Empowerment and healing for women moving on from violence

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The Empowerment Model is inspired by the work of the clinical psychologist Judith Herman. It has three main stages:

  • Safety
  • Remembrance and Mourning
  • Reconnection

But the simplicity of this model must not distract from the complexity and myriad possibilities involved in each woman’s healing.

One of the effects of rape is the forced loss of a sense of control and power. It is vital that a woman reclaim this as early in the healing process as possible.

WGN’s Empowerment Model of healing is woman-centred. It affirms aspects of womanhood that society devalues. It encourages women to identify their own personal strengths and their right to self-determination.

The Empowerment Model places each woman at the centre of the process.

It avoids the idea that the counsellor is an expert and the survivor a helpless victim. Instead, we offer a choice of therapeutic approaches that encourage a woman to be self-nurturing, creative and an active, responsible participant in her healing journey.

“The care is amazing. I felt completely safe and spoke about things that were buried for a long time."

Content

At times, the process of healing will be difficult and stressful: a survivor is likely to be revisiting horrific experiences. It is crucial that before this starts, she is and feels sufficiently safe, supported and in control.

Assessment

The process of creating safety can begin even before counselling begins. A thorough assessment—including evaluations of counselling goals and main concerns—can provide useful information to both counsellor and survivor.

It can help to ensure that the counselling process is constructed to meet each woman’s needs. It may also be a chance to reassure a survivor about problems she is experiencing.

Safe Space

Providing as much clarity as possible about the counselling process can help at many different levels. This may include information about:

  • who the counsellor is and how she works
  • the levels and expectations for confidentiality
  • the likely nature of the healing journey—with some warnings of how the work may make the woman feel
  • the responsibilities and expectations of counsellor and survivor
  • processes for reviewing the work as it progresses

The counselling work will initially be directed at establishing a sense of personal safety for the survivor; then extended to include external safety.

Personal safety includes taking care of:

  • basic health needs, such as healthy patterns of eating, sleeping and exercise
  • management of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms
  • control over self-destructive behaviours
  • self-care/self-soothing strategies
  • re-establishing a safe living environment—especially if the attack was within the survivor’s home
  • self-protection plan

External safety is concerned with establishing a safe environment and involves:

  • the creation of a safe refuge
  • identifying relationships that may offer protection, help, support—and allowing those she can trust to come into her world
  • identifying those that may offer potential danger—and deciding how to protect herself. This may include making difficult choices that break familiar patterns of behaviour.
  • choices and sacrifices she must make for freedom

Remembrance

When a survivor feels safe she may choose to break the silence about her experiences—and tell her story in depth and completely. This takes great courage—from both the survivor and the counsellor.

The aim of this process is not exorcism, but integration. Truth-telling transforms the survivor’s experience into a testimony. Traumatic memory becomes a real memory—and this allows the survivor to integrate her experience into her life story.

The choice to do this lies with the survivor. The counsellor is there to offer support, stability, and skills for coping. Above all, she is a non-judgemental, compassionate witness and ally.

Throughout the process of reconstruction, safety is paramount. A survivor and her counsellor must walk a line between restoring horrific memories of the past and remaining safely in the present.

It can help for survivor and counsellor to agree on the structure of each session—what will be the pace of the work; when and how to take a break; what kind of support will be needed. It may be useful to create a comfort zone of some kind for rest and retreat; it may be helpful to develop shared ceremonies to begin and end each session.

Reconstruction begins by exploring the survivor’s life before the traumatic event took place. This encourages her not to view her life as being solely about the traumatic experience, but to be able to place that event within a wider, richer context.

Uncovering the traumatic event itself may take some time. To begin with the survivor may tell her story in a disassociated way—a recitation of events. But this alone will have little therapeutic value.

She must reconstruct not only what happened, but also what she experienced, in as much detail as possible. Her story must include, moment by moment, a reconstruction of locations and physical appearances; sensations—smells, sounds, what she saw or tasted, heart beats; and feelings—pain, fear, guilt, shame and disgust.

It is likely that her work will lead her to ask the two fundamental questions of victims of violence: “Why?” and “Why me?” To lay her experience to rest, she must find a way to answer these questions—making some sense of her undeserved suffering, constructing a new understanding of how the world works that involves new meanings and beliefs.

This may mean creating changes in her life—perhaps disconnecting from those who do not share her views and finding those who do; perhaps making the decision to take action.

Mourning

An experience of trauma can take so much away from an individual—if there is no physical loss, there is still likely to be emotional and psychological damage.

Telling her story, in such detail, will inevitably bring back not only the experience of violence, but also a strong sense of the losses she has suffered—and the grief that comes with that.

Many survivors resist this part of the process—perhaps because they fear that the grief will be insurmountable. Forms of resistance usually include three fantasies:

  • Revenge—in which the roles of attacker and victim are reversed
  • Forgiveness—in which the survivor’s pain is transcended through her own act of compassion
  • Compensation—where the perpetrator expresses genuine sorry for what he or she has done

But in the end, there is no magic solution that will wipe away the pain. The survivor must surrender to her grief and her tears. In doing so, she will contact her own strength and indestructible inner core.

After many repetitions, the traumatic experience becomes integrated among other memories—one part of her life. In the same way, her grief loses its power. Time is no longer spent on remembrance and mourning.

When she feels that time is moving again and she is no longer stuck in the past, a survivor is able to move onto the present—and plan for the future.

Once she has come to terms with her past and mourned what she has lost, the survivor moves to becoming a thriver.

She understands the damage caused by the trauma and no longer feels possessed by the past. She will have reconstructed a coherent belief system, which encompasses her traumatic experience, allowing her to make sense of it.

She feels renewed hope and excitement—she is beginning to reach towards the person she wants to become.

At this stage, a thriver will be reconnecting with herself: allowing herself pride in her survival and strength; celebrating her achievements and courage; acknowledging and having compassion for her weakness and limitations.

She will also be learning to reconnect with others: regaining the capacity for trust—learning when to give it and when to withhold it; developing her social skills; able to deepen her relationships with others and allow herself intimacy; perhaps reclaiming her right to sexual pleasure.

The impact of the past trauma will continue to reverberate throughout a woman’s life. New experiences, especially stressful ones, will inevitably prompt the need for further exploration of herself and her experiences. She may need to return to counselling.

But a woman who is thriving will understand that this is not a failure—this is part of the healing path. Her journey may demand a detour, perhaps the need to revisit some events: it will help her to integrate her experiences, to deepen her understanding of who she is.

A thriver understands that she has faced the threat of annihilation—and survived to celebrate her life and its living.

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