Traumatic experiences have a tendency to shake us to the very core, calling into question our beliefs about humanity, safety, influence, power, control, and faith. When traumatic things happen, our vulnerabilities are exposed. We may feel raw, defenseless, or powerless.
Trauma cracks open our humanity in ways that may bring out the extremism in all of us. Some people may react to the experience of helplessness by shutting others out. This might be manifested through withdrawal, avoidance, criticism, verbal attacks, or vigilant efforts to control everything and anyone. Others might reach out, remember what really matters, or connect more deeply to those around them. Some are suddenly more conscious of what they cannot control; thus seeking to strengthen relationships, deepen their faith, or work harder to protect those they love.
Sometimes it is difficult to know how to react to others who are in pain. One way of addressing our own feelings of helplnessness in these situations is to contribute, share, mobilize efforts to help, reach out, or make ourselves available.
In light of the recent school shootings, I’ve put together some tips for how to be with people in pain. I hope that these tips go beyond today and tomorrow, and that they can be considered useful in the everyday experience that connects us not only to each other but to places like Newtown, CT.
- Make space for emotions- both your own and someone else’s
- Acknolwedge pain by allowing it to exist.
- Instead of platitudes, changes of subject, false reassurances, or noisy chatter try to tolerate discomfort and awkwardness
- Be direct and invite experiences of emotion to be talked about openly. Name the elephants in the room.
- The more comfortable you are talking direclty and openly about how you feel, the more of an invitation this will provide for others
- Be aware that others may not express emotions in the way you expect
- You don’t have to understand why exactly people behave the way they do in order to be helpful. Try focusing on the what of the feelings instead of the why.
- Be prepared for ambiguity, uncertainty, and lack of clarity. Being emotionally present is more important than analyzing details or intellectually distancing and describing behavior.
Remember that people sometimes need invitations to experience and express a wide range of intense emotion in the wake of trauma. It is a lonely experience to diminish pain or act like it doesn’t exist- when what is needed most is the experience of not having to face it alone.