I Become Real When You Believe Me: Why Believing Survivors Matters

 

The hashtag for much of the activism around the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is, #BelieveSurvivors. I have been reflecting deeply on what that means. In light of the response by many to discredit people -not just women but all genders – who come forward with stories of sexual assault, I wanted to share my perspective on why believing survivors is a radical act of service, support and healing.

As a therapist, I spend a lot of my days essentially communicating to people, “I believe you”. Occasionally I say those exact words. But more often I convey the heart of this message by approving of my clients’ experiences, encouraging them to soften their own self-directed judgments and helping them listen to and interpret their inner knowing through body sensations, feelings and thoughts.

Over the years I’ve been honing my skill of giving my clients exquisite attention in our sessions. Attention that tracks their unfolding experience coupled with words to reflect back to them my tracking. At a very simple level, what I realize I am communicating with my attention and reflections is the message, you are real.

“You are real”.

It seems so insanely basic. For many, especially those who have never experienced social marginalization of any form, this affirmation may seem absurd and superfluous. Of course I am real.

But there is a two-fold and devastating damage done by sexual assault to one’s sense of “realness”. First, when you invade my body without connecting with me as a person, I lose sight of my boundaries. It’s harder to discern what is mine and what is not mine. What is valuable and worth honoring and what is less valuable and can be hurt or desecrated.

And second, once I have lived through this violation, when someone else calls into question the overwhelming pain I feel on the inside, a deep psychological mindf*ck can ensue. I begin to doubt myself. I stop trusting that what my body tells me is real. Psychologically I am in very slipper territory. I can question my authority and my instincts and every part of me that speaks on behalf to me.

I can doubt that I am real.

We are social creatures. We depend on mirroring and validating from one another to organize our realities. This begins as infants, before language, when our caregivers echo back the sounds we make. From that reflection we discover ourselves, we learn that we can impact our worlds, and our psyche begins its trajectory towards healthy maturity.

Lacking the ability to establish that one’s reality is real, it is virtually impossible for someone to have psychological health. Period.

But the converse is also true. As we establish – and as needed, re-establish – our ability to trust our inner knowing, psychological health follows.

If after a lifetime of doubting my reality, I have the courage to tell someone something I have never shared before, and if they believe me, I begin to rebuild my eroded sense of self. Over time, as this validation continues, I begin to grow trust in my instincts again. An ability to ask for what I want sprouts. My sense of boundaries springs back. My capacity to speak up for myself in high stakes moments may even blossom.

When I believe you by saying – yes, I trust and hear and honor your inner knowing – I help you believe you again, too. And I don’t’ know about you, but I want a society populated by people who trust themselves. I want dance floors and family gatherings and hiking trails and church halls and voting booths brimming with folks who have a healthy, open channel between the voice that speaks on the inside and the one that speaks on the outside. Predation and exploitation of any sort cannot take root in this hotbed of resilience.

THAT is why believing survivors, matters. Because it is a contribution to widespread psychological recovery of self, for those of us who have lost her or him or them along the way. And then there’s more of us here to create a healthy world, where rampant violation in all its forms doesn’t stand a chance.

My friends, Sandy Opataw and Pat Humphries of the singer songwriter duo emma’s revolution created this video called “I Believe Her”, a simple and stunning musical affirmation of the reality of survivors of sexual violence. Please share it and this blog in support of the world we want to live in.


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