Shedding Light on the Trauma After the Trauma
“Your response to trauma can make or break the healing process.”
– Debbie Happy Cohen
When someone’s been physically abused – and they reach out for help – the looks on the faces of helpers around them will usually reflect a sense of comfort, concern, warmth, solidarity. The message is: I see you, I see you are hurting. I am here. I want to help. This is validating to the person who was hurt. Validation creates a sense of relief, and the person will likely offer up their wounds (physical and emotional) to be healed. This is trust, and further healing can grow from that sacred space.
However, when someone’s been invisibly hurt (gaslighting, coercive control, ambient abuse, narcissistic / emotional bullying, etc.) and they reach out for help, the looks on the faces of most helpers are inconsistent at best, and invalidating at worst. The messages that are frequently communicated include: Are you sure? It wasn’t that bad, was it? People suffer much worse things than you do. You’re smart, you can figure this out. Why aren’t you over it already? Let go of the past. You know, you have a part in this, too.
Invalidation can occur during the abuse as well as long after the abuse, when all that remains of the past is a person’s story and her beliefs. In my experience, the overlooked invalidation that occurs after invisible abuse is harsher than the abuse itself. To make things even more challenging, especially if the “invisible abuse” began in childhood, the person probably doesn’t have the language to accurately describe the pain or their needs. They aren’t emotionally literate in that way. They will need to be taught emotional literacy. If they are seeking help, they do want a change to happen, but they can’t necessarily articulate it to the helper. Invalidation during the healing process will likely prolong the pain and can exacerbate it.
Here’s what you need to know:
Shame thrives in the state of aloneness inside of one’s self-attacking programmed perceptions. Unhealed shame roots and digs its tendrils deeper – and becomes more toxic – and more invisible – as time goes by. An inner cave is created. Then, an inner cave inside of the first cave becomes home. The deeper the shame, the deeper the caves. This is where codependency is born (you have needs, I don’t; you can be seen, I can’t). Layers of unspoken grief fill the walls.
“This compulsive and automatic concern for the needs of others while ignoring your own is a major risk factor for chronic illness.”
– Dr. Gabor Mate
We are social creatures. Community isn’t just helpful, but essential, for grief to process itself through our bodies and through our psyches. Validation is a necessary and gorgeous healing balm which pokes holes into the darkness, shedding light and letting oxygen in. Unfortunately, validation is frequently shunned in our cultural mindset of “independence at all costs”, where we are rewarded for appearing strong and punished for appearing weak.
What does appearing weak look like? Expressing (through words or non-verbal cues) any or all of the following messages:
“I need validation.”
“I need to feel seen and heard.”
“I’m feeling ashamed and I can’t explain why.”
“I’m stuck inside of an old pattern.”
“This very old memory still hurts.”
“I still feel sad.”
Invalidation can look like changing the subject, turning away, a look of blankness, reflective words that don’t match the traumatized person’s experience. Invalidation can look like defensiveness on the part of the healer, rather than a welcoming invitation for the person to share further. Invalidation can occur not only among friends (who honestly can’t be expected to handle deeper levels of toxic shame) but it is rampant among therapists, healers, psychologists and psychiatrists. Especially when the abuse is “only” invisible.
Reaching out for help is a huge risk because further invalidation can perpetuate the dangerous belief, “It really was my fault.” This, of course, exacerbates toxic shame. Which makes even the thought of reaching out that much harder. And lonelier. Rather than feeling safe, the invalidated person experiences a double bind (no-win). (They may even want to apologize to YOU for disappointing you or overwhelming you or making you feel uncomfortable.) This is all too familiar. I would even venture to call it a lifestyle. For many traumatized people who I call “the invisibles,” this really is a daily harsh reality. If you are one of those people, I wrote this essay for you.
I wish for you the courage to turn within and see the beauty that you are.
I wish for you relationships which encourage you to speak your deepest truth.
I wish for you all the love in the world.
ps. Note to therapists and healers:
If you’re a therapist, healer, coach, etc… and you are doing your best to be supportive… and you aren’t sure what a client is feeling or experiencing… if you feel defensive or even clueless… just offer up these 3 magic words: TELL ME MORE.
The person in front of you is so used to being misunderstood that those words will feel like a whole new world. They will feel like a magic wand. They will feel like an oxygen mask in a toxic underworld. These words will open gateways to deeper trust and more healing. And the sooner healing happens, the sooner the client will be able to focus forward, on the future they CHOOSE to create. That’s when the FUN happens. Your job then becomes a joyful process of equipping the client to take healthy external risks and building the life they want. At this stage, they will not sabotage their own efforts, but small successes will build on each other. Facing forward with joy is the aim of healing. They are worth it, and so are you.
Keywords for therapists: double binds, gaslighting, emotional flashbacks, dissociation, toxic shame and CPTSD. Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD, and Christine Louis de Canonville’s book, When Shame Begets Shame, are both excellent resources.
When I searched for images for this page, V for Vendetta came up, as well as what I consider the superpower of invisibles: an extraordinary ability to bring magic, light, clarity, truth and wonder into their relationships and into everyday living.
Here’s what being invisible can feel like:
Quotes from V:
Magic and wonderment: