“I believe you.”
These are three of the most important words that can be strung together in the English language. A sentence, I believe, that is not used enough. These three little words communicate a lot.
I hear you.
I see you.
Your experience is valid.
You’re not crazy.
These are all important things that someone may need to hear when they tell you something vulnerable. It could be that they have experienced an act of sexual assault, domestic violence, or they are disclosing a mental illness. Or, really, just about anything that is hard to talk about.
Oftentimes when we need to tell someone something really difficult (that may or may not contain a lot of shame) the person we share with ends up minimizing or dismissing it. They may not have malicious intent, but the impact can certainly have unintended consequences. Rather than being validated and empowered, the message that can be received is “you are too much”, “you’re crazy”, or “there is something wrong with you.”
When someone tells us they have experienced something horrific, how should we respond? What do we do with that kind of information? This can be especially hard for someone who has not experienced something horrific, is not trained in social work or mental health, or was not ever modeled on how to care for another person when these types of disclosures are made. It can feel overwhelming for us (as a friend, family member, or romantic partner) to hear someone we care about tell us about their trauma or mental illness. It’s OK. Most likely, they are not asking us to fix them, but to support them, see them, and hear them. They want to know that they will be OK and that they don’t have to carry this secret alone. Ultimately, the best thing we can do is ask them what they may need from us. Ask them how you can care for them and support them.
How can we change the conversation from victim blaming or stigma building, to empowering victim survivors of violence, mental illness, or anything else, to share their story and help change the narrative around these issues?
When I was first telling my story of trauma and abuse, it made all the difference to hear people respond with “I believe you”, “How can I help?”, “What do you need?”, or even “I am so sorry. I don’t know what to say. I hope you know it is not your fault.” When people respond with love, care, and validation, victim survivors are able to believe they are worth the fight towards healing and feel like they are not alone on the journey. It is a long and painful journey and it is made a little lighter when others are assisting with the load.
What about you? How have people responded to you when you’ve disclosed something extremely vulnerable? What did you need from them? How did their response help or hinder you?