- Paula Cristina Azevedo, PhD
Mindfully listening to survivors
Last week’s news cycle and social media frenzy about Dr. Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s testimonies was a perfect example of how easy it is to consumed by the raw emotion and national conversation about trauma and sexual assaults.
Like everyone else I had a difficult time focusing on anything at the end of last week as the events unfolded. I was a witness, like many of you were, to so many women telling their own stories of abuse. For many, last week may have reopened old wounds or at least forced people to notice the scars from past traumas. Our students were also witnesses of the hearings and Dr. Blasey Ford’s story, which represents a greater national narrative that has been unfolding with the #metoo movement.
Some of our own students may be victims or survivors of violence and sexaul abuse and these conversations may bring up their own struggles in unexpected ways. As educators our job is so much greater than teaching to the standards and reaching learning targets. Our students are, first and foremost, humans and we must treat our students as whole beings if they are to be successful learners in our classrooms. With that said, you may have students in the coming weeks and months approach you about a past or current abuse in their own lives. These are always difficult to hear, but our mindfulness practices can support us in this process of being fully present with our students and even our friends, colleagues, family members who decide to also share their stories.
I will share with you ways your mindfulness practice can guide you in these difficult conversations. However, before I share some advice, I want to make it very clear that if a student shares with you about any form of abuse (verbal, psychological, physical, and/or sexual abuse) you must report it immediately to child protective services. As a teacher you are mandated by law to report such abuses to the authorities. Your school counselors and administrators have all the resources you need to support you in the reporting and help you make the phone call. Your name will never be disclosed to the child or accused abuser and once you made the phone call you can rest assured that professionals will investigate the situation. With that stated, I’ll continue with my five points about mindfully listening to survivors of abuse.
Be fully present
When a student, friend, colleague, or family member approaches you with information about abuse it’s essential that you remain present with the person as s/he tells her story. During difficult moments or conversations it’s easy to divert the conversation, to make the conversation about you, or to simply not be there in the moment with the other person. Such conversations can challenge our perceptions or bring up our own stories, but mindfulness practice challenges us to remain with what is presented to us at this very moment. As the person begins to tell you about their suffering notice what happens in your body, to your breath, your emotional response, and/or in your mind. You may notice that you’re uncomfortable with the information being given to you, but remember this isn’t about you. This person has great trust in you to tell her most painful memory and suffering. The least you can do is remain present as you listen and just hold a space to bear witness for this person.
Listen with an open-heart and compassion
It’s also important to listen with an open-heart both physically and emotionally. We communicate with our whole bodies and many times our bodies will communicate far more than the words that come out of our mouths. For instance, avoid crossing your arms in front of your chest. Many people unknowingly cross their arms because they’re uncomfortable want, want to avoid getting heart-broken, or reopening an old wound. It’s a natural reaction, but this type of body language can tell the other person that you’re not willing to listen, you’re angry, and/or uncomfortable and they may not continue to tell their story. Again, this goes back to the mindful practice of being present and noticing what you’re body is doing in order to avoid any miscommunication. Also, as you listen be sure to hold compassion for this person. One of the major tenets of mindfulness is compassion. Be sure to express to the person that you hear them, you believe them, and you are there for them will love and compassion. Just listening and being fully present is compassionate. You’ve given that person a safe space to reveal their suffering.
Be sure if you ask question that the questions are not prosecutorial. You’re not a cop, a lawyer, or a judge and don’t need to dig into every detail. Questions such as, “What were you doing?” “What were you wearing?” “What were you drinking?” or even “Why did it happen?” make it seem like you’re blaming the person for what happened. If you feel it’s necessary you can phrase a question like this, “How did it happen?” And then, just allow their telling of the story to unfold from there. In addition, it’s common to want to reach out and hug the person that just revealed an abuse to you, but again be mindful of your body language and instant reactions. You don’t want to just hug the person without asking permission first. This sends the message that the person is not in control of their body. Always ask if someone wants a hug.
Stay present even when you’re in pain
It is difficult not to be swept with all the emotion and lose focus. However, through cultivating mindfulness practice we should be able to be in a state of equanimity. In essence, even when the world around us is chaotic and even our minds are frantic, we should be able to rise above the external and internal chaos and feel stable, balanced, and focused. Equanimity is a deeper state than being calm.
Thich Nhat Hanh described this principle of equanimity with the image of a crowded Vietnamese refugee boats being met with storms or pirates. If everyone panicked all would be lost, but if one person on the boat remained centered and calm, it was enough. This person’s equanimity would show the way for everyone to survive. So, as educators we can become that person on the boat in the stormy seas or with the pirates, and guiding our students on how to remain focused even when life around us may seem to be in turmoil. This is especially true when a student or colleague shares a disturbing experience they had or may currently be in.
This principle of equanimity becomes even more important if you experienced a similar abuse. Avoid interrupting the person to tell your story. Again, remain present, fully listening to the other person. When appropriate you can reveal that you also had a similar experience. Only share this if you feel comfortable and continue to share your experience if the other person wants to hear it. Nonetheless, whether you decide to share your experience or not remain present in your body, in this moment, listening to the person in front of you. Mindfulness reminds us to not go back and get lost in past memories, but find a state of calmness in the middle of a storm. Again, you’re creating a safe and calm space for this individual in front of you to share her story.
Know your limits
You may not be a trained professional or even comfortable with such a conversation, so it’s important to know what resources are available for the survivor. Again, if the person sharing an abuse to you is a student you are mandated by law to report this abuse to child protective services for further investigation. Reiterate that you heard their story, you are holding compassion for them and their suffering, and that now they have options. It’s important for survivors of abuse to know that they have full control of their bodies, their choices, and that this moment does not define them as a being in this vast universe. So, if you are not sure what resources, especially local resources, are available to survivors this might be a good time to talk to your school counselors, administration, and even do your own research and compile a list of resources that you can provide people who share with you their stories. I’ve listed some resources below too.
We are in a time of great change and awareness about sexual violence. We must remember that we are all impacted by abuse whether we personally have experienced abuse or not. As Lila Watson explained, "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together...” So, let’s walk together in solidarity with survivors and walk with them on a path of understanding, compassion, and healing.
National Sexual Assault Hotline
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Sexual Assault Hotline)
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Victim & Survivor Resources for Teens
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Trauma and Child Abuse Resource Center https://www.aacap.org/aacap/Families_and_Youth/Resource_Centers/Child_Abuse_Resource_Center/Home.aspx
Suicide Prevention Hotline