Writing by Sophie Pellegrini // Illustrations by Nazifatur Rahmi
Take a second to think back on something terrible or traumatic that has happened to someone you love and care about: your sister’s debilitating depression and self-harm, your best friend’s sexual assault, the time your father was hospitalized after a car accident, or your favorite teacher’s cancer diagnosis. In all of these situations and many others, you are not the person in the direct line of suffering. You aren’t the one who is depressed; you aren’t suffering through cancer treatment. Unfortunately, for some reason, we are taught that this means that you (as opposed to your loved one who actually experienced the trauma) should be fine, unaffected, and maybe even grateful for your good fortune. For many people, however, this is just not how it works. I’m one of those people. When someone I love is experiencing life-changing pain, my tendency to empathize can be debilitating all on its own. I don’t think we talk enough about the power of secondary trauma at the hands of our loved ones–the power it has to affect and harm us. Secondary trauma can, of course, occur in other ways, and varies quite a bit depending on who you are and how you experience the trauma (I think of an old friend who visited ghettos and concentration camps in Poland, and how disturbed she was for months afterwards). But I want to focus on the psychological trauma you experience when someone important in your life– a loved one like a sibling or best friend–experiences psychological trauma, as those situations can be the most difficult and painful to navigate. I’ve learned a lot through my many experiences with secondary trauma, and I wanted to share a short list of some advice I have for others who may find themselves in similar situations.
- Find your own support system. When someone experiences a trauma first hand, chances are they will be inundated with resources to help them cope, because the psychological and physical struggles they will probably experience are so well-recognized. The support system is much easier for them to find, and in many ways easier to ask for. When you’re “just the friend” or sister of someone who experienced trauma, people are less likely to ask you how you’re doing with everything. It’s very important that you find your own support system to help you cope with your loved one’s struggle and/or recovery. Whether it’s a parent, a friend, a sports coach, or a therapist, find someone who will support you in supporting someone else without judgment.
- Don’t play therapist– find a place to draw the line. If you’re like me, you’ll want to do and say everything you can to help someone through their pain. It’s often too easy to fall into a pattern of being your loved one’s makeshift therapist–they let out all their thoughts and feelings in a big heap in your lap, and you try to muddle through them and provide them the therapy they desperately need. It’s true that I was raised by two clinical psychologists in a household where discussions revolving around feelings and the psychology of humans were more than commonplace; it’s true that I spent four years of my undergraduate education studying psychology myself; and it’s true that I happen to have a personal fascination and investment in understanding the way humans think, function, feel, and cope, so compared to a lot of other people out there, I like to think I have a pretty good capability to listen and impart helpful advice and empathy. However, I am far from a certified therapist. And even if I was, I would never have a relative or close friend as a patient–and there are really good reasons for that. It’s okay to listen to your loved one and be there for them, but be careful not to allow them to unknowingly take advantage of your open ears and arms, as it can crush you and really harm your relationship.
- Take time to be grateful without downplaying your own struggles. I’ve spent a lot of time giving myself crap for being so worn down and depressed about my loved one’s trauma, because it’s not like I had to endure it, so what gave me the right to whine? I eventually realized that feeling guilty helps no one. Beating myself down and giving myself crap for the things I was feeling only made me feel worse, and it certainly didn’t change anything–not my feelings, and certainly not the situation of the person I love. I’ve learned the importance of allowing myself to feel what I feel without comparing my situation to anyone else’s, to acknowledge the validity of my emotions in the situation, and at the same time, to take a moment to be thankful that I’m not the one experiencing the trauma first hand.
- Take care of yourself–exercise, sleep, treat yourself. You’ve probably heard people say that you can’t help anyone else if you don’t help yourself first. Words to live by. If you let yourself be totally worn down because you’re trying to support someone, you won’t be able to support them anymore anyways. Treat yourself especially well, because your body and mind are experiencing a lot of stress.
- Check in with yourself. Don’t be afraid to take a step back when you’re overwhelmed, to take time for yourself away from the intensity of the trauma that’s going on. Ask yourself, am I taking too much on? Are the things I’m doing for this situation really helping; are they taking too much away from me? Am I taking advantage of the resources I have to support me while I go through? Am I allowing myself to accept that what I’m experiencing is really hard too? It’s so easy to get wrapped up and lose yourself in these situations.
- Don’t try to be the hero. If you have expectations of “saving” someone or “fixing” them, find a way to let those expectations go–because you’ll fail to meet them. This has been the hardest thing for me to accept: I cannot save people. No matter how much I want to, no matter how good of a person I am, no matter how much I love someone, I cannot work miracles. And that really sucks. I find myself thinking, maybe if I try one more time, or maybe if I do this thing for a little bit longer next time, or if I finally find the right words, I’ll break through and my loved one will reach a turning point. But in reality, I can only love them, and offer as much support as I can without compromising my wellbeing. This isn’t to say that the support you offer has no value, because that’s not the case–I know the ways I’ve supported loved ones have been invaluable, but no one will heal until they are ready; no one will overcome their problems without facing them, and some things can only be done for you by you. If you take anything away from this article, let it be this: you cannot save people, you can only love them.