When providing trauma- informed services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence it important we ensure that we are doing whatever we can to keep from re-victimizing the survivor or engaging in behaviors that may be reminiscent of past abuse. Through actively engaging in a reflective practice on our own and during supervision we may be able to recognize those conditions within ourselves that get in the way of being able to provide safe, empathetic, and empowering assistance.
We often talk about the experiences of survivors in a way that takes into account the trauma in their lives. We ask “how do the effects of trauma get in the way or impact the person’s ability to be able to move forward?” This practice of reflecting on the experience of the survivor can move an advocate from focusing on what is “wrong” with a person to recognizing the impact of trauma and finding ways to reduce the impact and/or engaging with the person in a way that empowers them to be able to move beyond the trauma.
Terri Pease, Ph.D., of the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health talks about reflective practice. She quotes Jeree Pawl, past board president of Zero to Three, to remind us that “who we are is as important as what we do” in our relationships with survivors. She stresses the importance of reflecting on the impact that survivors have on our lives and the history that we bring into our relationships with them.
I am often called to provide insight into the actions of a woman in shelter or a woman who is seeking services from a court advocate. The advocate wants me to explain what is happening with the woman from a trauma-informed standpoint and help her find something different to do to help. Another step I like to take, though, is to ask “how is this interaction affecting you?” In other words, can you take a moment to reflect on what may be coming up for you as you work with this survivor? Many times the challenges of working with survivors can stir up some emotions that we may find difficult to keep from being reflected in our actions.
If the victim is particularly challenging and expresses herself with anger, an advocate may find that she resists working with the victim. The victim may be engaging in some survival skills that are often labeled as lying, manipulating or attention seeking. If an advocate can take a few moments on her own or in supervision to reflect on what this is bringing up for the advocate, then it may help to improve the relationship with the survivor. For example, I know that due to my own past I have difficulty when I am in the presence of extreme anger that feels like it may be directed toward me. Over the years I have learned to recognize when my own history is starting to blur my interactions and I, hopefully, am able to breathe my way through and not take the survivor’s anger personally. Additionally, many advocates, including myself, feel helpless when they are unable to meet all the needs of the survivors. This may feel like frustration with the survivor and it will be reflected in our interactions with her unless we realize that our helplessness has to do with the greater picture and our own fear of not being able to do enough.
Advocates, in the face of tapped out services within their communities, often feel overwhelmed by the needs of the survivors and feel if they cannot meet them all then they are not good advocates. Yes, it is hard when the needed services are not available, but we cannot do it all. We do all that we can and at the end of the day we need to be able to take care of ourselves so that we don’t burn out and become frustrated with the women who are reaching out to us. An awareness of who we are and what we bring to our work is critical to being able to sustain our relationships with survivors and to being able to be trauma-responsive.
Painting by Richard Edward Miller