13 Ways to Support Someone Who Has Been Emotionally Abused
Loving someone at their darkest and most vulnerable is really hard. Trying to help can be overwhelming and exhausting, especially if we haven't stood in those shoes before. But I wanted to offer a (non-exhaustive) list of things that may be an encouragement to someone in search of healing. These are all things that I wish my own abuser had heard when she was young. I think they could have made all the difference in the world.
I'm not a counselor or a therapist, I'm just someone who has walked in these shoes and is learning what my heart needs to hear most. Maybe these things could be helpful in your effort of loving and extending grace.
Being heard is incredibly important in the healing process. Chances are that there have been years of being shut down, shut out, and misunderstood. See past the mask and understand that there is real and intense hurt.
Think about how you might advise someone who was being physically beaten on a daily basis and apply that to emotional abuse as well.
Emotional abuse may leave no physical scars, but is no less harmful. Saying things like "at least you weren't" and "you need to toughen up" and "don't burn bridges" can be incredibly damaging. The scars are deep and the the support is generally non-existent.
Affirm the most basic things.
The phrase, "I believe you" can go a long way.
Affirm (the believer's) identity in Christ.
But what does that really mean and look like? I've heard it over and over again and it never really make sense - until it made sense.
Affirm that the Holy Spirit is in them. Tell them that they can work towards trusting the voice of truth again. Affirm that the Lord is capable of healing and renewing. Affirm that where they feel weak and broken, the Lord is strong and powerful and is also a good and gracious Father.
Tell them that "It's okay to grieve".
Even if that person is responsible for cutting ties or creating solid boundaries. It's still a loss. Grieving the loss of a relationship, a childhood, security, control is valid and necessary.
Tell them that "Every victory counts".
A step in the right direction is absolutely huge. Seeking help, allowing the hurt to rise to the surface, dealing with feelings as they come rather than stuffing them down is absolutely good.
Tell them that people can not give them the clarity that they so deeply desire.
Lead them to helpful resources. Admonish them to find the truth and live according to those core truths. Living while listening to a constant committee of internal naysayers and conflicting thoughts is exhausting and depressing. Depending on other outside "voices" can be damaging in the search for truth. Listening to just a couple of trustworthy and wise counselors may be best.
Help them to find their vision and goals.
One of the hardest things when searching for clarity is choosing goals to meet. Achieving those goals requires grit and grace and ultimately falls on them. But helping a friend prioritize their goals and find "vision" is a huge help. (ex: personal and spiritual health, keeping their own family safe, doing the right and honest things.)
You may not know how to handle the situation and you may not be able to take on that type or amount of emotional burden. Knowing your limits and knowing that you may not "know" is important too. Gentling guiding them towards a counselor (a safe place) where they can talk it through is great advice.
Ask,"What can I do?"
Don't be surprised if they say, "I don't know". They may be too overwhelmed to have an answer off the bat. Recognize that sifting through heavy emotional baggage is taxing mentally and physically. Maybe it's watching children or bringing a meal on occasion so they can attend counseling. Maybe it's giving them uninterrupted time to spend with God. Maybe they need a couple hours of extra sleep. Maybe they need to just have fun, away from the emotional stuff, for a while. Offering to do [x,y,z] to lessen the burden so they can find help and safety makes a huge impact.
Keep trying. Keep encouraging. And also learn your limits.
Don't burn yourself out trying to hold someone up. Those who have been abused have years and year of baggage and confusion to work through. You can't be the hero, holding them up (along with that overwhelming weight) BUT a little note, an affirming word, a helping hand, can go a very long way in helping them feel valued and supported. The last thing someone wants to be is a burden. Do what you can but don't allow them to become too taxing for you. It's okay to rest. You can't fill anyone else up if you are empty. Creating healthy boundaries in your friendship may empower them to create healthy boundaries as well.
Be a source of truth.
Those that have been abused have a hard time deciphering truth from lies. Be a source of honesty. Put advice through the filter of "is it kind and is it necessary" before speaking. The depth of a relationship will determine how well honest direction will go over. I can not stress enough how important honesty and genuine concern can be. Do not exaggerate and do not compliment falsely. But if you have something sweet and uplifting to say, say it! They can definitely use the boost ... even if they don't want to accept the positive encouragement. It takes a lot of affirmation and positive reinforcement to replace the negative.
Recognize that the healing process takes time. Don't get annoyed when grief and pain doesn't go away quickly. Being sad doesn't mean that progress isn't being made. Tears can be healing. Time does not heal all wounds. But time and small victories do create a new normal. We are who we choose to be - just one step at a time.
Dear Sweet Friends,
The simple fact that you took the time to read this list means so much. It's obvious that there is a great deal of compassion in you and a desire to understand. Sometimes there are no words or actions that can make things"better" when someone is hurting, but I want to encourage you that YOU are a key component in ending the cycle of abuse that can plague families for generations.
Your concern and care, your honesty and graciousness, are huge tools in helping someone get the help and healing they need. Showing someone they are valued and heard can be life-changing. Someone like YOU can be what keeps someone from becoming an abuser someday. Even the most simple words or actions can be the seed of hope that a hurting heart needs in order to bloom again. Thank you for caring, thank you for trying. That is the best we can do, really.