Have you ever mustered up the courage to share something personal only to have it received with a jarring or not so welcoming response? We’ve all experienced it. You share something you’ve been toiling with for days, weeks, sometimes years hoping to find some relief and then the way people respond is just — all wrong. It kinda feels like whatever happened is happening all over again. We put something precious in the hands of people we trust and sometimes people just let us down. Human things with human things doing — human things. It can get messy.
As a social worker I’ve been trained on how to receive information from clients in an array of circumstances and settings. And beyond that I would say that I’m what some might consider a highly sensitive person or HSP. I feel everything. When a person is sharing I can often feel the origin of the trauma and every pause and arrangement of words tells an additional story in juxtaposition to the story that’s being delivered. Things said and unsaid, I consider them all. It’s a great test of boundaries because even though I may want to respond to the entirety of problem, it’s imperative that I show up for people the way that they want to receive me.
One of the most uncomfortable feelings for me is the feeling I get when someone shares something personal and then I have to witness people responding in ways that cause reinjury. For years it was my job to be protective of people in their most vulnerable moments — helping them process and trying my best to support them in ways that they find meaningful. In an effort to help those of us invested in being safe to talk to, I’ve created a list of some of the ways we do harm to the people who sometimes trust us with the most sacred parts of themselves.
The Confi-DONTS: Triggering responses to trauma disclosure
“I’m sure she didn’t mean to hurt you… she was just doing her best”
1. Explaining why the abuse and/or trauma was misinterpreted, unintentional and intending to do good
This is belittling and dismissive. In the best-case scenario, people may sincerely be trying to comfort someone but correcting their interpretation of what they experienced is highly problematic for many reasons. When we experience abuse sometimes the nature of the abuse is so pervasive that we’re not sure if being abused was our fault, if we deserved it or if it was even abuse and/or trauma at all. Adding to the uncertainty of someone’s experience especially when no one asked you for your input is harmful as it can make a person feel like their feelings and safety aren’t of value and that their memory of an event is flawed because something is wrong with the way they processed it. People are the experts of their own lives. They don’t need you to tell them what they are experiencing.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
2. Policing the time of delivery
Why someone didn’t tell you something earlier should not be your primary concern and especially not in their moment of vulnerability. It’s a chastising response to receiving information and it will mark you as an unsafe person to talk to. A lot of times when we experience something disturbing we have to sort through an an array of emotions. Sometimes we’re scared of what will happen if people find out — if people will think less of us. Questions around why you weren’t told earlier coupled with questions asking for more details can also feel like an indictment. If someone is already potentially feeling scared and ashamed — do really you think it’s necessary to add an additional stressors to their life?
“Well that’s surprising that he said that to you. He’s always been nice to me.”
3. Reporting that you have NOT had an experience
– and are glad it didn’t happen to you
Well Congradufuckinglations you dodged a bullet. Someone was hurting and somehow you looked past that hurt and found something to make you feel better about yourself. It’s literally adding insult to injury. Reporting that you haven’t had an experience or wouldn’t know what to do in that situation is an escalating response. It only emphasizes to the person the negative aspects of their circumstance and it’s possible that it will trigger feelings of hopelessness, of being alone and possibly even rage. If you haven’t had an experience consider it a privilege. Don’t revel in it or glean inspiration from people who are experiencing a hard time. It’s a trash response and no one deserves that. It’s low key antagonistic. Keep it.
“The same thing happened to me and it was worse because...”
4. Reporting that you HAVE had that experience
Relating to someone can be tricky because while it feels good to normalize an experience for someone it’s very easy to pull focus from their situation. I do this a lot. I get worked up and before I know it I’m in the middle of a story. Try not to center yourself. You can use your experience to normalize their feelings without taking away from them. “I’ve had a similar experience and if I was in your position I would feel the same way”. If you absolutely must mention your experience avoid the details of your story and make sure you recenter the person sharing their truth with you.
“Are you kidding me?! What are you saying right now? What do you mean?!”
5. Responding with escalating/ highly reactive/ rhetorical questions
Some things are just shocking to hear. We’re human. I’ve responded with these kinds of questions before as well. We know they’re not really questions but to someone in crisis these responses could really increase their stress and anxiety. If you find yourself in the middle of this kind of response it’s okay to apologize and ask how you can best be of support.
“That makes me sad.”
6. Verbalizing and centering your sadness
I know this seems very basic but I’ve actually heard this from several people this year. It’s literally the only response they had to give once learning of someone else’s misfortune. A declaration of their own emotions. Please don’t burden people who are going through something with your own sadness about their experience. They’re living with it. You’re witnessing it and more than likely get to walk away from the issue at the end of the conversation. It’s inconsiderate and it’s poorly timed. Just keep it. Journal it. Share it with someone else. It’s literally the least you can do.
7. Making light of the situation
They’re not your jokes to tell. Telling a joke could make you both laugh hysterically or it might make the other person feel as though you’re making fun of them and don’t take their situation seriously. Trauma isn’t funny. What you say may be triggering. Your need to feel comfortable with their experience should take a backseat to the fact that they are the one that is having the experience. If there is humor to be found in the experience let them find it for theirselves. Set a boundary and excuse yourself from the conversation if need be. If you legit want to be supportive and be a safe person to talk to — keep reading.
Grace, a little can go a long way
As I was brainstorming ways to receive information with advanced mindfulness I was looking for a cute way to help you retain some of the information I’m sharing. Nobody gets it right every time. I certainly don’t. And sometimes when we’re holding space for someone you might only be able to do one or two of these things — and that’s okay too. The most beautiful part of this is that you are trying your best to create safety for someone. Show some grace to yourself as well. If you misspeak, offend or do harm to someone you can apologize, ask how you can be of better support in the future and move forward.
— here is the GRACE I was given for you.
· G is for Gratitude — thank them for trusting you with information
· R is for Respect — respect their boundaries. Don’t push for any more information. If you the person might hurt their self or someone else please direct them to a safe professional for further discourse and/or assessment
· A is for Affirming — affirm their feelings. All feelings are valid. Validate their feelings.
· C is for Consent — Help without consent is control. If you want to give advice, ask if it’s okay. Sometimes hearing a bunch of advice at once causes an increase in anxiety and feelings of powerlessness. If you give unsolicited advice and remember later that you didn’t ask for consent, circle back and acknowledge potentially overstepping a boundary.
· E is for Empathy — There are a lot of ways to express empathy. I try to tread lightly here and keep my statements as neutral as possible. Overly optimistic responses may come off as dismissive and comments that emphasize the trauma may cause additional stress. If I’m truly sorry that someone had an experience I say simply that — I’m sorry this happened to you. It’s not a lot but sometimes it’s enough to let the person know you feel them without coming off like you’re overly familiar with their feelings.
I hope this is helpful.
Extra points for you fancy pants:
Empathy + Consent : I’m so sorry that happened to you. Please let me know if I can help you in some way.
Respect + Affirming: I understand that you don’t want to talk about it any further and that’s totally valid.