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5 Ways to Be a Good Friend to a Trauma Survivor

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People with a history of trauma are just like anybody else in a lot of ways. Many long for healthy relationships, but don’t always know how to form them. Most of us struggle with friendships, but survivors of trauma can have an even more difficult time if they have experienced a breach of trust or absence of dependable relationships in the past.

• What is PTSD?

Since interpersonal trauma is rampant in our society, it may be possible that you, the reader, have also experienced trauma. It may be the case that both parties in a friendship are survivors of trauma. Everybody heals at different rates, and these suggestions may be helpful for either or both of you in the friendship.

These are five helpful ways to guide you in your friendship with someone who has a history of trauma.

1. Consistency.

It is important there is consistency within a friendship. This means the survivor feels comfortable with you and knows what to expect. A survivor of trauma often feels like the world may turn evil in a matter of moments, and knowing they have a friend there with them can help them muddle through. Consistency means showing up the same way on a regular basis, having emotional stability and being an overall “safe” person to be around. Planning activities in advance is a pragmatic way to practice consistency.

2. Mutual vulnerability.

Sometimes, especially for survivors of childhood trauma, sharing secrets about the past can feel especially difficult. If someone is told enough times something must remain a secret, it often becomes ingrained in them into adulthood. By opening up gradually with your friend, they will see vulnerability is a respected trait. They will learn that it’s possible to trust others, and that meaningful relationships are built on a series of connections that range from sad or scary, to funny and exciting.

3. Listening without pressing.

Humans are curious beings. It’s not unusual you would want to know more details about your friend’s past, but please be aware it can be very difficult to talk about. Often, survivors have taken on the role of the mediator, people-pleaser or listener. They may feel they must be the helper in all situations. This leads to many survivors limiting what they share and building walls to protect themselves from potential harm (even when you are a safe person to them). Letting the survivor share as they feel comfortable gives them control over the situation. Most survivors of trauma have had some aspect of control taken from them, and choosing who and what to tell about their past is a way to gain that control back.

4. Just “being.”

It’s not important to always be doing something planned with your friend. Sometimes, it’s helpful to watch a movie or sit quietly together. Trauma can reshape neural pathways in a way that survivors are often overstimulated with their surroundings. Quiet time is a great opportunity for you both to recharge without isolating. After an exhausting therapy session or a long day at work, it’s not always helpful to rehash the triggering moments. It can be overwhelming to feel like conversation must be forced in those moments. That’s OK. Just remember that quality time together, no matter what you are doing, builds trust and consistency within the friendship. Words are less important than actions.

5. Be clear.

Survivors of interpersonal trauma have often been conditioned to walk on eggshells around others. Being up-front and assertive while setting appropriate boundaries help a survivor understand the relationship more clearly. They know where they stand, what your expectations are and what makes you feel safe. It will also show them boundaries can be healthy. Boundaries are a way to show a person you care about the friendship and want it to continue in a healthy way. If boundaries aren’t set, the relationship may not succeed. Lack of familial communication is common in survivors of interpersonal trauma. Some may have experienced too few boundaries as children, some may have had too rigid boundaries placed upon them and still others may have been subjected to a confusing combination of the two.

Please remember you are not a professional. Even if you have training in social work, psychology or trauma, a friendship is different than a professional relationship. Please remember to take care of yourself and feel free to suggest seeking professional care to your friend if it is warranted. A friendship with a survivor of trauma can be difficult and straining at times, but it can transform into a beautiful mosaic of shared experiences. It is absolutely worth it.

Getty image by AntonioGuillem

Originally published: October 24, 2019
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