A while back, I came across a piece by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman that talks about how to behave in relation to another’s trauma.
Think about personal trauma like this: You drop a rock into a lake and that stone is the ordeal landing on the head of the person experiencing it. The ripples move outward, water closer to the impact point rippling more significantly than water a foot away.
Now apply this to personal trauma. The closer to ground zero, the more a person is affected by the trauma. A significant other would be close to the center whereas a next door neighbor would be further away. In this way, you can gauge the degree to which any given situation is impacting others and place yourself within that structure.
The rule is to not complain or otherwise vent your feelings about the situation on anyone closer to the trauma than you. Instead, dump your feelings about the situation on someone even less affected than you. To those closer to the center, give love and comfort and support.
And the person in the center whose trauma it is? They get to do and say and feel and be whatever they want. That is the benefit of being at Ground zero – nobody complains to you, gives advice, judges your behavior or otherwise sends negativity inward toward you.
Obviously there are limits to this, like how long the person experiencing trauma is at the focal point. Life moves on, people adjust and eventually things shift. If your beloved cat dies of old age, you probably aren’t at the center of things as long as you might be if your beloved cat was hit by a car at age five. Degree of trauma matters in terms of duration of the complain/support rule.
Having been at Ground zero more than once in the past few years, I can say with absolute certainty that people who respond to me with negativity or their own fears and reactions to my situation are not helpful. In fact, it often causes me to shut down and relegate that individual to a more distant sphere of my life. Make me cope with your feelings about my predicament? Go away. Decide you know better about my situation than me? It’s time for a friendship vacation.
Silk and Goldman do not touch upon one aspect of the situational dynamics. When those you would count on for support instead offer negativity and judgment, you are in a complicated place involving rocks and hard things. If you push the person away, then you lose any hope of gaining support in the future. If you tolerate the suboptimal behavior, then you open yourself to more of the same. At a time when what you need is propping up with love and comfort, you are not only getting something far less helpful, but you must also figure out how to handle it. Coping resources already stretched to the breaking point by the trauma have to now also withstand interpersonal drama.
Ground zero needs to be about the trauma not drama. Offer love, support, foot rubs and pot roast. Refrain from offering up yet more for the person with the trauma to handle. Make it your unspoken gift to them.