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Supporting someone who is suffering

How we unintentionally silence people and what to say instead

· Coaching

This article aims to highlight the ways in which we unintentionally silence those suffering and offers suggestions for things to say instead.

My credentials

So who am I to write this blog of rules and guidelines, a behavioural psychologist? A therapist? A statistician? Nope, I’m just someone that a lot of shitty things happened to. Someone who has suffered and someone who has supported others like me. I’ve survived an abusive relationship, sexual assault, harassment in the workplace, 20 years of bullying, self harm and depression and anxiety disorders. So that’s my CV, those are my qualifications, no let’s get down to it.

A note: This article is about the UNINTENTIONAL silencing of suffering. This is not about the intentional judgement/bias silencing, the ‘mansplaining’, racial bias, sexual orientation, bigotry or Donald Trumps of the world. This is about those who truly want to help, the friends, neighbours, family members who sometimes, unintentionally silence.

The ways you silence us:

“Focus on the positive” Sometimes, in trying to get someone suffering to see the good things in life is completely appropriate, other times it’s incredibly disempowering and silencing.

“It was just…..” - JUST NO! We are banning the ‘just’ word. It belittles the experience, victim blames (suggesting potential misunderstanding on behalf of the victim) and it’s JUST a load of crap.

“That was ages ago. You really need to let it go.” - Suffering has no timeline people. It isn’t a quick fix. I’ve had relapses post assault 5 years after the fact. I get it, it does feel like the person may be hanging on to something that needs to be let go. You see it holding them back and want to encourage them to live in the present. But unless you are a therapist or expert in this field, remove the timeline judgement. The trauma or incident may have happened a decade ago but this person is suffering NOW.

“What’s the big deal?” - For whatever reason, you may not think it’s an issue that…. The dude at the bar grabbed your mates arse, or that her boss keeps standing a little too close… But to her, she feels violated, upset, scared, on edge, she is reminded of past trauma or understands the underlying issue of allowing harassing behaviour.

“Yeah, well I’m going through xyz, so you’re not the only one with problems.” After I was assaulted and I was trying to explain how it made me feel I not only had a “Well mine beat me so you got off easy” - yup a fellow survivor rocking the silencing that time. I also got told that people in the x country were blown up daily and I needed to suck it up. - I felt guilty and ashamed that I had even brought up what happened to me. I felt that I wasn’t entitled to my feelings because I hadn't ‘suffered enough’. It was awful. You can have empathy for someone suffering whatever you have been through yourself. And when if it seems appropriate to show them the ‘bigger picture’ ok, but please do it because you think it will help ease their suffering and NOT because you don’t accept/believe/want to deal with their suffering.

Why you silence us:

Ok so that was a snapshot of how people are unintentionally silenced, now the why.

Because it’s hard to hear. Because sometimes we need to engage in these stories at a time that you yourself are vulnerable. Because you’re busy. Because you don’t see it as a big deal. Because you don’t know what to say so you’d rather not say anything at all. Because you’re upset by what happened and don’t want to make it about yourself. Because your dog just died, you’ve spilt coffee down your blouse on the way to a job interview and the school has called saying that the lice outbreak has been traced back to your son as patient zero, come and collect him right now!

Because of a million different reasons.

And, we get it! We aren't actually mad at you, we’re mad at the situation, society, silencing and we’re hurting.

The issue:

Silencing kills.

I’m not being dramatic here, people who feel isolated, misunderstood or like they aren’t worthy are more likely to harm themselves or even take their own life. This conversation may be the first time they’ve come to anyone, your reaction could mean they then don’t seek any other help. This could lead to someone suffering from domestic violence and abuse becoming more likely to stay than try to leave, someone who has been raped is more likely to stay silent, mental health issues will worsen, eating disorders can resurface as well as other forms of unhealthy control and coping mechanisms.

What to say instead:

“I’m so sorry that happened.” It was shit, accept and acknowledge it was shit. Empathy supports vulnerability and drives out shame.

“Are you ok?” Ask, enquire, be interested, show you are interested. And also don’t take the first “I’m fine” if you know it isn’t true. You don’t need to push the point, but you may need to follow up with “You don’t look ok, it’s ok, you can tell me the truth.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” VERY IMPORTANT. They may not be ready to divulge all at this stage. Ask and respect the answers. Something what can help at this stage is to ask yes or no questions “Did he hit you?” “Have you told anyone else?” “Has this happened before?” - again, respect if they really don’t want to talk about it, gage where they are at. Be cautious of asking too many questions that it's overwhelming. Notice the reactions you are getting and stop if you feel it's not helping.

Ok, that’s all very lovely, but I have three screaming kids here, a school run and the tesco order is about to arrive. I want to help but right at this moment I can’t…. No problem try;

“I’m right in the middle of something but I want to sit down and listen to you, I’ll call you back in an hour. Is that ok?” - make a plan, let the person know you are taking this seriously. STICK TO SAID PLAN.

Or maybe everything has just gone to pot. You are suffering yourself and cannot cope. You want to help but you just can’t. Be honest. Let them know you care but you just can’t.

“I’m so sorry you feel like this again, I love you and I want to support you but I’m hurting right now and I can’t be there because of xyz. Can I call you later when I’m doing better?” and then signpost to support services if that seems appropriate. It may feel callus or even cruel but you also need to be able to support that person.

A brief summary:

Acknowledge that this is a huge deal for this person, ask what they need. BELIEVE THEM - cannot stress this one enough. They’re suffering may seem small, insignificant and even self imposed but in that moment it is everything. There may be a time to talk about how the situation came about (perhaps low self esteem issues, previous trauma etc. etc.) but now is not the time! If this person has come to you, then they are suffering right now. Belittling or shock tactics can cause even more harm than good. Pointing out what is right - them talking to someone, recognising they need support etc. is going to go further than “Get over it.”

Different forms of suffering are going to need different support. Someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one will have differing needs from someone trying to escape a violent relationship. HOWEVER, being listened to, being believed, being made to feel loved and supported will help everyone.

“Equation is a charity that promotes equal, healthy relationships free from domestic abuse.

1 in 4 women will be abused by a partner, ex or family member at some point in their lives and on average 2 women a week lose their lives because of domestic violence. Equation exists to prevent and reduce the harm caused by domestic abuse and sexual violence in Nottingham City and Nottinghamshire.

Working in partnership, Equation empowers our whole community to challenge this abuse through healthy relationships education, awareness campaigns, professional training and promoting safety”

(Taken from their website 'About us')

Equation is an amazing organisation which is currently running a campaign #HelpAFriend suggesting 4 simple things to say if you know someone in DVA relationship (Domestic Violence and Abuse). So if friend comes to you, remember these 4 sentences:

1: “I’m sorry to hear that.”

2: “Thank you for telling me”

3: “It’s not your fault.”

4: “How can I help you?”

To learn more click on the link below: 

So that’s my advice and here’s an angry poem I wrote about being silenced.

This is a poem I wrote out of frustration. Sometimes when we are not able to engage with others suffering we stick a happy positive thinking bumper sticker on it, tell women to 'be brave' - without really going into what that even means. I am affirmation, positive thinking, law of attraction woo wooist but I'm also a survivor and there are days when I don't want to be brave, where I don't want to focus on the positive, when I just want someone to listen.

Be brave they say

Meant as encouragement but feels like judgment

Be brave they say

As if my the very miracle that I even got out of bed this morning isn't enough

Be brave

Have courage they shout

Like it's a pill you can swallow daily

Have courage they shout

As if my whimper is not enough for their roaring lions

Have courage

Just keep going they implore

My body bruised and beaten

Just keep going they implore

My mind shattered and weeping

Just keep going

Focus on the positive they sigh

Like I hadn't considered that?

Focus on the positive they sigh

As the bile mixed with flashbacks reaches my throat

Focus on the positive

I'm so sorry that happened she said

I believe you she said

I'm here she said How can I help?

You just did, I replied.

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