harassed in the past will be paraded out to make nice with her former boss or co-worker. I do not have any answers for the place at which the fallen (mostly) men who harm others sexually should arrive, and it isn’t my calling in this lifetime to grapple with this burden. Every time someone tells a survivor they should forgive their perpetrator, or wonders to the survivor what awful things must have happened to the perpetrator to lead them to their behaviors, they thrust some of the most challenging moral questions a person may face: Why do some people defile others? Does evil deserve compassion? Is everyone able to be redeemed socially, and, if so, how do we make it happen? at the people least deserving of pondering them.

To take this one step further, I think again about calling. If there is any justice in this world, I feel there needs to be a 50-1 network of supporters of trauma survivors to supporters of perpetrators. I do genuinely believe some people’s mission in life is to work with perpetrators and I support them in their efforts. At the same time, numbers and substance matter. I was deeply disappointed earlier this year when I learned a Pagan conference I wanted to attend regularly welcomes sex offenders and holds specific meetings for them, while paying little attention to the needs of trauma survivors. I am not saying these programs shouldn’t happen, but the fact that one group’s needs were clearly more valued than another’s turned me off to the whole enterprise. Trauma survivors themselves are not overrun with resources and educated supporters, that much I can ensure you.

Best Practices in Supporting Trauma Survivors in Regards to Abusers

I cannot recall another blog I’ve written where I’ve spoken to those who might be support people to trauma survivors; nearly all of my work is directed at trauma survivors themselves. If you read a hint of anger in this post, it’s there. I’ve been hurt far more than I’ve been helped by others when I share my story. The ones who get it, though, are invaluable.

  1. If you feel compelled to mention forgiveness or compassion for an abuser to a survivor, ask yourself the following questions: Have you yourself volunteered or worked with perpetrators of violent crime? Have you supported restorative justice efforts? How many sex offenders or parents who have had their children removed from them do you care for in your daily life? Perhaps you can exercise your compassion muscle towards the individuals you so strongly feel are in need of it directly, rather than expecting the victim of a crime to do the work for you. We are not your tools of healing; it is up to you to create the changes you think society needs.
  2. Respect the survivor’s boundaries. Do not act as an intermediary between the survivor and the abuser unless it is at the survivor’s request and with their permission. Even then, examine your motives and be prepared to set your own boundaries if you feel compelled to do so. I was betrayed by an individual who knew both my parents and me after I started to come to terms with the abuse. This person gave away my new address to my parents which resulted in them stalking me and me having to go to the police. We don’t need heroes like this; those who know when to say “I’m not comfortable talking to so-and-so for you” may do much more to help us heal.
  3. Know that healing is a process. Part of the recovery from childhood abuse often involves long periods of depression and anger. Feelings of helplessness and hopeless may crop up in you. To some extent, these may be projections onto you by the survivor as they relive and digest their experience. As weird as it sounds, it could be a sign that they really trust you, enough to let you see them “messy.” It is completely understandable that you will need your own support system during this time. With attention to confidentiality, it is vital for you to have others to whom you can turn to help you through your reactions and emotions. We cannot heal ourselves and you at the same time; you doing your own inner work is one of the most compassionate acts you can undertake.

Cultivating compassion towards an abuser is largely irrelevant to the work of being a supporter of a trauma survivor. People may be able to operate in both spheres (one of my most helpful therapists did so), but these types of callings are exceedingly rare. If you are someone who wishes to help trauma survivors, expect them to raise their own questions of forgiveness and reconciliation, and offer them the unfailing belief that they are capable to navigating these waters themselves with you as a steady hand to their shoulder. Do not, under any circumstances, believe yourself more able to paddle through these silt-filled bogs yourself. If you instead believe it is your task in life to support the rehabilitation of those who have harmed others, have at it.

I have varying degrees of compassion for those who harmed me most. As my spiritual journey has evolved, my feelings have grown as an outcropping of the inner work I’ve done, not as an intentional shift in direction. To trauma survivors, my main message is that self-compassion is vital to healing (ironically, it is also the topic on which my free Goddess Spirituality circle this summer will focus). The ways in which you work out your feelings towards those who harmed you are sacred waters; the only people with you there should be those you invite.

Sacred Spiritual Growth

Mistaking the Familiar for the Safe: On Whose Path are You?

There was a major snow storm in my area this winter. My Yorkie, despite his diminutive size, typically vies for the lead with me when we go for a walk, ambling wherever his little heart desires. After the snow, however, we ended up with snow drifts three or more feet deep after shoveling the driveway and walkways. As I walked him, I became nearly claustrophobic as I sensed how much his world had temporarily shrunken. He could only go where I had cut a path for him. As I observed his behavior, I wondered about the extent to which each of us might engage in similar behavior in terms of our life choices. For today’s #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I will be exploring the implications of making decisions based on what we’ve known, rather than in relation to what is possible.

In another post I have coming out soon, I wrote something to the effect of “mistaking the familiar for the safe.” This line brought chills to me as it hit at the core of much of my existence. How often do I make decisions that are comfortable because they line up with previous choices I’ve made, only to later realize that I was unnecessarily limiting myself? Or, alternatively, when might I try the opposite of a frequent course of action, not because I really buy into it, but because it allows me to rebel against my own norms?

Psychological theories of social learning and conditioning provide ample explanation as to why we might act in ways that curtail or cut off the truly revolutionary choices and actions in our lives. We can easily become habituated to a particular series of events, ones that to an outsider would appear frightening or “crazy.” This is of particular concern for childhood abuse survivors, who may allow individuals into their lives who act harshly or in a demeaning manner, simply because that is what they have come to expect from people. In addition, the rewards offered by individuals who are abusive in the form of “sincere” apologies, contrition, promises to do better and literal gifts are often sufficient to entice survivors to believe that this time will be different or to question even their own perception of the abusive incident that now seems dulled under so much “love” and hope.

How do we go about making decision and interpreting events in ways that expand our horizons rather than contract them? A concept on which I’ve been mulling for some time now is that of an “Inner Goddess.” This is one of many ways of stating that I believe there is a wisdom in the universe into which we can tap that is greater than the sum of the parts of ourselves. Something about perceiving it as housed inside me reduces my fear of it, although thealogically I see Source/Self/God(ess) as both within each of us and intertwining through every piece of existence, permeating space-time without the normal adherence to the laws of classical physics. The nature of this energy can be endlessly debated; my interest instead is with the practical lived experience of centering myself in Her and instantaneously being granted a clear-sighted vision of my life that I know at my core shreds my normal limitations of habit and conditioning. My main obstacle is that I return repeatedly to living without accessing this higher consciousness. I follow the path that either my own fear and anger or another person has decided to carve for me, tracing and retracing the same worn footfalls. My earnest hope is that I can now root myself in Being that is somehow the trajectory of path itself, the sum of everywhere I’ve already wandered, the birds-eye view of the pattern my wanderings have and will whittle out, and the ground on which I walk.

Where has your path in life led you to mistake the familiar for the safe? Do you have a sense of an energy that transcends your own learning history? If so, what has been transformed in your life as a result of the guidance that this energy has provided to you?