To My Survivor Friends,
We talk often about how our recovery partners, friends and family may not always say the right thing. We know they mean well, but it is difficult for them to understand our painful situation. They may trigger us with what appears to be invalidating or dismissive comments.
“If you just forgive, everything will be better.”
“Maybe you should just forget about the past and move on. It happened a long time ago.”
“Everyone is dealing with pain in their life.”
Even with these setbacks, you keep moving forward in recovery. And I am so proud of you for the work that you do. I personally know how hard it is to do this work every day. The emotional processing is devastating. The physical processing can be debilitating. We are left moving through the world with about half the energy and physical ability of a non-traumatized person, and that is on a good day. I get it. It sucks.
And it is easy to ignore it. We have been taught from a young age that we need to wear our masks. Our masks will protect us from others who won’t understand our reality, or worse, will blame us for it. Our masks will keep us safe from judgment and safe from our abusers who don’t want us to tell the secret. And dissociation helps with that. We can take all that abuse and shove it in a nice little corner of our minds. We can continue to live our lives with the emotional and physical ramifications of our unprocessed abuse, which seem so much easier than facing the other type of pain.
And yet, the mask doesn’t just hurt us. It hurts everyone else. Sure, it hurts the people in your life on a daily basis because you are still acting out your unconscious pain. But more importantly, it hurts other survivors.
If you are a survivor who loves to tell other survivors how you have “left your past behind”, “forgiven and forgotten” or “moved on”, please don’t. And for goodness sake, don’t tell other survivors “the past is in the past”. Don’t get me wrong, I know that living in the past gets us nowhere. But ignoring our past can be worse.
People don’t just flip a switch. It doesn’t work that way. There are too many belief systems that need to shift. There are too many emotions that need processing.
For the rest of us, there is a journey, a lifelong journey. It is a cyclical experience that can bring us back to our pain over and over again throughout our lives, each time making us a bit stronger than we were. And when you tell other survivors that you have “put the past behind you and moved on”, you are indicating that their pain is not necessary. You are invalidating their need to explore their past and come to an understanding. You are giving them the impression that they are not as good as you are because they can’t find that simple switch to flip. Worst of all, you are encouraging them to put their mask back on and pretend they are not in pain. And nobody ever heals that way. That only delays the healing.
So, if you don’t want to lay your cards down in the game of vulnerability, please keep your comments to yourself. You are not benefitting the recovery movement. You are not taking our society to the next level. You are not breaking the cycle. You are still a part of the problem.
I get that this is harsh. I know that I am triggered by survivors who wear the “completely recovered and enlightened” mask. But survivors can very easily trigger each other because there is a camaraderie between us. We have been to war. In some cases, it feels like we fought together. We have a closeness that is a special bond. And when one invalidates the others, it stings. It stings more than normal. And that’s why I felt the need to write this article. And I hope you will keep it in mind as you interact with your family of survivors.
And if someone vulnerably describes their pain to you, here are some examples of how you can respond:
“I remember feeling just like that … yesterday.”
“I know those emotions. I know them well. When they come around for me, I feel them in the pit of my stomach.”
“I can sense your strength when you tell me about your pain. You are an inspiration.”
“Thank you for trusting me to hold this space for you. I feel honored.”
Because if we can learn to validate each other, we can heal each other.
Love From Your Survivor Sister in Recovery