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A Simple Way to Make Trauma Survivors Feel Seen and Understood

I experience complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and have major depressive disorder (MDD). When I am in a depressive episode or trauma spiral, I tend to judge myself a lot. In turn, my mind does a “neat” trick that convinces me that how I’m feeling about myself is how others also view me, actually usually worse. I could use some support with this and I know others like me could also use this same support. I’ve come up with a pretty uncomplicated idea on how others could give this type of support; so let’s talk about that.

I will say that of course part of my journey is that I need to work on my own self-compassion, and this is something I’m always actively doing. Having said that, outside help is much appreciated, because the further down the rabbit hole I go, the less ability I have for critical thinking. Therefore, when folks can find ways to counteract this particular judgmental script in my head, this is of great assistance. I’ve also discovered that when others create judgment-free zones for me, my brain takes this as a nudge to do this for itself.

Saying bluntly something to the effect of: “Hey, just so you know I’m not judging you,” can work, but I’m going to tell you about something that works even better.

It turns out the golden ticket is “kind curiosity.”

For some folks, this may seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Yes, there is a thin line between awkward hesitancy and trying to be sensitive — trust me, I get it. I’m well aware that people may be thinking: “I don’t want to do something to make things worse or say the wrong thing.” Just do your best with good intentions.

Here’s how to show kind curiosity.

Say out loud the things you are thinking or noticing about my mental health and me.

Yes, try to do this with some common sense, but it really is quite simple.

Have an openness that you may be wrong or misunderstand something and that’s OK. More often than not, your instinct is probably going to be accurate, and will very rarely be a surprise to me. I will correct you if you are wrong or tell you if I don’t want to talk about it. When people can do this for me, it doesn’t embarrass me or anything else you may worry it could do. If I do cry, so what? Crying is not a bad thing.

Here are some examples of what “kind curiosity” might sound like:

“I’m noticing your breathing is rapid, or am I just imagining that? Is this an anxiety thing or something else?”

“I’m getting the feeling you aren’t totally present today? Would you agree?”

“It seems like you are on the verge of tears?”

Does something seem off but you can’t put your finger on it? You can say exactly that.

I can then agree or disagree with your observation. After which, yes, we can chat on it and possibly brainstorm about what I might need. Sometimes, I won’t want to talk or know what to do, and that’s OK. Pro-tip: Don’t ask me questions if you don’t actually want to talk about it or don’t have the time.

So why is kind curiosity helpful to me? It’s because your questions help me to feel seen. This is an important part of the puzzle, which I’d like to take some time to explain.

There are a variety of symptoms that comes with C-PTSD that have to do with this. In summary, the symptoms are: feeling you are markedly different than other people (usually in the negative), thinking you are permanently damaged or broken, and believing no one can possibly understand. Here’s the very short version of why this may be. Someone being persistently abused, especially in childhood, is commonly going to feel as though the world doesn’t see them. And as any good therapist will tell you, those feelings carry forward and become, well, complex.

I do personally experience these types of thoughts and feelings as part of having C-PTSD. In that space, I feel very separated from the rest of humanity, and truthfully it’s an awful way to feel. Try as I might, it is very hard for me to rewire my brain out of that pattern, and yes I’ve done the work. Add in dissociation which I also experience, and I’ve got a perfect recipe for feeling very separate or isolated from others.

All that to say, when someone through kind curiosity sees me, particularly those “yucky parts,” this is actually a beautiful gift.

Something like this happens in my head: “Woah! Someone is actually aware that I’m not feeling good right now, and they care enough to ask about it? If they can see that I’m struggling, then I must be a real human who deserves some recognition and compassion. And, if they can actually recognize something is going on I must not be that much of a total alien.” Yes, it’s a gift indeed, or it can be.

Please do remember that there is a difference between kind curiosity and voyeurism. I’m not a science experiment or an interesting tabloid plot. There are of course questions that could be inappropriate. There are times or places I may not feel free to talk. Our relationship may not be at a place where I’m comfortable talking about this stuff; I don’t always trust easily. Like any other human, I may just have days where I’m not up for talking.

I also want to give a reminder that while this works for me, and I hope it can be helpful to others, this idea may not apply to you or someone you know with similar conditions. For some, these types of questions could be harmful. They could be unwanted or cause anxiety. Ask folks for permission.

Be very careful around asking for specific details around traumas. Personally, this is a whole different ballpark and is not something I welcome. In the long run, I find this to be retraumatizing, and I know that most listeners are not equipped to hear this type of information. That’s what my therapist is for, and some very close exceptional friends. I can paint you a broad picture if you ask for it, and if it’s appropriate I’m willing to do so. There are times where a small sense of the overall picture is needed or I need to share at least a small part to again feel seen. This is a matter requiring sensitivity and trauma survivors will have their own needs and preference around this.

I hope this has given you something to think about, or has been an inspiration in some way. Maybe you know me, and this can be helpful in our relationship. Great! Maybe your story is similar to mine and you can show this to your friend and ask them to try this. Awesome! Maybe someone in your life has experienced trauma and you’re now going to think about making sure they feel seen. Excellent! However you will carry this forward, I thank you for taking the time to read my story. Please comment below if you have additional thoughts or ideas to share.

If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram.

Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash