Three ways to respond when someone shares a traumatic history

Stephen and I were debating in bed tonight how you might respond to someone who shares with you a traumatic experience. (I know what pillow talk right! But the kids are off school and the only chance we get to talk about the real stuff is when everyone is in bed).

We were discussing how difficult people find it to hear about these types of things. That there is a natural cultural barrier to sharing trauma. People tend to shy away from the horrific darkness of the world and naturally want to seek out the light. We often unconsciously try to minimise or shut down a conversation when anything gets too heavy or dark.

We talked about the many examples of well intentioned responses which can land poorly. Here are a few…

But your ok now…

The intention is to ground you both in something positive and current. For some one sharing their abuse it can diminish their experience. It can also have the impact of making them feel they have to be ok now even if they are not.

That’s so wrong….

The intention is to show your support for how horrific the experience they lived through was. People who have been abused often have a low self esteem and sense of shame. This response can ignite those feelings and make the person feel they were wrong to share, or in their mind allow it to happen.

I can’t believe that…

The intention is empathise and express how bad what you heard sounds. For someone who has been abused they can feel like you actually don’t believe them or they are unseen.

So how could you respond?

Thank you for sharing that with me…

Simply acknowledging how difficult it may have been to share let’s the person feel valued and seen.

I can’t imagine what that felt like…

Not assuming how they felt or that their experience is similar to your own helps them to feel allowed to feel what ever feels the trauma brings up for them.

I am sorry to hear you went through that…

An apology even though you weren’t involved can let the person know it’s not ok they had to go through that.

If you can’t do anything else just listen.

I get it the things you might hear are not things you ever want to hear let alone from someone you know or care about. Trust me as much as you don’t want to hear it they don’t want to say it. If you can find the strength to listen you can offer them more than they might know. And you will be contributing towards a world where these things aren’t hidden from view and people learn it’s ok to talk about them.

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