We, the human species, are a social bunch; which is of course a wonderful, important and vital component to our existence, however our social nature can also occasion hurt and pain. Such hurt and pain can arise when we do not know how to incorporate the fact and impact of traumatic experiences with our social selves. Often times we swing from the extremes of not acknowledging these events to introducing ourselves as being a survivor of the trauma, with neither of these avenues generating enriching social relations. While there is not a right or wrong way, here are a few points to help you decide how to answers questions or share the traumatic events of your life with new friends/family.
It is imperative that you claim ownership of your past – including your trauma story. A component of claiming ownership is exercising your right to share or keep private the events within your life. Simply because someone is extending compassion, empathy, curiosity or care does not mean you are obligated to discuss or even acknowledge the traumatic experiences you have survived. Many of us have a sense that being polite entails answering questions in a forthcoming and open manner; however declining to share or simply not referencing life’s tragedies is extending politeness to yourself.
A second point to keep in mind is the boundaries of self-disclosure. Most relationships begin with the sharing of fairly impersonal information and over time – as a mutual sense of safety and security arises – more personal as well as intimate information is shared. One way to think of sharing your trauma story is to think of two parallel timelines: one timeline is for the emotional depth and security of your relationship, while the second timeline represents the depth of information regarding life events you are comfortable sharing. In fact, it can be of help to draw these timelines and plot what aspects of your traumatic experience(s) you feel safe sharing at what depth of relationship. This exercise can help you recognize that disclosing your trauma(s) is not an all or nothing endeavor but rather a multi-layered process, with different relationships progressing to different depths of knowledge. Some friends/family may never progress into the intimate knowledge of your past experiences.
Finally, know that it is okay to change your mind – even if you are mid-sentence. Conversations are fluid and dynamic experiences. Simply because you start a conversation in one direction does not mean that you need to continue it in that vein or even complete it. You may benefit from creating and practicing a few redirecting statements, which you can utilize if and when you desire to navigate a conversation away from your traumatic experiences. It also is fair to simply exit a conversation, which is ‘too close to home’. Once again preemptively identifying a few safe exits out of a conversation can enhance your safety and block you from being cornered in an interaction which is not healing for you or of benefit for you to have.
Learning how to introduce and discuss your traumatic life events into valued and/or new relationships is an opportunity for implementing safety, self-care and blocking the invasive power of the traumatic life events you survived. Feel free to practice, practice, practice and as always, turn to a trained professional for assistance and support.
© Copyright 2011 by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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