Response-based practice is an approach that is centered around preserving human
dignity, particularly for those harmed by violence. The suffering experienced by
violence survivors can be articulated in a number of ways. We can use the language of
psychology and psychiatry, which is standard. However, we can also use subtler, more
life-affirming forms such as poetry, metaphor, story. We can also explore the small “p”
political expression of resistance as a response to violence. I have found this process to
be stimulating and energizing, for both teller and listener. (Counsellor Vikki Reynolds
says this is one way to avoid the feeling of “work fatigue” referred to by psychiatrists as
“vicarious trauma” – when you explore the story of resistance rather than the story of
pain, it is enlivening).
Everyone who has been mistreated resists in some way. Holistic and Indigenous
approaches consider the physical, spiritual, emotional and intellectual aspects of
experience. I am interested in how these knowledges and safety responses inform acts
of resistance, including the persistant presence of hope, spirit and the refusal to be
contented with violence, mistreatment, misogyny.
Years back, I developed an image called Dignity Across the Lifespan to show how the
human need for dignity looks differently depending on our age and life stage. It is based
on a six-direction medicine wheel. We enter the wheel, from above, into the east. We
move through infancy and childhood, youth, adulthood and elderhood, finally exiting
the wheel, into Earth, and then back to source. This journey all takes place on Mother
Earth, or, as the legend would say, on the back of the turtle.
To attend to the dignity of the new ones, we listen for their cries, relieve their suffering,
change their diaper as soon as possible so they know we are here to care for them. We
do not let the young ones think they have been abandoned. This is why we attend to
their woes, embracing their little body and show them that wounds can be healed,
stress can be released. We honour the youth or adolescents by acknowledging their
need for increased independence. This involves a cyclical movement. We help attend
to their social needs, letting them arc away from us, but pulling them back into our
orbit. They are not ready to break free. And, they will always be with us, as part of our
family, our community, and energetically through our extended, overlapping spirit.
They still need us, but not every moment. Helping youth heal from violence and
humiliation means reminding them of their purpose, of their potential, of their
relationship to the tribe or group. We remind them that they are loved and that the
community needs them. We honour their spirit of resistance and the ways they enact
this, based on their age, their experienced and their life force.
Once into adulthood, a number of lifetime wounds have likely accumulated. Attending
to dignity of the adult means witnessing their competency, their love, their parenting
and offering support and friendship. We avoid humiliating another person at all costs.
This avoids the collective social wounds which become harder to address over time.
When harmed by violence, the adult holds the intellectual capacity to assess situations,
work with their inner radar, sense danger, analyse risk and potential backlash. Those
who have lived without relative social privilege do this the best. There are many
approaches to helping adults heal.
Treating elders and the older ones with dignity is built in to the fabric of many societies.
Indigenous and non-western cultures esteem elders, see them as teachers and value
their knowledge as part of a worldview. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen in
practice, but it is part of the continuity of culture and societies over time. We need the
older ones to pass down their knowledge, of survival, of death and grieving and of
celebration. We need their knowledge in relation to how to take care of Earth, how to
live simply and connected to All That Is. Sometimes, the older ones hold the language
which needs to be passed along if cultures are to survive intact. Indigenous elders hold
wisdom. During my work in the Yukon, I learned from elders about the importance of
humility, humour and modesty. I saw how they could be playful and fun, teasing and
laughing while careful to never humiliate others or denigrate themselves. Despite all
they had gone through, they lived with a lightness of heart.
The Kaska elders taught me that, while healing is important, you don’t have to talk
about everything. Many chose to keep that basket of colonial violence in residential
school closed. Some had decided to take these experiences to the grave. I also learned
that, if you want to talk about these horrors, sometimes you have to have a drink first.
One elderly woman was brought to see me, “the counsellor.” She had been drinking.
She told me, “I had to have a drink before I came here because they told me you want
to know what they did to me in residential school.” Then, she proceeded to explain the
horrendous acts of priest violence to a small girl. This woman had the knowledge of
how to “manage” this experience, how to keep things in balance. She knew if she
stayed sober, she could not give voice to these terrible acts of inhumanity. She knew
how to preserve her dignity. She knew there was not enough time left in her life to try
to process her experience therapeutically. She was trying to enjoy the rest of her time
here, minimizing the power of the colonizer. Treating the older ones with dignity is
about respecting them, being patient and not treating them like children. It is about
being slower and gentler, and listening. This woman’s resistance was about not letting
that priest enter her life and her mind, every single day. It was not about making peace
Dignity may be different for everyone, culturally speaking. For me, it is about allowing
people the freedom to choose in their lives, not telling people what to do, not acting like
“the expert.” On my path, it has been about minimizing the voice and influence of
psychological and psychiatric discourses, minimizing structural violence and the way we
see ourselves. As a counsellor, my task, as I see it, is to act as da Vinci’s Vetruvian man,
holding up arms and legs to keep the walls from closing in on the client or community
member. Structural violence and its proponents want to instruct, crush, shape, dictate
and decide how we should live. With my relative power as a professional, I can try to
create space for people to explore, to tell stories, to re-articulate who they are and how
they can live more fully. I can invite the system to decolonize, but in the meantime, how
can I be a “protective factor” or a “positive social response” to the people I work for
(e.g. community members).
What is a positive social response?
When someone discloses violence (or when violence is revealed), that person receives a
“social response” from family, friends and professionals. When the social responses are
largely positive, that person will go on to recover from violence relatively quickly and
smoothly, without their sense of self being too attacked. When the social responses are
negative, that person is likely to suffer more profoundly, over a larger period of time.
That person is likely to be given a mental health diagnosis, to self-harm or to feel
suicidal. They are more likely to try to end their life.
Most people who have disclosed physical or sexualized violence tend to receive both
positive and negative social responses. Indigenous or marginalized women are more
likely to experience racism and social interactions that are patronizing, degrading or
humiliating. They are more likely to be blamed for the violence. The conclusion one
may draw from this body of literature, and from first hand accounts of violence
survivors, is that the main “trauma” or injury comes after disclosure. Most of the
intense suffering is linked to being blamed, to being shown one is unworthy or not
valued…. That they should just “get over it.” Research shows that many people, mostly
women, more often Indigenous and women-of-colour, are abused or harassed in school,
in university and/or in the work place. The fact that most institutions have no
meaningful way of stopping this violence and assisting the victim means we have an
ongoing lack of physical and cultural safety in our Canadian institutions. We know that
most people who report, or “whistle blowers” are likely to be made to suffer, to
experience some backlash, including job loss, after reporting harassment. These are
conditions which cause ongoing suffering and serve to exclude certain people from
positions of power, influence and decision-making. This relates to the need for
decolonizing. The refusal to extend human dignity to a large sector of our population
points to systemic and structural violence. What is needed to heal is care, fairness,
justice in all forms (racial justice, eco-justice, legal justice). Decolonization initiatives
can take up the language of social justice, of human rights, of revolutionary love.
As we look back to the human lifespan, dignity at every stage is powerful, is meaningful
and is necessary to create a society that will not support violence; one that will help
people heal and abandon the need to hurt, abuse or mistreat another person,
individually or systemically.
Recommended Reading on the Connection Between Social Responses and Well-Being
After Violence (Compiled by Allan Wade, Centre for Response-Based Practice)
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Ballan,, Self-Defense Among Women With Disabilities An Unexplored Domain in
Domestic Violence Cases Michelle S. Ballan1 Molly Burke Freyer2. violence against
women Journal. 1Columbia University, New York, NY, USA. New York University,
New York, NY, USA. Columbia University, School of Social Work, 1255 Amsterdam
Avenue, New York, NY 10027, USA Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Factors for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Trauma-Exposed Adults. Journal of
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support sources. Violence Vict 2001;16(6):673–92. [PubMed: 11863065]
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Nations Children and the Restoration of Aboriginal Communities’, Vancouver: Douglas
Heinrichs M, Baumgartner T, Kirschbaum C, Ehlert U. Social support and oxytocin
interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological
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Vervliet, De Mol, Broekaert, Derluyn (2003). ‘That I Live, that’s Because of Her’:
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