Believing survivors isn’t the same as holding their trauma

CN: Discussion of racial and sexual violence

I want you to know that, even as I write this, I’m a survivor of childhood abuse. Being received and believed by others has been a big part of healing all aspects of this.

I firsthand understand how healing it can be for survivorship to be believed. I want to clarify this especially given I’m masc and want to address unconscious thoughts that I must be arguing against ‘believing survivors’ to protect myself as the ‘perpetrator gender’.

Still, I hold that, in practice, the two-word snippet of believing survivors is woefully lacking, or even harmful.

A big part of this is the issue of who gets to be a survivor. Claiming survivorship is an incredibly powerful act, especially within a survivor-centered approach, and the ability to wield that power is not something that is evenly distributed across race, class, and other identities.

But even beyond this problem of inequitable distribution of belief, there is a fundamental issue that I think we need to reckon with. That is the reality that belief is not a one-stop shop for healing trauma. In fact, an over-dependence on belief often leads to more harm and re-traumatization.

In explaining how this is, I want to again come back to the importance of recognizing the wider cultural context that we are embedded in. That is hundreds of years of white supremacy that has propagated a deep wound of mind-body separation.

The ugly truth is that very few of us have access to our body’s entire felt-sense, let alone have had enough healing to be able to manage AND discern those sensations. Living in such a traumatized cultural somatic context means that many of us struggle at distinguishing belief as a purely cognitive act, from belief as a part of a whole-body healing experience.

This white-acculturated confusion can lead the best of us to become stuck in reactivity that cyclically revolves around trying to rationalize what and who to believe. When this takes over, it is impossible for justice to be facilitated in a trauma-centered way that is accountable and healing. At its worst justice can even become weaponized as we see in the case of Emmett Till and many others, including the Central Park 5, that have become subjects of a popular Netflix show.

If we think in social justice communities we are immune to this white supremacist behavior because of our platitudes to restorative and transformative justice, we are dead wrong.

Exploring this subject further, below are some common problems that come up in prioritizing believing over trauma-awareness.

Catharsis doesn’t heal

One of the most important developments in Western somatic psychotherapy was the realization that our nervous systems have upper and lower bands for how much stimulus can be put through it. This concept is articulated by Dr. Daniel Siegel through his the model of the Window of Tolerance (WOT). When our nervous systems go outside of our WOT we lose the ability to re-integrate new information into our bodies.

Justice, as it must integrate trauma healing, requires a way to support survivors to work within their WOT and be discerning about what is looping catharsis and what is healing release. The lack of common knowledge around this subject means many survivors are enabled, even encouraged, to go through endless cycles of cathartic call-outs that end up in re-traumatization of themselves and others.

Literal interpretations of the phrase, ‘believe survivors’, can obscure these truths of trauma and leave us with no framework for supporting survivors and holding them accountable to stay within their WOT while working through justice processes.

And yes, I said accountable. Claiming survivorship is a powerful act. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t offer so much healing in the first place. Such a sacred power requires us to hold it responsibly, especially given the reality that privilege and influence is not equally distributed amongst us. Particularly, it is important to remember that the sexuality of men of color are constructed as threats to white culture, and specifically black and brown men are seen as dangerously hypersexual.

Trauma creates projections

When we are traumatized, our bodies develop triggers that lie deep within our unconscious.

When our triggers are activated by an incoming stimulus, which can be as innocent as a look by a stranger or the color of a shirt, our bodies react as if past traumatic events are happening in the present. This is how trauma leads us to unconsciously project emotions from the past on to the present.

This aspect of trauma creates significant discrepancies in how someone might perceive an incident of hurt or harm. Projection easily leads to truth-bending and fabrication. Also, even if someone is speaking on hurt or harm they have experienced in a factually accurate way, it doesn’t mean all of the intensity in the emotions they are expressing actually belongs to the experience of hurt or harm they are addressing.

Making things even more complex, the more intense the emotions are, the more likely there are parts of it coming from projections of unaddressed and/or unprocessed traumas. The truth is, many of us have traumas that we are not even aware of that still deeply impact our emotional lives. This was true for my childhood abuse trauma. I had no idea some of my rage responses were projections of anger from this. And even as I become more aware of this, I cannot help, from time-to-time, projecting my anger on others.

When we believe survivors without holistic consideration of how trauma works, we inadvertently support them in maintaining their projections. In these cases, belief may feel momentarily affirming or relieving for the survivor, but it is not actual healing and can lead to harming others in the name of accountability.

Now consider how the projection of personal trauma might interact with the projection of cultural traumas from white supremacy culture. For example, can you think of how many of us are somatically literate enough to know all of our unconscious triggers around how we see racialized people?

We cannot rely on believing survivors as a catch-all for the same reason that police line-ups are vulnerable to racial bias and other factors. The process relies so much on the immediate trust of a nervous system that is flooded with emotion, often because there is a need to offer a story to be put to the scrutiny of belief.

Trauma-centered approaches to justice and healing require longer processes that help survivors detangling different traumas from each other through accessing the felt sense of the whole body.

***

As can be seen in the above two points, hanging justice solely on believing survivors can often reify trauma for survivors as well as lead to harm of others. This harm is often exasperated by the unconscious behavior that can rise as a toxic interaction of personal and cultural traumas.

Reckoning with this, how can we work with belief in a responsible way that doesn’t undo its healing power?

Something I think we can start with is the recognition that: belief doesn’t exist in a binary of all or nothing. Belief is something that can be experienced in a multi-dimensional spectrum. It is something we can hold as a process while learning more about a person’s nervous system and its history – a history they may not even be aware of.

In fact, if we can’t access this kind of fluidity around belief, we first need to check ourselves whether we are being triggered into our own trauma responses that will inevitably lead to an abuse of power.

Working with belief in this way might bring up fear in us for falling into victim-blaming or gas-lighting patterns. Yet the truth is that we have so much more we can provide each other beyond just immediate belief, such as embodied presence, emotional validation, and grounded discernment.

We often shortcut this bounty of tools because we believe we need to immediately locate and believe THE right survivor to believe in. Let’s remind ourselves that there is nothing that white supremacy loves more than erasing complexity and expediting conclusions.

In reality, cognitive belief is not nearly an adequate tool to address the complexity of facilitating trauma healing in our communities. If we are to truly address the issues of our times, such as dealing with the reality of sexual violence and our immersion in white supremacist culture, we need to rebuild our understanding of justice based on the reality of trauma and neurology rather than trying to retrofit it to our assumptions about how things should work.

To me, that looks like a shift toward trauma-centered models for justice.

Additional thoughts and note on edits

I thought more about this matter of believing survivors and I have realized that there are some really important items to clarify.

I was watching an interview with Tarana Burke, founder of the MeToo movement, and read an article where she speaks to #believesurvivors (I feel pretty certain she did not coin the term given she isn’t a social media oriented activist in the first place).

“But I also think it’s important when we say ‘believe survivors,’ for instance, it’s not that we’re promoting the idea that we should believe people—it’s not a blanket statement saying believe everybody regardless of what they say, regardless of who it is. What it means is that: Start with the premise that they aren’t lying when they come forward to disclose these kinds of things. And if you start with that premise—the most respectful thing to do is to do a thorough investigation; to take it seriously and do a fair and balanced investigation”

As I understand, the context of Burke is as an on-the-ground organizer with years of experience, who does frontline work, away from the virality and disembodiment of social media. And from the way she talks about her work, it feels clear to me, she embodies and practices those two words in a very different way than my critique.

The weight I felt from her words, how they came from her body, was that she understands the moment of believing as a sacred one with a gravity that requires deep embodied presence. I felt a somatic trust of HER believing survivors.

One of the issues of white colonial culture is that words fly from mind-to-mind but the wisdom itself does not take root in the body because we are so disconnected from it.

I want to be clear I revere the work of people, especially QTWOC, who do sacred work on the frontlines and embody the holding of survivors in ways that authentically help them move towards healing.

I don’t believe this to be contradictory to a critique of how ‘believe survivors’ as a sloganed principle is inherently vulnerable of being used as a shield to avoid being with the actual lived complexity of trauma.

In light of this, I have decided to change the original title: “Survivor-centered isn’t the same as trauma-centered” and made some other edits. The reason is that I thought more about things and I do not want to throw out all the good of a survivor-centered approach with some of my critiques.

That said, I do believe there will be a day when the language and principles of the survivor-centered model will shift. I do think there are issues with the premise of a survivor-centered as it still implies the need to accurately locate the survivor when the reality is that in a larger sense there are no non-survivors in the white colonialist culture we all live in.

Violence is something that happens between survivors.

Survivor-centered also by definition centers the human realms and tends to erase the more-than-human beings that are the actors in our psyche that bring forth relational violence. You can read more of my thoughts on that here.