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#METOO: How to Respond to Sexual Trauma - By Joyce Marter, LCPC 23 Oct 2017

Many of you have probably seen friends post #metoo on Twitter, Facebook and social media. In the wake of recent allegations of multiple sexual harassment and sexual assault per Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano suggested people utilize the #MeToo campaign (founded by Tarana Burke) for victims of sexual assault to break their silence and share their stories.

As a therapist who is passionate about the destigmatization of mental health issues, I love that the #metoocampaign is helping survivors of sexual trauma and abuse know that they are not alone. This type of campaign can bring about important awareness of real issues that are often buried in shame, fear and secrecy yet privately haunt all too many who have been impacted. Breaking the silence is an important part of stopping the cycle of abuse and a campaign like this bravely brings voice to the power of social media. The hope is that this will become an important social movement that will help people know they are not alone, seek the help that is available, and that we must work together to prevent the sexual abuse of women, men, boys and girls.

But how do we respond when we see a loved one post, “me too”?

What do we do if we have experienced sexual assault? Do we have to share that?

As a therapist who has practiced for over 20 years counseling women and men who have survived trauma and abuse, I recommend the following:

How to Respond to the Me Too Posts of Others:

-Do not ignore them. The tendency might to avoid “liking” a post that naturally brings up uncomfortable feelings. Remember that it took incredible courage to make these posts and ignoring them means being part of our culture that tolerates sexual abuse.

-Do not post on their wall, “Oh no! What happened?” Respect people’s privacy, boundaries and space. Understand that talking about the trauma can be re-traumatizing for the person. If you are close with them, you can call them and let them know that you care, you are there and you are willing to listen if they ever want to talk. Keep what they share with you confidential unless they express thoughts of hurting themselves. Never, ever play devil’s advocate or doubt what they are saying. This is their experience and you need to honor that.

-Respond with love and support. Depending on how close you are with the person, you can simply like the post, love it, send them love and/or offer support. Thank them for their bravery. Provide empathy and compassion.

-Don’t try and be their therapist. If you are close with the person, recommend therapy or counseling. Therapies such as EMDR can be extremely effective in helping people process and move through trauma response.

-Understand they are the same person they have always been. Knowing they have been through sexual assault may cause you to feel sympathetic, naturally. See their strength, courage and resiliency. Remember they are the same strong, amazing, vibrant person you have always known. Use this as an opportunity to open your mind and your understanding of what the face of a survivor looks like–it, unfortunately, looks like our best friends, family members, colleagues, etc.

-Recognize that this news may bring up a variety of feelings. You may feel deeply sad for your friends, angry, protective, or even guilty or hurt as to why they didn’t share this information with you previously. Breathe deeply and honor your feelings as normal responses. Get support from friends, family or a therapist or counselor.

How to Respond to Our Own Trauma:

-Know that news like the Harvey Weinstein controversy and even the #metoo campaign can be triggering. It can bring up old trauma symptoms from the past such as startle response, difficulty sleeping or eating, anxiety, depression, fear or sadness. This is normal. It will pass. Appreciate the power of our defense mechanisms. We may try and deny, rationalize and intellectualize away our experiences of sexual harassment or abuse. This is a normal response. Recognize if you are rationalizing that something you went through might not have been as bad as others. This type of thinking is what allows abuse to persevere.

-Know you have the choice to share or not. Choosing not to share, if you do not feel comfortable, is self-care, it is not selfish. As somebody whose boundaries have been violated, you have the right to set the boundaries that help you feel safe and comfortable. Period.

-Recognize that sharing “#metoo” is brave, amazing, socially important but also may be re-traumatizing. Be sure you are prepared to deal with people’s responses. If you are, wonderful. –And thank you for being part of the change.

-Access support. Talk to your inner circle about how you are feeling. Reach out to a therapist or counselor. Attend a support group. Call a hotline. Take excellent care of yourself.

How to Be Part of the Needed Cultural Change:

-Report abuse. Don’t be part of the silence. Don’t turn a blind eye. Press charges as needed. Have anti-harrassment trainings and policies at your workplaces. This can be provided by your Employee Assistance Program or a local therapist or corporate trainer.

-Volunteer at programs that help survivors of abuse, such as the YWCA and RAINN. I believe in the resiliency of the human spirit. I believe in recovery and healing. I believe that our challenges and traumas carve deep wisdom into our lives. I believe this #metoo campaign is coming out to increase the consciousness of our world. May all who have been impacted have access to love, support and whatever resources they need—and may we all be part of the positive change that is needed.

“Sexual, racial, gender violence and other forms of discrimination and violence in a culture cannot be eliminated without changing culture.”~ Charlotte Bunch