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Why Validation Is Important in Supporting Trauma Survivors

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

What is emotional trauma? Emotional trauma is the result of highly distressing events. Some of these events include war, childhood abuse, rape or the death of a loved one. However, not all traumatic events affect individuals in the same way. Two sexual assault survivors may respond entirely differently to what happened to them; one may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the other one may not.

• What is PTSD?

But what matters most is this: when a survivor speaks up, many times people fail to listen and support their truth. As a psychotherapist, I see a theme come up often for survivors of trauma: not feeling validated by people around them. It’s important to know that you don’t need to understand what someone lived through in order to support them. You just need to believe that what they are experiencing is real for them.

Trauma leaves an imprint on you; it changes you. As a trauma survivor myself, I am aware of the effects that traumatic events have had on me. We don’t heal from trauma by ignoring it, denying it or pretending like it never happened. We heal from it by processing it, by integrating the experience — because it happened — into our lives. Yes, trauma impacts you. No, you can’t go back in time to the person you were before that happened, because it did happen. Yes, your life changed since that moment. However, a change in life doesn’t mean your life is going to be “bad,” it’s just different.

It pains me to see individuals affected by trauma not heal, not because of the trauma they experienced; humans are incredibly resilient at surviving and thriving. Oftentimes, people don’t receive adequate treatment or support. Trauma is complex; it’s complex enough for professionals treating trauma to understand. I work with trauma survivors every day and I still needed to receive help myself to cope through my own. I couldn’t do this alone.

Survivors don’t have to. Family members and loved ones of survivors can also benefit greatly from treatment and support. Trauma often impacts an entire family, not only the direct victim. If everyone works to heal, then the better off everyone will be, individually and collectively.

Survivors are all around us. They are us. How do you know who has trauma? You don’t. Trauma doesn’t look a certain way. We don’t wear it on our faces, we wear it internally.

It isn’t OK for survivors to walk around silently, bogged down by shame. They don’t have to. It’s not OK for the 33-year-old woman sitting alone in fear in her apartment, triggered during the middle of the coronavirus pandemic because her safety is threatened. Neither is it OK for the 55-year-old man who wonders if he has any worth because he was assaulted as a child. What about the 47-year-old woman sleeping in the downstairs bedroom of her house because every time she hears her husband’s footsteps she is reminded of all those people who hurt her when she was younger? This is what happens when you live with emotional trauma. You are forced to experience and remember things that you never asked for.

But does trauma have to be a life sentence? Something happens to you, someone hurts you, and now you have a lifetime of pain to live with? An existence bathed in shame? A collection of flashbacks, panic attacks, fear, insomnia and darkness? Your life forever shattered into fragments of a person that was once whole?

No. This is what surviving trauma often feels like. But I refuse to believe that this is what you have to accept as your life because while you can accept what happened to you this does not need to define you.

It doesn’t need to ruin you, or your loved one, sister, daughter, father, brother, friend, child.

To society and loved ones affected by trauma: are you able to see us? To meet us where we are? You may not understand, but you can get to where that young woman is in her apartment. You can walk over there, take her a sandwich since you know she hasn’t eaten all day, send her a text message, and then another one, and even if she doesn’t respond, show her you care.

To the husband whose wife is in fear; I would ask, are you open to couples counseling? We also want to know how to support you because it must be very painful for you to not understand why your wife is running away from you when it’s not about you. You can seek to both understand each other, talk about what’s actually happening and heal.

A 7-year-old came into my office once, who I will refer to as Angie, showing symptoms of PTSD. She had found her cat dead, bloody and she saw the body. Her fuzzy friend’s eyes were glazed over a death stare. She was informed that her cat was dead over the phone from a relative when she and her older sister were away on a family road trip. Upon hearing the news, she and her sister drove back and ran to their house; the fight-or-flight switch activated for both of them. All of their attention turned towards racing to get to their cat. Angie didn’t know her beloved cat was deceased when she and her sister received the call. Upon arrival, Angie’s sister wailed in shock and pain, cries that Angie recalled and had a reaction to physically. Angie came and saw me because every time she would leave her other cat home alone, she began experiencing symptoms of panic. She lived through something traumatic.

But others would be quick to judge, asking, “how could this be? She’s only 7. It’s not like anything bad happened. It was just the cat. What’s wrong with her?” This child is walking around with all of these intense feelings, suicidal thoughts and emotions, not being validated. She is walking around in fear because of what’s happening to her and nobody is giving her the reassurance that what she is experiencing is a typical reaction to what she lived through — something traumatic. “No, because it was only a cat. So she’s exaggerating, and she needs to get it together, and get it over with already, stop crying in school, your grades are low.”

If that child is not supported, what message is she getting? Nothing happened, so nothing is wrong, and therefore the child sitting in front of me will say to me, “There is something wrong with me.” This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Do not deny a person’s reality.

It’s the same thing as when I am with a client in therapy. Their truth is their reality, and that is where I need to meet them at. Not my reality. It doesn’t matter if I agree, all of that for the purpose of supporting someone is irrelevant. You don’t need to agree or understand, as long as you know that what they are experiencing is real for them. Think of a person who is colorblind, for example. If you and that individual are both staring at a red object, and the person tells you that the object is a different shade than what you see, does that mean that what they see isn’t true for them? They see what they see. Denying their reality is as absurd as me telling that individual, “of course not! You don’t see that! Colorblindness isn’t real.”

Similarly, when you hear somebody speak up about emotional trauma, or how they are feeling, do not deny their reality because by doing so, you give them the message that they are wrong, This leaves people feeling completely and utterly hopeless, alone, shame-ridden, further traumatized, misunderstood and alone. They are not wrong, what happened to them was not OK.

Even if they are sitting at the dinner table with their entire family sitting around them and dad just got home and bought a new cat so that Angie stops crying already and can fall in love with this new cat. Even in that case, that child, her pain, and her reality are not validated.

As a therapist, this is what I can tell you. The message we all need is this: I’m here. Is there any way I can support you? Those are the types of things I’m talking about. In the world that oftentimes fails to meet survivors where they are, either due to people’s lack of understanding, judgment or their own fears of what they don’t want to see within themselves because it’s easier for people look away — to walk away than to see the reality that’s actually happening in front of them or inside of themselves, everywhere, every day.

I dare you to not look away. See each other, and show up for yourself and for one another.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Originally published: January 24, 2021
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