“Oh my God! Now I have a whole new problem!”
“After all the hard work you helped me do to get him into his trauma recovery, I bet you thought you wouldn’t be hearing from me.”
“I am so grateful that he is doing the work to heal from his trauma after years of denial, but now I don’t know what to do with him. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells trying to do the right thing.”
“Can you just tell me the right things to do? So that I can be supportive, and not mess this up?”
It’s something I hear often. We still want those we love to get the healing they deserve from trauma.
Whether the trauma is old or new.
Whether the trauma happened in another relationship.
Whether their trauma happened as a child.
Whether the trauma happened on a professional front.
Whether it was due to a tragic loss.
No matter what it is or where it came from … We are just so grateful they are getting help.
But knowing what to do once they are getting help can be confusing and difficult.
With this sweet gal, along with the many others who have asked this question over the years, there are five foundational things that I point to.
Perhaps they will help you too.
1. BE CONSISTENT.
Although this sounds simple, it’s one of the most challenging things.
Because likely your friend or loved one has become inconsistent in so many ways while in trauma recovery.
That is a normal thing in the process of healing from trauma. But what they need the most from you and those they love … Is consistency.
And you can provide that.
If you’re going to reach out to them once a week, be consistent.
If you’re going to send them to an encouraging text every morning, be consistent.
If you’re going to take them to lunch or prepare their favorite dinner every few days, be consistent.
When you enter recovery from trauma, there is a period of time when it feels like your whole world has been rocked.
Having consistency in their lives is one of the most helpful things during this period.
Now that’s not to say that they will be consistent. Quite often, for a short time, they may be moody, grouchy, distant, or a host of other things that may not be very pleasant to be around.
But remaining consistent can actually accelerate their progress.
With the gal I was helping, she said: “Oh my goodness! I think I’m making it worse. Sometimes when he’s moody I ignore him. Sometimes when he’s moody I asked if there’s anything I can do to help. But other time when he’s moody, I ask him if he’s going through menopause?”
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.
I told her the healthiest response was asking if there was anything she could do to help. I invited her to adopt that response, and remain consistent with it.
Make sure the response that you choose is healthy, make sure the things that you are doing to support them are healthy… And above all… Be consistent with them.
You’re actually helping them build a new, firm foundation!
People often don’t know whether to act like nothing has happened, to acknowledge their healing process… Or what on earth to do!
The general rule of thumb is: ASK!
But only ask once per interaction. The reason for only asking once is so that they will not feel as if they are being interrogated.
But asking once shows you care.
Many of us were brought up in homes where you just put the elephant under the rug.
There’s no need for this elephant to be under the rug, acting as if nothing is happening.
But be very careful with what you choose to ask, and how you choose to ask it.
Here are some suggestions of things you might ask:
- How is your recovery process going?
- Is there anything in your recovery process that I could help with?
- Are you having any insights in your recovery process that you would like to share?
- Are you pleased with your progress in your recovery?
- What are you grateful for so far in your recovery process?
Remember only one question per interaction.
Ask in a soft tone of care and compassion. Ask and then wait.
Many people ask and become uncomfortable while they are processing the question and begin to answer it for them. This is very invalidating and must be avoided. Wait patiently.
Make sure you ask in a moment where there is room for conversation should they desire to have it. For example, not when they are walking out the door to work, or in a loud, crowded restaurant.
If they do choose to answer the question and share, make sure that you do the next two steps: validate and empathize (see #3 and #4 below).
If you are one of the many people who have a natural tendency to avoid the topic, stretch yourself forward.
Even if they don’t choose to respond, asking is very validating and caring!
Validation is an important ingredient in every healthy relationship and in every healthy conversation.
In general, validation is defined as:
Something given to support truth or accuracy.
In relationships it has been defined as:
“Validation is a form of understanding and sharing your partner’s experiences, especially the unpleasant ones, by listening to them to help lighten the load on their shoulders.”
Because most of us are not familiar with validating, I give this stem sentence to my clients in order to help them do a good job at validating.
“It makes sense to me that…”
The gal I was working with said that she knew he needed something, but she didn’t know it was validation. Because she didn’t know he needed that validation, she would begin to ask more questions and he would become irritable.
She was simply trying to understand more.
However, most people need to feel understood before they feel safe enough to share more.
The above sentence may be the most important piece in this entire blog. Burn it in your mind. Write it down and look at it daily.
Here it is again:
Most people need to feel understood before they feel safe enough to share more.
Thankfully, when she began using the stem sentence… “It makes sense to me that…” He began to share more and more.
Whether they are sharing about the drive to their appointment, specifics to their trauma, or just how they are feeling after the appointment… Validate them.
And by the way you might try this in all the relationships that are important to you. Because no matter how good they are, validadtion will light the relationship up to a brighter level!
After you have validated, ask if there’s more they might like to share. If not, then move to empathizing.
Empathizing is definitely a lost art.
We are all busy, we are all focused on our own world, and too often, we fail to “walk a mile and someone else’s moccasins.”
That’s what empathizing is.
- Not telling them how they feel.
- Not telling them how they should feel.
- Not telling them how they should not feel.
There is also a stem sentence that I suggest people use in the empathizing process:
“After listening, you must feel…“
Guess two or three feelings.
Make an honest guess.
But it’s OK if you’re not correct or accurate.
They will either nod affirmatively, or normally, if you did not quite get it right, they will jump in and tell you.
Acknowledge and reflect back what they have given you.
For example, we practiced some empathizing together with the gal who was wanting to know how to support her husband.
He shared how his mother had almost always been angry. As young as he could remember, he would go to her when he hurt himself for scraped his knee… She would shove him away.
Then when he had a serious injury playing football at eight years old, she did the same. Even when he was in a body cast, she shoved him over.
After hearing about this, she validated him well by saying:
“It makes sense to me why it’s difficult for you to look to a female for any kind of comfort or support.”
I knew the validation had gone well because he had tears in his eyes.
After he shared a few more things, she empathized by saying: “Listening to what you are working through, I can imagine you must feel abandoned, scared, and alone.”
The tears turn to sobs as he choked out in whispers: “I’ve felt alone my whole life.”
It was a sacred moment when she moved from her chair, knelt before him, and said: “I know you have. And I’m right here with you!”
Empathy is not to make people feel better, it is to help them know that you are with them.
That moment was a turning point in their relationship. Which just keeps getting better!
It can be a turning point in yours too!
5. GIVE LOTS OF GRACE.
Trust me, doing trauma healing and recovery is not for sissies!
It’s a very difficult, but very important process.
- It involves acknowledging what happened.
- It involves looking at beliefs that were planted deep within you.
- It involves reprogramming your brain.
- It involves examining where your emotional home is set.
- It involves looking at patterns of self sabotage and self defeat.
- It involves looking at unhealthy coping mechanisms (like alcohol).
Not to excuse moodiness or poor choices or hurtful behavior.
But if for a season you can give as much grace as possible, it will keep them on track in their healing.
What is grace?
It’s giving someone something they do not deserve and/or did not earn .
Your loved one or friend may have already worn you out. But do your best to find grace for them.
I suggested to this wonderful gal I was working with:
- “Get some good old fashion construction paper, and cut out the letters G-R-A-C-E.”
- I suggested that she tuck the cut out letters into her journal.
- Each time he did something that was less than his normal self, that she take one of the letters out and tear them apart and put them in the trash. And give him grace.
- Then to pause for a moment of gratitude that he was doing the healing and recovery.
- Then to make a firm commitment that she would roll with it, and give grace until all five letters were used up.
I told her to come back to me when those five letters were gone, and I would give her the next step.
As is the case with most, she never get to the last letter, the E, because they see the great benefit and personal reward of issuing grace.
Once he had worked through most of his process, and we were doing work to pull a beautiful marriage together, one day she asked: “What would you have done if I came back to you and all the five letters of G-R-A-C-E had been torn up?
I smiled at her and said, “I would’ve invited you to cut out a whole new set of letters!”
So what am I saying to you?
I’m saying be consistent.
I’m saying ask.
I’m saying validate.
I’m saying empathize.
And I’m saying cut out as many letters of grace as is necessary.
It’s a priceless gift that you can give to your loved one during their healing process.
Be grateful they are in recovery, and you will see them transform. And you will have been a great supporter in the process!
Above all else, hold on to hope!