Inner Work

Going Deeper: Leveraging Empathy into Responsiveness

For today’s #InnerWork post, I want to delve into an exploration of the ways in which we can show up authentically for those with whom we are close in our lives. In order to care for another, we must already be engaged in inner healing in a way that puts aside excuses and denial and which calls forth vulnerability and raw emotion. One of the foulest enterprises on which a person can embark is to attempt to heal another as a way to scale their own inner walls; we have to be willing to fling open any door inside for which we invite another to ajar slightly.

I am going to limit myself here to an area of identity in which I’ve experienced invalidation on a regular basis, namely, that of being a trauma survivor. As such, my discussion is primarily aimed at those who are trauma survivors and who want to engage in inner work as well as those who desire to be support persons for a trauma survivor. I think there are potential parallels to other areas of oppression that people face, but the systematic nature of injustices such as racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on means that those experiences include additional factors beyond what I am addressing. Please see this page for an evolving list of resources in relation to systemic injustice and solidarity.

I also want to add a strong caveat that what I describe here is in no way a substitute for professional assistance such as therapy. It is not healthy or healing to try to act as a therapist to a friend, family member or romantic partner. One of the main differences between showing up for someone with compassion and being a therapist is that a therapist may try to elicit the memories and experiences behind the emotions the person is feeling and may try to lower internal defenses to draw out vulnerability. If a trauma survivor demands that you act as their therapist and will not seek help, I suggest finding a therapist of your own to help you navigate the relationship. There is a potential for significant damage for both of you otherwise.

If you are secure that you are acting as support person rather than a therapist, but you still get out of your depth, be honest! Let the person know this without sending them the message that they are the problem. It is healthy to set boundaries and to let someone know the specific ways in which you are able to be there for them. At the same time, if someone trusts you enough to show you their pain, holding space for them in a responsive way can move mountains for them internally (and, as I’ll describe below, we can be this for ourselves as well). This is why your own inner work needs to be non-negotiable; if you have significant unprocessed wounds that you’ve never addressed, you will likely harm more than heal if you try to be there for another who’s in pain.

Empathy: Witnessing with Compassion

In order to show up for others, we first have to give our undivided attention to the vulnerability in ourselves. I am increasingly of the mind that vulnerability should be invitation-only, both internally and externally. What I mean here is that any request for it in an area of suffering, beyond a gentle open-ended query, is likely misguided. Demanding that someone show us their pain, or that hurt areas inside of us crack open and reveal their secrets, is rarely effective or welcome. Once you are comfortable responding to your own areas of vulnerability with empathy and responsiveness, you will be more fully able to be there for others. You do not need to be 100% healed by any means, but if you style yourself as someone who always gives but neglects themselves, or as someone who is only critical of themselves, please spend some time working on self-care and self-compassion first.

If vulnerability shows up from another person, empathy is required. It astonishes me how quickly we can move away from this. “Oh, at least this didn’t happen to you too.” “Some people have it even worse.” “I wonder why they (insert traumatic behavior).” and so forth are spewed as a way to shut off that most uncomfortable of feelings—helplessness—and the mental confusion that it renders. I want to allow my heart to be broken by the lived experience of both myself and of others in terms of the anguish trauma brings. I of course place limits on how much I can serve as an effective witness, but I push through my inner desire to minimize as all it does is invalidate either myself or the other person. Acting as though suffering hasn’t happened doesn’t undo it, rather, it adds exponentially to it.

Empathy includes maintaining one’s focus on the individual who is sharing and letting them be in the messiness of their feelings. Immediately offering hugs and tissues and “supportive” words may send the not-so-subtle message that only a titrated amount of pain is allowed to show up, and that anything more is “too much.” I think our work here involves an emotional and a behavioral response.

On a “feelings” level, allow the emotions the person is showing to settle into an open spot in your heart, and reflect them back without becoming subsumed in them. Put yourself in their position (notice I didn’t say to tell them about the one time something only tangentially related happened to you) and let the feelings stir in you as you breathe through it. The most powerful moment of compassion I ever had was seeing my pain reflected in another person’s eyes—not them crying hysterically—but simply witnessing it in me.

Next, ask the person how they would like to be supported. That’s right, you don’t have to have all the answers! Some people struggle with knowing how they can be held in kindness—allow there to be a sense of expanse in terms of your willingness to learn with them. If they ask for it, feel free to share a few things that help you—some trauma survivors have never been met in this way and genuinely do not know what to do with it. This may be an area of discussion they decide to tackle with their therapist. If you’ve shown yourself to be a caring person who isn’t going to leave them at the first sign of issues, they may feel safe enough to begin to let you know what they need. Count this an honor, not a burden, as it is rare in our society for people to be direct and honest with each other. It is up to you to set your own boundaries and to be forthcoming if what someone needs exceeds your capacity (see the next section). You do not exist in a survivor’s life to heal or fix them; you exist to be in relationship with them. Do not delude yourself into thinking they would be lost or hopeless without you; we survivors tend to be highly adaptable and able to find a way through even the most difficult of situations.

Responsiveness: Compassion in Action

One of the least helpful therapists I ever subscribed to the viewpoint that empathy wasn’t sufficient for healing. She was right on one level—someone caring about our pain is not the only ingredient needed for healing from trauma—but she took this instruction too literally and straight up skipped past it entirely. If those of us who have suffered immeasurably at the hands of humans never receive the message that someone cares about our suffering, it is very challenging to move forward. At the same time, knowing that our pain matters can still leave us feeling stuck in the past if there is no sense of anything changing as a result. This is where responsiveness comes in. Responsiveness requires a depth of maturity and security in one’s self that challenges nearly everyone. What it looks like at times is sacrifice. Sacrifice engenders bitterness if it is not offered with an open heart. It is much, much better to “let down” a trauma survivor by sharing honestly in regards to your own boundaries than it is to pretend at a responsive façade.

Let’s walk through an example. Suppose the trauma survivor became triggered in a moment of physical affection. Perhaps you pulled them in for a kiss and this brought up feelings of being trapped for them. They let you know what they were feeling and, instead of getting defensive (this is where a large percent of people tap out right away), you were able to be with them as they expressed their feelings. Let’s say you even asked them what they needed to feel safe with you, and they shared that they would like to be asked before you kiss them, even though you are in an established romantic relationship. You are now at the moment of potentially offering responsiveness (as well as negotiating your own boundaries and needs). What you don’t get to do, if you care at all about the person (and if you’d like to claim to be a decent human being) is to say, “sure of course, I’ll ask” and then “forget” to do so on a regular basis, or to try to manipulate the person—“if you loved me, you’d trust me and would let me kiss you whenever I wanted to.” Let’s say, for the sake of argument, being able to be spontaneous in kissing is your most important thing ever and you cannot possibly be happy without it. In this case, you may need to renegotiate yourself out of the romantic relationship as it stands. You get to say “no, I need this instead” but you don’t get to (if you want to be a decent human who cares about the survivor) force them to gratify your needs. Or, you could make a sacrifice. You could (maybe temporarily as you decide together) allow your need for spontaneity to go unmet in order to respect the survivor’s boundaries. Survivors’ needs often look “controlling,” but they are only controlling if the person doesn’t let you walk away easily and deploys force/manipulation to keep you in a relationship that doesn’t meet your needs. Asking someone to limit their behavior because it triggers the other person isn’t controlling; engaging in a responsive reaction, in which you support the survivor’s healing, means that what’s brought you together is stronger than the inconvenience or disappointment of the “no/not now.”

So, how might we define responsiveness as it relates to being an “ally” of a trauma survivor? To me, it means taking seriously what a survivor tells you they need and doing your best to provide it without turning their need into an immediate demand of your own on an unrelated topic (in other words, not using it as a bargaining chip to get what you want). It means talking through needs if they conflict until you find a solution that honors everyone’s boundaries. It means replacing “controlling/telling me what to do” with “I’m making a choice to honor their needs in this area; it is a sacrifice I’m happy to make because I know it is what they need to feel safe.” If all that comes up in you is a mindset of “they need to get over it” or “I’m being manipulated by their problems” then get yourself to a therapist to sort it out. It has been devastating to me personally to have it take just about everything I have to share, in a moment of vulnerability with another person, the “real” shit that goes on in me and to have them get angry at me because, for a few short seconds, I wasn’t giving them what they wanted or I was treading too closely to their own unresolved feelings of inadequacy. If you are in a relationship with a survivor, expect to feel helpless, and welcome it as a sign of authenticity rather than using it as shame-fuel for your own problems.

Responsiveness may not be a boundary-setting experience, it may also be an invitation to go deeper in revealing your own vulnerability. Perhaps the survivor feels that what would be supportive to them would be to know if you’ve ever experienced the same thing as they have emotionally, or to know more about what came up in you as they shared about themselves. If you haven’t done your own inner work, this may feel like a challenge or even a threat. The more you are able to engage in self-care and healing, the more fully you will be able to respond with support to these experiences. Resist an urge to turn the entire conversation into a monologue about how things go for you; do make it known if you value the opportunity. Some survivors modulate their internal experience by hyper-focusing on the needs of everyone around them; this may take professional assistance to navigate if you find yourself in this situation on an ongoing basis.

I’ve written so much here yet I think I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. What I would find most helpful would be to hear the questions you would like answered if you are a support person of a trauma survivor. Please respect their story enough to not share personal details; let me know if there are general sticking points for which you think it would be helpful to read about in a post. If you are a survivor, what did I write that captures your experience? What is missing or different for you? How are you best supported in your areas of vulnerability?

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