By Maeve O’Boyle, lived expert, and Epione Trauma Trainer.
Desmond Tutu famously stated, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” In relation to trauma this means understating the causes and conditions as opposed to blaming and shaming trauma survivors. I remember the very first time I heard this quote whilst watching a documentary about the Reverend Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama and the impact it had on me. I had to do all I could to refrain from shouting ‘yes!’ out into the living room and startle my family. The meaning was not lost on me.
There is so much to unpack in Reverend Tutu’s quote, but for me the essence of empowerment threads powerfully through trauma informed and responsive practice.
Empowerment is defined as ‘authority or power given to someone to do something or ‘the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights,’ but it is also the determining factor in whether a person can take control over their falling into the river or not. A self-determined choice to be respected.
I wondered as I listened to these two exceptional men discuss topics of humanity, how we might begin to encourage people to feel empowered and it became clear that there are three absolutes required in creating the foundations for empowerment.
Firstly, we must build trust. To feel brave enough to feel empowered, you must trust in the process, your peers and most importantly yourself. You must have trust in others to complete tasks and goals which allow you to set out on your journey.
Secondly, discovery and curiosity must be a simple task. If we are to feel empowered then we must feel able to learn and discover, always staying curious. The process should be simple so that we feel that we are well-educated enough and skilled to progress.
Lastly, we must remain humble. True empowerment means knowing our limitations, accepting feedback and being able to offer instructions based on limitations and feedback.
When we have experienced trauma, and are caught in fight, flight or freeze response, it can be impossible to think of feeling empowered or to move on from that response. We might look to others to guide us, to empower us for us.
Many great leaders showcase these qualities of trust, discovery, and feedback by highlighting these skills in others, complimenting first, before exhibiting them in their own behaviour, therefore empowering others, particularly those who have experienced trauma.
Feeling empowered for someone who has experienced trauma is a powered step to reaffirming life, understanding the trauma, regulating healthy emotional states and to strengthening social connections.
Empowerment should be the responsibility of all who are involved in trauma informed practice, as we seek to answer Reverend Tutu’s question, ‘Why are they falling in?’
Our enhanced trauma training course is designed to build trust, safety, and support people to create the core conditions to empower the people we serve.