How to work with Trauma survivors

This post is adapted from an answer given on Quora

Well, if one has never experienced trauma and abuse, or think that the gold fish being thrown in the toilet was traumatic, then it will be difficult to work with survivors.

People who cannot relate to the experience will usually see themselves as saviours, as being better people, and worthy of adulation.

And that is the worst attitude that one can have. Survivors see through that. They may still come to get help if they need it, but they will only engage minimally, and the interaction will only have limited value other than some superficial benefit.

Also, it depends on what role a person would have when “working” with young survivors. I guess these are some pointers:

  1. Survivors are strong and resilient, not the opposite
  2. Accept their trauma
  3. Validate, don’t “reframe”
  4. Inform yourself on medical and mental health issues for this population group,
  5. There is no “saviour”.

Here’s a brief overview of each

Survivors are strong and resilient, not the opposite

People think that victims of abuse are weak and that the psychological problems that ensue are due due lack of resilience.

That is victim blaming! Survivors are strong and are very resilient. That’s why they survived. A victim’s endurance is tested over and over … people break … everybody needs some help at some point in their life. That does not make them weak, it makes them human.

And survivors forget how strong they are, they need reminding. I am a survivor myself, yet, I always make sure that people know how much I believe they are strong and resilient.

What would I have done in that situation? If that was me, would I still be breathing? If I had those memories, how would my nights be? If those monsters were in my life, what would my nightmares be like?

Asking myself those questions helps me realise how tough and indomitable the people I am dealing with are.

However, I come from trauma too. I know what it means to live with my monsters and to relieve my memories, so I can relate to theirs.

Not having that experience certainly constitute a barrier to empathy and understanding, especially if the theory of double-empathy is considered valid.

Accept their trauma

When working with survivors, one never knows what to expect. Trauma spills over in all areas of life. Triggers are often unknown and seemingly unrelated to anything “real”.

It is important to recognise that no matter what the appearance whatever happens is very real to the person experiencing it. Flashbacks are very lonely and hurtful moments. Some flashbacks can destabilise a person for days.

If we accept their trauma, we help them accept it themselves, and that is a step forward in healing.

Similarly, if the circumstances are right, someone might start trauma dumping. Obviously it is good to ask if they are happy to talk to us about it, or if they prefer we get someone else. However, once someone starts opening up, it is essential to simply make sure they feel safe, and that they are heard.

Except for some specific personality types or certain stages in the healing process, people generally don’t want to talk about their stuff. Or rather there is an inner conflict about it. So, when they start unloading, it’s often by “mistake”. If we stop them from talking, we are confirming that it was a “mistake” and that could set them back on their healing journey.

Hence, it is important to accept their trauma whichever way it is expressed in. Whether it is anxiety, depression, unregulated emotions, trauma dumping, meltdowns or whatever else …

Validate, don’t “reframe”

Accepting a person trauma, however, is not enough. They need to be validated. Trauma originates in the failure to validate and process traumatic events. So, if we start saying “there there” or “it’ll get better” and use toxic positivity, we reinforce and perpetuate the trauma.

It is quite common for me to respond to people’s stories with “that is so f@cked up”, and “you survived that, wow, that is so amazing”” because I truly am in wonder at how strong survivors are.

But again, I come from trauma. I know how tough it is to be always on high alert and not to know whether we would be alive in a few minutes, and sometimes even hope we wouldn’t. So we see them and their pain. And so many times, people have gone through so much, we cannot relate to the story … I mean, they are mind-blowing … but can connect to the feelings …

And again, I don’t know if double-empathy here would play a role, and that might be why do-gooders feel they are “saviours” (see below).

Inform yourself on medical and mental health issues for this population group.

It is easy to go for trendy approaches and novel perspectives, follow the herd of psychology, or follow the default route to access services … but with survivors things don’t work like that. Especially when trauma started in the early years.

Childhood trauma affects brain development. A different neurology, as every neurodivergent person knows, means that the brain (and therefore the body and the “psyche”) responds differently to stimuli.

This affects symptomatology of both medical and mental health issues, but also how one responds to treatment, both chemical and otherwise.

These differences are alwaysoverlooked and people are sent on tortuous journeys of misdiagnoses, incorrect treatment options, victimisation and abuse from within the system. This always adds to the trauma.

So, having someone who is informed and can spot these “mistakes” is invaluable.

There is no “saviour”

Do-gooders somehow see themselves as saviours of the “afflicted”. They seem to have some self-declared onus given by some probably non-existent godly creature to “care”.

Yet they show no empathy, or compassion. Sometimes even sympathy is in scarce supply. Only pity, if that…

Don’t get me wrong, everybody needs a saviour. And a few are lucky to eventually get one. And that is good. But for most survivors there is and never has been any saviours.

Nights are lonely, as are days. Pain is unbearable yet never-ending. Physical, emotional, mental … it’s soul crushing.

Only those who can stop that can be considered saviours. But they are either “doing their job” or just “lending a hand”. True saviours will never see themselves as such.

TL;DR – Conclusion

We looked at how double empathy can affect the ability to help survivors, especially young people.

We provided some pointers about:

  1. Survivors are strong and resilient, not the opposite
  2. Accept their trauma
  3. Validate, don’t “reframe”
  4. Inform yourself on medical and mental health issues for this population group,
  5. There is no “saviour”.

I hope this helps, I wish you all the best 💜💙

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