I recently read Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. This book is chalk-full of ground-breaking research, stories about real people and couples, brain science, and environmental factors that help us understand women’s sexuality. There are countless stand-out chapters and topics that left me feeling seen, surprised, and grateful for the work she’s done and continues to do. There is one topic that is mentioned briefly in the book that caught my attention and has inspired this blog post: co-survivors.
This chapter in Come as You Are describes co-survivors as those who are hearing a disclosure from someone, for whom they care and love, about an experience of sexual abuse or violence. Nagoski emphasizes the importance of this role for a survivor’s healing, and also the need for co-survivors to ensure they care for themselves. This post will discuss this idea in further detail, as well as expand the role of co-survivors to one that can be applied to sexual violence, and other forms of trauma and distressing experiences.
Hearing from someone you care about that they’ve been through something violating, distressing, or traumatic can feel overwhelming and scary. It might bring your mind to similar experiences of your own or you may feel some discomfort or shock that can make it hard to know how to respond. This is normal.
Emily Nagoski recommends co-survivors use the following 4 phrases when supporting someone:
I believe you.
Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me.
I am sorry that happened to you.
I support you, whatever you choose to do.
Nagoski says next, “and then you listen and be present… and then listen and be present some more”.
These phrases help create a space of safety and support for the person sharing their disclosure. They put the power into the other’s hands. Nagoski warns that you’ll likely feel the urge to take care of the person. This is normal and healthy. However, to take care of a person who has experienced trauma is to sit in the stillness and discomfort of that urge, and allow the person to take care of themselves. Nagoski explains, “you are not the healer in this scenario. You are the splint or brace or cast. You create an environment of holding, which allows the survivor to be safe enough to heal.”
A big part of trauma is about having control over your body and your choices taken away. So, survivors need safe environments where they can take back control. You can be one of those environments. Sit still with your need to drive them to the hospital, call the police, beat up whoever caused them this trauma, or even hug the survivor. Emily encourages you to “sit still, notice that you care, be kind to yourself, and sit still some more.”
In order to provide this environment to the person throughout their healing, it’s important to provide yourself with that same care and support. Being a co-survivor can feel draining and exhausting. It can also feel challenging when you’re not sure what to do, or you second guess your approach to helping. Nagoski encourages an approach of self-compassion, understanding, and forgiveness. It’s okay if you mess up or say something you wish you hadn’t. It’s likely you will. Nagoski says, “I’ve screwed up, and the survivors still healed. My co-survivors screwed up and I still healed. We’re all in this together, working toward wholeness.”
Kindness towards yourself is key. This can be physical, practical, doing-type kindness, or emotional, space-offering, less physically noticeable kindness. It can be setting boundaries with other people in your life, having a hot bath at the end of the day, buying yourself some ice cream, allowing yourself space to cry or sit in the pain you’re experiencing, or offering yourself words of gratitude or nurturance. Whatever feels right for you is it.
To be a co-survivor is to take on a role that elicits a mosaic of experiences – both your own and another person’s. It’s a balancing act of giving the space, control, and support to the person you’re supporting, and then giving yourself what you need in order to ensure you can. Practice self-kindness, and take comfort in Emily’s words: “We’re all in this together, working towards wholeness”.
If you’d like to explore the co-survivor role and these concepts further, perhaps speaking to someone in the counselling field could feel useful. Above all, I invite you to practice self-kindness, sit with the urge to do something (as uncomfortable as this is), and allow yourself as much space as you are the person you’re supporting.
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will tranfsorm your sex life. Simon & Schuster.