One of the Worst Things You Can Say
Even though you have the best intentions and are trying to help, saying these words to your loved ones will send them spiraling.
How many times have you heard, “It’s not that bad”, “It’s time to get over it”, “What are you worried about? It’s never going to happen again”?
I can literally think of 15 reasons why it was that bad and I can’t just get over it. However, instead of throwing something at you for being so insensitive, I remind myself that I’m “zen” now. I take a deep breath and practice the 4-of-4 breathing technique that I made up to calm myself down. I close my eyes and you tell me that I’m being dramatic, but you don’t even know where this method came from. It came to me when I was forced to calm myself down while having a full-blown panic attack over the smallest discrepancy to my normal routine. You see, after what happened, small unexpected moments do that to me. If I had noticed what wasn't regular, maybe it wouldn't have happened.
However, when I told you that, you responded with, “Well, you should have seen the signs”, as if it was my fault that I didn’t connect the dots. As if I should have known better and predicted that one slight disruption to my routine would lead to the worst day of my life. Your logic doesn’t make sense to me, but I wasted months feeling angry, and I don’t want to be angry anymore.
I carry on with my calming technique, listening to the birds in the distance, the leaves blowing in the wind, trying to ground myself. The rage that was pumping through my body is slowly dissolving as I change the subject in my most polite tone. Ignoring what I said, again, you ask me, “what are you so worried about? It’s probably never going to happen again”…
Just Don't Say it
Regardless of what someone has gone through, to them, it is most likely the worst moment they’ve ever experienced. I’m not sure who needs to hear this, but I need you to understand that if you’re trying to comfort your loved ones and help them through their trauma, saying things like in the example above, is not the way to do that. It is probably coming from a place of deep love and care, but regardless of whether you feel their trauma is “not that bad” or that it is time for them to “get over it”, it is not your place to decide that. You were not there. You did not experience what your hurt loved one experienced. Even if you have gone through a similar situation, you will never have gone through the exact same scenario as your loved one. Even two people experiencing the same event will feel it differently. Understand and be sensitive to that.
Don’t say “It probably won’t happen again”, because you don’t know that. It probably never should have happened in the first place, but it did. When you say those words, it is not comforting. It gives off the impression that you don’t understand how out-of-this-world the situation was in the first place. It gives off the impression that you don’t take what happened seriously enough to understand that it actually could happen and it did.
The traumatic event that your friend or family member went through is probably the scariest and most out-of-control experience they’ve ever encountered. They most likely play the event in their mind over and over again. I can guarantee that they blame themselves for all or part of what happened, and when they hear you say things like, “you should have seen the signs”, it only confirms and validates their self-blame. That is so damaging.
We React How We React
Take it from me, it is already so incredibly difficult to forgive yourself for reacting the way you reacted during your living nightmare. But for everyone who has experienced something hard, that’s just it, isn’t it? We react how we react. You cannot control your reaction. You could spend your whole life planning for an event, but when it comes unexpectedly, your fight or flight response is going to kick in, you’re going to lose all control, and you’re going to react the way your body reacts. Forgive yourself. You did the best you could.
If you really want to help your loved ones through their trauma, a much more helpful approach is to validate their feelings. Understand that everyone moves at their own pace. Don’t expect someone to have connected dots while they were still scattered. Vision is always 20/20 in hindsight. It is not for you to decide when it is time for someone to move on.
Trauma and healing look different on everyone. An individual may be a shell of themselves. They may be broken into a million pieces and are working toward finding each one and putting them back together. It may not be easy for you to see your loved one like this, but it’s probably much harder for them to live that reality. Just like a 6,000 piece puzzle, the healing process doesn’t complete itself overnight. Give them time to process and comprehend what happened, to accept what they cannot change, to forgive themselves, to mourn the person they were, and to embrace and understand the new version of themselves. Be patient and respectful of their boundaries and triggers, regardless of how ridiculous you think they are or of how much you don’t understand them.
You may see someone who looks completely fine and smiles all day long. However, you don’t know what internal battles they fight every day. Just because they try to enforce positive habits, doesn’t mean they feel good. Just because someone seems okay, doesn’t give you the right to question their healing process or to expect them to be the same as they were before their traumatic experience. They will never be the same, but that’s okay. Through healing, your loved one will grow. They will mourn the person they were, and welcome a different version of themselves. Give them time to make it through the process and support them with your availability. Have empathy, but don’t suffocate them with your good intentions.
It's Not Personal
Don’t take their healing process personally. Their avoidance or anger is not directed at you, even if it may feel like it is. Cut them some slack while they try to figure things out. When your loved one is ready to open up, they will. If they choose you to be their shoulder, then listen, ask questions, try to understand without judgment or condescending tones. Don’t encourage them to stay quiet. Instead, validate that what they feel is okay. Normalize seeking professional help, and once they find their voice, let them embrace it. Show them you care by being respectful and courteous to their needs, and, please, stop saying “It’s not that bad”, “It’s time to get over it”, or “What are you worried about? It’s never going to happen again”.