To Tell or Not to Tell: Sharing Your Trauma and What to Expect

Survivors of trauma like rape or child abuse always face a big decision with each new friend or date they meet… to tell or not to tell. For someone who has never been in this position, it might not seem like the conundrum that you think it is. So often this decision is based not on the survivor’s nervousness to talk about the trauma but on how the survivor perceives the listener will receive the story… and this is the dilemma to tell or not to tell.

Burdening the Listener

As if being the victim of a horrific trauma isn’t difficult enough, survivors must worry about how the testimony of their experiences will affect others. After a few preliminary attempts to discuss their lives and their histories honestly with others, survivors learn very quickly that trauma can just not be “unloaded” on anyone. Why?

One childhood incest survivor explains:

Every time I tried to talk to my mom about the incest, I could just see her gloss over, like she had to put on a crash helmet mentally. She always seemed to have about a two-minute time limit before she changed the subject or asked me, “Why don’t you just forget about this? Why do you talk and think about it so much?” Any attempts to explain why incest couldn’t just be forgotten always ended up with the same reply from her. She just wanted me to slap a smile on and pretend it never happened… not so much because I was hurting but because it was clearly too painful for her to hear about. We stayed in a hotel together once when I was going through a bad spell of nightmares and flashbacks. I told her I needed to sleep with the light on. She said she couldn’t get any sleep like that, but that I could keep the bathroom light on. Five minutes after she turned the light off, I was screaming and thrashing around. It finally clicked for her that I wasn’t just doing this for attention-that maybe I talked about the incest because it was really eating at me, because it was deeply affecting me.

Types of Listeners

In a fascinating article by Dr. Dori Laub called “Bearing Witness,” she profiles this phenomenon with Holocaust survivors. As you can imagine, Holocaust survivors, like all trauma victims, needed to be able to talk openly about their lives, but other people seemed to become traumatized themselves just hearing these second-hand stories. Dr. Laub categorized the coping strategies of the listeners:

  • Paralysis – listeners just clam up completely not knowing what to do or say
  • Outrage – listeners blow up in anger upon hearing the trauma and often “dump” their anger on the victims
  • Apathy – listeners who simply are not able to process such horror may just shut down their emotions completely in order to “survive” hearing about the trauma
  • Admiration – listeners might put the victim on a pedestal upon hearing their testimony as if they are a big screen protagonist or a superhero: “Wow! You survived all that! How did you do it? You’re amazing.”
  • Interviewing – listeners adopt this research and fact-finding strategy by asking the victim question after question, which allows them to bypass the feeling part of listening and bury it with details
  • Empathy – listeners might cry right along with the victim as he or she talks not because they are particularly compassionate or concerned but because they are overwhelmed

The impact of these strategies on the victims is that they are no longer able to freely, candidly discuss their lives; they must now censor their stories out of concern for how it may affect the listener.

Whom to Tell?

A survivor will eventually find a friend or two who are capable of listening to their trauma and remaining centered and present. Despite the defense mechanisms of listeners, many victims decide to tell their loved ones anyway because it is important to them that their support system knows them inside and out. However, the best outlet will no doubt be a trained counselor. As an objective third party and a professional, the right therapist will listen in such a way as to allow the victim to be as frank as necessary. Journal writing is also another great way to communicate gory details without concern for someone else’s reaction.

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