When I tell people that I volunteer with an organization whose mission is to support survivors of sexual assault and violence, people often assume it is because I have a story of my own. What can sometimes feel strange to tell them, however, is that I do not have a personal story of sexual assault or violence. I am not a survivor in this domain. Expectedly, the next question is, ‘so why do you volunteer with this population then?’. That answer is simple yet complex at the same time.
How I Started
In order to understand how I joined A Voice for the Innocent without a personal story, a little history is needed. Understandably, I did not just jump into supporting survivors of sexual assault and violence out of the blue. In 2016, I started as a Crisis Counselor with Crisis Text Line after watching a friend struggle with suicidal thoughts and ideation. I felt powerless and had no clue how to help them, which hurt me inside. I learned about Crisis Text Line through To Write Love on Her Arms, and knew this was the perfect opportunity for me. It was not an easy start supporting people in crisis. In fact, after my first night, I was almost certain I would not be able to continue. I did, however, continue to push through, as I made a commitment to the organization and I felt strongly that I wanted no one else to go through the emotional and physical pain alone that my friend went through.
Fast forward two years. The Brett Kavanaugh trials started. Again, I felt helpless. These trials were triggering painful memories of people around me – friends, acquaintances, and even strangers whose stories I was reading on social media. A friend and fellow Crisis Counselor mentioned to me about her role with A Voice for the Innocent, and I knew this was where I was meant to be now. Most importantly though, there is more than having life events push me to volunteer with these organizations. I learned so much along the way that made me a strong volunteer in these domains, even without a personal story of sexual assault and violence.
This is what I learned
While I may not be a survivor of sexual assault or violence, I am a survivor of so many other things – fear, anxiety, and a little bit of PTSD, to name a few. These emotions are often felt by survivors as well. Knowing what those feelings are is all that it really takes to be able to support story tellers – that mindset of knowing you need to be strong to survive and what it takes to do so. More simply put, I am human. Humans need other humans. I can understand all the different emotions that someone can experience and how they can feel in that moment. I can be that human that supports you, even if I have not been there myself, because I get it.
I have also come to learn that no two stories are the same. So, while nine out of ten times I can sympathize with the feelings one may be experiencing, there are sometimes I just cannot. I can, however, utilize the three core beliefs of A Voice for the Innocent – Listen, Believe, and Validate. It is as easy as those three words sound. While being a Crisis Counselor has helped me hone those skills, I fully believe I would be just as effective without that background first. I am human, and I can understand pain, hurt, and fear.
Along the way I have learned the difference between sympathy and empathy, which has helped me come to the above conclusion. As defined by the Miriam-Webster dictionary, sympathy is defined as “the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another” whereas empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”.
So, Why Does Someone Who Does Not Have a Personal Story Do This Work?
Because I can. I can empathize with those feelings we all have experienced, in some way, at some point. It does not need to be a competition of who had it worse to understand it. If you can listen to, validate, and believe in someone, you can be there for them. No one should have to go through life struggles alone. It can be awkward and weird to talk to someone close to you, and there is so much stigma around sexual assault and violence, as well as mental health, that it can be hard to open up and feel comfortable finding support. Everyone deserves support, no matter what is going on, and you can be the light they need at the end of the tunnel. Being an empathetic person does not need to take a lot of work.
Now if you’ve made it this far, I have a challenge for you. The next time you see someone struggling, try and put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself, “what would I need in this moment to make it all okay?”. You too can be an empathetic individual and make a change in this world. You do not need a personal story to make that change. Instead, “be the change you wish to see in the world” (Gandhi), and make it happen. Do not sit back and let yourself believe you are not enough to make change. A single friend struggling, followed by a highly publicized trial which led to a movement, is what got me here today, and I am so glad it did. While I cannot undo the past for others, I can be there for them in the present, and that makes all the difference.
Click here to learn more about joining A Voice For The Innocent’s volunteer team or to submit an application.