By Megan Burch, LSW, Therapist/Owner of Joy Creek Counseling, LLC
Welcome to Part II of Seeing Survivors Through a Lens of Compassion! We are looking at the behaviors of survivors of domestic violence in order to shift to a place of understanding and compassion. In Part I, we deconstructed some common lenses that we might be currently using with our survivor clients. If you haven’t read the first piece, it would be helpful to start there. Understanding behaviors is the first step to shifting into a place of compassion.
After exploring the depth of survivor decision making and context, let’s first take a deep breath and pause.
I think that it’s really important to sit in this pause. Part I may have been difficult to read as we may have found ourselves making some of those statements of: Why doesn’t my client just leave? My client lies to me. My client is minimizing the abuse. We may have made those statements to a client, to another helping professional, to ourselves.
Let’s bring in some self-compassion for ourselves. You are on this website because you want to improve your practice with domestic violence. We can’t improve our practice until we take a look at our current practice. We are all learning together.
Moving forward, let’s recognize that our clients are independent adults that have the right to make decisions on their own.
Self-determination is so valuable for all of our clients, particularly survivors, as they have had their power systematically taken away by their partners and often taken away by the systems that are supposed to be helping them.
Let’s also recognize that professionally, we already have the skills we need to shift to a lens of compassion. We are already skilled at showing empathy, active listening, and seeing complexity of experiences.
We can move forward by seeking understanding. By seeing the perspective of our clients through their personal lens, we can begin to understand their decision making. This is a basic trauma informed principle, and yet, we may be leaving this at the door in our work with survivors.
Survivors often make decisions based on their physical/emotional safety and the safety of their children. We can ask ourselves how their sense of safety, real or perceived, may be factoring into their decision making. We can ask ourselves how their complex life experiences have brought them to their current life perspective.
We can be mindful of how they have been impacted by their partner’s abusive behaviors, how they have been impacted by privilege, and how they have been impacted by the systems around us. We can be curious about how our own responses to our clients have impacted their decision to share or not share their life experiences with us.
We can use that helping professional language that we are so comfortable using with other clients, language that invites conversation. This includes phrases like, “Help me understand your experience” instead of “Why did you do that?”
Sometimes, we can understand the brain/body response and use conversation that invites dialogue, and, yet, we still will not understand the decision-making process of our clients. In these situations, we need to be careful about labeling our client’s behaviors as “lying,” or even “wrong.”
In those moments when we are really struggling to understand the behaviors of our clients, we can gently remind ourselves that these decisions are not about us. Our clients are doing their best to move through this world with the resources, both internal and external, that they have.
We can also gently remind ourselves that this is probably not the first time, or the last, that we will struggle to understand the decision making of our clients. This is part of working in a helping profession with human clients. We cannot presume to know everything about our clients.
There is also a compassion meditation that can be useful in those moments of feeling the internal rise of frustration or judgement as we struggle to understand our clients’ perspectives and decision making. This meditation practice encourages us to see the humanity in each other. We are encouraged to see our similarities to our clients than differences. We are encouraged to see that our clients are doing the best they can, just like us.
Give attention to that person you are struggling with and say the following words: Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness in their life. Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in their life. Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness, and despair. Just like me, this person is seeking to fulfill their needs. Just like me, this person is learning about life.
Take a deeper breath and notice any shifts about your perspective of this person.
I especially encourage you to really pause on the phrases, “Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness in their life” and “Just like me, this person is seeking to fulfill their needs.” These phrases, in particular, cultivate our sense of common humanity with our clients.
Let’s see if this helps us shift a bit in our work with clients and opens up some space for compassion and understanding when we are feeling the pull of judgement.
Capturing the complexity and nuance of domestic violence is limited in the size of a blog post. I encourage you to learn more about domestic violence as a way to enhance your practice with survivors and increase the depth of your understanding of survivors’ experiences. In addition to exploring the additional resources on this website, you can also talk to your local domestic violence advocates and connect with other helping professionals that have expertise in the area of domestic violence.
By accessing these resources and tapping into your own trauma-informed skills, you can shift to see your clients from a place of understanding and compassion, and most importantly, your clients will see you as a support.
Megan Burch, LSW, is therapist/owner of Joy Creek Counseling, LLC. Megan has worked with survivors of domestic violence for over 10 years in a variety of settings, including community-based domestic violence agencies, child protection, and private practice. Megan enjoys partnering with survivors of trauma to see the shift into healing and reconnection with self and joy. Megan is also passionate about cultivating secondary trauma resiliency in helping professionals. For more information about Megan, please visit her website at www.joycreekcounseling.com.