Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2018
Embrace Your Voice:
Using Your Voice to Provide Empathy

by Megan Hennessey, LMSW
Clinical Services Supervisor

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has chosen “Embrace Your Voice” as the theme for this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which is observed throughout April each year. The theme highlights how the way we talk about sexual violence matters. It also encourages everyone to embrace the power in their voice – from voicing support for survivors to challenging victim blaming.

“Embrace Your Voice” also reminds me of the Shame Resilience Theory by Dr. Brené Brown, a clinical social worker and researcher of shame, vulnerability, courage and empathy. Her widely popular TED talks, best-selling books, and curriculum discuss strategies for recognizing personal vulnerabilities to shame and how to deconstruct the feelings of shame themselves. This information has been immensely helpful to many of our clients, who often struggle with feelings of shame and guilt about their victimization.

We all feel shame about some things at some time. The feeling is universal, even if the causes and triggers are individual and specific to each person. Shame isolates us, tricks us into thinking that we’re alone, and makes us think that we’re to blame. It’s an intensely painful feeling of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.

Shame is one of the many reasons that delays in disclosure of sexual assault are so common. It’s very common for survivors of sexual assault to be silent for some time about the shame they are feeling.

In the Shame Resilience Theory, Dr. Brown asserts that “speaking shame”, which is the brave act of reaching out to other people about your feelings of shame, is the “magic sauce” antidote to shame. Because shame is so isolating, talking about your feelings of shame is a completely counterintuitive thing to do. But, “if we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame cannot survive.”

If a person speaks about what they are feeling shameful about and they are met with judgment, it can be even harder to get rid of the feelings of shame. Empathy is the important part of this equation. Empathy is the skill set that allows us to be able to understand another person’s feelings and stay out of judgement.

It’s another reason that “Embrace your voice” is such a fantastic theme for both survivors and supporters of survivors to reflect on. Using your voice to be vulnerable, to share your feelings and to receive empathetic connection is the antidote to shame, and this is very true for survivors of sexual assault. For supporters of sexual assault survivors, it’s important not only to think about how we’re using our voices to discuss sexual assault in general, but how we are using our voices to demonstrate empathy to those who are brave enough to share their stories.

For survivors who seek services from CWIT, that staff person or volunteer that they encounter during their initial call or visit to our program office is often the first person with whom they are telling their story. They are courageously taking a leap of faith that they will be able to tell someone what happened to them and not be met with judgement. But you don’t have to have professional training or have all the answers to make an impact on a survivor’s mental health and well-being. Something as simple as “I don’t know what to say, but I am really glad you told me”, provides the connection that person may be looking for in helping lift the feelings of shame they have.