It takes a lot of courage for a loved one to open up to you about a traumatic experience they’ve been through. Trauma can span a range of events like physical or emotional abuse, sexual assault, a car accident, a health crisis, a shooting, a natural disaster or the death of a loved one (just to name a few).
So when a person you care about decides to share their personal story, you want to respond to their pain in the “right” way — but it can be hard to know what that is. Often, in trying to be supportive, friends or family inadvertently say something insensitive that backfires and causes hurt instead.
Tovah Means, a trauma therapist at Watch Hill Therapy in Chicago, said many survivors never tell anyone what happened to them because they’re afraid they’ll be judged or blamed for it. Others choose not to speak up because they think what they’ve been through isn’t “that bad.” So if a loved one does confide in you, then you want to honor that.
“Your response has the power to show them that it’s safe to open up to people or that it’s better to stay quiet,” Means told HuffPost. “People don’t need advice, solutions, comparisons or trite comments about suffering. They need listening, empathy and support on their terms.”
Below, we asked trauma therapists to share the phrases to avoid when someone tells you their trauma story and what to say instead.
What Not To Say
“It could have been worse.”
In saying this, your intention may be to give your loved one some perspective or to help them find the “silver lining” in their situation. But know that these words can be harmful, as they minimize the very real suffering this person has endured. They may already feel like what they’ve been through isn’t serious enough to qualify as trauma — and by saying this, you’re only reinforcing that.
“People who share their trauma or concerns often hope to have their pain acknowledged,” said Abigail Makepeace, a Los Angeles marriage and family therapist who specializes in trauma. “Telling someone that ‘it could have been worse’ not only denies their need for this recognition, but if they’re experiencing sadness or resulting trauma, can compound feelings of shame.”
With these words, you’re unintentionally implying that they should actually be grateful for how things turned out rather than recognizing their suffering.
“Well, that happened to you because you did or didn’t…”
This type of comment falls under “victim-blaming,” which is when someone suggests that if a person had done something differently (had less to drink, didn’t stay out so late or left the toxic relationship sooner, for example) that the traumatic event wouldn’t have occurred. This is not only inaccurate — we can’t always prevent bad things from happening to us, no matter how hard we try — but it’s also insensitive.
“We live in an anxious society that teaches us that everything should be in our control, but that’s not reality,” said Tracy Vadakumchery, a licensed mental health counselor in New York who specializes in anxiety and trauma. “When we rationalize a survivor’s experience or look to assign blame to them, we’re beating a dead horse. Their experience likely created this distorted belief system already — that bad things that can happen should always be in their control.”
“The same thing happened to me or someone I know.”
It’s understandable that you’d want to show you can relate to what they’re going through on some level. But the first conversation about their trauma may not be the right time to disclose yours. You want to give the other person ample space to share as much of their story as they feel comfortable sharing without you interjecting.
“Although wanting to compare similar stories might sometimes come from a place of not wanting the survivor to feel alone, it can often make the survivor feel like you aren’t listening or that they have to switch from receiving care to giving it,” Means said. “When someone is telling you their story, resist the urge to bring yourself into it immediately.”
“People don’t need advice, solutions, comparisons or trite comments about suffering. They need listening, empathy and support on their terms.”
– Tovah Means, trauma therapist at Watch Hill Therapy
A future conversation may be a more appropriate time to share what happened to you. That said, if you think sharing a similar story might be beneficial in the moment, ask the other person’s permission first. “Keep it brief, refocusing on the trauma survivor,” Means added.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
People like to tell trauma survivors that their pain has meaning — that there’s some deeper reason this awful thing happened to them. It’s easy to fall back on well-worn platitudes when you’re at a loss for words. But know that these kinds of responses can be invalidating to a survivor. Plus, it’s not really your place to try to make sense of their suffering.
“Saying that things happen for a reason or some other hopeful but not helpful comment is often a response that is more about comforting the listener than the survivor,” Means said. “Bad things happen all the time, but that doesn’t mean there is some ultimate reason for it or some meaning to make out of it. It’s up to the survivor how they ultimately make meaning out of their trauma.”
“Wow, that seems like a lot. Are you getting help for that?”
Again, the intent here is positive: You want to ensure your loved one has the proper support they need to process what they’ve been through. And while it might make sense to encourage them to speak to a professional eventually, you also don’t want to give off the impression that you’re incapable of handling what they’ve just shared with you.
Consider, too, that you might be the first person they’ve opened up to so far. So such a question may be premature.
“Survivors mostly don’t share their trauma with others because they feel ashamed or scared that something bad happened to them and they feel worried about how others will see them because of it,” Means said. “This comment shuts down the conversation and can cause the survivor to not want to talk to you anymore about what happened. It also signals that you can’t handle what they are telling you.”
What To Say Instead
When someone you care about shares their trauma story with you, your instinct may be to go into fixing mode. Keep in mind that the person might not need solutions; they might just need support.
“It’s important to accept that there usually isn’t a quick or obvious solution to helping others heal,” Makepeace said. “Letting someone know that you’re sorry, care, and are willing to help can be powerful and provide much-needed acknowledgment and support.”
Here are some simple but powerful phrases to try:
“I’m not even sure what to say but I’m glad you told me.”
It’s OK — normal even — if you can’t find the right words and aren’t exactly sure how to respond. You can even say as much. By adding that you’re grateful they opened to you, you’ll help this person feel less alone and show them that their story is safe with you.
“Just letting them know that you are there for them and that you are glad they shared is enough,” Means said. “For example, ‘I know that must not have been easy to tell me, I am glad you did and I’m here for you if you want to share more.’ Support doesn’t mean solving their problems, it just means that you are solid enough to trust and bring hard stories to.”
“I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
Again, your response doesn’t need to be complicated — just compassionate.
“This is simple, but one of the greatest things to say to show up for someone telling their trauma story,” Vadakumchery said. “It shows that you acknowledge their pain and see the harm that their experience caused them.”
“I don’t know exactly how you felt, but if it were me, I would be so scared/sad/angry.”
Practice empathy for a moment by imagining what it might be like if you went through the same thing. Consider how you might feel in those circumstances.
“Maybe you would feel scared or sad. Maybe you would be confused and not know what to do. Maybe you would be angry,” Means said.
Then use this information to formulate your response.
“Just letting them know you are willing to put yourself in their shoes, even for a moment, can feel caring,” Means said. “Empathy can also look like a sad, caring or compassionate look on your face. It could be putting your phone down when you realize they need your attention. It doesn’t have to be wordy or sophisticated.”
“Is there anything I can do to support you?”
“Asking what they need shows that you respect how they decide to move forward with their story, and also that you’re showing up for them,” Vadakumchery said.
If you think your friend could benefit from talking to a mental health professional, you can gently suggest the idea of therapy. Try something like, “As your friend, I’m always here to listen and support you. But I can see you’re really struggling and I’m not an expert. I can help you find a therapist who specializes in this area if you’re interested.”
And even if your loved one isn’t sure what they need right now, checking in this way demonstrates that you care and are willing to help however you can, Makepeace said.