The experience of trauma makes a profound mark on a person. It doesn’t matter whether the injury is grave and evident, like the bruising of a battered person, or hard to see, like the emotional neglect of someone detached and withdrawn. Whatever the cause, when a person feels threatened, helpless, and unable to escape, that person knows trauma.
The overwhelm of trauma often leaves survivors feeling out of synch with the rest of the world. Unresolved anxiety, turmoil, and emotional pain create a sense of “being different.” So, trauma survivors often turn to isolation and self-criticism in an effort to cope. The analytical brain goes into hyper drive, trying to second-guess, explain, adapt. “I must deserve this. What can I do better? How can I stop hurting? What’s wrong with me?”
And so, untreated trauma can give rise to a brutal inner critic. It may seem that trauma survivors feel safest only when operating within bounds of joyless self-judgment, and seek safety in being alone.
Healing trauma means addressing entrenched self-denying responses that turn kind gestures away. So if we would heal trauma, where do we go from here?
One of the most powerful tools to heal trauma is also one of the most overlooked. It’s the power of compassion. Being compassionate is something we are all capable of doing—whether or not we are mental health professionals. You don’t need any credentials at all to be a compassionate person!
A Trauma-Informed Approach
My approach in helping trauma survivors is to use trauma-informed care. Essentially this means raising awareness that the way you cope with trauma is something you learned for survival. You are not struggling because something is wrong with you. Your coping skills — even the most problematic ones — make sense because of what has happened to you in your life.
Compassion is inherent in the understanding that your situation makes sense given your history. Where compassion flows, true healing can begin. (To understand further about the toxic stress of trauma and why a trauma-informed approach to healing is critical, read this.)
Compassion is the heart of the approach I offer to every one of my clients, and today, I’m asking you to do the same for the people in your life.
Please bring your most compassionate self to those who have experienced trauma, whether that person is yourself, a loved one or a stranger. Do this in every facet of life.
How to Bring Compassion Into Relationships
Humans are social beings – and the quality of our relationships affects our mental, emotional and physical health. As researcher and author Brené Brown explains, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all men, women, and children. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.”
Healthy relationships are so important to this sense of belonging. Of course it can be difficult for those who love a trauma survivor and for the survivors themselves to trust in a healing relationship. Healthy attuned relationships open the door to healing. Helping trauma survivors realize they can experience safe, secure, healthy relationships. is one of the main reasons I do the work I do—and why I’m encouraging you to bring the power of compassion with you to every encounter with a trauma survivor.
Bringing Compassion to Communicating
So often in relationships, when the going gets tough, partners turn away from each other instead of toward each other for support. But in learning to turn towards each other—and communicate—we can move towards a balanced and healthy place in relationships. This starts with understanding the two kinds of coping mechanisms in relationships: pursuers and withdrawers. Learn how to understand both and find the skills to talk through relationship pain.
Bringing Compassion to Giving and Receiving Compliments
To be able to truly hear a compliment depends on being able to see good in one’s self. But unfortunately for some, deeply painful past relationships interfere with their ability to accept or see the good in themselves. Even so, with careful work, people can learn to understand their personal barriers, bring compassion to themselves, and learn to respond to compliments in more positive ways.
Compassion and Learning to be Vulnerable and Authentic
Without compassion for self, there is no safety in vulnerability, and therefore, there can be no authenticity! And if we can’t be vulnerable and authentic, we can’t build meaningful connections in life. I know that through empowering an individual’s self-compassion and authenticity, there is hope and healing.
Compassion’s Role in Helping to Create Safety in an Uncertain World
In my counseling practice, clients who have experienced trauma work hard in therapy to feel safe enough and calm enough just to get through each day. In light of the current political and social environment, many clients understandably ask, “How can I feel safe enough right now?” So whether you are a trauma survivor or not, the answer is relevant to everyone. Here are my 8 recommendations to feel safe (and help others feel safe) right now.
To Those Who May be Using Addictive Behaviors to Manage Their Emotions
The truth is, if someone is using drugs, alcohol or self-harming behavior, it’s likely the best coping mechanism they’ve got right now. These are people who are in pain. They are using as a coping mechanism — not for fun or enjoyment — but in order to feel less badly.
Let’s face it. The general public sees addicts as bad people. But when addiction touches your life—it suddenly becomes clear that addiction isn’t selective between good people and bad people. It impacts everyone. Compassion for another’s pain can go a long way in removing the stigma that is a barrier to recovery. Whether an individual is using drugs and alcohol, opiates, self-harming behavior, or eating disorders—compassion is essential in addiction recovery!
Let’s Move Forward With Compassion
I hope this helps bring across the magnitude of how important compassion is. When, as individuals, we approach those suffering with any kind of trauma with compassion, we really do have the power to change lives in the most rewarding ways.
This article first appeared as a guest post on the Happily Imperfect blog by Sharon Martin, LCSW, on PsychCentral.com.