One of our most popular articles of all time is on Loving a Trauma Survivor. This article continues that idea — how to help a trauma survivor, in a healthy, positive way.
Loving a trauma survivor may mean you also want to help them in many ways. You may want to help them heal, help them live an easier life, and help them be happy! This is natural and usually comes from a loving, kind, generous place.
While your help and support can begin in wonderfully positive ways — do you ever feel concerned that your help may not actually be helping? Are you afraid you may enable negative behaviors? Do you worry that providing help will make you feel resentful?
What if your loved one is managing their trauma history, fears, anxieties, depression, or shame by using substances or alcohol, food restriction, overexercising, cutting, or other self-harming behaviors? Does that change your desire or willingness to help?
When it comes to helping a trauma survivor, we are going to cover a lot of ideas here! The goal is for you to understand how to help in a way that is beneficial to your loved one and takes care of you, as well.
In this article, you’ll gain clarity on:
- Understanding the concept of helping as it relates to trauma survivors
- How you can notice when you are helping in a healthy way in a relationship, and when that helping becomes harmful
- How helping trauma survivors can turn into a situation of negatively (for you or them) enabling
So how do we help a trauma survivor in a healthy way?
First, let’s define a few important terms (with the help of Merriam-Webster):
- CARING: feeling or showing kindness towards others.
- COMPASSION: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it. As Dr. Kristin Neff says: “First, to have compassion for others you must notice that they are suffering. If you ignore that homeless person on the street, you can’t feel compassion for how difficult his or her experience is. Second, compassion involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain (the word compassion literally means to ‘suffer with’). When this occurs, you feel warmth, caring, and the desire to help the suffering person in some way. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection are part of the shared human experience.”
- EMPATHY: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.
- HELPING: giving assistance or support to (someone); providing (someone) with something that is useful or necessary in achieving an end.
- ENABLING: providing with means or opportunity; to make possible, practical, or easy.
All of these terms defined above have positive connotations. They all start from the same place — a place of goodness, generosity, support, and understanding. Yet sometimes, what starts as the desire to help — can turn into crossed boundaries, resentment, and what has been coined in the mental health world as (negatively) enabling.
So, when does enabling go from having a positive connotation to a negative one?
According to Wikipedia, there are two ways to view enabling:
Positive enabling: As a positive term, “enabling” is similar to empowerment, and describes patterns of interaction which allow individuals to develop and grow.
Negative enabling: In a negative sense, “enabling” can describe dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but in fact may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem.
We are likely all aware of the negative connotation of enabling. But if helping and enabling start with good intentions — where do they go wrong? Let’s explore the progression.
Examples of helping, enabling, and compassion:
- If your child loses their job, and you decide to pay their cell phone bill while they are finding a new job.
- If your sibling is unable to pay their rent due to financial difficulties — and you decide to pay it for them.
- If your friend is having trouble caring for their child after school because they are ill, you do it.
These examples start with a hardship or difficult situation for your loved one. Because you love them, you have the desire to help. In an effort to HELP, you step in and do something they ideally would be doing for themselves.
So, when do helping and enabling become negative? How do you know it’s gone too far?
- You begin to feel resentment
- It’s extended a reasonable timeframe for you
- It negatively impacts your life
- You are helping so much that you have cushioned the recipient too much (what is too much?!) from the natural rewards or consequences of their actions
- You are attempting to control the situation or manage the outcome
- You are (unintentionally) making accommodations for a person’s harmful behaviors to self and others
Things to consider if the person you’re helping is a trauma survivor using something to manage their pain:
If you’re helping a person with no trauma history, or someone who has secure attachment, they are likely able to bounce back, and losing their job can be a minor setback that they can overcome fairly easily. Given their ability to regulate and hold hope in the world, it’s likely easier for you to set some parameters around your help. Here, your help will be likely easier for you to give and your loved one to receive.
Trauma survivors, however, have many more layers involved due to what happened to them. Trauma survivors usually lack hope that things will go their way and struggle to regulate their emotions. Trauma survivors are extremely resilient, although sometimes in a way that stirs their survival mechanisms (what they needed during active trauma) versus having healthy present-day coping skills and therefore, can even beget more trauma.
The trauma survivor you are helping may:
- be using a substance or other survival skill as a coping mechanism to attempt to manage their emotions or survive (such as food, drugs, alcohol, exercise, self-harm)
- have a changed nervous system from trauma, which has them operating from a place of fight, flight, or freeze
- be experiencing anxiety, depression, and isolation that is a response to the trauma
Because of these factors:
- Your help, enabling, may be keeping them alive! Without you, they may die from their addiction — for example, not having access to Narcan or clean needles.
- You may be enabling existing behaviors (such as drinking or using substances), enabling the increased severity of that behavior, or enabling the next behavior, which fuels addiction and causes everything else to get worse, too.
- This may be the first time this trauma survivor feels cared for. Trauma survivors long to be loved, and this help may feel like love — and they don’t want that ‘love’ to stop. They may do whatever they can for it to continue.
- Boundaries may be unfamiliar territory. You may feel like you are being taken advantage of, and it’s likely that the person ‘taking advantage’ does not have a clear understanding of what boundaries are because they were never taught.
Some tips on how to help in a healthy way…
While deciding to help:
- Check-in with yourself: Why are you helping? Why are you really doing this? (If you are doing this because you feel guilty, because you want to feel needed, or because you have a desire for control, then you may need to address your own trauma history and how you will help yourself first.
- Check-in with how it makes you feel to help. What do I notice on the inside, in my body, when I think about helping in this way? Pay attention to your comfort level, and to what amount of help feels good to you.
- Set boundaries around what your help will look like. When you’re in a relationship with a trauma survivor, you may feel bad for them because of what they’ve gone through. You may then help in a way that pushes your financial or emotional comfort level. Do you know what your boundaries of comfort are? If you push through your own boundaries, it can leave you feeling resentful. It can also diminish their responsibility and shield them from consequences that are often necessary to help them grow and learn.
It’s essential to protect yourself, your loved one, and the relationship — and boundaries are the only way to do that. Boundaries take care of you, them, and your relationship. So, if you are going to pay a bill, state up-front what you will pay — and then adhere to that boundary.
- Gently challenge unhealthy behavior. Our job in loving a trauma survivor is to not only be a cheerleader but also to support and challenge. Showing love is sometimes about compassionately voicing the hard truths. “I see that you are drinking often. I want to support you. I cannot do (blank) until I know you are getting help for the trauma that happened to you so that you can find other ways to manage your pain.”
- See the reality of your help. Is your help actually helping? Looking at things objectively might mean having hard conversations and adjusting the scope of your help moving forward.
- Try to address the root issue. Helping trauma survivors by paying their will not help them heal unresolved trauma or regulate their nervous system. If your help is not addressing the root cause of the trauma, then your ‘help’ may not actually help. Can you give the gift of therapy?
- Know that ultimately, this person is an adult who is responsible for themselves.
Enabling starts with a strong desire to help.
Helping and caring are normal and beautiful parts of a healthy relationship.
And to foster the healthiest relationship possible, boundaries are always necessary!
What about the other trauma survivor?
For this whole article, we’ve talked about the trauma survivor who’s receiving the help … what about the unidentified trauma survivor in this situation (you)? It is traumatic to watch someone you love struggle! You may deal with feelings of guilt or powerlessness. You will have to hold firm boundaries with someone you love, which can be incredibly difficult.
No matter what, watching your loved one suffer is traumatic. How are you caring for yourself?
Robyn is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with 20+ years of experience providing psychotherapy, as well as the founder and clinical director of a private practice, Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. She and her team bring a strengths-based, trauma-informed, systems approach to the treatment of individuals (adolescents and adults), couples and families. She specializes in trauma (including attachment trauma) and the use of dissociative mechanisms; such as: self-harm, eating disorders and addictions. She also approaches treatment of perinatal mental health from a trauma-informed lens.
Robyn also guides clients and clinicians who wish to better understand the impact of trauma on mental health and relationships. She has a wide range of post graduate trauma and addictions education and is trained in numerous relational models of practice, including Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT), and Imago therapy. She is a trained Sensorimotor Psychotherapist and is a Certified EMDRIA therapist and Approved Consultant. Utilizing all of these tools, along with mindfulness and ego state work to provide the best care to her clients. She prides herself in always learning and expanding her knowledge on a daily basis about the intricacies of treating complex trauma and trauma’s impact on perinatal distress.
She frequently shares insights, resources and links to mental health news on Facebook and Twitter as well as in her blog at BrickelandAssociates.com
To contact Robyn directly: