Barriers to overcome for survivors 💪

We are working in the IMPROVE project to understand the needs of domestic violence survivors in different EU countries and break down common barriers for them to seek help.

AinoAid™ by We Encourage
8 min readApr 28, 2023

--

We’ve learned about many of these barriers from our interviews and working with survivors. Recently we introduced social media series where we showcased some of these obstacles so others could better understand why it is so difficult to speak out and gave examples how other survivors overcame those barriers. Here we summarize some points from those posts: guilt, shame, fear, victim blaming, disbelief, hard to find information and to know what to do, what happens to children and the legal processes.

Common barriers to seek help

The feeling of 𝗚𝗨𝗜𝗟𝗧 helps to navigate personal values and consequently promotes positive growth. But unhealthy amounts of guilt can stop any growth as it tends to make people feel anxious, heavy, lost and stuck. Usually massive guilt comes with some aggressive friends too: self-blaming, intrusive thoughts and maybe some unhealthy coping mechanisms (such as avoidance or isolating) which all help it grow even bigger.

Even detaching from a violent relationship isn’t an instant fix when the guilt’s been there for a long time.

The survivors we’ve discussed with all had experiences that talking helped them overcome guilt. As they spoke with trusted people who understood the phenomenon of domestic violence they felt validated and got a reminder of what is normal. Through professional support they got more tools to handle and even overcome their guilt.

𝗦𝗛𝗔𝗠𝗘 is often very limiting and even a physical feeling. If it grows deep roots it can become part of one’s identity. Shame can make one think they are a bad person or worthless. It can be hard to recognise what is shame and what is guilt or something else. If shame is not faced and dealt with, it causes a greater risk of depression, anxiety, addictions, distress and a range of disorders. It’s in shame’s nature that people tend to hide it, which actually feeds the shame. Unhealthy coping mechanisms are common and people might grow different roles to cover their shame.

It is however possible to live with shame and to break free from it. Again, it helps to talk with a professional who can help you understand the roots of your shame, to discover what triggers it and to learn new ways to react to it. If talking with someone feels still too overwhelming, writing can be a helpful start. It’s good to remember that shame loses power every time it’s compassionately accepted and mentioned.

𝗙𝗘𝗔𝗥 is one of the most basic human emotions and it’s a normal reaction to violence. From evolutionary point of view it’s crucial for our survival. It helps to protect us as we may avoid dangerous situations and our nervous system prepares us when we cannot escape danger.

People can experience fear a bit differently. If fear is intense and almost constant as it often is in domestic violence, even everyday things can get very complicated.

Why is fear a common barrier for those who experience domestic violence? Many are afraid that what will the perpetrator do when violence is exposed to outsiders. What happens after that? Violence could get even worse. Many fear they would not be believed in the first place. What happens to the children? Explaining the situation could also mean coming out about sexual orientation or one’s true gender. Some are afraid that they will lose their residence permit or whole community when they speak out.

Fear is a tricky barrier since even if one decides to avoid the scary outcome and not seek help, it does not mean the fear is gone. That more familiar fear is often described as “better the devil you know”. Unknown can be even scarier.

That’s why it’s — again, so important to talk with professionals. They can educate and prepare one for the unknown. No-one can promise the outcome when one starts to detach from violence but we can say the odds are far better than staying in a violent relationship. Violence tends to get worse and in the worst case causes deaths and permanent health problems.

Fear is a barrier that one can overcome with courage. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you. That is also something professionals can help with.

𝗩𝗜𝗖𝗧𝗜𝗠 𝗕𝗟𝗔𝗠𝗜𝗡𝗚 means words or actions which imply or bluntly accuse the victim of being somehow responsible of the violence that has been done to them. Victim blaming can be very subtle but it can always harm the person who is blamed. We’ve heard countless stories how it made people more secretive about the violence and more scared that they would not be believed and supported if they’d reach out for help.

One thing that may help victims survive victim blaming is education. Education helps in 𝟭) recognising what victim blaming is and how it affects and 𝟮) understanding why it happens. Victim blaming can be structural but it can also be the listener’s way to protect themselves and their worldview. There are also number of ways how to react to victim blaming after it is recognised. It is always a good idea to talk with professionals because they can tailor guidance to suit your needs.

According to dictionary 𝗗𝗜𝗦𝗕𝗘𝗟𝗜𝗘𝗙 is mental rejection of something as untrue. It is a common and normal reaction to something shocking — as violence always is. Especially from a loved one. Common thoughts are “This can’t happen to me! How did this happen to me? Did I imagine it? Did this even happen to me?”

What is the so called antidote? The aim is to accept the truth as it is. But acceptance is a process and takes time. Try to start talking with someone. If it feels too challenging try to write it out. Or record your own speech and listen to it. Whatever the way is you get those thoughts out of your head, it helps you form and perceive a new reality. A more intact one.

There can also be a situation where a person may not be believed when they report their abuse to others. This can happen when the victim shares their story with someone who doubts the truthfulness of their claims. Disbelief of others can be particularly damaging to victim survivors, as it can make them feel like their experiences are not valid or that they are somehow responsible for the abuse they have suffered.

Experiencers of domestic violence commonly ask ”𝗪𝗛𝗔𝗧 𝗔𝗥𝗘 𝗧𝗛𝗘 𝗟𝗘𝗚𝗔𝗟 𝗣𝗥𝗢𝗖𝗘𝗦𝗦𝗘𝗦?” and they have the right to know.

It may come as a big surprise (and a disappointment) how long can a legal process take time from start to finish. And what happens during the process. On the other hand many are painfully aware that it might take years to know the result of a reported rape case. For some it might feel quicker to detach from the violence without emotional and unpredictable legal processes and therefor they don’t report.

When people have reliable information about the different local legal processes they have more freedom to evaluate and choose their next steps. For professionals it might seem clear what a person should do: report a crime but in the end it is the life of an individual and they are the ones who deal with their decisions and the consequences. What professionals can do to help is to make the process as humane as possible and offer more support along the way. This is possible when professionals learn about domestic violence and how to support people whom have been affected. Sometimes structural shifts are much needed as well.

We’ve also heard that it is 𝗛𝗔𝗥𝗗 𝗧𝗢 𝗙𝗜𝗡𝗗 𝗜𝗡𝗙𝗢𝗥𝗠𝗔𝗧𝗜𝗢𝗡 and to know what to do… The information is there, it’s just that is scattered all over and hard to find when you’re not doing it for living let alone when you are in a crisis.

Domestic violence is not just the different forms of violence and its effects. Domestic violence affects many different aspects of life and one might need help with many areas: relationships, home, work, education, money, religion, identity, health, addictions, sexuality, traumas, law and legal rights, shelter, food, new tech devices, crime processes, children, language, transport, mapping a strange area — just to name a few!

To detach and survive domestic violence can be a huge and long process. It helps people to prepare when they know what things to consider before making their decisions. Or when life has happened and they are in that situation of hard choices before they had the chance to prepare. Everyone is different and has different priorities because their situations are unique and require different help at different times.

Many experiencers of domestic violence are worried about 𝗪𝗛𝗔𝗧 𝗛𝗔𝗣𝗣𝗘𝗡𝗦 𝗧𝗢 𝗖𝗛𝗜𝗟𝗗𝗥𝗘𝗡 if someone speaks out (and if they don’t). The uncertainty, lack of knowledge and misunderstandings can be difficult barriers to overcome.

Well, what happens? There are no simple answers or one-size-fits-all solutions. It depends on the individual overall situation, violence, local legislation and people. But few things are universal: domestic violence always affects children and they should be protected at all times. Children have specific rights guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

To get more individual answers it’s good to talk with professionals who work with these issues. It’s also good to keep in mind that not all professionals are so familiar with this phenomenon and it’s not uncommon to hear different opinions. This can cause more wearing confusion so it’s easier to start with professionals who are specialized in domestic violence. In the future our AinoAid™️ services will offer support with this.

We need each other…

All of these barriers and many more unmentioned make it harder for people to seek help or leave an abusive relationship. They may fear not being believed or may feel shame or guilt for their situation. It is important to believe and support victims and survivors of domestic violence in order to break the cycles and to help people to recover and heal from their abuse. It’s important to keep in mind that you cannot know what a person has gone through from their looks or behaviour. It is professionals’, leaders’ and policy makers’ responsibilities to listen the experiencers, learn from them and make adjustments, educate themselves and others, develop services or maybe even create new ones.

We’ve seen and heard how exhausting it can be to navigate the information jungle while in one of the biggest crises of your life. That is why we are building AinoAid™️ services to be the first aid and support. We aim to be able to release the next version of AINO chatbot soon — so stay tuned!

--

--

AinoAid™ by We Encourage
AinoAid™ by We Encourage

The AinoAid™ service's chatbot and knowledge bank for people seeking help with their close relationships and professionals supporting them.