How to Support a Survivor (Svali Blog Post)

This information is mirrored from

One of the most frequent questions that people ask me is, “How can I help a survivor?” This question comes from spouses, from friends, from church members, and represents the desire of caring people to be a help. Often, behind this question is the unvoiced plea, “I don’t want to do anything harmful by mistake.”

There is not a formula, or set of actions, that are guaranteed to help. Each person is an individual, and his or her needs will vary. Also, I am NOT an expert in support. At the same time, I know that in my own healing journey, and in the healing journeys of others that I have talked to, certain things have stood out as being helpful, while others were not. This is meant to be an informal discussion of being supportive, and not meant as therapeutic advice.

Okay, so what is helpful for a person who is a survivor of ritual abuse, who is just beginning to remember, has remembered for several years, or who may be trying to leave a destructive cult group? Here are some thoughts.

1). Listen. The survivor who has been wounded and injured by a cult group has been told all of their lives to never talk of their abuse, to not tell. This is known as “the code of silence”. Once the survivor begins remembering, though, there will be a need to share with a safe person. Ideally, this person will be their therapist, but they may also need a friend with whom they can share their feelings, their disbelief, their horror, their despair, and the joy at the small steps of healing and freedom that begin occurring. Above all else, a nonjudgmental person who will listen and BE THERE and not reject them means so much. But be aware that at the same time, disclosing may cause panic or cause programming. So, don’t prod the person for information. Let them share at the rate that THEY are comfortable.

2) Believe them. Survivors of cult groups are told that no one will believe them if they disclose (and with good reason: much of our society today is in denial about this type of abuse!). They are told by leaders in the group that they will be labeled “crazy” and sent to a state hospital, or branded a liar. This, along with the threat of severe punishments if they do disclose, makes many survivors reluctant to remember and talk about their abuse. If a survivor does take this important step, it is important to validate them, even if what they disclose horrifies you or tests your own belief about human nature. The events seem horrific and the cruelty beyond human capability, but often, these first events disclosed are just the tip of the iceberg. Try to never tell the person that you don’t believe them, if you don’t, you can say, “I know that you believe this, and what I personally think doesn’t matter”, when asked if you believe them (they WILL ask, over and over, because of the programming mentioned above that no one could believe them. Each time you say “yes,” you are helping them break the power of a vicious lie.

3) Learn about ritual abuse. When you hear a story from one person that tests your ability to believe, that is one thing. But when you read about thousands of people who are remembering these things, it will help both your credulity, and your knowledge. Also, understanding a little about ritual abuse will help you learn about possible pitfalls and problems the survivor may face during their journey. The best source of learning is a good, safe therapist knowledgeable about ritual abuse. You may want to contact one, let them know you are a support person, and ask if you can meet with them and ask some questions.

Other sources can include web sites (like this one!). But don’t just visit one; visit several, since different survivors will have different perspectives. In the “Links” section on this page are several excellent online resources for learning more about ritual abuse.At the local library, there are usually at least a few books on this topic. Reading a survivor’s story and how they healed can be helpful.

If there are any conferences on ritual abuse being held in your area, they can be a wonderful source of information. You may want to contact national groups that deal with dissociation, such as the ISSD, for information on conferences in your area.

4). Be aware of programming. Many survivors of severe generational cult abuse will have different forms of programming. You do NOT need to be an expert on programming to be a support person. But being aware that self-harm and suicide programming, as well as the desire to recontact the cult (contact programming) may be present is important. If your friend states that they are feeling that they might self harm, suicide, or go to a cult meeting, and that they believe that they CANNOT control the impulses, you need to have them contact their therapist immediately. They may need hospitalization if this urge is severe, and a safe place to break the programming. Or, the therapist may be able to work with them outpatient in breaking the hold the programming has.

If the person is recontacting the cult, letting them know that they can have a good life outside the cult is important to break this programming. That going back will only hurt them, and that they can change old ways.

5) The importance of healthy fun Having good, safe, fun times together, such as an outdoor barbecue, going to the mall shopping, or doing art/crafts projects together for fun are all things that can help a survivor who has been locked into an emotionally deprived lifestyle (one that makes them dependent on the cult). Littles may pop out, seeing a different reality that is nonabusive, for the FIRST time in the survivor’s life. Let them come out, and be aware that they may act much younger than the survivor’s stated age. The more healthy, safe, appropriate experiences these parts have, the faster healing will go, because littles often hold quite a bit of emotional power in a survivor’s system. They will run inside to share what is going on, and soon other parts will come out to “check out what is going on.” In reality, they will be testing to see if the friend is safe, and if it is really true that they can have a nonabusive friend who isn’t trying to use them.

6) Help out when things are really rough: The survivor may have an occasional day when things are chaotic inside, or they have done massive inside work, and have very little energy for much else. A close friend can help by driving them to therapy on those days, if they can’t drive. They can also be there for the survivor. Helping with little things can make a difference, such as bringing in takeout on a rough day when cooking is beyond the survivor’s ability. Just hanging out together, and being a safe outside person, can be enough many times.

7) Have good boundaries: It is important to not do for the survivor what they can do for themselves. The idea is NOT to reparent them, since this creates an unhealthy and impossible dynamic in a relationship. The survivor will have strong unmet dependency needs from a lifetime of emotional deprivation. Let them know that you are their FRIEND. But not a caretaker. There is a fine balance between helping out once in a while on very bad days, and allowing too much dependence. Most survivors have highly functioning parts that can manage the tasks of daily life at least most of the time. Encourage this functioning.If littles are out constantly, and no adult appears, this can be a sign of stress in an overburdened system, a sign of being accessed (the adults were abused or punished and went under), or a sign of unhealthy dependency. The survivor themselves can often learn to nurture themselves, and a good friend will support this.

8). Pray for them: I left what I believe is the most important for last. Healing from ritual abuse, and leaving an abusive occult group, is spiritual warfare of the most intense type. Any support person may undergo spiritual attack (and, in some rare cases, physical threats as well). Having a strong faith, and knowing how to do spiritual warfare on your behalf and your friend’s, is the GREATEST gift you can give them. If they are open to Christianity, sharing your love and the love of God can do a lot to undo the false beliefs about Him that the cult has taught the survivor. They will often have anger, rage, bitterness, and even hatred for God and Jesus. Don’t let this shock you, or turn you away from the survivor, since they have undergone an entire lifetime of abuse, and setups where “God” was an abuser (it is hard to love Jesus when someone dressed like him raped you as a small child, and you were told that Jesus does this to children).

With love, prayer, and patience, this anger should lessen and true healing of the most wounded part of the survivor, their spirit, can begin. A survivor needs to see the love of God demonstrated in others. To see that they were lied to by the cult, that Christianity is real, not just hypocrisy, and that Christian believers are willing to back up their words with prayer and acts of caring.