This morning I was reading an advice column where the inquirer had told their family that, even though they hosted every year, because of the pandemic there would be no Thanksgiving gathering this year.  Yet that Thanksgiving morning family members showed up, each with an excuse why it was okay for them to be there. The inquirer wanted to know how to “lovingly” shut the door to uninvited guests who are putting you at risk.  How you can still be setting boundaries, effectively and without damaging relationships.

The responder, quite accurately, got to the point that there’s a difference between caring about others’ feelings and assuming RESPONSIBILITY for said feelings, and we should set our boundaries according to our needs and safety. Check out this article for the details.

The responder states the answer is patently obvious, which is true.  You could say (and I am paraphrasing and expanding what the responder wrote), “Cousins, Happy Thanksgiving!  What brings you here?  I already told you we weren’t having our usual gathering. Why would you come anyway? I am very much looking forward to a time when we can again safety be physically together.”

But what is also obvious yet unstated by the responder is the long-term effects of socialization, expectations, and fear of facing negative emotions.  Not to mention lack of support from others in the family.  Setting boundaries in families are among the most challenging interactions we can have.

It would have been another step for for responder to go into a bit about socialization, where certain people are expected to put others’ comfort over their own safety. When I ask, many students say they have not set boundaries in the past because they did not want to damage a relationship (note they didn’t seem to be as concerned with the other person’s actions in damaging the relationship). Second common reason was not wanting to deal with others hurt or angry feelings.

This is a lot to unpack for setting boundaries, and it is crucial to understand and deal with your own discomfort if you are to successfully set boundaries.

These last 2 weeks I’ve been outlining finding support after assault.  Self-care is a critical aspect of anyone’s overall safety plan, and the central pillar of self-care is knowing who among your family and friends could support you after any assault, regardless of outcome.  Two weeks ago I began outlining traits of those individuals, with my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human does.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

Two weeks ago I described what listening looks and sounds like.  Last week I described what believing you and reminding you it wasn’t your fault looks and and sound like.  Today I have a few more words on blame and fault-finding, and then move on to creating community.

First, some words about those who habitually blame victims for their own assaults. This is chronic in domestic violence, where the abuser is manipulating the target’s perception.  Very often also manipulating the perception of those around, cutting off ways of getting support.  This is often described as “gaslighting.”  It is a long-term strategy for you to relinquish control and hand over decision-making.

Getting support? Not from them!

Getting support? Not from them!

A major process in our culture is an adversarial approach — our justice system and political system are set up to pit two sides against each other, there are defined rules and referees, they duke it out like a boxing or martial arts sparring match, and a winner is picked. So it’s not really a surprise that some of us expand that view, that life is a brutal competition.  It bleeds into other parts of our lives, where there are no explicit rules, no referee, and it’s not a good fit.  And it’s all about power.

There does not need to be a long-term relationship for blame-shifting to occur.  People who harm others often try to shift attention away from themselves and their actions to what the victim did “wrong.”  The stereotypical ones include “what was she wearing,” “how much did she drink,” and “she was flirting.”  Others in our communities, like ourselves, want to stay safe and part of their process, though, is to find out details about what happened to others and resolve to not make the same “mistakes.” Except there’s a big problem with this approach.  The person targeted may have done something different, and it may have made a difference, or maybe not.  There are people who do “wrong” stuff all the time — they smile at strangers, they drink a lot, maybe even pass out on a friend’s couch.  And didn’t get assaulted.  Because there was no assailant present.  The common elements of all assault isn’t clothing choices or alcohol consumption or flirting, it’s the person(s) who made the bad choice to take what they wanted, regardless of consent.

Do you want to wait until after an assault to figure out who your supportive friends are?  Probably not.  Rather, you can be cultivating those relationships now.

My colleague Yehudit Sidikman of ESD Global suggested in a recent blog post that you practice talking about “what-if” scenarios with those important people in your life.  One of her examples is, “mom, if something like this [kind of assault] ever happened to me, how would you react if I told you?”  Or begin a conversation with a good friend like, “ I’ve never had this happen to me, but I am wondering how you would react if I came to you and told you that [add story].”  Maybe there was a recent assault in the news, you could use that as your example.  Or a particular #MeToo story.  Their responses can give you some information about what they think about assault and blame.  We do all know that there’s often a gap between what a person says and what they will do, so please temper this with what you already know about them.   But, perhaps more importantly, it will also give them food for thought. And this does not have to be a “one-off” discussion, and should not be a one-off.  You transition that “what-if” into a conversation on what it means to be supportive, to be a friend, do you want to be supportive, when do you feel it important to be supportive.  When these conversations happen with a few people in your circle, and it becomes less awkward, you get a better sense of where people are at.  You find those who share your values, and you maybe even move others to really think about what support means.

Building these relationships takes a while.  And it is critical.  And that’s how communities begin, one relationship at a time.

Why don’t you begin with the very next conversation you have with someone close?  Today is not too soon.

Today, November 11, is Veterans Day.  The one day where we as a nation formally thank those who served our country with their military service. Parades, taking out old photos and uniforms, visits to memorials.  We recognize all those who served.  At the same time, as a nation we are less caring about veterans’ getting support they need.

For about 12 years (between 2003 and 2014) I worked with Dr. Wendy David, Dr. Ann Cotton, and the VA Medical Center in Seattle on the Taking Charge project.  This 12-week self-defense program was for women veterans who were suffering from long-term, chronic PTSD as a result of sexual assault while in military service.  (Unfortunately, the program ended when Dr. David retired.)  If you are familiar with PTSD, you know it’s not pretty.  Watch this short video for more on the effects and possible causes.

While this blog post not an exposition on PTSD, I have to note there’s a significant correlation between social support and the likelihood of an assault survivor developing PTSD.  One commonality all the participants in Taking Charge had was a lack of support from those around them after their assaults.  Our culture does come with a large victim-blaming component, and sorting out those who can be supportive from those who won’t is likely to be critical to your long-term health and happiness.

Last week I began outlining how to find those individuals who would be supportive, with my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human would do.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

Last week’s post was on the first bullet point, listening.  Today I’m moving on to the other two.

They believe you.  Most women are assaulted by someone known to them, particularly in cases of sexual assault.  They may be a friend, a co-worker, a classmate, a colleague, a family member.  Because of that, others you know will also know that assailant.  When you confide in someone in that same circle, it can get complicated.  That person may be struggling to wrap their brains around what you are telling them, which may be totally counter to their own experiences with the assailant.  They’re trying to figure out how someone they know as a kind and generous soul could have done something so wrong.  We humans do not do well with that sort of cognitive dissonance.  That can come out as questioning your account of what happened, which comes across as non-supportive.  One option is to confide in someone from another social circle.  Another is to cultivate relationships of support, which is the topic of next week’s blog post.

Finally, a supportive person will remind you that the assault was not your fault.  Period.  End of sentence.  It is so common for the person assaulted (or targeted) to go over details again and again and again in their heads, trying to figure out if they could have, should have, done something different.  Maybe there is something they could have done differently.  It may or may not have made a difference.  It’s overlooking the fact that someone else made that choice to harm someone.  That’s right, the assailant is not like a fast-moving river into which you slip and fall.  Rivers don’t make choices to injure or drown people.  But people do.  The assailant is the person who is responsible for their actions.  If you are the listener, please make it a point to remind your friend/family member of that.

And, in a nutshell, that’s how you know someone is supportive.  But, do you really want to wait until you are in need to find those trusted, supportive folks?  No.  Next week we’ll look at building supportive communities.

Gratitude Thankful Grateful

I’m writing this on November 5, just after Election Day, and we don’t know who will be trying to steer our country over the next four years. More than 230,000 of our fellow Americans have succumbed to COVID-19.  Many Americans don’t know if they’ll have food and shelter in the near future, while others are experiencing more closeness and good times within their families.  And, within the next few weeks, we’ll each have to figure out how to deal with conflicting pressures around the holiday most associated with family and home and gatherings.

Cathy, a friend and colleague, has an annual tradition for this time of year. It’s the Gratitude Project. It is a private Facebook group. Each and every day of the month, Cathy posts something for which she is grateful. Others joined in, and now there’s over 550 members.

The idea of turning to gratitude in uncertain or troubling times is not new, and you don’t have to search long before you find online resources (such as this article). I personally find a focus on gratitude helpful.  Some nights, when I can’t fall asleep, I challenge myself to find three people (or groups or events) for which I am grateful.  I’m usually asleep by the time I’m going over the wonderful attributes of the second. For me there really is something calming and reassuring in recalling that for which I have to be grateful.  I’ve written other posts on self-care; recalling to whom you are grateful is both soothing (emotional management in the moment) and true self-care (laying the groundwork for a future healthier and more resilient self).  When would be a good time for you to routinely think about gratitude?

Life may be a bit rocky for a while longer. Keep up that self-care, and look out for others who may need some extra support.

I’ve been teaching self-defense for over 25 years.  And for most of those years I’ve been teaching that self-care is an essential part of everyone’s safety and self-defense planning. Self-care covers a wide range of actions, like exercise or meditation or listening to music or watching funny cat videos on YouTube or a glass of wine or seeking medical care or . . . pick your top three ways to calm yourself when upset or anxious.  My personal favorite is playing music — drumming along to some of my all-time favorite songs, or muddling through a guitar chord progression with overdrive and reverb.

But, if I had to pick just ONE self-care practice as most critical, it has to be getting support from other people. We humans are social creatures. Any assault, or attempted assault, regardless of outcome, often feels isolating and like a loss of control over important aspects of life. Connecting with another human helps offset that, but only when that other human is supportive. We do live in a highly victim-blaming culture, and have to recognize that not every one of our acquaintances (or even family or closer friends) will be open to supporting you.

Over the years I’ve heard from several students that, when confiding in those who they assumed would be supportive, were met with statements such as “what did you expect,” or “you sure won’t make that mistake again,” or “I hope you learned something from that experience,” or “how could you let that happen to you.”  As humans, we will often look to safety, or at least to mitigate and manage risks.  Some people’s interest in hearing about others’ misfortunes is to “inform” themselves so they won’t make the same “mistakes.”  And sometimes they will think they are helping by informing you of their conclusions.  It may not mean they are a bad person, but it does mean they don’t have (or are not willing to make available) emotional bandwidth for you.

But let’s get back to getting support. How would we recognize that supportive human? Is there a covert signal or secret handshake?

By what they do. Here’s my thumbnail sketch of what a supportive human would do.

  • They listen.
  • They believe you.
  • They remind you it wasn’t your fault.

    One woman is getting support from another.

    Getting support from a trusted friend or family member is an important component in healing from assault.

I’m going to go over each of these three items.  In this blog post, it’s listening.  Next couple of weeks will cover believing and not blaming you.  And then we’ll tie it up with steps for the future.

First, though, I strongly suggest that you give a potential listener a heads-up that you’d like to share something uncomfortable.  Give them a chance to assess their readiness to offer support.  Or, if necessary, set their own boundaries.  Even the best supporters are not available 24/7 to everyone (self-care, remember?).  An important part of getting support is that the support has to be voluntarily given!

Someone who is listening is really LISTENING, rather than trying to figure out their snappy reply.  Listening is NOT letting you talk for 10, 20, or 60 seconds, then interrupting with “hey did you try THIS?  You coulda done THAT, you shoulda done THAT, I woulda done . . . ”  Thank that person for their time, and move on.  They don’t have bandwidth for you.

Rather, listening involves taking in what that other person is offering.  A really good listener will treat what you’re saying as a gift, and if they have the emotional space they will be paying attention to what you are saying and the event’s impact on you.  You may hear something more like, “That sounds horrible, I’m so sorry you had that experience!  I am here for you.”  And now is where listening is super important.  The listener could assess if you need to just talk, or if they are looking for advice, or if they have their next steps and want your help.  And, dear listener, it’s OK to ask.  Do keep in mind that part of the trauma of assault is the feeling that control over ones life has been torn away; one goal of the listener is to help empower those hurt by making sure their choices are really theirs.

Next week, we look at the other two items on my list, believing and reminding that assault is not your fault.

“I am going to be raped.”

Monday morning’s radio, KUOW-FM Weekday with Steve Scher and his guest Willie Weir. Weir is an “adventure traveler,” predominantly by bicycle. He has a tale about a “fork in the road,” an event that could be life-changing. Could have been life-changing, and not in a positive way. This happened about 20 years ago, alone in a foreign land by the sea.

Weir was looking for a place to pitch his tent. He accepted an offer to be led to a secluded site by a local man. The site was perfect, in a grove of trees just away from a hotel. The threat of sexual assault had never been part of his world. Until then.

Denial, fear, acceptance, and then clarity. The local man was bigger and stronger (not to mention he had a machete). Weir realized that he needed to get closer to the nearby hotel, so he feigned compliance to lull the man into letting his guard down. He began drawing the man closer to the open area near the hotel, breaking the isolation of this perfect camping site. He saw an open door at the hotel, and people just within, so Weir used his voice to attract attention. And the man ran. Weir was now alone.

You can hear Weir’s telling at http://www.kuow.org/podcast/WeekdayA/WeekdayA20120206.mp3 (note: this is the whole show, Weir’s tale begins at about the 31 minute mark).

“This trip was over.” He considered going home right then. He sat on the beach all night, and by morning he had changed his mind and resolved to keep on going.

“Caution keeps you aware. Fear keeps you away.”

Weir felt that if he gave up on his trip and went home, he may never have traveled again. This was about who he wanted to be, and he knew he did not want to live in fear.

After three decades now of bicycle travel, Weir has the experience to exercise caution while still enjoying travels off the beaten path. He understands the risks and the rewards. And the beauty, people, laughs, and adventure outweigh the risks over 100-fold.

I’ve taught self-defense skills to women who travel, with others or often solo. They all have said they learn from their experiences, and wouldn’t give it up for anything. And, as a result, they feel safer, more confident, and more alive.

Aware or away — where would you rather be?