For non-survivors talking to survivors: limited vocabulary

Survivors feel a lot of things. I would even go so far as to say that survivors feel more things – we’ve encountered a wider range of experiences that produce feelings non-survivors have never had to deal with.

This makes talking tough. We survivors say things a lot, we repeat the same phrases constantly. “I’m worthless” “I deserved it” “It’s all my fault” “I’m unlovable” etc. The problem arises in that “I’m worthless” feelings can be sparked by anything from a flashback, to something happening right now. But you, as a non-survivor, won’t always have that information from us.

We have not been taught how to speak. In fact, we have been taught how to not speak – how to cover our emotions with things like “I’m tired” or “I’m sick.” The excuses everyone else gives to strangers and acquaintances we give to friends, family, to our face in the mirror. We’ve been taught how to believe our own lies. We’ve been taught that we can’t even trust our own emotions, and we’ve been taught how to leave them completely unexamined.

So when we finally do speak, we’re venturing into the unknown, onto uncharted land. We are expressing emotion that we will probably take back and reassert as something else. We are putting words to experiences that we have never had vocabulary for. We are trying to express things there are no words for.

So we repeat phrases. We say the words we do know, the things that are familiar to us. But it isn’t always what we mean. Survivors are extremely aware of the nuances of emotion – I think that’s why things like forgiveness don’t work as well as non-survivors would like to believe — “forgiveness” encompasses hurt and anger and fear and all kinds of emotions that non-survivors aren’t taking into account when they tell us to “just forgive” (just forgive the dude with the gun to your head, you’ll feel less fearful; telling someone that is just as effective). So we’re aware of these nuances, but not how to express them in a world that hasn’t made room for those kinds of feelings and experiences. So we say what we know, what makes sense to you, because it’s the only way we feel like we can talk, and we need to talk.

So on your end, it feels frustrating. Over and over again, you’re dealing with a person who is telling you they’re worthless, they deserved it, it’s their fault. It makes no sense to you, but it is very real to us. What we’re saying isn’t a lie (in terms of us believing what we say) but it isn’t the whole of it. And part of that is because when we talk, we need someone else constantly reassuring us. So we say the simplistic. You may not understand why we feel we deserved it, but you probably find it extremely easy to argue against. So for you, it’s far easier to deal with a survivor saying, “I deserved it” than it is for us to sit down and explain what is making us feel that way.

To give an example, it’s like a woman saying to a man, “There was this misogynistic guy on the bus.” Easy for a man to understand. But if she had just said, “There was this guy on the bus and he was giving me these looks” a man may not know what that means the way a woman would, the way a woman might say “oh one of those looks” because she’s been subjected to them as well.

If I knew how to create language for the unexplainable, I would. But even if I could, it would be gibberish to the non-survivor. If I could put a word to the emotion you feel when you have spent the last three days with the same image running in constant loop through your head – one you don’t even know if it is a memory or not – I would, but even if I did, you would never know what the word meant because you wouldn’t know what the feeling was.

And maybe one day we will – this talking thing is new. I would say, based on the kinds of google searches from which my blog is on the first page, talking is still incredibly rare. We’re basing our vocabulary, our ability to speak about what happened to us, on the people who have been talking before us. I remember the first time another survivor gave me a word to an emotion I couldn’t express: powerlessness. So maybe with time, and more voices, we will find a way to convert what we experience and feel into words, whether or not they will be understood by anyone else but ourselves.

So when a survivor says “I’m worthless, I deserved it, it was my fault, you shouldn’t love me” what we are saying is that we feel that way, and we feel that way legitimately – when your family, for instance, who is your world, has taught you every day of your life that that is a correct perspective, than it is legitimate to feel that way, regardless of its accuracy. What we are saying is that we feel that way, and that behind those words holds the weight of a thousand other unexpressed emotions and experiences.

You get the tip of the ice berg, and are frustrated by it. But underneath we are drowning, and unable to tell you exactly how, or what we need, because this world was only designed to express that tip. Because language only goes so far. Because our reality doesn’t exist yet in the minds of anyone but fellow survivors.

6 comments on “For non-survivors talking to survivors: limited vocabulary

  1. Shadow says:

    Thank you… just, thank you. For writing so much of the shit that’s in my head that I could never find the words for. I really needed to hear this right now. Thank you for everything that you do for us survivors.

  2. susania says:

    So very glad that you are finding other survivors to talk with… and that you are helping those of us on the other side understand. Thank you.

  3. nylorac15 says:

    Yes, yes, yes. As a person partnered with an abuse survivor, you’ve exactly captured what the tough days have been like for us in our ten years of being together. This is real, and I believe very common. I hope that building of vocabulary between survivors can continue, so the process of understanding yourselves and what you’ve been through becomes even a little bit easier. The life of a survivor is hard enough already.

  4. Heather says:

    I read this earlier but didn’t comment- thank-you for this. Good to hear from you again too.

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