Allowing Empathy and Healing from Sexual Abuse
The Clothesline Project’s mission is to “educate students and the community that violence is a problem everywhere, help is available, and there is hope and a path to healing.” It’s a way to bring awareness to incest, domestic violence, and sexual violence while giving survivors a voice to break their silence and stir our community into action.
The Clothesline Project was set up in the grand ballroom on the Utah Valley University campus. Shirts of various colors were hung in frames, each symbolizing a different type of trauma: violence, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, verbal abuse, and death. Participants had written their stories on the shirts and a gong rang every few seconds to minutes marking the frequency of violence in our communities.
Why do we have our students attend the Clothesline Project? Lack of empathy and disconnect are common themes with our students. Brene Brown gives a great explanation of this disconnect in her Ted Talk on Vulnerability by stating that “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” In order to heal, students learn to dig deep and break down the emotional walls they have built to keep themselves safe. As they learn to be vulnerable and brave the path of their therapeutic journey, experiences like The Clothesline Project helps students start to feel their emotions and experience empathy.
What is empathy? Merriam Webster’s definition of empathy is as follows: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.”
During our clinical phases at Oxbow Academy, our goal is to help each of our students connect to their emotions, and gain more empathy for others. While not all of our students have hands-on victims, a lot of their choices, unintentionally at times, have caused serious pain to their family members and friends. During Phase 1 they work towards owning their story, getting out of shame by being accountable and truthful. This is just the start of a very difficult road because many of our students are only telling a portion of the story. Once they have gained a relationship with truth and are willing to move out of shame, they then have to work through the emotions that come with this. Phase 2 of their work at Oxbow Academy is about clarification and making amends with those they may have hurt through their sexual behavioral problems as well as working through their own trauma. We hope as a clinical team that while they are working through the storm of emotions, and allowing their heart and mind to connect, that they start to form and develop empathy for themselves and others. This is why our students visit the Clothesline Project annually to help broaden their perspective and crack the egg of empathy.
As a clinician at Oxbow Academy, I’ve witnessed students become disconnected and numb while discussing very painful topics. They talk about things such as their personal sexual disclosures as if they were reciting the weather or a shopping list. A firm separation between their cognitions, conscience, and their hearts exists as a form of self-preservation to protect them from the pain of their past choices or even their own past trauma.
In contrast, as we entered the grand ballroom, the faces of the boys changed from numb and disconnected to shocked and sobered. As the boys read the uncensored messages in front of them, they became “aware of”, “sensitive to”, and “vicariously experienced the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
After viewing The Clothesline Project, many of our students needed extra support from their peers, staff, and therapist to help process the flood of emotions that came. As painful as these emotions were, they also gave me and our Clinical Team hope. Once our students allow themselves to feel and no longer hide in shame, they are able to continue the difficult path of healing. By beginning to understand how their actions affect others, they can begin making choices that create healthier and closer relationships with their family and friends.
As someone who’s dedicated to helping these boys, this empathy, is the piece of hope that keeps me going. It’s the piece of hope that means our boys have the capacity to heal and be better than they were before Oxbow. It’s the piece of hope that needs to be remembered when the road is long and there are many bumps along the way.