13 Things Never To Say To Trauma Survivors
Do you or someone you know struggle with memories, flashbacks, depressed mood, anxiousness, fear, regret, guilt, or other negative emotions stemming from a history of trauma? If so, this article is for you. As I have stated multiple times in previous articles on trauma, most people not only struggle with understanding what trauma is and how to treat it, but also how to relate to those struggling with a history of trauma (mild, moderate, or severe). Having worked in the field of behavioral health and healthcare as a trauma therapist for almost 10 years, I have come to realize that a lot of people struggle with being compassionate to those with trauma histories. Why? Perhaps because the human mind perceives a “historical experience” to be just that, history. If the person appears to be surviving now and coping well in society, then nothing else could possibly be wrong.
Sadly, this is not true and those with a history of trauma are often disregarded, intentionally or unintentionally, by family, friends, co-workers, and sometimes even mental health professionals.
This article will discuss 13 statements that should never be made to someone with a history of trauma. I will offer suggestions on better ways to get a point across.
Traumatic experience is different for everyone. Some people get other their trauma very quickly, while others may take a very long time to process the trauma, explore its impact, and then heal. Trauma can be anything that the individual regards as traumatic and difficult to cope with. I like to define trauma as an experience that outweighs a person’s ability to cope. Abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, psychological), domestic violence or intimate partner violence, severe mental illness, homelessness, a tragic or untimely loss, murder, organized or community violence and crime, rape, bullying, discrimination and racism, etc. can all be defined as traumatizing.
The following is a list of statements (that I have heard families, friends, co-workers, and caregivers make over the years) to individuals struggling with grief, loss, and trauma. Perhaps these statements are statements you have made yourself to someone or heard from someone who just didn’t quite get you. These statements are not only undermining and humiliating, but insensitive:
- “It could not have been that bad:” A traumatic experience should never be undermined, minimized, or ignored. What may be traumatizing to someone, may not be traumatizing to another person. This statement not only minimizes someone’s traumatic experience, but it also sends the message that the person is overreacting.
- Suggestion: The best way to communicate this message would be to ask the person what makes the experience so hard for them to accept and work through. The goal is to gather information so that the person can be understood, not judged.
- “You are past that now so move on:” Again, what may be traumatizing to one person, may not be traumatizing to another. The person needs time to process the traumatic situation, work through it in their mind and heart, and come to a place of acceptance. This may take a very long time or it may take a little bit of time. Every person is different.
- Suggestion: It may be helpful to encourage the person, with kind and sensitive words, to talk about the experience, journal to themselves to get thoughts out, or seek counseling.
- “If you keep dwelling on it you’ll never move on:” This statement can make a person feel guilty about having feelings and thoughts about the trauma. While it is very unhelpful to keep re-living the experience and suffering from the negative emotions associated with the trauma, a person should be given the time and space to grieve. We cannot put a time-frame on grief. Ever.
- Suggestion: If a person seems “stuck” in one place for too long, the best thing to do is encourage counseling or medication management. Some people are suffering so badly from a traumatic experience that medication for depression or anxiety and even sleep may be helpful in pushing the person forward. Medication does not have to be taken forever, but can be taken for as long as it takes to get the person back on their feet again.
- “There is no excuse for still being depressed or anxious:” Depression and anxiety are mental health challenges that require treatment. Just like a heart condition, diabetes, or other physical ailment, depression and anxiety takes a toll on the heart, body, mind, and soul. It affects how we see and think about life and the future, how we act on a daily basis, how we view the future, etc. Depression and anxiety are very likely to occur in the lives of those with a trauma history. Treatment should be pursued or some kind of counseling from a trusted and competent person like a pastor or coach. A trauma or grief therapist who is knowledgeable and good at his or her job would also be helpful.
- Suggestion: Encouraged the seeking of treatment or counseling. Normalize the need for support and possibly even offer to accompany the person to a few sessions or appointments.
- “You are so negative:” Being “negative” could be a symptom of a bigger problem such as hopelessness and helplessness, suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, or severe depression. It is okay to share examples of why the person is coming across as negative, but this must be done in a gentle fashion.
- Suggestion: Using “I” messages can be helpful here as well. For example , “I feel that you are very negative about yourself and life in general. I don’t like seeing you this way. I wish I could help.” This is a sensitive way to get your point across without pointing fingers. Just be careful with the “I” messages because if you use too many in the same sentence, you can come across as unauthentic.
- “You make me feel depressed when I am around you:” This is placing blame again. The purpose in communicating with someone who has a history of trauma is to get them to see why you are concerned. You don’t want to judge them or point fingers. You want to help and support.
- Suggestion: Use the above tips for ways to get this point across. You can also say something like “I feel like you have changed since [the traumatic even] and I’m concerned about you.”
- “Stop being a victim because you are a survivor:” Being a “survivor” is great but being a survivor is a frame of mind and if the person is not ready to develop that frame of mind, they should not be pushed. Pushing someone to adopt a “survivors mindset” when they are not ready can lead to feelings of resentment.
- Suggestion: People need time to grieve. Trauma is complex and difficult to cope with, depending on the severity of the trauma. However, some people do need to be pushed to “come out of” a self-defeating mindset. But “pushing” someone should always come across as loving, caring, and supportive.
- “When will you stop being depressed?” Depression is a complicated disorder because it can come and go and depending on the severity of the trauma, it can change from mild to severe and recurrent.
- Suggestion: Seeking therapeutic or medical attention will be essential in helping the person cope with their pain. A doctor or mental health professional can diagnose the type of depression and the severity and also prescribe medication. some people just can’t come out of their depression and need a loved one to suggest medical attention, changing one’s diet, exercising, engaging in self-care (i.e., doing things that are healthy and fun), etc. I once had a client who had grieved for 15 years over the tragic loss of her husband at the age of 19yrs old. They were high-school sweethearts. I made the suggestion that she do little things each day to communicate to her psyche that life must go on. She would do little things such as open her bedroom curtains to let light in, plant flowers, go for a jog or walk, walk through a pet store, visit a farm, pursue employment in a daycare or school, volunteer during the holiday, etc. No matter how small the daily activity may have seemed, each activity reminded her that she must move on.
- “You can do better than this:” There truly is nothing wrong with this statement other than the fact that tone of voice will make all the difference. You want to be careful of not only your tone of voice, but also the time you choose to say this. Making a statement such as “you can do so much better than this if only you would seek counseling” is fine. You just want to be careful with how you say it, when you say it, and why you are saying it. Making this statement during an argument or during a moment of intense frustration is not going to benefit anyone.
- “You must like feeling like a victim:” Believe it or not, some people like playing the “victim” role. People who “enjoy” this role are often those who are co-dependent, have a diagnosis that is well-known for attention seeking (i.e., oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, a personality disorder).
- suggestion: The psychology for working with people who seem to enjoy the attention is to minimize the situation and avoid exaggerating or falling into their trap of exaggerating. For those who are struggling with true symptoms related to a trauma, you would want to ask if the person feels like a victim and be empathic when discussing this. You don’t want to point fingers.
- “Go get psychiatric help because something is wrong:” The way in which this statement is made will make all the difference. You don’t want to make this statement in the middle off an argument or disagreement. You want to make this statement at a time when the person is open and calm. You also don’t want to tell the person “you need to get psychiatric treatment.” This sounds accusatory.
- Suggestion: You can say something like: “how would you feel about seeking professional help?”
- “No one can help you because you are a lost cause:” Telling a difficult person that there is no help or hope for them is another way of basically saying “you’d be better of dead.” You don’t want to send the message that the person is never going to “recover” and that there is no hope for them.
- Suggestion: If you truly feel this way about the person you can use “I” statements and think about how you would want someone to talk to you. I would not want someone to say: “Tamara, no one can help you because you are a lost cause.” I would prefer someone say: “Tamara, despite all of the help around you and all of the things available to you, you refuse to get help. I’m worried.”
- “I have given up on you”: This is the worst thing that any human being can say to another. It sends the message that”you are a mistake” and “there is no hope for you, even from me.” This statement alone can cause someone to become severely depressed, lack confidence in themselves, and possibly even decide to commit suicide. Frustration and anger can cause us to make these kinds of statements but they are never acceptable under any circumstance.
- Suggestion: A better way to express or communicate frustration and anger would be to use “I” messages. “I” messages can be helpful and useful during very difficult and emotionally-charged conversations. “I” statements removes blame and puts the responsibility on ourselves. For example, you may say to a loved one who is self-sabotaging “I feel like you don’t want to help yourself. I think perhaps you are depressed.” This is better than saying “You don’t ever want to help yourself. You want to be a victim.”
What has been your experience with talking to someone with a trauma history? Are you someone with a history of trauma? How have you been spoken to?
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
All the best
The Ranch. (2014). 5 fears about trauma therapy (and the rationale for overcoming them). Recovery at The Ranch. Retrieved inline June 20,2016 from, https://www.recoveryranch.com/articles/recovery-at-the-ranch/5-fears-about-trauma-therapy-and-the-rationale-for-overcoming-them/.
Young, K. (2011). Talking vs. processing in trauma therapy. Retrieved online August 29, 2016, https://drkathleenyoung.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/talking-vs-processing-in-trauma-therapy/.
Hill, T. (2018). 13 Things Never To Say To Trauma Survivors. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/caregivers/2016/09/13-things-never-to-say-to-trauma-survivors/