If you’re paying particular note to this article, my heart hurts for you. Having someone you love, whether that’s a friend or family member, experience a trauma is painful for you, as well, but I applaud you for exploring the best ways to help them. Take some time to absorb the concepts here and try not to let your enthusiasm about helping them get in the way of your relationship. How you handle this situation could make or break your relationship with the survivor – they could push you away completely, or you could become an incredibly important pillar of support for them during this incredibly difficult time.
Never say these eight things.
When someone you love is going through something traumatic, the first thing you want to do is be there for them, and while that’s fantastic, certain things you say can do more harm than good. While you may be well-intentioned, it often doesn’t sit right with the survivor and can often come across and insincere or ignorant. You might either be minimizing the effect the trauma had on them or pushing them to places or healing methods that they aren’t ready to go to yet. Avoid saying these, and instead opt for the other methods of support that I’ll cover next.
- “I know what you’re going through.”
- “I’m so sorry for you.”
- “It could be worse!”
- “It’ll be okay.”
- “They didn’t mean to hurt you!”
- “Get over it.”
- “Come on, you should really talk about it!”
- “You should do/try ______.”
Get yourself sorted out before trying to help someone else.
In order to be a good support system for someone, you need to have yourself sorted out and you need to have your motives in line. Are you trying to help your friend or family member because you love and care about them or because you have an intense curiosity to find out what happened to them (hint: they don’t have to tell you)? If it’s the former, then you’re already in the right headspace, and these next tips can really help you understand how to be a good support system for someone. If it’s the latter, then you need to put some work into yourself first.
Don’t worry, though. If you’re struggling to manage your own emotions, both in life and in regards to your friend or family member’s trauma, you can turn that around so that you’re a positive support system for them. They might invite you to partake in a therapy session with them, and definitely take them up on that offer if it comes around (though don’t push them to invite you). They might also come to you with some homework from their therapist that works on strengthening your relationship and your ability to be a support system; take that homework seriously, as it may be the bridge from where you are to being the support system you want to be. If neither of those things happen, then pay close attention to the tips in this article and seek independent help for managing your emotions. Having someone you love go through a trauma can be traumatizing for you, as well, so there’s no shame in talking to a professional about your own thoughts and feelings surrounding the event.
Validate their emotions.
Trauma and its healing process are confusing and emotional times. Your friend or family member is probably unearthing emotions and memories that are painful to experience, and they often will feel out of control of their thoughts and feelings. If you are able to validate their emotions and let them know that they have the right and the freedom to feel whatever they feel, that can take a load off of their shoulders. During the healing process, energy should not be devoted to feeling insecure or ridiculous about their emotions and having that validation from someone close to them on a personal level can be very positively impactful.
Treat them as normally as possible.
This holds true for a lot of mental health disorders, but it’s important to note for trauma survivors, as well. Someone who is healing from a trauma is not broken, nor are they about to break. They don’t need to be treated any differently in terms of general social interaction. They don’t need to be protected or handled with kid gloves. They are still your friend or family member whom you love deeply and who has a prominent spot in your life. Continue to invite them out to social events. Continue your Sunday morning coffee date. Continue complaining about your annoying relationship. Whatever you normally do with that person, continue to do so. This will enable your friend or family member to retain some normalcy in their life during a time that is very, very painfully abnormal.
Hold space for them.
If you’re only able to do one thing for your friend or family member, then hold the space for them. What does this mean? Heather Plett, a coach who specializes in holding spaces for people as they undergo personal development journeys, defines holding the space as being “willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.” A perfect example of this was told to me by Sally, an equine-assisted therapist that I knew from Minnesota. She was playing hide and seek with a group of young clients, and she and one girl decided to hide in the dumpster. It was smelly, dark, and very, very gross, and yet the words that Sally used to describe that moment were that is was a privilege to be there with that girl.
The mind of someone going through trauma can be just like that dumpster – gross, dark, and not a pleasant place to be. They can’t just hop out of the dumpster whenever they want, and you, as someone wanting to help someone on their healing journey, need to sit in that dumpster. You might want to get out before them, you might not even want to get in there at all, but being willing to sit with someone in their dark place for as long as they need and simply be there with them is the best thing that you can do for them.
Heather describes eight steps to holding the space successfully for people, and for those readers who want a bit more instruction, here are those steps.
- Trust your own intuition and give the trauma survivor permission to trust theirs. There is no guidebook for holding space for someone, just as there’s no universal step-by-step process for healing from trauma. Trusting your relationship with the survivor and somewhat going with the flow will help you be successful in holding the space for them.
- Don’t overwhelm your friend or family member with information. While you may feel like handing them a million pamphlets about various therapeutic methods and shoving a book about trauma healing methods in their face, try to refrain. Their mind is already in overwhelm, and there’s no need to add to it or force them into a space where they’re not ready to be. Instead, try something like leaving some resources on the coffee table when they come over, and if they show interest, offer to let them borrow it for the weekend.
- Allow the survivor to keep their autonomy. Man, this one can be really hard to do, and I speak from personal experience when I say this. Just as I spoke about treating your friend or family member as normally as possible, it’s important to allow them to make their own decisions (unless it’s something life-threatening like suicide or dangerous addictions that require an intervention). This gives them power and control – something they feel they lack because of their trauma – instead of making them feel useless and incompetent.
- Their failure is not your failure. In other words, keep your ego out of it. If it takes them longer to heal than you would have liked them to, that does not mean that you are a bad friend or that you held the space for them improperly. If your intervention doesn’t go as well as you planned, it’s not a failing on your part. Their journey is their journey; it is not a reflection on your ability to love them.
- Create a safe space without judgement or shame. In life and in trauma healing, failure and setbacks are inevitable. We all have those people in our lives that we’re afraid to tell that we’ve failed, and our relationships with them are probably not too good beneath the surface. Don’t be that person! Create a safe space for your friend or family member to fail, and you do that by removing judgement or shame from the equation.
- Offer them help in a way that doesn’t make them feel incompetent. This can be a bit tricky, especially in the psychological world and when the person you’re holding the space for is a friend or family member. Mental health professionals do this by guiding their sessions, but you, as a friend or family member of the survivor, can offer to help in other ways that do not include mental health advice (see above for more information on this). Just make sure that you’re helping in a way that does not make them feel like they’re incompetent.
- Nonverbally assure your friend or family member that you are ready to catch them when they fall. After you’ve created that safe space for them, make sure that they know that you’re able and willing to catch the broken pieces of them if or when they fall apart. This doesn’t mean that you verbally tell them that you’re ready to handle their sharp edges; it simply means that you show up in a manner that does the speaking for you. Be confident, kind, and humble, and this will come across through your mannerisms.
- Allow your friend or family member to make their own choices, even if they’re different than you would. I’ve probably said it a million times, but each person’s journey through trauma healing is different, and they’ll make different decisions than you would if you were in that situation. Remember, your role is not to judge or to force them to do something. Your role is to support them in the decisions they make, in the decisions they’re capable of making.
Though these eight steps exist, holding space for someone, especially when you’ve never done it before, might feel like you’re floundering without any direction. Allow yourself to take a breath and remember that your only job is to let them know that they’re accepted, that they belong, and that they’re not alone. You’re not responsible for fixing them. You’re not responsible for the decisions they make. You’re simply there to love them.