I’m going to say something that is equal parts hard to hear and helpful. Listening to, watching, and reading about another’s primary trauma can become a secondary trauma for the listener. Professionals are trained on how to handle their own vicarious trauma.
Evidence suggests that simply being listened to is therapeutic and cathartic to the speaker. Evidence also suggests it can be traumatic to the listener depending on their own trauma, disposition, physiology etc. Graphic details may to too much for laity to process.
The speaker needs someone who can enter into the depth of the misery and remain palpably present as well as stable themselves. The speaker demands and deserves this. Both parties cannot be floating in a sea of sorrow. Someone must be the anchor in the storm.
As a speaker, you must keep in mind your listener, thier role, thier capacity, thier training, even their own trauma history. As a listener you must listen to your own level of training, capacity, empathy, and understanding. The speaker must feel safe and the listener must be too.
Disclosure, safe disclosure, is essential to the process of recovery from trauma. Unsafe disclosure can be profoundly retraumatizing to the speaker. If we cannot for a multitude of reasons, safely enter the deep despair of another, we ought not. We should get someone who can.
I am empathic by nature. Trauma is not difficult for me to imagine… having been birthed into brutality. I have robust limits of what I can consume by way of detail as well as what I share and with whom. It does not have to be abuse, any descriptive suffering is sufficient.
Yet speakers must disclose, they must share their trauma narrative to be well, often repeatedly. To be healing, this must be done in a way that is safe for the person who is struggling to speak as well as the one who endeavours to listen well.
I was recently attending a session where the speaker shared research on child abuse that advanced to torture. She spoke and steered the lecture well, like an trained racer driver who knew the trauma terrain. It was an audience of trauma informed professionals. I did what I could to hold onto my seat while she accelerated and did sharp right turns. The landscape of loss sped by at a dizzying rate. I feel threatened when folks drive too fast and I know that landscape of abuse that toys with torture. It was almost too much. She talked of trauma clinically. I have lived trauma catastrophically. In this case this amazing, intelligent, articulate, and clearly compassionate speaker did take the time to check on those in tow.
I few years ago I had meandered down to a community garden years ago with a friend. This friend met a friend who shared with us, in graphic detail, a time when he fell off a roof and severed a portion of his scalp. By the time he was finished, I was literally squatting on the ground trying to look composed. I was not. He, the speaker, had NO consideration of his impact on me, the vicariously traumatized listener.
Of late I have spoken with survivors whose stories of savagery have profoundly altered their physiology, their psychology, and their personhood. Sometimes the speaker wants to share with me the details of their brutality. I always say the same thing:
“I do not know what I am doing. You MUST disclose. You must. What I do not know will hurt us both. You are worth listening to and getting the personalized and professional help that you need.”