Trauma and abuse are, unfortunately, all too widespread in our society. There are many reasons, but one of the simplest to recognize is that hurt people all too often hurt other people. It's not inevitable that they will, and so it's something each of us who has experienced it has an opportunity to change for our children and grandchildren. It's possible for all of us to contribute to a happier and more peaceful future.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is one of the outcomes of abuse. Trauma is a reaction to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms someone's ability to cope in the moment. It's a reaction to feelings of helplessness and real fear or even terror. It's experienced in a weakened, less powerful, sense of self and with losses to your ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences, especially happiness and joy.
Trauma is experienced when our fight, flight or freeze system is strongly activated and deep parts of our brain powerfully and permanently remember what has happened. Trauma changes the way we see the world and primes us to be more reactive to potential threats around us. It can also leave us in a chronic state of alert that's technically called "arousal." We experience it later as stress, wariness, anxiety, fearfulness or hostility. It can lead to a tendency to withdraw or lash out. It can also lead to a variety of long-term adverse health problems like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. These are often due to poor coping choices like substance abuse, poor eating habits and smoking.
Who Has Experienced Trauma?
According to a World Mental Health survey done by the World Health Organization, at least a third of the more than 125,000 people surveyed in 26 different countries had experienced trauma. That number rose to 70% when only the people experiencing core emotional problems or disorders were considered.
Some Causes of Trauma
Experiencing or witnessing physical, emotional or sexual abuse
Living in an environment full of anger, fighting and threatening behavior
Living in fear of losing or not having enough food, shelter or other everyday necessities
Living with caregivers who become violent or can't take care of you or even themselves because of substance abuse, relationship or mental health problems
Surviving a major accident, natural disaster, combat or life in a war zone
Developing trauma depends of the intensity, frequency and duration of the events we experience. Experiencing lower intensity hurtful and stressful things repeatedly, frequently or over a long period of time can be just as traumatic as a high intensity one time violent or terrify event. In many ways, the lower intensity repeated or prolong stuff creates a more insidious kind of trauma that is harder to recognize and start to deal with.
What Does It Take to Recover?
Recovering from trauma takes time. It starts with learning to "be with" or tolerate bits and pieces of your memories of what happened. You have to "be present" and feel the sensations and emotions that come up while avoiding becoming overwhelmed by them. This often requires professional help. As you gain this experience, you become less sensitive to triggers, feel more in control of your life and become a happier healthier person.
You can also work to become more physically active. Yoga, Tai Chi, meditation and other structured mindfulness practices, help us get to know our bodies in a healthier way and become more aware of the way we handle (or fail to handle) stress.
Writing your personal story for 20 to 30 minutes a day over the course of about 10 days is another way to spend time with the difficult parts of your life in a less threatening way. If you find your emotions are getting too strong in the process, briefly write about your feelings in that moment as simply and matter-of-factly as you can and then stop for the day if you still feel you need to. Make sure you talk about the good things and helpful people who were part of that story. Find things you can be grateful for in the middle of it all.
The more often you avoid and push away everything that has to do with your traumas, the smaller, more fear filled and unhappy your life will remain. Find ways to slowly work your way through your past and find your hope for the future in the process.
What Is Empathy?
Sympathy and empathy are similar words that are often compared to each other to make their meanings clearer. Sympathy means that we "feel for" someone in the sense that we for sorry for or have pity for them. It might even be reduced to meaning "it sucks to be you."
Empathy means that we "feel with" someone. To an extent, we actually feel what they feel and join them a bit in their suffering. With empathy, we put ourselves in their shoes and we feel that we might even know why they feel like they do or that we "know where they're coming from" in a meaningful way. While we can never truly know the depth or meaning of someone else's experience, we can have some sense of how deep or painful it could be based on our own experiences.
How to Develop Empathy
It is hard to feel empathy when you're in a difficult conversation. It's hard to focus on what the other person feels, and to think about why, when you feel you're under attack or your body is at some level of alert. How do you change that? It starts with noticing that it's happening. Then, while you're still listening to what they're saying, you stop planning what you're going to say or do, slow your breathing down and just pay attention.
As your body is calming down, see what elements of truth you can find in what they're saying. This is part of not taking what they're saying personally. They may be making a point badly, but they still have a point. Ask them to tell you more about what you think they might be saying or what it means. Show them that you're paying attention and trying to understand. This will go a long way in defusing the situation.
When it's clear that they feel acknowledged and heard, you can talk about what you think has been missed, left out, misunderstood or otherwise needs to be added. To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, people don't care about what you think, if you don't care about what they think. Learn to listen better, so that you will be heard.
When you are figuring out how someone feels, remember that their feelings aren't right or wrong. They just are. Their feelings aren't about you. They're probably a reflection of a lot of things: past hurts, your history together, today's stresses and so on. Take the time to at least remember that there's a bigger picture, even if you don't know what it is. Doing these things will let your feelings shift and allow you to respond more positively.
You can increase your empathy by reflecting on your own woundedness or brokenness and that of the people you know the best. Keeping your own humanity in mind, helps you respond better to similar weaknesses in those you're interacting with. Journaling about this can help, too. Thinking, remembering and responding on paper gets the bits and pieces of our lives together and allows us to be more whole in ourselves and to respond to others more as people not problems.
What Is Compassion?
Compassion is acting on your empathy. You not only recognize a need; you act on it. Alex Lickerman has said that compassion is caring about another person's happiness as if it were your own. We may not be able to get completely there, but we can at least care enough about those closer to us to make an impact and make a difference in our lives together.
How to Develop Compassion
Here are three simple ways to start developing your capacity to be more compassionate:
Start by remembering times when you were shown or wanted to be shown compassion. Remember how you felt in as much detail as you can handle. Talk to people you know and trust and ask them about their own experiences. Journal about it so you can easily remember it later.
Find somewhere to be of service. Volunteer at your church or in the community. Search online or ask around because there are opportunities all over the place.
Remember all that you have to be grateful for. Take time once or twice a day to remember how blessed you are. I like to choose something from the past to reflect on in the morning and something from my day in the evening.
Pay attention. Look around. You will likely have at least a few opportunities to do something for somebody today if you pay attention. A smile, a compliment or small act of kindness are all acts of compassion and can become positive habits.
Things that Get in the Way
Having to Be Right
It's perfectly possible for two people to both have good points but to be so focused on being right and making the other listen and "accept" them that neither really hear anything. It's also important to remember that it's quite easy for both people to be wrong or both to be right in different ways. Accepting the validity or "rightness" of another person's point does not invalidate your point or make you wrong. Fighting over who's more right just creates more drama and keeps all involved from have empathy or compassion for the rest.
Losing Track of Your Values or "Goals"
You have values that are related to your relationship. You'd like to have a good relationship. You'd like things to be peaceful. You'd like to be loved, valued and heard. Stan Tatkin talks about us having each other's backs and remembering the enemy is "out there, not in here." We forget that "the problem" is the enemy, not the other person. We should be working to help each other heal and repair our brokenesses. It's easy to forget this in the heat of the moment. We need to learn to stop, breathe and take timeouts so we can reconnect to our values and our better selves.
"Getting triggered" always involves something "bad" from the past tripping the alarm centers in the fight or flight control room of your mind. Once triggered, it's even harder to stay in a conversation productively. Our instincts are working very hard against us in those moments, and the most important parts of our minds are mostly offline, so we have to slow it down, breathe or take a timeout.
Whatever you do, you still have to deal with the feelings. You have to work at owning your thoughts so that your thoughts don't own you. Like losing track of your goals, in these moments you need to get back to: "What do I want to change or have happen?", "What do I need to accept or apologize for?" or "What can we work on or agree on together?"
The other person may not really know what they want. It might change during the conversation. You might have to help them sort it out, which means you have to temporarily put their interests ahead of your own. Helping them talk about what they want will give you the opportunity to talk about what you want later. (Don't talk about what you want while helping them sort it out; that makes it look like you really aren't listening or considering it.) Jerry Wise has said, "Be what you want to receive."
Questions to Journal
- Were you abused or neglected, physically, sexually or emotionally while growing up? How has it affected your thinking, feelings and behavior? In what ways has it shaped you and your relationships?
- What positive ways have you found to handle your feelings and reactions to what happened?
- What makes it hard for you to be empathetic or compassionate to difficult people?
- What’s something you could start doing this week to listen better and pay as much attention to another person’s feelings as you do your own?
Associative Awareness Technique (AAT), Understanding Trauma: How Stress and Trauma Cause Chronic Pain, Anxiety, Depression and PTSD
The School of Life, How A Messed Up Childhood Affects You In Adulthood
Crappy Childhood Fairy, Brain Dysregulation How to Know If It's Happening (and What to Do About It)
Crappy Childhood Fairy, How to Get Your Hope Back After the Hardships of Childhood PTSD
Gerry Valentine, Embrace Adversity (TEDxBoulder)
Live on Purpose TV, How to Stop Being Insecure in a Relationship
Sesame Street, Mark Ruffalo: Empathy
Bessel van der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014)
Peter A. Levine, PhD, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness (2012)
Peter A. Levine and Ann Frederick, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (1997)
Russ Harris, The Reality Slap: Finding Peace and Fulfillment When Life Hurts (2012)
Alex Lickerman, MD, Psychology Today, "What Compassion Is: The Real Meaning of Compassion"
Paul Gilbert, Greater Good Magazine, "How to Turn Your Brain from Anger to Compassion"
Steven Stosny, PhD and Patricia Love, EdD, How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It (2009)
Bento C. Leal III, Four Essential Keys to Effective Communication in Love, Life, Work – Anywhere!: A How-To Guide for Practicing the Empathic Listening, Speaking, and Dialogue Skills to Achieve Relationship Success (2017)
Quotes for the Week
The opposite of anger is not calmness. It's empathy.
Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962
If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.
You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.
Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.
If you judge people, you have no time to love them.
If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.
The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.
Verses for the Week
Finally, my dear friends, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.
In all circumstances give thanks…
[Notice it says "in" not "for." We can find ways and things to be grateful for even in the middle of the worst.]
As someone thinks in their heart, so they are.
Proverbs 4:23 (New Living Translation)
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.
Proverbs 4:23 (Good News Translation)
Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.
Prayer for the Week
Help me pay attention to way I'm thinking and feeling this week, especially about the hurts and wounds in my past. I want to see where I'm sabotaging myself, holding myself back, isolating myself or hiding in shame. Help me recognize the times where I let my thoughts and feelings buddy up in an unhealthy way. Help me remember thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings. I want to remember they aren't 100% true or real and that I can see things in other ways that are better for me and those I care about. I also want to pay more attention to who I'm paying the most attention to this week. I want to pay less attention to myself and more attention to recognizing how others are feeling and what is leading them to talk the way they do. Help me take the hard things they might say less personally and recognize whatever elements of truth are there. I want to start healing wounds in myself and others and not create them anymore. Amen.