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How to Tell a Loved One About Your Trauma

The very first thing to keep in mind when you’re considering telling someone else about your trauma is that you are in control of who gets to know about your trauma. You can choose who to tell, how much to tell and have absolutely no obligation to tell anyone you do not want to tell.

1. Why do you want to tell someone?

It might be worth considering why you want to tell a particular person. Is it to feel closer to them? Is it because you could use some support? Are there triggers you want them to know about? Are you feeling a need to unburden yourself a bit? Knowing why you want to tell them can help you figure out what to say to them. For example, if you know that you want support, you can tell them about it and follow up with ideas of how they can support you. This is also a good opportunity for you to consider whether you actually do want to tell them, or if you’re planning it for a reason that you might regret, such as because you’ve been pressured into sharing your story because you’ve been told “you have to do it in order to heal.” It’s okay if you’re not ready to talk about it. Please, do not force yourself to talk about something you are not ready for.

2. Decide how you want to tell them

Now, if you have decided you still want to talk about your trauma to someone, and you feel like you understand why you want to do it, the next step is to decide how you want to tell them. Maybe it would be better in person. Maybe it would be better by phone. Or by text. Or in an email. Or even in an old school letter. These are all valid options, with advantages and disadvantages.

3. Plan and practice what you’re going to tell them

Whichever you choose, it’s likely a good idea to write down what you want to tell them, beforehand. It doesn’t have to be written in clear sentences, it could just be in bullet points. This will help you to organize your thoughts. This will also help if you get overwhelmed when you begin telling them, as it will give you a reference point to get you back on track. If you are reading from a statement that you wrote, you can let them know that this is the easiest way for you to share this information. If you are able to, you should practice telling them by saying it out loud if you will be telling them in person or on the phone.

4. Think about what you need from who you’re telling

Think about what you need from the person you’re telling when you’re sharing with them. It might be best to tell them what you would need before you get into talking about harder things. For example, if you begin struggling and having a hard time speaking, is it better to get words of encouragement from them or would you rather they sit quietly so you can think? When I was first telling one of my friends, I told him that it would be hard for me to talk about and that I needed him to just listen even if I went quiet and that I would tell him when I was ready for him to talk.

It’s okay to change your mind during the conversation too. If you tell them that you need them to just listen, it’s okay to change your mind and tell them “I could really use some validating words/encouraging words/a hug” right now. The bottom line is to communicate.

Think about what sort of support you want from whoever you’re telling, so you can talk to them about it. A lot of people tend to feel helpless when learning about someone’s trauma and being told how they can be supportive to you will help them and you. Part of your planning can be figuring out what to tell the person you’re talking to about how they can help you.

5. Set things up to help them go smoothly

Try to pick a time that will work well for both you and the person you’re telling. This means allowing for time to process things, time for them to ask questions, and so on. If you are seeing your friend for a 30 minute lunch break, this might not be the best time to talk about your trauma. It’s important you do not feel rushed. You might need to do something afterward to help your mental state or that of the person you’re telling, and if you have limited time, that may add to your stress. If possible, choose an environment that will make you more comfortable. A place where there are loud noises or other distractions may make it frustrating or extra stressful to talk about difficult things. If you are telling multiple people, such as a group of friends, consider whether you want to tell them one at a time, all at once, or perhaps a few at a time. Telling them one at a time may make it less overwhelming for you, or it may be easier for you to just have to explain things once, just to give two possible reasons for different approaches.

Overall tips

As you’re thinking about what to say, remember that you are in control of how much someone gets to know. You may decide to share things in a lot of detail, or in very little detail. Certain particular parts might be especially hard for you to talk about, and require you to get through quickly, with a minimum of detail. You don’t have to tell everything at one time. You might want to tell someone in stages. For example, the first stage might be “something happened to me, and I’m not ready to talk about the details yet, but I could use some support/extra love/whatever else you might be needing.”

One thing that might be good to bring up is whether there are any triggers you want people to be aware of. For example, you might want to avoid going to certain places or things like that. If you have flashbacks or other symptoms they might witness, it is good to talk about this, and help the person to understand what to do if/when a flashback happens. When I’m having a flashback, my partner helps me ground myself and he knows that I cannot handle being touched in those moments. Knowing your limits and what can help things be easier for you is good information for them to know. If what you need when something like that happens is space, be sure to let them know.

It’s okay to have limits on what you’re willing to share, and it’s okay if you cannot or simply do not want to answer some questions people may ask you. You should also let the person you’re telling know that if they feel uncomfortable with what they’re being told, at any time, they should let you know. It’s important that they be in the right mental state to handle whatever you’re about to tell them. If they need you to stop telling them about it, that’s okay. It might be overwhelming to them because of their own experiences or something else that isn’t even about you and what you went through. It might be that they need time to process what you’re telling them, especially if they had no idea it happened (making it a shock for them) or it involves someone else they know (meaning it might change how they view that person). Hopefully, they’ll be able to continue listening about it later.

At the end of the day, do what you need to in order to be as comfortable as possible. While telling someone can really help, make sure you are not just telling someone because you’ve been pressured by another person or even societal expectations. Rushing into it before you’re ready could make the experience more upsetting. Remember that it is up to you what you share and who you share it to. You can share as little as you want, even nothing at all, and no one is entitled to your story.

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