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 bring out extremes. Some people may react to the experience of helplessness by shutting others out- withdrawing, avoiding, criticizing, attacking, or exchanging harsh words. Others may react to such raw vulnerability by trying to control everything and everyone around them. Some reach out, remember what really matters, and connect more deeply to those around them. Some are more conscious of what they cannot control and seek to strengthen relationships, deepen their faith, or nurture and protect what they already have.
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 an available resource.
In light of the recent school shootings, I've put together some tips for how to be with people in emptional 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 emotional pain by allowing it to exist.
- Instead of platitudes, changes of subject, false reassurances, or noisy chatter try to tolerate discomfort and awkwardness. Let the silence ensue if you don't know what to say.
- 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 be 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 of the feelings.
- 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 often need the opportunity to experience and express a wide range of intense emotion in the wake of trauma. It is an extremely lonely experience to diminish, hide, or pretend pain doesn't exist- when what is really needed most is understanding, connection, and the experience of not having to face it alone.