During Awake’s Courageous Conversation in May, “Trauma and Resilience in the Body of Christ,” panelist Deborah Rodriguez, MD, described the five-step method that she recommends using if someone discloses to you that they have experienced some form of trauma, such as sexual abuse. Rodriguez, a general pediatrician from Tacoma, Washington, has specialty training in trauma-informed care and has spent 10 years working with trauma survivors in medical and faith settings. She is a peer counselor and mental health coach for trauma survivors through Hopeful Hearts Ministry and the Maria Goretti Network.
She also is a survivor of complex childhood trauma including clergy sexual abuse. And she describes herself as a survivor of reporting that abuse as an adult, an experience that was truly traumatic.
“When I first started disclosing my abuse—even in safe places—a lot of people were really rather afraid,” she explains. Rodriguez created this method, known by the acronym VEEEL, to give listeners greater courage in the face of painful stories. These ideas come out of her own lived experience and her work with trauma survivors. Rodriguez stresses that “there are no magic words or perfect method” to heal all wounds. But she hopes that by teaching people these basic guidelines for receiving a trauma survivor’s story, listeners can contribute to survivors’ healing, instead of adding to their hurt. Sometimes the most important gift you can give a survivor, she says, is listening with empathy and compassion.
With all that said, here are the five steps that Rodriguez recommends—including beneficial statements you can use—if someone discloses their trauma to you.
It takes energy and courage for a survivor to recount a deeply personal trauma story, Rodriguez explains. “We survivors sometimes carry enormous amounts of shame, self-blame, doubt, and fear,” Rodriguez says. “We may have trouble trusting others.” So it’s important to help the survivor feel safe as they tell you what happened. Make it clear that you hear and believe what they are saying, and that “you realize how precious this story is,” Rodriguez offers.
One of the first times Rodriguez disclosed her abuse, she told a Catholic bishop. She remembers that he responded by saying, “Well, that happened a long time ago; I think it’s over now.” This was exactly the wrong thing to say, she says, because it minimized her pain and failed to validate her suffering.
Rodriguez suggests responding to a trauma story and validating victim-survivors with phrases such as:
- “Thank you for sharing your story with me.”
- “You are not alone.”
Rodriguez notes that trauma stories can be hard for the listener to hear, and it’s okay to acknowledge this, by saying something like, “It makes me so sad/angry to hear what happened to you.” You can also ask for a short pause to take care of yourself. Rodriguez suggests saying, “Let me take a few breaths to absorb this.”
But it’s very important that your emotions as the listener not take center stage. Remind yourself: It is an honor to be asked to listen, Rodriguez says. Take this sacred role as seriously as you can; this is a holy moment, and your job is to listen more than talk.
“Abuse makes the victim powerless,” Rodriguez explains. “If a survivor has chosen to disclose a story of abuse to you, your words of empowerment can give the survivor a sense of restored power. Empowering words can give us as survivors strength to continue the healing journey.” She suggests saying things like:
- “It took a lot of courage for you to share your story.”
- “I admire your strength and courage.”
Additionally, you can help empower the victim-survivor if, instead of jumping in with immediate solutions, you offer them a sense of control and agency in their healing journey. You can return the power to them by giving them a chance to talk about their needs and goals. You might ask questions such as:
- “How can I help?”
- “What part of your healing do you want to work on?”
“Abuse isolates a survivor in many ways,” Rodriguez explains. “Survivors may feel isolated from families, community, and friends.” The experience of abuse can also disconnect survivors from themselves and their emotions. “Words that can help a survivor not feel alone anymore are important,” Rodriguez says. She recommends using statements such as:
- “Help me understand what you are feeling.”
- “Tell me more.”
4. EXPLAIN OR EDUCATE
As a result of their wounds, some survivors have trouble trusting others. Transparency and honesty are critical. “Say what you will do and do what you say,” she stresses. If you are in a position that requires you to report abuse when you hear about it, be completely honest about what you will do with a survivor story. Who will you report it to? And then what will happen? How long will the survivor have to wait for a response? Who can that person contact if they have questions in the meantime?
You may also need to educate yourself and the survivor too, if they are open to it. “If you know something about trauma, share what you know,” Rodriguez suggests. “If not, then find someone who does.” You might connect with resources found on the websites for Awake Milwaukee, the Maria Goretti Network, or Hopeful Hearts.
If you’re not sure what to do next, be honest about this. “Do not promise anything you can’t give,” she emphasizes.
The following phrases can help as you talk through next steps with survivors:
- “Here is what I will do next…”
- “Here’s what I can do… And here’s what I cannot do…
- “I don’t know the answer to that, but I will ask X-person [Be specific!] and let you know what they say.”
5. LEAVE THE DOOR OPEN
The process of sharing a trauma story can be exhausting to survivors. “Having found the courage to disclose a story of abuse or trauma, a survivor may need time and space to heal from this very act,” Rodriguez explains. You can help by reassuring them that you will not abandon them.
She recommends conveying this through comments such as:
- “As your situation changes, I would be happy to provide additional time, support, or help.”
- “I’m here if you need to talk again. I’m not going anywhere.”
Rodriguez notes that she doesn’t intend for listeners to follow the VEEEL guidelines fastidiously, like a checklist. If you have trouble remembering the process when someone begins to share with you, know that the most important steps are the V for “Validate” and the L for “Leave the door open,” she says. That means thanking the person for sharing their story, and telling them, “I’ll always be here for you,” Rodriguez explains.
To learn more about the VEEEL technique, you can listen to Deborah Rodriguez explaining it on the recording for the May Courageous Conversation, Trauma and Resilience in the Body of Christ. Her discussion of VEEEL begins around the 38:28 mark.
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog