Excerpt from Chapter Three of The Empowered Advocate
Picture this: You’re sitting in your office (cubicle, yurt, whatever) and a woman calls or walks in and starts screaming at you. She’s angry that the perpetrator was (or wasn’t) arrested, she’s angry that she has to miss work, she’s angry that she can’t reach the prosecutor, she’s just freaking ANGRY – and right now, she’s angry at you.
Has that ever happened to you? If not, welcome to advocacy. I hope you’re enjoying your first week. Re-read this section in about a month.
Seriously, anyone who has been in this work for a while has been yelled at. We are dealing with trauma. And frankly, we serve people who have every right to be pissed off. We know that, but it doesn’t help us in the moment when we’re being screamed at. So, what do we do?
Let them be angry.
If the survivor is standing in your office, you can simply ask that she have a seat, and then sit beside her. Let her know that it is important to you that you both feel safe. Tell her that she has every right to be angry. Encourage her to let it out.
When we give someone permission to feel whatever they feel, they can better process that emotion and get to what they’re really feeling. Anger is rarely the true emotion. Anger is a secondary emotion, and is usually masking something much more difficult to express. As Liza Palmer said, “Angry is just sad’s bodyguard.” It may also be fear’s bodyguard or grief’s bodyguard. Emotions that are too scary or vulnerable to truly process and display often come out masked as anger.
But any type of emotion, when given the chance to be expressed, can pass quickly. In fact, you’ll likely have this same person crying within a few minutes.
Some of you may be thinking that it’s not survivors’ behavior that bothers you. You’ve done this work for a while and have been to a dozen trauma-informed trainings – thank you very much. But, your frustration is with all the other assholes you have to deal with. Believe me, I get it.
What about that law enforcement officer who yells at victims? Or the prosecutor who refuses to speak to you? Or your coworker who always has a bad attitude? (Don’t write their name here – you may want to loan them this book later).
It is so frustrating to deal with rude, belligerent, pessimistic, avoidant people when you’re trying to respond to people who are suffering from trauma!
Are you catching on here?
All of these behaviors are trauma symptoms – the yelling, avoidance, bad attitude. So, what if that officer who you think is so mean is actually a survivor himself? And what if that prosecutor recently lost a family member to a serious illness or is being triggered by her cases?
We can be so much more effective (and sane) in our work if we learn to see all negative behavior through a “trauma lens.” This means asking yourself, “I wonder what this person has gone through that caused this behavior?” And it also means practicing empathy and compassion when someone is struggling, rather than judgment and frustration.
One of my favorite quotes: “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about.”
At least half of people have some form of trauma in their past – and as you might imagine, the number is even higher for helping professionals. Then, factor in the trauma we often take in as part of our work, and we are walking around like the cast of the Walking Traumatized – totally triggered and totally unaware.
Does that excuse poor behavior or mistreatment of survivors? Of course not. But, it can certainly help you understand it. It can help you respond in a more compassionate way. And it might just help you build a new connection, and create a true ally.
So, when talking with that officer, rather than shutting down or getting defensive, you can say, “I hear your frustration. I really do. I can’t imagine how difficult your job m
ust be. I would love to hear about some of your experiences over lunch.”
You’ve opened the door. You’ve started building a bridge. You’ve made him feel seen and heard – which is what everyone truly wants. And it’s what we do for survivors each and every day. Why not extend that same compassion to everyone we meet and collaborate with?