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