Most of us know someone who has experienced interpersonal violence (sexual assault, abusive relationships, stalking, or harassment), and supporting that person can be difficult work. Watching people who we love and care about suffer is never easy, and we often want to do anything that we can to help them feel better. This is a wonderful impulse! It can give us energy to provide lasting and meaningful support to others. However, it can also encourage us to set up unhealthy boundaries as friends and allies.
The most powerful and generous gestures we can make to individuals who have experienced interpersonal violence are to
1) Listen to the experiences and emotions that they are sharing
2) Validate and Believe what they share and
3) Connect them to reporting and support resources that they feel comfortable seeking
Folks often underestimate how meaningful these seemingly simple actions can be. They worry that being “just a friend” or “just an ally” isn’t enough and sometimes take it upon themselves to “save” their friend and “fix” their problems for them.
When we feel this impulse to fix or solve, it can be helpful to think about how we are reacting to what is being shared with us. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed, sad, anxious, afraid, angry or disheartened when our friends talk with us about their experiences with interpersonal violence. We want to be cautious that we are not taking control of someone else’s experience because we feel out of control in the face of it.
When we take charge of other people’s experiences of interpersonal violence we:
1) Remove their power and control
2) Compromise their healing process
3) Make the situation about us and not about them
4) Force them to rely on us for support we cannot give
Listening, believing, and, sometimes, saying “I may not be the best person to help you with this, but I know someone else who can,” are often the most effective ways to empower our friends as they heal.
Being a helpful friend and ally means setting boundaries with our friends even when they ask us to support them in ways that make us feel uncomfortable or that seem unhealthy. We cannot support others if we feel exhausted, anxious, angry or resentful. We simply burn out. When we are aware of our emotions, acknowledge our limitations, seek support for ourselves, and set boundaries, we ensure that the care that we offer to others is more meaningful and sustainable. Being an ally doesn’t mean stopping our lives to “save” someone. It means guiding and supporting a friend to the resources they want in order to heal.
This post was originally published October 2013. It has been edited for clarity.