At some point in your life, you’ve probably experienced an event that impacted your ability to function, that felt overwhelming, frightening, and like your physical or emotional safety was in jeopardy.
This is trauma.
It could have been an assault, car accident, natural disaster, combat, child abuse, or other situation. For some people, the effects of trauma can be long-lasting and debilitating. In this guest post, Robyn Brickel, M.A., LMFT shares how she uses a trauma-informed approach to help heal trauma using compassion.
The experience of trauma makes a profound mark on a person. It doesn’t matter whether the injury is grave and evident, like the bruising of a battered person, or hard to see, like the emotional neglect of someone detached and withdrawn. Whatever the cause, when a person feels threatened, helpless, and unable to escape, that person knows trauma.
The overwhelm of trauma often leaves survivors feeling out of sync with the rest of the world. Unresolved anxiety, turmoil, and emotional pain create a sense of “being different.” So, trauma survivors often turn to isolation and self-criticism in an effort to cope. The analytical brain goes into hyperdrive, trying to second-guess, explain, and adapt. “I must deserve this. What can I do better? How can I stop hurting? What’s wrong with me?”
And so, untreated trauma can give rise to a brutal inner critic. It may seem that trauma survivors feel safest only when operating within bounds of joyless self-judgment, and seek safety in being alone.
Healing trauma means addressing entrenched self-denying responses that turn kind gestures away.
One of the most powerful tools to heal trauma is also one of the most overlooked. It’s the power of compassion. Being compassionate is something we are all capable of doing—whether or not we are mental health professionals. You don’t need any credentials at all to be a compassionate person!
A Trauma-Informed Approach to Healing
My approach to helping trauma survivors is to use trauma-informed care. Essentially this means raising awareness that the way you cope with trauma is something you learned for survival. You are not struggling because something is wrong with you. Your coping skills — even the most problematic ones — make sense because of what has happened to you in your life.
Compassion is inherent in the understanding that your situation makes sense given your history. Where compassion flows, true healing can begin. (To understand further about the toxic stress of trauma and why a trauma-informed approach to healing is critical, read this.)
Compassion is the heart of the approach I offer to every one of my clients, and today, I’m asking you to do the same for the people in your life. Where compassion flows, true healing can begin. Try to bring your most compassionate self to those who have experienced trauma, whether that person is yourself, a loved one or a stranger.
Compassion Builds Strong Relationships
Humans are social beings – and the quality of our relationships affects our mental, emotional and physical health. As researcher and author Brené Brown explains, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all men, women, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.”
Healthy relationships are so important to this sense of belonging. Of course, it can be difficult for those who love a trauma survivor and for the survivors themselves to trust in a healing relationship. Healthy attuned relationships open the door to healing. Helping trauma survivors realize they experience safe, secure, healthy relationships. is one of the main reasons I do the work I do—and why I’m encouraging you to bring the power of compassion with you to every encounter with a trauma survivor.
Bring Compassion to Communicating
So often in relationships, when the going gets tough, partners turn away from each other instead of toward each other for support. But in learning to turn towards each other—and communicate—we can move towards a balanced and healthy place in relationships. This starts with understanding the two kinds of coping mechanisms in relationships: pursuers and withdrawers. Learn how to understand both and find the skills to talk through relationship pain.
Give and Receive Compliments with Compassion
To be able to truly hear a compliment depends on being able to see good in one’s self. But unfortunately for some, deeply painful past relationships interfere with their ability to accept or see the good in themselves. Even so, with careful work, people can learn to understand their personal barriers, bring compassion to themselves, and learn to respond to compliments in more positive ways.
Compassion Allows Us to be Vulnerable and Authentic
Without compassion for self, vulnerability doesn’t feel safe, and therefore, there can be no authenticity! And if we can’t be vulnerable and authentic, we can’t build meaningful connections in life. I know that through empowering an individual’s self-compassion and authenticity, there is hope and healing.
Compassion Can Help Us Feel Safe in an Uncertain World
In my counseling practice, clients who have experienced trauma work hard in therapy to feel safe enough and calm enough just to get through each day. In light of the current political and social environment, many of my clients understandably ask, “How can I feel safe right now?” So whether you are a trauma survivor or not, the answer is relevant to everyone. Here are my 8 recommendations to feel safe (and help others feel safe) right now.
Compassion for Addictions and Unhealthy Attempts to Cope
The truth is, if someone is using drugs, alcohol or self-harming behavior, it’s likely the best coping mechanism they’ve got right now. These are people who are in pain. They are using as a coping mechanism — not for fun or enjoyment — but in order to feel less bad.
Let’s face it. The general public sees addicts as bad people. But when addiction touches your life—it suddenly becomes clear that addiction isn’t selective between good people and bad people. It impacts everyone. Compassion for another’s pain can go a long way in removing the stigma that is a barrier to recovery. Whether an individual is engaging in drug and alcohol use, self-harming behaviors, or disordered eating, compassion is essential in recovery!
Let’s Move Forward with Compassion
I hope this helps bring to light the magnitude of how important compassion is. When, as individuals, we approach those suffering from any kind of trauma with compassion, we really do have the power to change lives in the most rewarding ways.
Robyn Brickel is the founding clinical director of Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Virginia and Connecticut. An avid proponent of professional education, she enjoys learning about advances especially in trauma-informed care, substance abuse treatment, and treating perinatal mood disorders. She is an educator for therapists and part of the clinical faculty and presents workshops at the Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education trauma-informed therapy, adolescent substance abuse, maternal mental health issues and other topics. Her insights for parents and teens appear in interviews in The Washington Post and Washington Parent magazine. She frequently shares insights, resources, and links to mental health news on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.