What Ukraine can teach us about minimising our trauma

March 22, 2022

“At Least You’re Not In Ukraine, Right?”

Sound familiar?

You might have said this to yourself in days gone by, because what happened to you couldn’t be nearly as bad as what you’re seeing on the news. Or maybe your heard yourself saying it out loud to a friend; because their problem can’t possibly measure up to the experience of what you’re seeing others have to go through at the moment.

This mentality of minimising ours or another’s experience in favour of another’s worse experience is not a new phenomenon. Responding to people who disclose to you that they are struggling with trauma by responding with phrases such as “it could be worse” or “just focus on what you do have” are common ways we minimise our own, and others feelings.

When we’re uncomfortable, we minimise

It’s an understandable position that some might take – and one that often comes from a place of deep empathy. With so much terror and violence devastating the lives of innocent Ukrainians, how could we possibly be depressed? We live in Australia where we are extremely fortunate that our homes aren’t under enemy attack as we sleep. But in the throes of trauma, addiction, depression and anxiety, this viewpoint isn’t helpful. Comparing one’s problems to what’s happening somewhere else in the world won’t give clarity to someone living with mental illness. It makes things muddy, murky and minimising.

The other reason we minimise ourselves and others feelings comes down to a simple lack of understanding of trauma and how to respond when someone discloses they’re in pain. “Often a person who has disclosed a traumatic event, whether a recent event or a long time ago, wants to be heard,” says Di Young, senior psychotherapist at South Pacific Private. “It takes courage to tell their story. They will hope that you can sit with their pain, though many unfortunately can’t.”

Unless you work in a mental health role, it’s unlikely that having someone disclose trauma or mental illness to you is something you’re used to. So when we’re put into an uncomfortable situation like this, our instinctual way of responding may be off. This is where minimising someone’s experience (as a way of avoiding our own distress and discomfort) often comes into the conversation.

Many of us are naturally inclined to try and fix things, which can trigger minimising responses as well. But holding back and just sitting in the moment with the person can be difficult. “When someone tells you something significant about a traumatic experience, what they don’t need is advice-giving,” Young says. Even if it’s because we’re genuinely trying to help, it can often come off as judgmental or minimisation if we offer unprompted advice like “have you tried this?” or “why don’t you do that?”

Instead, Di says, we should take a moment to acknowledge the enormous trust placed in us by the person who has made the disclosure. The person sharing their trauma is often looking for validation and empathy, Di says. “They need you to listen and empathise, they need unconditional support and love.”

Understanding and acknowledging mental illness

The danger in minimising your own, or someone else’s feelings is that it compounds the shame and self-doubt that is often at the core of someone’s trauma, addiction or mental illness. But the fact that people elsewhere are suffering abhorrent violence, poverty or natural disaster, doesn’t erase a person’s history. It doesn’t make our own experiences less painful, or less important.

When we minimise someone’s feelings by pointing out how others are far worse off, it can actually be very damaging. Reactions like this are dismissive of a person’s pain, and suggest that they are to blame, and in control of their struggles or past history of trauma. By promoting this sense of shame and failure onto someone, the likelihood of them reaching out for professional help, plummets.

Phrases that minimise someone’s experience:

  • ‘There are people going through a lot worse’
  • ‘Maybe just try and snap out of it?’
  • ‘It can’t be that bad can it?’
  • ‘Try and focus on the good’
  • ‘Remember how fortunate you are’
  • ‘Find something to take your mind off it’
  • ‘But you’ve got so much to be thankful for’

Responses that acknowledge and validates someone’s experience:

  • ‘It must have taken tremendous courage to share this with me’
  • ‘I want you to know I deeply respect the trust you’ve placed in me by sharing this’
  • ‘Thank you for trusting me with this’
  • ‘I’m so sorry you had to experience that’
  • ‘You didn’t deserve that, and you deserve support now’
  • ‘I want you to know you’re not alone’
  • ‘You did what you had to do to survive’

Putting your pain into perspective

A wide range of experiences have the capacity to inflict long-term trauma, from sudden, life-threatening events to longer-term, ongoing traumatic experiences, such as recurring abuse or parental neglect. However, any situation that leaves us feeling overwhelmed, desperate and isolated can result in trauma. Trauma, addiction and mental illness are not a choice, which is why looking at these issues comparatively to devastating world events, simply doesn’t help.

Remember, no matter what is happening in the news, it’s always a good time to reach out for help if you’re struggling. If you’re concerned about a loved-one, or yourself, you can learn more here, or call us on 1800 063 332.

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