I Am Not Kintsukuroi.
(Please Note: What applies nicely to pottery does not necessarily apply nicely to human beings.)
"You are so much stronger because of what happened to you."
Many times over the years I have heard some version of this statement, nearly always from someone who is trying to be comforting and helpful, and while I can appreciate the sentiment behind the words I think it's important to exercise empathy when we speak to others and most especially when we speak to someone who is suffering. Words have the power to soothe or to harm, and so in the spirit of mindfulness and empathy I'd like to point out the ways in which this go-to statement is not at all comforting or helpful.
- It makes the assumption that my strength came from something horrible happening to me. Abuse breaks us. It is not a strengthening life experience, it's a destructive alteration of life no victim plans for. Abuse derails and dehumanizes us, and most survivors spend the rest of their life rebuilding. If I am strong it is not because someone raped me for almost two years when I was a young girl, it's because of my own inherent strength of spirit. Did I have to utilize that strength to survive during abuse? Absolutely. And did that strength help me to break free from the abuse or to speak up about it? Undoubtedly, yes. My strength was not created by abuse, it was mine to begin with. Taking sole ownership of something wonderful about myself is cathartic and necessary in reestablishing my person-hood.
- It makes the assumption that I am strong despite the fact that surviving does not necessarily equate to or feel like strength to me. The fact that I survived abuse doesn't necessarily make me feel strong. I did survive. I am alive, which is a very good thing indeed, but being an abuse survivor means that very often we feel weak or helpless or ruined and those feelings are likely to increase once the abuse has ended and as its effects more deeply set in. Being told we're strong comes with the expectation that we act like a "strong person" and has the potential to isolate us. After all, "strong people" aren't debilitated by panic attacks, they don't cry uncontrollably or need anti-depressants, and they certainly don't ask for help when they're drowning in grief. This statement is (most likely unintentionally) loaded and leaves little room for vulnerability and connection to take place.
- It compares me to a person I will never know and never be, and paints who I am now as an improvement from that person. "...so much stronger..." So much stronger than what? Than the person I would have been if I hadn't been abused? This is an impossible scenario. Survivors of abuse will never know what their life would have been like without abuse - they only know what their life is like after experiencing abuse and honestly, the reminder that we could have been someone other than who we are is painful and jarring. We already think about that. Thousands of times I've wondered how my life would be different if I hadn't been abused, and in every imagined scenario my life is better without abuse. I attribute many of my struggles to abuse. I don't attribute the good things in my life to it and that's how it should be. Telling an abuse survivor their experience created something good in their life invalidates their suffering. It tells them to re-frame their abuse as something helpful, something that made them into a better person. Finding things to celebrate about a person who survived abuse is a beautiful thing. Finding things to celebrate about the abuse itself is not.
In a world that downplays abuse, blames victims, and justifies rape, we can always be more mindful of our words and actions. Just as there are many discouraging or isolating things we can say to an abuse survivor, there are also many encouraging and connective things we can say. I'm so grateful that topics like sexual abuse and sexual assault are becoming more mainstream in discussion. My hope is that as awareness is raised and as we all begin to learn what it means to truly love and support victims and survivors of abuse, we will see the great healing potential in practicing compassionate listening, mindfulness, and empathy.
And as an alternative to the statement addressed in this post, perhaps consider saying something more like this:
"I know you might not feel strong and that's okay. But in spite of what happened, I see so much strength in you."