Disorders and Treatment
- Mental Illness
- Bipolar Disorder
- Mood Disorders
- Borderline Personality
- Mental Health Diagnosis
- Mental Health Treatments
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- Case Studies
This post was contributed by a trauma survivor.
Listening to a trauma survivor can be so hard. The stories and pain can be overwhelming and heartbreaking. Despite being a trauma survivor myself, I am sometimes at a loss for words. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. And I often hear friends say the same, that they’re afraid to say or do something that will cause more harm.
Anyone willing to listen to someone else’s hurt is a brave soul, and I don’t know that there truly are “wrong” things to say. But my experience is that some responses are more helpful than others.
So in that spirit, I offer suggestions and experience.
Oh, sweetie. That is just awful. I love you. I am here for you. That sounds so painful. Is there anything I can do for you right now?
Allowing survivors to express the mess of hatred and disgust and longing and love they hold is a precious gift: it provides the space for all of that confusion to be held outside of a child’s mind.
I have learned to let adult survivors express their thoughts and feelings without disagreeing. I trust that these feelings are fluid, and that my friends will arrive at their own truth.
I don’t have to agree with my friends or collude in their denial. But I know that challenging old conditioning too soon will only cause pain. Instead of adding to shame with absolutes, I speak softly and mirror back to the survivor the struggle she or he is expressing:
It must be so confusing to have all of those contradictory feelings. Of course they’re all there. Few people are all good or all bad. I can see that there are things about your uncle/father/mother/aunt that you loved. Holding all that love and all that rage must be so hard.
This doesn’t mean I don’t share my experience with other survivors. I just pay attention to my motivation:
I keep a running list of things I can hear and things I can’t. It helps me stay clear because I don’t have to make a decision to change the subject when I’m triggered. I have learned to gently say something like this:
“I love you. I want to support you. I can’t hear the specific details about what happened to you because they’re too close to my own pain. But I’d love to know more about how you’re feeling right now/what’s happening in your life right now.”
It helps me remember that I don’t have to abandon myself to help others, and it allows me to provide real help.
Just being willing to listen is an extraordinary gift. As a friend, you don’t have to fix anything. In fact, you can’t. Knowing that, you can help more than you’ll probably ever know.
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