Last weekend, a small life event (I forgot my keys) dug up a huge response for me as I hit what's called an emotional trigger for some past trauma junk. Within a few minutes of starting to panic, I realized I was having a much bigger response than felt right for the scale of the situation, and took myself out for dinner and quiet contemplation about what was going on.
After identifying the emotional memory I was reliving, I did what I always do about it: I wrote, specifically I wrote a friends-locked facebook post with a trigger warning and multi-line break before sharing the memory. As I wade through healing, I've found the best thing I can do with these highly specific situational triggers is stop, acknowledge them, name them, and then talk about them semi-publicly so all my friends can affirm for me "wow that was fucked up."
Except this time me relating a seriously fucked up story from my past resulted in no fewer than 3 of my straight, white, cis male friends deciding they should, with no warning or preparation, message me with their own trauma stories (most of which were some version of, I was dating this girl and she dumped me for no reason and it's been years and I'm still sad). One of them even reached out to inform me that he'd heard people talking about how my abuser said awful things about me, and reflected on how we always looked so happy together. Another, to his credit, apologized for springing an emotional energy ask on me without asking if I had mental space for it first.
So, maybe it's time we go over some Do's and Don'ts of what to do when your friend mentions some past trauma, for everybody's learning benefit:
- affirm what they're feeling, and that what they experienced is not their fault
- listen to what they are asking you for, and if it's not clear, ask. "Do you want suggestions, hugs, or for me to call that guy an asshole?" goes a long way.
- if you can't think of anything else to say, just say, "I hear you."
- ask before processing your own emotions at them, even if your emotions are directly related to their situation.
- mind your own energetic boundaries. If this is a 1:1 conversation and you can feel that you don't have the emotional energy to be the support you want to be, say as much. If it's a general thing (like a facebook post) just say something short and supportive but don't ask how you can help if you can't actually follow through right now.
- Question their story, or ask how they could have let such a thing happen to them. Especially in the case of abusive relationships, very rarely does an abuser like, start a relationship abusive. The cycle involves months or years of grooming their victim to be emotionally pliable and easily manipulated, and then things get REALLY ugly.
- Immediately start problem solving. unless they specifically have said, "I don't know what to do, please advise," if you're not sure how to help just ask instead of immediately trying to fix their situation. They might just need to vent.
- Unload your own trauma, no matter how big or small. It's not the time, when somebody else is processing a thing.
- make the situation all about your feelings about it. I once told a friend how I'd miscarried the product of a rape, and proceeded to spend the next 2 hours comforting her about it. Don't be that friend.
- Update them on the status of their abuser/rapist, or otherwise comment on the relationship or bring up specific historic memories they probably don't want to need to deal with right now.
There you have it folks. It all seems pretty straightforward to me, but apparently this is not intuitive because I've needed to do a couple of rounds of reminding people about appropriate boundaries and honestly it's exhausting. This post probably is coming off much snippier than intended, but it's because I'm still exhausted from managing my own PTSD response to a thing, and then needing to set boundaries with multiple people in a row.