I’ll Meet You in the Overwhelm — Rethinking Empathy


(I made this phrase up.)

(photo credit: me. Can you see the bird in the clouds?)

I have been studying combat trauma for a few years now, and though I’m not a clinician so my exposure is certainly limited in that way, I rarely get phased when hearing combat stories. I’m not sure why not.

I have a theory — which is purely speculative — that some people have a naturally high threshold for hearing certain kinds of stories. I have a high threshold for combat stories. It isn’t that they don’t get in at all. It’s that they don’t leave me gasping for air — like I couldn’t possibly hear one more detail.

Mostly, and there’s no way to say this that makes it sound sincere — but it really is — I feel honored that I’m being told the story at all.

But. There’s a parallel — a bad parallel, one that doesn’t really hold up, but a parallel nonetheless — between hearing war stories and going to war.

You can’t prepare yourself.

You can’t prepare yourself for the guy who boldly tells you — the way that someone might tell you that they’ve just joined a Gold’s Gym — that he’s recently joined an underground fight club so that he can get the shit beat out of him a couple times a week. And that despite that he still doesn’t feel like he’s paid back his sins. He wants to go back, he wanted to have a much longer military career but he’s medically retired (which means he can’t go back) and he just keeps saying over and over, “they threw me away, they just threw me away. I know I can do it.” The injury is minor. But it also isn’t.

You can’t prepare yourself for the story about a former military leader who has taken the concepts of military troop welfare and mission accomplishment into his civilian life with such tenacity that he yells at one of his employees until that employee has an actual heart attack in his office.

You can’t prepare yourself for the mother who is trying to tell you about how the military so badly failed her after a military sexual assault while her kids are in the car. You didn’t think she’d ask you about whether you thought it was possible for real intimacy again. It was supposed to be you doing the interviewing.

You can’t prepare yourself for the conversation with the vet who has “never really talked to anyone about this stuff,” who sends you a sheepish email the next day asking again about whether the interviews really do stay anonymous. He tells you about how he lost his innocence when he asked a fellow soldier why the skeletons that they were digging up all had their mouths open. His buddy responded: “Because they were buried alive.” He wasn’t even there for that, he keeps saying, but there’s something so horrible about it that he can’t shake. Then out of the blue he tells you he’s about to become a father and he’s scared.

You also can’t prepare yourself for the contradictions.

On Monday you talk to someone who draws a thick, solid, line in the sand, saying — “guys who haven’t seen combat simply don’t know what it’s like.” Then on Tuesday, a woman who has faced incredible trauma but hasn’t deployed wishes that people would understand that PTSD can happen in many different ways.

Though you know this happens because you read about it all the time, you somehow cannot prepare yourself for the number of times that people say, “When I came home, people asked me what it was like, but when I started telling them, they’d walk away…” Or, “After two months of being supportive, my boss/spouse/best friend/family asked me when I was going to get over it.” No one says this in an accusatory manner. I’ve never heard it in an angry tone. It’s more wistful. Like, “I had this dream where there would be people there to listen, but then I woke up and they weren’t. It’s the strangest thing.”

Some of the people you talk to say that they are fine. They don’t really know what the big deal is. They wish that the reintegration class was a little big longer, or a little bit shorter (there are those contradictions again), but overall, they’re fine.

Here’s the question: what can we cull from this data? From this somewhat scattershot collection of stories?

There are threads. Strong, titanium threads, that tie these stories together and tell a different story — one that isn’t just about them, it is also about us. It’s about the ways that we have succeeded — what we have gotten right. It’s also about what we have failed to do, and what we can do better to help those who surround us who suffer from any kind of trauma.

Bearing the Unbearable

My favorite definition of trauma comes from Robert Stolorow, who defines it as “an experience of unbearable affect… constituted in an intersubjective context in which severe emotional pain cannot find a relational home in which it can be held.” More simply, trauma is “unbearable affect that lacks a relational home.”

A relational home, according to Stolorow, is an intersubjective space where another person can help the individual bear those emotions and successfully put the event into the past. On this definition, trauma is an emotional pain that initially seems unbearable. In order for someone to move beyond the traumatic ground zero of unbearable pain, she must successfully adapt to it and that means locating a relational home where she can gradually feel through and process (endure) the emotion with someone else. In the absence of a relational home, trauma will persist.

Stolorow doesn’t talk about war — he talks about traumatic loss, and he has suffered an incredible amount of loss.

So here’s what is universal about trauma (no matter what kind you’ve lived through): overwhelm. And what really seems to solidify whether or not something becomes enduringly traumatic is not the experience itself, but how that experience is received by those of us who surround the traumatized.

What people who have lived through trauma need us to do — I think — is just this: be willing to meet them in the overwhelm.

What does that mean? Good question. I’ll let someone else answer it.

Leslie Jamison has a great passage in her book The Empathy Exams where she describes empathy.

“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia — em (into) and pathos (feeling) — a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?”

You’ll notice that this travel involves a curiosity, a being with, a becoming familiar with someone else’s pain that doesn’t necessarily involve already being entirely familiar with it. I don’t think that empathy — or creating a relational home — necessarily entails having experienced the exact same thing that the other person went through.

Feeling understood means feeling like someone “gets it.” This doesn’t need to necessarily mean that in order to meet a combat veteran in the overwhelm you need to also be a combat veteran.

The data shows us that “getting it” does not necessarily mean “experiencing the same thing.”

So what the listener needs to do is resonate with or “get” any part of the experience that was overwhelming for the individual. You might not “get” combat but you might “get” terror, or traumatic loss, or bodily peril, or alienation.

What I didn’t expect when I started this research, but is really encouraging (and actually shouldn’t be that surprising) is the incredible variety of things that can count as meaningful support.

More than one participant mentioned that what was really helpful was for those around them to acknowledge that they didn’t understand — that they were willing to listen, but that they recognized the distance between their own experience and theirs. Almost every veteran I have ever talked to wishes that we would stop ‘thanking them for their service’ — a phrase that simultaneously feels loaded and completely empty.

One of the questions that I have gotten a lot is this — who is required to listen? People often ask in one-way or another: “So we’re all supposed to stop and listen to these horrific stories of war? What if we can’t?” And I think that’s a legitimate question. But the answer, I think, is just as there are many ways one can be overwhelmed and traumatized, is that there are many ways to listen and provide support. What is clear at this point is that without an open and empathetic support system — without a relational home — those who are traumatized are left alone in their trauma.

And that’s just not ok.

So let’s get better at this.


Written by


Professor, life coach, seeker of tiny and ridiculous joys. Email me at mcymcdonald@gmail.com

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