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How to Avoid Policing the Term “Trauma”

1. Don't correct people.

Key points

  • Active listening, curiosity, and validation are more effective than policing people's word choice.
  • Ask yourself, "Why do I feel the need to correct them?" and "What's my honest intention?"
Source: Pexels/Jopwel

My recent post, Are You Misusing the Term "Trauma"? received a polarizing reception. Some mental health professionals were grateful that this topic was being discussed, as trauma has become a buzzword that’s often overused and misused. Other readers, including trauma survivors, wrote that the post was inflexible, tone-deaf, and appeared to be gaslighting. They expressed concerns that this post would encourage people to begin (or continue) to police the word trauma and influence trauma survivors to minimize their experiences. I was grateful to receive this feedback. As a result, I’m approaching this topic from a more compassionate and inclusive angle.

There are legitimate reasons why trauma has become a buzzword. Dr. Peter Levin, a developer of Somatic Experiencing, wrote, “Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.”

When we attempt to educate others about the use of the term, we cannot lose sight of this reality, or else we might contribute to a culture that avoids, ignores, belittles, denies, and misunderstands trauma and which therefore aids in the cause of human suffering. With this in mind, how can you respond when you feel that someone has misused the term trauma?

Try these suggestions:

1. Don’t correct them. Resist the urge to jump in and correct their vocabulary. Don’t give them a clinical definition of trauma or examples of “legitimate” trauma, or compare your traumatic experiences with theirs. Instead, consider what they are trying to communicate. Usually, when people use the term, they are conveying significant experiences, emotional responses, and/or bodily sensations. If you jump in to correct their vocabulary, they might not feel safe to continue sharing their experiences with you.

If you cannot fight the urge to correct them, ask yourself, Why do I feel the need to correct them? Are you uncomfortable having this discussion? Are you feeling physically or emotionally dysregulated? Do you feel the need to fix them? Silence them? Defend yourself? If any of these are true, you may not be ready to have this discussion. Instead of policing language, consider telling them that you cannot participate in the discussion.

2. Express active listening. If you do only one thing, listen. When we actively listen, we don’t express judgment, provide feedback or advice, defend ourselves, or try to fix anything. We sit with the person in their experience and communicate verbally and non-verbally that we are fully present. Try using these active listening skills:

  • Nonverbal: head nods, eye contact, leaning in, and providing safe touch with their consent,
  • Verbal: matching their volume, tone of voice, and word usage. Saying brief phrases such as: “What I’m hearing is…” “You said…” and “I see that.”

3. Be curious. Ask questions with the intent of expressing genuine curiosity. Here are a few to consider:

  • “How did it impact you then?” and “How does it impact you now?”
  • “What’s that like for you?"
  • “What’s it like to be you?”
  • “Does your trauma impact our relationship?”

Avoid asking questions that have an intent of correcting or policing, such as “Why do you think that was traumatic?” “Are you sure you’ve experienced trauma?” and “Do you know what trauma actually is?” Also, respect their boundaries if they do not want to answer questions.

4. Provide validation. Validation is an effort to recognize or affirm that the emotions and experiences of another are valid and worthy. Simply put, you are communicating to them that they matter. Try using these validating phrases:

  • “That sounds terrifying/frightening.”
  • I would feel [angry, nervous, sad, scared] as well.”
  • “I can see how much this impacts you.”
  • “How frustrating!”
  • “That’s terrible.”
  • “Of course, you feel angry.”
  • “I’m feeling [angry, sad, scared] at this moment as I listen to your story."

5. Express vulnerability. If you feel comfortable, you may share an aspect of your own trauma or a time when you had a similar experience or response. Vulnerability can create a safe connection. Be careful to avoid participating in a "Who Has The Worst Trauma?" competition. The intent of vulnerability is to create a connection, not a comparison.

6. Express gratitude. Whether their experience meets that clinical definition of trauma or not, this person has chosen to share their story with you. This is a massive compliment as it shows that they consider you safe and trustworthy. Try using these phrases when expressing gratitude:

  • “I’m honored that you shared this with me.”
  • “Thank you for sharing your story.”
  • “I feel close to you.”
  • “I value you.”

7. Before providing education, identify your honest intent. If you feel someone is misusing the word trauma, should you provide them with education? First, ask yourself, What is my intent? Some mental health clinicians provide psychoeducation concerning the term trauma to help clients understand their symptoms, diagnoses, and treatment recommendations. Other clinicians avoid using the term when they determine that it’s not in their client’s best interest. Researchers might provide education due to concerns that if people continue to overuse the word trauma, its meaning will become diluted and distorted. Many factors may determine if it’s appropriate to provide education or not, such as the situation, context, and relationship that you have with the speaker. If you decide that it is appropriate to provide education, consider this the last step in the conversation.

Is the term trauma overused and misused? Yes. Does this fact give us the right to police the term? No. In the end, we must all use our best judgment.

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