We have been reviewing ways to help children and adults we encounter who may have experienced significant trauma. If you are like me, you want to help. But even if you are extremely trauma-sensitive, you may find yourself in too deep and overwhelmed by the conversation. You may be stepping into a realm where even your best attempts to listen and show compassion during these painful dialogues unintentionally retraumatize. What can you do when you have delved too deep?
5 Steps you may take when you’ve delved too deep
When you have gone too deep with a trauma victim, you can back out of the conversation to give the person time to recover, and then put effort into repairing any pain that may have been caused.
You might want to consider the following options:
- To actively listen to the reaction seen in the person who has been traumatized: I think what I just said is having a very strong impact on you and may be making you feel….
- To insert a countering affirmation, such as, While you may see yourself this way, I have seen how strong you are as you describe the ways you have coped. While you may feel discouraged right now, I am excited for you because of all you are discovering about yourself, which gives you the power to address issues that maybe you didn’t understand before.
- To teach about how hard it can be to have someone else see and deeply understand some important aspect of a person’s inner world, you might say, It can be hard for someone to realize they have revealed something very private and hear another person put words to that. Sometimes a person isn’t ready to explore private areas of life, especially if there are thoughts, feelings or experiences that are associated with a lot of pain or shame or guilt.
- To change gears, to use a content listening response, reflecting on something more factual and therefore probably safer for the traumatized person to hear, such as, Let’s go back to what you said about remembering that walk in the woods. I think you said you remember how bright the sun was that day and that you were glad you weren’t wearing a sweater.
- To apologize for intruding in a private area (and this needs to be done with great sensitivity because sometimes an apology can contribute to making the person feel even more exposed, ashamed or uncomfortable). For example, you might say, I am so sorry I said that to you. I think it was more than you want to hear about yourself and probably want me to know about you. I’m really sorry if I made you feel unsafe.
If the relationship is fairly strong between two people and there is sufficient trust, most people, when hearing genuine regret or a desire to reestablish safety can feel nurtured and appreciated. While a person might feel a little more cautious because being exposed was a surprise, being able strategically and quickly to reverse the process of delving too deeply—along with some kind of acknowledgment that safety was temporarily breached—can be a good strategy for you to keep in mind.
I have found that individuals who have been traumatized can easily be triggered by our words or even by remembering the traumatic event or its consequences to them.
Often, even in our most compassionate attempts, we stumble onto a conversation that just doesn’t go well. It is important and helpful to be intentional about how you back out, so that it doesn’t feel like the person is being rejected or avoided, and that we acknowledge the severity of the trauma. As we partner with the person in the process, we can re-establish the safety that he/she needs in order to talk and process traumatic memories. It is one of the challenges we need to be aware of as we attempt to help a trauma victim recover and heal.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network
Some information is taken from Applying Trauma Principles, Diane Wagenhals, 2010. Licensed materials. All rights reserved.