When Delving Too Deeply Is Not Good

As we deal with children and adults who have been traumatized, it seems to make sense that getting them to talk about their experience is a good thing. However, it is very possible that even the best techniques in listening may retraumatize them. Active Listening in a trauma-sensitive way involves considering if a response might be too close to home or may evoke feelings of great loss, deep pain, shame, or a sense of powerlessness or hopelessness.

How should one “hold up a mirror” to a trauma victim?

depressed man in mirror
Sometimes it is helpful, clarifying (and even healing) for someone verbally to “hold up a mirror” that reflects the person’s self-image... But it is important to know how and when to do so.

Sometimes it is helpful, clarifying (and even healing) for someone verbally to “hold up a mirror” that reflects the person’s self-image…to expose thoughts, feelings, beliefs and ways he/she views himself/herself in relation to the world. However, it is possible that a deeply traumatized person may not be ready for this process and could be hurt by having to reflect on those intense emotions—especially those that overwhelm with feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, shame and powerlessness to change.

How does one know? Here are some sample “listening” responses that might delve too deeply:

  • It sounds like you have no hope for recovering from the pain of this experience.
  • Your experiences have left you broken and incapable of functioning.
  • The people who were supposed to protect you have abandoned you, and it seems like there is no one in your life who cares for you.
  • Your patterns of reenacting the tragic situations in your family’s legacies continue to haunt you. 

While all these statements might be true (or at least reflections of what someone is saying), their impact might be damaging rather than empowering or enlightening.

Emotional_portrait_of_abused girl
It can be more helpful for a traumatized person to hear affirming or teaching statements.

How one might listen actively and affirm

Because statements such as those above involve negative images like a sense of hopelessness and helplessness within a trauma-impacted person’s perspectives, it can be more helpful for the person to hear healthier statementsConsider, instead, including Affirmations and/or Teaching statements that can promote resolving, repairing, reconciling, restoring, recovering and/or healing for that person’s trauma.

Some examples of healthy Affirmations and/or Teaching statements to include as possible interactions with someone with trauma-related issues or needs: 

  • You have found so many creative ways to manage the very challenging symptoms of your trauma, and I see someone who is strong and capable, despite your own self-image of feeling you have not measured up in your eyes and the eyes of others. You might want to consider that those images and expectations are unfair, in light of the impact your trauma has had on you.
  • There is much new research that validates the power and devastation trauma can inflict on someone. It sounds like you believe you should somehow magically get over having trauma-symptoms. The information from brain research indicates that simply deciding to no longer be afraid or dissociative is an unfair expectation. Let me tell you a little bit about how the amygdala functions and can prevent a person from being able to simply decide not to have trauma symptoms… 
  • I hear you saying that you believe it was partially your fault that you were violated as a child. I understand that that is your perspective. I’d like to share my perspective with you: in my eyes it was not your fault you were traumatized by someone who should have been protecting you when you were a child because it is never the fault of the child when something like that happens. And it is not your fault that you continue to struggle with symptoms from trauma. I have some important information to share with you that will explain what I am saying in more detail… 

Deep Active Listening requires balancing

It is a balancing act to know if and when, and how deep, to Actively Listen.

The caution is to appreciate it is possible to delve too deeply into someone’s inner self-image and beliefs and to articulate what is discovered in that process. It becomes a judgment call on the part of the listener, which means that we have to monitor the impact carefully that we are having on any victims of trauma.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

Some information is taken from Applying Trauma Principles, Diane Wagenhals, 2010. Licensed materials. All rights reserved.

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