Trauma and Tough Love Do Not Mix

Content Note: trauma, friends with good intentions, tough love


I did not have a particularly pleasant or peaceful holiday. Turkey Day itself passed relatively benignly until I got home. That’s when an overwhelming sadness swept over me as I realized I had spent the entire day with extended family, but not a single person had asked me a question about myself. I became quite fixated on this idea of being invisible to the very people who are supposed to see you, warts and all. I call it the “+1 syndrome” where people are perfectly polite and casually friendly, but never move beyond that. Any other decent human being in the world could show up in my place and receive the exact same stranger-appropriate treatment.

I wanted comfort so I reached out to a handful of people, my friends. To my surprise, they opted to dose me with tough love. It was a very poor parody of Jack slapping Will and saying “Snap out of it” on NBC’s Will and Grace. Minus the laugh track.

So I was bouncing between this very real experience of rejection and erasure, an experience that replicated historical traumatic moments in my childhood, and these people whom I trusted telling me to suck it up.  Now I am sure that they would not define their actions this way because I have a tendency to surround myself with people who are fixers, problem solvers, and slightly more confident in their assessment of any situation than anyone else in the room.

Fixing me would be a win/win because then I would have a happier life and they would have solved a problem like Maria (Susan isn’t as lyrical in that sentence). At least, that’s some version of what they tell themselves when they disregard my blatant request for comfort and support to give me what they know I really need.

I blame myself for choosing the wrong people to ask for something that I should have known they wouldn’t give me. Hugs. Comforting words. No judgment. No advice. Kindness. And I realize that I tend to keep those sorts of people at arm’s length because I don’t think I deserve their innate warmth and comfort. I’m more comfortable with cynicism and paternalism because I think that’s what I deserve. It is what I know. I can’t really imagine other ways of experiencing the world.

There’s an interesting essay called “7 Ways to Avoid Re-Traumatizing A Trauma Victim” and the major takeaway is to be patient with people who are healing at their own pace. Another piece examining how we incorporate harm reduction into addiction treatment says “first of all recognize that these people are traumatized and what they need is not more trauma and punishment but more compassion.”

Asking for help isn’t really hard. Asking people who are willing and prepared to give you help is the tough part. The fixers and problem solvers may not react well when you ask for a hug instead of their advice. Or when you draw a boundary about hearing their stories and ask for them to use reflective listening skills. Or when your treatment techniques bump headfirst into their own unprocessed trauma and they can’t see it.

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My solution is to take several steps back and use boundary setting tools to give myself some breathing room. I don’t want tough love. If you haven’t actively and repeatedly tried offering me compassion without fetters, then no tough love technique will work. I will walk away. If you chase me, I will definitely shut that down.

Being a good friend to someone processing trauma is not an easy thing to do.

  • Don’t assume I want to hear your story or will feel comforted by it. I have enough on my plate without assuming the emotional burden of your trauma, especially without being asked to do so. It doesn’t make me feel less alone, it hits all sorts of buttons around comparing bad experiences, flip flopping from centering my real feelings to taking responsibility for yours, etc. Use active listening skills to acknowledge that you actually hear what I am saying without shifting the focus to your experiences. ALWAYS ask before sharing.
  • Don’t assume I want to talk about my life story. I may want to talk about my feelings without discussing the details. Remember that for trauma survivors, going over our history is akin to reliving it so that’s not something you should ask anyone to do. It is okay if you don’t have all of the specifics, you have the capacity to offer compassion. ASSUME you have the information you need and proceed with the comforting.
  • Don’t assume I want advice, information, referrals, etc. I may not even know what I want in any particular moment. Just being present to let me tell you what I need is what matters. Of course you can decide if you can fill that need or not. ALWAYS ask before offering advice of any sort.
  • Don’t bitch slap me, either physically or verbally. This is a hard one to recover from because it goes right to the core of my sense of shame and core belief that I do not deserve to be treated well.
  • Don’t tell me to focus on my treatment. I go to therapy 2x week and see my psychiatrist regularly. I do a lot of work every single day, more than I could begin to write about here. It is not your place to determine if I am working my program appropriately or not.
  • Don’t expect a linear line of recovery/healing/progress. That’s not how any recovery process works. If you are frustrated by your loved one’s setback, imagine they feel it 10x more acutely.
  • Offer resources. Don’t pretend you don’t know that people have real needs you can address. You aren’t obligated to do so, but it is an actual concrete way to support other people.

There are many ways to offer support and compassion. You can listen without offering advice. You can prepare a casserole. You can offer to do a specific chore or task. You can send groceries. You can offer to take the person on an outing that they find comfortable – a walk, a drive to a favorite coffeehouse, a matinee, or even just stepping outside of the front door or back to be together in nature.

I am experiencing high levels of trauma symptoms right now because I am in the middle of EMDR and it is the holidays, but that doesn’t mean I’m failing or some sort of fragile broken bird who needs to be saved.

If you want to support me in particular, the advice above pretty much applies.

  • Invest in my work here on the blog and in the community. Knowing that you are willing to commit to my doing this good work in six months or twelve sends me a message that you have faith I’ll be up to doing that work. I do not have a fiscal sponsor right now after severing ties with Persad Center so my capacity to fundraise for my art projects has been cut at the knees. It is a source of additional stress that I migt not be able to continue.
  • Send me a casserole. I love casseroles. You can send Grub Hub gift cards, restaurant gift cards, gift cards to buy prepared food from Giant Eagle, or Eat n Park. The options go on and on.
  • Offer to meet me, don’t take offense if I decline or set some parameters. I don’t want to eat dinner at 7 PM. I sometimes prefer the familiarity of Starbucks to a funky cool new place. Or maybe I just want a boring little meal at Eat n Park.
  • Talk with me about what I am accomplishing (even though I am struggling.) Did you read a certain blog post? Or click on an article I shared on Twitter? Have you read my column?
  • Offer to come over and pet cats without any other expectation. Maybe we’ll talk or maybe we’ll watch tv. Or not.

If you are thinking to yourself, “those things won’t be helpful to Sue right now” … see the problem?


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