Eight Things Trauma Survivors Are Tired of Hearing
How to offer support without making things worse
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash
So something bad happened to someone you care about, and now they are telling you about it. We’ve all been there, but not all of us have “been there” in the best way that we could have been for our friends in need.
When someone starts talking about their trauma, it can be hard to know how to react. You might not know what to say, how to behave, or what they need. You might feel uncomfortable, sad, angry, or confused.
If you have your own trauma, you might be reminded of it. If you’ve never experienced anything similar to what they’ve experienced, it might be hard to put yourself in their shoes.
There’s no “right” way to respond to trauma
People react to trauma in a variety of different ways. Some people get sad, some people get angry, and some people get quiet. Some people cry and some people laugh.
Some people eschew everything that reminds them of the trauma, and some people gravitate towards what feels familiar. Some people want to talk about it, and some people don’t. All of these responses are normal.
Reacting in one way or another to trauma doesn’t make a person’s trauma less valid. The “perfect victim” does not exist. Trauma can cause or exacerbate anxiety, depression, insomnia, addiction, personality disorders, and relationship problems.
Sometimes reactions to trauma can be ugly, but this doesn’t make the trauma less serious or the person with trauma less deserving of compassion.
Bad support can make the trauma worse
While people can have a wide variety of reactions to trauma, people can also have a wide variety of reactions to those reactions. You aren’t obligated to feel a certain way (or any way) about the events of someone else’s life.
That said, if your own morals dictate that you avoid causing unnecessary harm to others, you might want to think about how you act.
Remember, it’s not your feelings that matter when you’re talking to someone else about their trauma. It isn’t about your beliefs, your politics, or your opinions.
Survivors have complete ownership over their own experiences. It’s not your place to tell them how to feel or how to be, and trying to do so can make their trauma worse.
8 things survivors don’t need to hear
Avoid saying these things if you want to be an ally to the person with trauma.
1. “Calm down”
Don’t tell trauma victims to “chill out,” to lower their voice, or to stop crying. Don’t ever make them feel ashamed of how they reacted to what happened to them. Don’t ever make them feel afraid to express their feelings. It’s their right to be upset.
While it’s true that trauma isn’t an excuse for bad behavior, the time to point that out is never when survivors are trying to be honest and vulnerable about their experiences. It took courage for them to approach you. Don’t make them regret it.
2. “It wasn’t that bad”
Other versions of this include, “you’re blowing things out of proportion” “X person has it worse than you” or “at least it wasn’t X.”
Don’t minimize what happened to the trauma survivor. Don’t try to diminish the seriousness of their pain. You aren’t them, and you didn’t live through their experience. You don’t know how it felt or what it was like for them.
You also can’t fairly measure one person’s traumatic experience against another person’s. Suffering is relative. One person’s pain is not greater than another’s.
3. “Get over it”
Other versions of this include “move on,” “forget about it, it’s in the past”
and “stop dwelling on it.” Statements like this can make survivors feel like they are bad or wrong because their trauma is still affecting them.
You might think you’re “helping,” by encouraging someone to “move on”– but if they aren’t ready to do that, you are actually slowing down their healing process, not speeding it up.
Healing isn’t linear and it can’t be rushed. Trying to force someone to “get over it” might cause them to neglect important steps in their process, which can be incredibly harmful to them.
4. “Why didn’t you leave?”
Or “why didn’t you fight back?” Or “why didn’t you tell anyone sooner?”
Statements like this reinforce the message that the survivor is somehow to blame for what happened to them.
They are not to blame.
The person who caused the trauma is the only one who is responsible. Don’t ask her: “why didn’t you leave,” ask him: “why did you keep hitting her?” Don’t ask him: “why didn’t you tell anyone sooner,” ask her: “why didn’t you admit what you did and apologize?”
Don’t get it twisted. Nothing the victim said or did while the trauma was happening makes them in any way responsible for it.
5. “Stop acting like a victim”
Other versions of this include “stop being negative,” “stop feeling sorry for yourself” or “lighten up.”
Survivors didn’t ask for what they went through. They aren’t “acting like a victim,” they have been victimized.
Telling a survivor that they are “playing the victim” is just a way to invalidate their experience and shift blame onto them.
They are allowed to be angry. They are allowed to be sad. They are allowed to be anxious, depressed, and nervous. They are allowed to be afraid that something similar will happen again. They are allowed to want justice.
6. “You’re crazy”
Other variations of this include “are you taking your meds?” and “are you sure that’s what happened?”
Many survivors have already been on the receiving end of gaslighting, a manipulation technique in which the perpetrator goes to great lengths to make the victim doubt their own perception of reality, and even their sanity. Don’t become another gaslighter in the victim’s life.
Don’t blame the person’s trauma on their personal history, their mental health, or their current mental state. Don’t make them doubt their own truth.
7. “I feel sorry for you”
Do you know how much your pity is worth to a trauma victim?
Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Zip. Nada. Bupkis. Diddly-squat.
Seriously though, trauma victims don’t need your pity. They don’t need to know that you see yourself as better off than they are.
The key is to avoid making the person feel like you’re looking down your nose at them or that there is something inherently wrong with them which caused this to happen.
8. “You have to forgive them”
Trauma victims DO NOT, repeat, DO NOT have to forgive the people who traumatized them. Some may choose to, but that is their decision to make, not yours.
Survivors can take as much time as they want or need to decide whether or not forgiving is something they want to do. It’s not your place to push them into doing something they aren’t ready to do or don’t want to do at all.
8 things you can say instead
Swap your unhelpful language for the kind of support that works.
1. “I believe you”
This is number one on this list for a reason. The single greatest reason why people don't come forward about abuse is that they fear they will not be believed.
Guess what? Compassion doesn’t require due process. You aren’t in a court of law, you’re in the court of life. This doesn’t make you judge, jury, and executioner of whoever caused the trauma.
The truth will (usually) come out eventually. In the meantime, it is paramount to make the survivor understand that they are being heard and believed.
2. “I’m glad you told me”
Survivors need to know that they did the right thing by telling someone. They also need to know that they aren’t burdening you or offending you by doing so.
If hearing about someone else’s trauma triggers your own trauma, it’s okay to step back, but do so as gently and tactfully as you can. Also, if you can, make an effort to ensure that they have some other kind of support in your absence.
3. “I’m sorry this happened”
This sounds a lot like “I feel sorry for you,” but it removes the pity and shame from the statement.
Let the survivor know that you understand that what happened to them was not okay. Let them know that you’re unsatisfied with the state of a world which allows such things to happen. Let them know that you empathize with how they are feeling.
4. “It’s not your fault”
It’s incredibly important that survivors understand that what happened to them isn’t their fault.
The shame caused by trauma (and the way it is dealt with) can be even more damaging than the trauma itself. Trauma has been shown to be highly correlated with suicide, especially for men. Shame is thought to play a role in this as well.
Shame hurts, and it sometimes kills.
5. “I am here to support you”
Trauma is lonely. Trauma can make you feel like the whole world is against you and that no one will ever understand.
Let the survivor know that you’re there for them. Let them know that they aren’t alone. Let them know that you understand.
6. “What can I do to help?”
Offer help, but don’t insist on helping.
The survivor may or may not want or need your help. Let the survivor know what you’re available to do for them.
Can they ask you for a hug if they want one? Can they call you if they need to talk? Make sure they know that they are free to refuse the hug or the phone call.
It can also be helpful to let the survivor know what resources are available to help them. You can point them to hotlines, to support groups, to counselors, or to attorneys– but don’t try to steer them in a particular direction.
It’s up to the survivor to decide what kind of action they want to take– if any. It’s up to them to decide how to start their healing process.
Just be there for them.
7. “Do you need space?”
Not everyone wants to talk, wants a hug, or even wants to be around people when they are dealing with trauma. Sometimes survivors want to be left alone, and that’s okay.
Make sure you’re not smothering the survivor with your attempts to be supportive.
Let them know that you’re available if they need help, but don’t force yourself into their bubble. Let them do what they need to do to feel safe and comfortable.
One of the best things you can do to help a survivor is just listen.
Remember, it’s not your trauma, it’s theirs. Don’t make this about you.
Listen to the survivor, and let them know that they are being heard.