Counseling Advice From Lady Gaga?

Lady Gaga has a new song about the aftermath of sexual assault. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you likely have heard of Lady Gaga who is known for crazy getups and stunts. Known in my household as the lady who wore the meat dress, she sings these words (I’ve included just a few lines) in the song “Til it happens to you.”

You tell me it gets better, it gets better in time
You say I’ll pull myself together, pull it together, you’ll be fine
Tell me, what the hell do you know? What do you know?
Tell me how the hell could you know? How could you know?

Till it happens to you, you don’t know how it feels, how it feels
Till it happens to you, you won’t know, it won’t be real
(How could you know?)
No it won’t be real
(How could you know?)
Won’t know how I feel

Her message is clear: If you haven’t been raped or assaulted (or experienced any other sort of trauma) you can’t possibly know what it is like. And since you can’t know what it is like, stop giving superficial comfort and advice.

Is Lady Gaga right? Does she offer sound counseling advice?

Yes and no. Yes, we are far too willing to offer platitudes to people in pain and wonder why they get angry and hurt and avoid us altogether. Lady Gaga captures the sentiment of the doubly hurt–first by the initial trauma and second by foolish words. The ancient Greek Aeschylus aptly puts it this way

It is an easy thing for one whose foot is on the outside of calamity to give advice and to rebuke the sufferer

Our quips roll easily off the tongue, but they injure the already wounded. Before you speak to someone and offer your ideas, do your friend a favor and be quiet. Ask them again (and again) to tell you what they experienced (past or present tense). But I don’t think Gaga goes far enough. I would argue that EVEN IF you have experienced the same trauma as the person in front of you, stop thinking that you know what they are feeling and struggling with. You may, but you may not as well. Do not assume your experience is theirs. Listen. More than you think you need to. Assumptions of “getting it” communicate that their pain doesn’t really matter to anyone.

But also, Lady Gaga is wrong (and I get it, this is art not counseling skills training!). It is possible to help others even when you have not had their experience. As long as you approach your work with humility and the heart of a student, you can do much good. You bear witness to their experience through your reflections and observations. You can ask good questions and paint word pictures of trajectories of growth. Do not think that just because you did not have the trauma, you have nothing to offer. Offer yourself (more than your words). If you fail to offer yourself out of fear of not being adequate, you also harm by not giving the present of being understood.

But let Gaga’s anthem be a challenge to those of us, myself included, who speak before listening and who assume rather than learn. We won’t get it. But we can bear witness.


Filed under Abuse, christian counseling, counseling, counseling skills, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, sexual abuse, sexual violence, trauma, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Counseling Advice From Lady Gaga?

  1. Tom

    All good points, Phil. Isaiah 50:4 – “…He wakes me every morning to listen like one being taught.” I imagine Jesus did this a lot – listening.

    But, from the POV of the victim, aren’t LG’s sentiments ultimately pathological? The lyrics make great poetry, but they’re also narcissistic and nihilistic. They speak of great pain, but disallow healing. How helpful is that?

  2. There is a place for expressing pain, hurt, disappointment, loss. Pain, like poison, often needs to be voided before healing can take place. The Psalms are full of these sentiments, often followed by looking to God for help.
    Often a traumatised person just needs to vent and only needs to know they are being heard with respect to build trust that can be banked for later use . Music can be so powerful for people who lack the words to express themselves. I think the idea of “bearing witness” is extremely useful – thanks

  3. AS

    Thanks for drawing attention to this, Phil. This needed to be done.

    On the one hand, I’m amused that LG (and her ilk) have made populist fodder of the sexual violence and abuse in society. There was a day when no such comment would have even been made in such venues! On the other hand, it ‘smells’ of the modality or language form of our day–tweeting out an opinion to update the world on me.

    I think this language form is a mixed bag: while we finally can talk about painful stories, is it anathama to critique them, since “story floats above reality.” From an orthodox Christian perspective, I find myself flummoxed. True empathy is ultimately a carpet ripped out from beneath our feet, because protest-language has become its own end; there are no “totalizing words,” anymore. Biblically–in light of this modality of language–our arguments are either true or false, and if true, then true-true, not true-for-me or true-for-our-moment.

    As Christians, our worst human stories still open up toward the transcendent–hope and healing still flow from our Redeemer. Always has. Always will! In this Lenton season, praise be to our Risen Christ, who left his story to fill our gaps.

  4. Tut

    The second verse of the song, “You tell me hold your head up, Hold your head up and be strong”, can capture an average response to trauma when shared with people. That doesn’t take into account the shame or reliving of the trauma.
    While a person doesn’t need to have a personal experience, they do need to allow the broken experience. Church sermons can point to comfort and strength in the psalms. Sometimes I back up in a psalm and find the anguish, anger and struggle. It can be hard for those with shame to stand in the comfort and strength as they feel weak and insignificant.
    It is important to hear the victim.
    So I agree with you, “Is Lady Gaga right? yes and no.
    Do we ask that you “know how it feels”? No, but help us own the pain, anguish and struggle before showing the comfort and strength.

    Read more: Lady GaGa – Till It Happens To You Lyrics | MetroLyrics

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