The Next Level in Meeting the Unique Needs of the Trauma-Impacted Person

two people holding hands heartily during therapy session in support group

My last few blogs have focused on considering how the needs differ for someone who has experienced significant trauma rather than if they haven’t had past trauma. It’s important to continue using the other levels: Trauma-Sensitive Listening, Establishing Safety and Keeping Your Distance along with Using Trauma-Sensitive Listening. The next level of responding is using Trauma-Sensitive Affirming.

 Affirming can seem like such an easy, natural form of communication that basically involves telling someone something positive. Often when people affirm, they use evaluative global absolutes, phrases that are so broad that say contain the maximum level of praise possible. Absolutes might sound like; “You are amazing!” “I can always count on you to take care of everything.” These comments show that the person on the receiving end has been judged or evaluated, even if that evaluation is positive in nature.

The problem with affirmations that are evaluative, global and/or absolute is that they almost never are completely accurate. No one is always perfect about something. No one is the smartest person in the world. We are very accustomed to all the evaluative, global absolutes commonly used like, “Wonderful!” “Beautiful!” “Perfect!” “You never…” “You always…” that are so definite as to leave no room for degrees. They represent a lack of continuum language, or levels of degrees.

Man giving hand to depressed woman,Mental health care concept

Because trust is such an important relational dynamic for anyone with unresolved trauma, phrases that are global and/or absolute (and therefore most likely are inaccurate) subtly tell the trauma-impacted person that those saying these things is not very trustworthy because they are inaccurate in what they are saying. While often being socially polite, the trauma-impacted person may be feeling less safe with this person who offers these kinds of absolute affirmations. It can be helpful to avoid using words like “always” and “never” or implying these along with broad, glowing evaluative words like, “perfect,” “the best,” “the greatest,” “the only.”

It must be considered that being trauma-sensitive when affirming can feel overwhelming as well as untrue because that person’s inner world knows these messages are inaccurate.

It is possible at some later point when the person is at a different level, these might be well-received if the trauma-impacted person has gained both trust and respect for the responder’s thoughts and opinions, especially if they are not so global or absolute. For example, “You usually are very caring,” decreases the degree to which that statement is absolute and leaves some wiggle room for not being something the person feels they must always be.

Trauma-sensitive affirmations are often given in the form of I-messages, meaning these are your reflections versus statements of fact. They often include the words, “I noticed…,” or “I think…,” or “From my perspective…” These statements usually need to be said in a more tentative way, sometimes focusing on potential rather than actual, on something that happened in the past or might happen in the future rather than in the present.

Receiving Listening and Affirming responses can help meet the deep longing a trauma-impacted person must feel to be understood, to have the freedom to be open and transparent about deeper and more important feelings and experiences, feeling appreciated and perhaps most of all, feeling safe in the relationship with another person and therefore connected. These responses, delivered at the right time and in the right ways, can help meet core needs to have a safe, meaningful connection with another human being.

An awareness of giving trauma-sensitive affirmations can be helpful just in general when affirming someone, even if the person does not have unresolved trauma.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. As you read the information about words and phrases that are more evaluative, global and/or absolute, did you become more aware of some of your own language? If so, in what ways?
  2. Have you noticed how you feel when someone offers evaluative, global and/or absolute affirmations to you? Can you see how being less evaluative, more specific and more tentative might be more accurate and palatable?
  3. Can you appreciate how the trauma-impacted person might feel less safe and less connected in relationships where these affirmations are offered? 
  4.  Be an observer to the conversations around you, noting how often people are evaluative, global and/or absolute. Practice reframing some of the ways they are speaking into language that is more descriptive, more tentative and more specific. Practice reframing your own language to becoming more continuum-focused.