Responding well to those who have experienced abuse and trauma within faith
To begin with, we need to set some context. It is important that the difference between pastoral care and support, and providing counselling and therapy is recognised. Counselling and therapy should only be provided by qualified professionals. These messages should be read in that context.
The following messages have been gleaned from our experience and feedback we have received over 3 years of supporting those who have experienced abuse and trauma within faith. It is important to remember that each person has individual needs and support should always be tailored to the individual but these messages generally apply across the board.
Those that we have supported have repeatedly stated that the following is of value in responding well.
To be heard, understood, validated and supported
Those who have experienced abuse and trauma within faith find it difficult to speak out for a wide variety of reasons and it is especially important that they feel that they have been heard when they do speak out.
Those we have supported have been clear about the value they place on being understood. They often feel isolated and misunderstood due to their experience. The secular world doesn’t understand the faith aspects of their identity, their faith experience and the impact faith has within their experience. The faith world doesn’t always understand their experience or the impact this has. They often spend life walking the narrow road between the two worlds. Whilst everyone’s experience is different, there is huge value in speaking to those with similar experiences who ‘get it’. This takes a huge burden off those being supported to explain their experience or their faith.
Feeling validated as a person is another area of importance that those that we support have highlighted.
Validation is the recognition and acceptance of another persons internal experience as being valid. Emotional validation is distinguished from emotional invalidation, in which your own or another persons emotional experiences are rejected, ignored, or judged. Self-validation is the recognition and acknowledgement of your own internal experience.
Validation does not mean agreeing with or supporting feelings or thoughts but recognising and accepting those feelings or thoughts.
A useful article on understanding validation and communicating acceptance can be found here. We will write about why validation is so important for supporting survivors, in the near future.
To be given time and space
Those who we support are all in different emotional spaces and therefore feel more able to receive support on some days than others. Some can cope with half an hour, some an hour or on some days nothing at all. For some an hour of support is enough to get them back on their journey to living well with their experience. For some a number of hours spread over weeks or months is necessary. What is important here is that support is given, where practical, taking account of individuals needs on that particular day.
We do a lot of work with those we support in understanding their emotional and spiritual state or space and tailoring what they ask of themselves on those days when they feel less able to cope. Throughout our life journey we all have good and bad days, days when we can take on the world and others where we can’t cope with anything at all. For many who have experienced abuse and trauma within faith these highs and lows are accentuated. Any support given needs to take account of this.
Thinking carefully about the space (both physical and emotional) we create or hold for those we support is absolutely vital.
In relation to physical space thought needs to be given, and ideally discussed with the individual being supported, as to what makes them feel safe and comfortable. Thought needs to be given in relation to triggers. It is important to think about the full range of possible triggers from religious buildings, items of religious clothing, smells such as incense, to words or scripture. We also need to remember that for some they may not be aware of these triggers so regular emotion check ins are of real value throughout the support being given.
In relation to emotional space the skill of holding space is really important and something valued by those that we support.
In simple terms, holding space means to be with someone without judgment. It is as important to create the right emotional space as it is to make sure the physical space is right. We need to be intentional as holding space is a skill that doesn’t always come naturally.
In order for the emotional space to be right we need to:
- Be fully present. (Phone off, emails off, to do lists away, minimise potential distractions!)
- Be prepared to donate your ears and heart without wanting anything back.
- Practice empathy and compassion.
- Be prepared to accept someone’s truth, no matter what they are or what they believe.
- Allow and accept.
- Avoid judgement. Embrace with two hands instead of pointing with one finger. Come in neutral. Open (minded and hearted). For them. Not you.
Holding space means to put your needs and opinions aside and allow someone to just be. This sets the right emotional space for the person to feel validated.
To be given long term support
The journey to living well with an experience of abuse and trauma within faith is not a short road nor is it a straight flat path from A to B. There are days when the path is rockier, filled with more obstacles and potential hazards. There are also days when we walk on a flat level road with the birds singing and the sun on our backs.
Often in the journey we loop back on ourselves and have to revisit old ground as life events or trauma cause us to walk that section of the road again. It is for this reason that walking alongside someone for the long term is so important. Whilst each persons journey is different, having someone, who has walked this path before, with a map, or a compass to use as a point of reference is held with huge value by those we support. Some people have gone for a year or even two without needing support but having the comfort of being able to reconnect and have a sounding board when they need it, is greatly valued.
To be empowered on their journey.
For those who have experienced coercion and control, it is common that decisions have often been made for them or these decisions have been highly controlled. Confidence in decision making is often very low and the fear of getting something is wrong is high.
We must never fall into the trap of making decisions for others and understand that saying no is sometimes very difficult for those that have experienced coercion and control. Those who have had these experiences have had more than enough of being told what and what not to do. This is their journey, this is their path. We need to empower, encourage and give confidence to make informed decisions. Yes we can talk through options and signpost to information to help in decision making, but the decision making must lie solely with those being supported.
To belong, to be part of a healthy and safe community
Amongst those we support, one of the biggest losses that is felt is the loss of a healthy and safe faith community. For some the longing for this community is akin to a grieving process.
Re-establishing a connection with their faith in a safe way is key for many we support. This looks very different for each individual. For some finding the right church or religious organisation is important. For others this is developing their personal faith or spirituality, with religious organisations at arms length or not involved at all. Some may choose not to re-establish this connection for many years if at all. Faith communities as a whole need to give some thought about appropriate ways to support those who have been harmed within faith. The journey of re-establishing connection with faith is often a complicated and difficult part of the journey. Feeling safe within religious organisations is even more difficult and for some may never be possible. For all those we support their relationship with faith has changed as a result of their experience.
In the near future we hope to provide safe, supportive and understanding online communities for those who have experienced abuse and trauma within faith. It is hoped that this will foster a sense of belonging, validation, acceptance and support.
If you take away one thing from these messages, the most important skill in giving support is that if you are in doubt, ask and be led by those you are supporting. For many that we support, just being asked what they need and how they want to be supported means the world.
Finally, we are clear we do not have all the answers, far from it. We learn from everyone we support and every situation we discuss. Sharing research messages, our collective experience and learning (replenished and those we support) in equipping others is going to be a key part of our journey as Replenished grows into its potential. We are also really keen to hear from other support organisations and continue to learn and collaborate in providing the best support we can for those who have experienced abuse and trauma within faith.