After a traumatic event, many survivors experience the secondary trauma of isolation and lack of support. Overwhelming trauma is difficult to express, and the effects last longer than most people expect. Survivors may need to tell their story over and over, or they may not want to discuss it at all, and yet long for contact and support. It can be deeply nourishing to share painful thoughts and feelings with a receptive listener.
Finding a receptive listener can take some effort. People may be unreceptive for many reasons. They may be too busy, or uncomfortable with “negative” emotions, or overwhelmed with their own needs for support. They may turn away, change the subject, tell the survivor to “cheer up”, give advice, or chime in with their own story. This can feel like a personal failure to a struggling survivor, even though, ironically, would-be supporters are responding to their own needs, and not to the survivor at all.
Preparing to disclose
Taking some time to gain clarity on what you’re looking for, as well as taking time with the disclosure process itself, can increase the chances of getting exactly what you want. The preparatory steps below can be done all at once when you have an uninterrupted block of time to yourself, or they can be done in bits and pieces as you go about your day, whenever you have time to think.
Honor your needs
The first step to finding nourishing support is to gently notice what you need. Imagine the response you want, in as much detail as you can. You might want the person to stay quiet, ask questions, or give reassurance. You might want them to touch your shoulder, hug you, or stay across the room. Notice the specific words and actions that mean “support” to you. In past conversations, which responses have caused you to tense up or turn away, and which have caused you to relax or sigh with relief?
As you pay attention to your need for support, gently notice any feelings that arise. Some people have “shoulds” around keeping silent, toughing it out alone, or not admitting weakness. There may also be shame around the pain being disclosed, grief from past attempts to reach for support, or longing for someone who is no longer available. What comes up for you?
Honor your pain
The next step is to notice how you respond to your own pain. Even though you’re reaching for support, your Inner Critic may be echoing harsh responses you received as a child. Perhaps you can connect with another voice inside who is nurturing and supportive. Supportive responses received from the outside help build that internal nurturing voice.
Choosing a supporter
Now it is time to look around for someone who can respond supportively to your disclosure. As you think about different people in your life, or consider disclosing to someone new to you, the sensitive barometer of your body will help you make choices. Pay attention to the same physical responses you noticed as you were honoring your needs: tensing or relaxing, holding your breath or breathing deeply, looking down or looking outward, shutting down or opening up.
Disclose in steps
Whether you are speaking with a professional or a friend, you can gradually increase the level of disclosure, possibly in separate conversations, and proceed only if you are comfortable with the responses you receive.
- Bring up the topic of painful feelings in general
- Ask if the person is comfortable providing emotional support
- Share your strengths and the ways you are taking care of yourself
- Clearly state the responses and support you’re hoping for
- Disclose a piece of your painful thoughts and feelings
- Check in about how you’re both feeling after the conversation
Keep reaching out until you receive the support you’re looking for. Check in with your body and notice how you respond to both positive and negative experiences. Each attempt will help you attune to your own physical responses around risk, trust and support.
As you learn about reaching for the support you need, you can apply similar steps when you’re being asked to give support. Tune in to your body to notice whether you want to give support to that person in that moment. If not, politely let them know that it’s not a good time. If you do want to support them, you can ask them what sort of responses they’re looking for, and give them your full attention as they share with you.
Afterwards, check in with your feelings and physical sensations again. You may notice that supportive conversations can be positive for both people.
Disclosing painful feelings can feel risky and vulnerable, and at the same time, receiving support can be powerfully nurturing and life-affirming. You can reduce the risks by going slowly and checking in with yourself at each step. Strengthened connections with yourself and others will be your reward.
The multi-page article How to Choose a Competent Counselor has good information on selecting support. While much of the article is specific to professional therapy, the page about Finding the Answer You Already Know applies to supportive friendships as well.