One of the most challenging things to navigate in helping people cope with their trauma is addressing the sensitive issues that come up when someone is actively doing things that make stressful or traumatic situations worse.
Many trauma victims will find themselves in abusive relationship after abusive relationship. Even those who don’t repeat their abuse through dating will sometimes find themselves self-sabotaging. This is because the behaviours that help people survive childhood trauma, toxic friendships, or domestic violence often don’t work well outside of those contexts.
Someone who was taught to be silent about their needs to protect themselves from anger, rejection, or other harm might find it hard to set and establish boundaries, making them an easy target for abusive relationships later in life. Someone who learned to act out as a child to get parental attention might intentionally make friends or bosses angry and not understand why they’re doing it.
Personally I struggle with needing a sense of control and being terrified of failure. I grew up in a household where the consequences of failing to live up to my mother’s standards were horrible, and that has led to some pretty unhealthy perfectionism and procrastination as an adult. I find myself not getting projects turned in at work, or not studying for exams at school. If I don’t bother trying, I can’t fail. I feel like I have control over the outcome. If I tried my best, I couldn’t control my boss’s reaction to my work, or the result on my exam. If I don’t try at all, at least I can guarantee I’ll fail the exam and my boss will be mad. Getting a sense of control wherever I could find it helped me cope with a controlling parent in childhood. Perfectionism and procrastination helped me cope with the unrealistic standards I was held to. None of those things help me cope with being an independent adult balancing school and work, trying to succeed at both.
These kinds of behaviours can be incredibly destructive. The worst part is that these patterns were developed during abuse and often have been a part of our natural behaviour for so long that we don’t even notice them. If we don’t recognise the ways in which we sabotage our own success and happiness, then we can’t begin to change. Sometimes it’s really helpful to get outside perspective from a trusted source.
The problem is that there’s a fine line between someone providing some much-needed tough love in the form of a healthy dose of perspective, and victim-blaming. Helping someone who seems to always end up with abusive partners recognise why they’re so drawn to abusers, and how their own behaviours make them an appealing and easy target can empower them to make better dating choices in the future. It can also backfire horribly and turn into blaming the person for being abused.
So how can you help someone recognise how their own behaviour is contributing to their problems without blaming them for their trauma?
Let them be the one to bring it up first. Giving unwanted, unsolicited advice to people is condescending and invalidating. It can be incredibly painful to sit with your feelings of anxiety as you worry about the consequences of the choices your loved one is making, but ultimately it’s their life to live and you don’t have the right to control them or impose your own beliefs on them. When they are ready to talk with you and seek out advice, they will.
Focus on the future. Instead of bringing up examples from the past and making the other person feel bad about the mistakes they’ve made (when they were just doing their best), focus the conversation on empowering them to make choices in the future that can help them live the life they want.
Validate their trauma. Nobody wants to be abused. Nobody wants to self-sabotage. Acknowledge that they are doing the best with the skills they have. Acknowledge that their behaviour patterns were formed to help them survive past trauma. Remind them that their trauma (including any recent trauma that may have resulted from unhealthy coping mechanisms) is not their fault.
Listen more than you talk. Ultimately they are the expert on their own experiences. Your distance from the situation may give you some extra perspective they can’t see, but it also means that there’s ways in which you can’t fully understand their experience. Let them talk instead of talking over them or rushing to offer advice. Sometimes what people really need is a good friend and a good listener as they figure out the solutions to their own problems.