Things to Say to Survivors


You’re not a mental health professional (unless you happen to be a counselor of some variety). As a friend, acquaintance, or partner to a survivor, you can’t–and probably shouldn’t–try to manage someone’s mental scars. Healing is a long, complex process, and even professionals with years of study always know to personalize their approach to their patient/client rather than trying to ram them through a one-size-fits-all technique.

But the pernicious thing about mental scars is that they are difficult wounds to see, and despite our best intentions, we (both the survivor and those peripheral to survivors) may accidentally reopen them. The probability of this occurring is probably directly proportional to the amount of entanglement with a survivor: I would hazard a guess that an acquaintance is far less likely to encounter an issue than a partner.

The last thing survivors need when this happens is for the other party to exacerbate the issue with a poorly informed choice of words. So I’ve gathered some suggestions for what to do and not to do to avoid making the situation worse.

RAINN suggests the following responses:


  1. “I’m sorry this happened.” Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” help to communicate empathy.

  2. “It’s not your fault.” Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.

  3. “I believe you.” It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. They may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. Leave any “why” questions or investigations to the experts—your job is to support this person. Be careful not to interpret calmness as a sign that the event did not occur—everyone responds differently. The best thing you can do is to believe them.

  4. “You are not alone.” Remind the survivor that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. Remind them there are other people in their life who care and that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they recover from the experience.

  5. “Are you open to seeking medical attention?” The survivor might need medical attention, even if the event happened a while ago. You can support the survivor by offering to accompany them or find more information. It’s ok to ask directly, “Are you open to seeking medical care?”

  6. “You can trust me.” If a survivor opens up to you, it means they trust you. Reassure them that you can be trusted and will respect their privacy. Always ask the survivor before you share their story with others. If a minor discloses a situation of sexual abuse, you are required in most situations to report the crime. Let the minor know that you have to tell another adult, and ask them if they’d like to be involved.

  7. “This doesn’t change how I think of you.” Some survivors are concerned that sharing what happened will change the way other people see them, especially a partner. Reassure the survivor that surviving sexual violence doesn’t change the way you think or feel about them.

pandys has some good advice on triggers and panic attacks: (not fond of the gendered language but the suggestions are good)

Panic Attacks
* Remind the survivor of where she is. Ask her to sit down and place her feet on the floor. Describe her surroundings to her, and ask her to do the same.
* Remind the survivor to take deep breaths.
* If the survivor has medication she is prescribed to take during panic attacks, such as Xanax, remind her that if she needs it, it is available.

Remember that during flashbacks, the survivor is often actually reliving the abuse or assault. Be cautious in your actions, and get to know the survivor and what she needs before you do anything at all. Here are a few suggestions.

* Name it. Not everyone realizes that what they’re suffering is a flashback.
* Tell the survivor that you know it feels real to them, but that it is not really happening.
* Turn a soft light on.
* Turn triggering music or television shows off.
* Get to know the survivor’s triggers as well as you can.
* Help to ground the survivor. Encourage them to take slow, gentle breaths. Tell them they are remembering. Talk softly to the survivor. Remind her of where she is. Ask her to describe her surroundings to you. Point out the fact that the abuser is not present. Remember that she may not be able to respond to you, but often is aware of your voice.
* Consider placing your hand on her hand or arm (not on the stomach, thigh, etc). This may trigger her further, but may also remind her of where she is.
* Inform the survivor of the importance of flashbacks. They are an opportunity to learn and understand. They are often seen as an indication that the person is ready to remember; that the body has information to share. Many people are very frustrated by lack of memory; flashbacks can validate a survivor’s experience.

Most important is to get to know the survivor and what works and what doesn’t. There’s not a lot you can do during situations like this, which can be frustrating. Just be there for her during and after the flashback. Don’t press her to talk about it, and avoid triggering her further. If she wants to discuss what just happened, be open to that, while at the same time being aware that many of the emotions she felt during the rape or abuse may be present now.

Last, but certainly not least, some Dos and Don’ts from knowyourix:


Put them at ease. That doesn’t mean you can make the pain go away or that they shouldn’t be crying or upset or showing whatever emotion they are showing. It does mean letting them know that you hear what they are saying and that you are emotionally open to them. Let them know that you are there for them and receptive to what they are saying.

Express anger and sadness at their injustice. 

Validate their feelings about the experience, acknowledging pain without catastrophizing. If they start to minimize what has happened to them, let them know that you believe them and that there is no need to minimize what happened to them.  What they went through is understandably very painful.  Something survivors will often do is express that they feel that they shouldn’t “complain” about having been raped, particularly if they are privileged in other aspects of their life, such as education or socio-economic status. Let them know that rape is not a way to balance out the other good things they may have in life. Another way a survivor might minimize the abuse is by saying that since sexual violence is common, it’s  “not that big of a deal.”  Remind them that statistics don’t take away from the hurt or pain they are experiencing.



Seem cold or unapproachable. If you do this, the survivor may feel like they have no right to talk about what has happened to them. They may feel confused and lost as they struggle to reconcile a dismissive attitude towards their struggle with their own pain. Don’t make this situation more difficult than it needs to be for them. Open yourself up to them and make your presence and support known.

Make excuses for the perpetrator. The assailant’s actions are inexcusable. Don’t suggest that the survivor approach the assailant to make sense of what happened or to “clear the air.” Don’t suggest a simple apology will remedy the problem.

Tell the survivor what they must do. You can suggest what course of action they can take, particularly if they ask for your advice. Suggest resources they may use or offer to explore resources available to them, such as filing a report with law enforcement, talking with an attorney, seeking out therapy or medical aid, and talking to a rape hotline.

Minimize the assault. Remember that one kind of rape or assault — by a stranger, an acquaintance, a friend, a partner — isn’t more or less “legitimate” than another. Don’t anticipate the ways in which a particular type of violence will affect a survivor, and don’t expect that one is necessarily more traumatic than another.

There are a few more suggestions I’d like to add:

Don’t change the topic.

If, for any reason, you assess that you cannot be this survivor’s support, you can still draw that boundary for yourself without making it about you. Try “I would like to support you but I am not equipped to do so. I am concerned I will do you more harm than good. Can I suggest <this other friend, this counselor, this resource>? Can I assist in finding someone to help you?”

Don’t tell the survivor what you would do differently if you were in their shoes, because you’re not in their shoes. They can’t change the past and neither can you. Discussing “could haves” does nothing to address what is, right now, and until what is has been validated, there’s no point in trying to move on to a what will be because they’re most likely not ready for that if they’re only now opening up to you.

Don’t get defensive if you triggered them.

If you happened to be the one who pushed the buttons, it was hopefully an accident. But when someone tells you you’ve stepped on their toes, you don’t tell them they’re in your way–you get off their fucking toes. Because here’s the thing: something might be an accident that it occurred, but the way you conduct yourself after the mess is made is far more telling about your intentions than anything verbally stated. Chances are, if someone is telling you you’ve hurt them, it’s because they trust you to work with them to make things right. Focus on the fact that they still trust you despite their smarting toes instead of focusing on your ego.

Seek out support for your self-care, but not from the survivor.

Secondary trauma is total balls, to put it lightly. I deal with it a lot as a person who networks with other survivors. I’m a generally empathic person in the sense that I have a vivid imagination; it’s quite trivial for me to put myself in someone else’s shoes. While that’s great for mediation, it sucks when someone is talking about a very serious occurrence in their life.

Relevant to “not changing the topic,” don’t ask the survivor who just opened up to you to validate your feelings, for fuck sake. There’s a reason professional therapists often have their own therapists. You’re asking someone who just broke their leg to take on a little extra weight because you’re tired. Putting the problems in perspective doesn’t mean the supporter’s secondary trauma doesn’t need to be addressed–it absolutely does–but it means acknowledging that there are more appropriate times and places and people to address it with. The survivor is not one of them. At least, not while the wounds are fresh. If you were a good listener, when said survivor is in a better place, they might be willing to reciprocate.

But let their damn leg heal, first.

Stay cozy, lovelies.



  1. says

    I wish I’d had this last fall, when I was fumbling around trying to help someone. :( I made a lot of mistakes. I did get good advice from other survivors, but I’m sure I could have done better. Ugh.

  2. Elizabeth Leuw says

    Most of these points are good. I would caution people about this one, though: “Express anger and sadness at their injustice. ”
    I would add that great care should be taken about how you express those feelings. It’s okay sometimes, but other times, it’s expressed in such a way that the survivor has to take care of the person they just disclosed to, rather than the other way around. It can become about their feelings what happened (to you), instead of your own feelings. Personally, I find angry responses especially threatening—because I’ve known people who would tell me that they wish they could do horrible things to my perpetrator because of what he did to me. Mostly, the things they suggest are not feasible (due to physical distance), but occasionally they might say they want to take revenge on my behalf in a way that actually IS possible (like some sort of internet stalking shenanigans). These things are threatening, because if anyone actually did decide to try them, the consequences would fall on ME, not them. I am the one that would, once again, be facing some kind of retaliation, for telling them about what happened in the first place. Even if it’s done in such a way that it’s not obviously connected to me, it would still provoke severe, long-term anxiety—because eventually, he could figure it out. As far as I know, no one I have ever talked to about it has ever seriously considered doing something like that, but just the thought of it alone is enough to cause a lot of anxiety, and will make me much more reluctant to talk to that person about such things ever again.

  3. Siobhan says

    Thank you for that point, Elizabeth Leuw. It is a very good one to make. I’m sorry to hear that this happened to you, but I am very grateful that you’ve shared your perspective.