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10 Things Not to Say to Trauma Survivors

10. "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

Key points

  • You can be a healthy part of a survivor's recovery by creating and strengthening a safe relationship with them.
  • Avoid saying, "You need to talk about it,” "It’s time to move on," or "Let me help you."
  • Instead simply suggest, “I’m here to listen if you need to talk," “I’m here for you," or “How can I help?”
Pexels/Liza Summer
Source: Pexels/Liza Summer

“I don’t know what to say” is a phrase I often hear from the loved ones of trauma survivors. If you have a loved one who is a trauma survivor, your relationship with them can have a positive impact on their recovery. In order to establish and strengthen a safe relationship with them, it helps to know what to say to them—and what not to say.

Consider using (or avoiding) these phrases:

1. Instead of saying “It’s in the past,” try, “You’re safe now.”

Feeling safe is a vital part of trauma recovery. Trauma survivors know that their experiences are in the past. However, they feel like their experiences are occurring in the present. Instead of trying to convince a survivor that their traumatic experiences have ended, remind them that they are safe in the present.

2. Instead of saying, “You need to talk about it,” try, “I’m here to listen if you need to talk.”

Not all survivors need to talk about their experiences. They may have told their story so many times that it is no longer helpful for them to do so; telling their story again may cause them to re-live a traumatic experience rather than recover from it. Many survivors do not find talking beneficial and instead rely on other healing and coping mechanisms. Instead of assuming that survivors need to talk, simply remind them that you are available to listen in case they do.

3. Instead of saying, “Things will get better,” try, “I see/hear that you’re in pain.”

It’s difficult to witness others in emotional pain, and you might be tempted to try to fix their pain by expressing positivity. However, these efforts could be interpreted by survivors as attempts to minimize their pain. Instead, try to validate their emotional experiences in order to provide them with a safe space to experience and express how they feel.

4. Instead of saying, “You should give them (their offender) another chance,” try, “I respect your need for boundaries.”

When the offender is a family member, friend, spouse, or a person of perceived importance, you may wish to help the survivor repair their relationship with that individual. Yet survivors might not feel safe or ready to do so. In fact, they may never repair or even re-engage in that relationship. It's better to communicate your acceptance of their decision to prioritize their safety—even if you do not understand or agree with it.

5. Instead of saying, “It’s time to move on,” try, “I’m here for you.”

Survivors cannot think or will their way out of experiencing trauma responses. If they could, they would have already done so. Instead of pressuring survivors to recover, let them know that you are there for them as they heal. Trauma recovery can be a long process, and survivors need loved ones to be aware that their recovery will be a journey.

6. Instead of saying, “Let me help you,” try, “How can I help?”

Trauma recovery is different for every survivor, and it can be difficult to know how to help a specific individual. Don’t assume that you know best how to help. Instead, ask the person how you can help, and trust that they know what they need.

7. Instead of saying, “You need to let go of your anger,” try, “Of course you’re angry.”

You may feel uncomfortable when survivors express anger, and this discomfort may lead you to want to fix, soften, or silence it. This rarely works. In fact, it can sabotage a survivor’s ability to process their anger, which they typically need to do in order to recover. Instead, provide emotional validation to help them feel safe and supported as they process their anger.

8. Instead of saying, “You are worthy/deserving/good enough,” try, “I believe you are worthy/deserving/good enough because…”

Developmental trauma survivors often experience low self-worth. When you hear a survivor say, “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not worthy,” or “I’m not deserving,” it’s tempting to tell them they are wrong. However, this doesn’t help survivors achieve self-worth, and it can feel patronizing. Instead, communicate how you see and experience the survivor, and provide them with specific evidence to support your beliefs. They are not likely to agree with you right away, but that’s OK: You are not trying to convince them. Instead, you are planting seeds that may grow and aid in their ability to affirm their self-worth.

9. Instead of saying, “This has made you stronger,” try, “This has impacted you significantly.”

Trauma can provide a survivor which certain strengths and capabilities non-survivors may not share. Yet, pointing this out is not always helpful, as it can feel like toxic positivity which often involves dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances. Instead, acknowledge how the survivor’s experiences have impacted them. This acknowledgment can help them process and transform their experiences.

10. Instead of asking, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” say, “Thank you for trusting me.”

There are many reasons why trauma survivors do not tell people about their experiences, and most have nothing to do with you. Developmental trauma can be difficult to identify and acknowledge, and many survivors report not being aware of the impact of their experiences until many years later. Instead of questioning the survivor’s timetable, express appreciation that they trust you enough to share their experience with you now.

Bonus: Say nothing. Sit with them in silence.

Silence can feel uncomfortable, yet it might be exactly what survivors need. Silence allows space and time to process thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, which is essential for recovery. In addition, survivors can feel connected and safe with someone during moments of silence.

If someone that you care about is a trauma survivor, you can be a healthy part of their recovery by strengthening your relationships with them.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Ground Picture/Shutterstock

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