So many times I hear the phrase “I pity you”, in one form or another, for the trauma and abuse I suffered. It really is demeaning, if you ask me. While people think it is helpful, anyone who has gone through severe trauma would probably say otherwise.
Often I think people don’t know what to say, or they feel a heaviness that they don’t know how to deal with when they interact with a trauma survivor. In order to alleviate that in themselves, they dismiss what someone has experienced with useless memes, platitudes, statements, and pity. It might make them feel good, but unfortunately, the trauma survivor is on the bad end of that moment.
What Pity Feels Like
Pity feels demeaning to me. Maybe not all feel this way, but I really don’t want pity. My land, I’ve lived through the worst and I’m trying to go on in life. I’m really not wanting to be dragged down into that mud pit again. It was horrible the first time through, and reliving it is horrendous.
I’ll share some things at the end about interacting with trauma survivors, so keep reading.
Life is difficult enough without pity hitting you square in the eyes at every turn. To be reminded of this continually is like standing there with someone throwing dodgeballs at you all day long. These experiences are not fun.
One thing about pity is that it makes you feel less than or inadequate. It highlights the horrible shame one struggles with after experiencing some of the worst abuse known to man. Why would anyone think that bringing this up repeatedly is a good thing? I don’t get it. Again, this is often more about the discomfort someone else feels than what the trauma survivor feels. Their head may be in the right spot, but their heart is listening to the wrong thing.
Pity often feels like it defines your life in ways that were never under your control. Maybe no one understands this when they feel pity for someone, but I sure don’t want my life to be defined by these things. Hopefully, my life is much more than that, even if my struggles with past trauma cloud that view.
Forms Of Pity
1. I’m So Sorry
This is one of the forms of pity that I have heard so much, “I’m so sorry.” While I am sure someone is, for me it is not helpful. The pity feels icky and yucky to me. Honestly, I’ve been through so much that the pity feels unhelpful.
It feels like you’re sorry for a person that no longer exists in me. I’ve worked hard at healing all those past experiences and walking away from them in my life. The trauma no longer defines me. I’m not saying it doesn’t impact me, but to be defined by it is limiting. The “I’m so sorry” pity feels limiting.
Again, someone may mean well, but I think the line is easily crossed. It becomes more limiting and demeaning than helpful. Be very cautious that you don’t overstep the line here because some days as a trauma survivor, it is hard enough crawling up a muddy mountainside.
2. You Poor Thing
This form gets me the most, I think. Yes, I know that what I went through was horrendous. I lived it. In many ways, it was pure hell and torment. I do not like to be reminded of how much hell it was at every turn. The “you poor thing” form of pity does just that.
It feels as if someone dredged up the past stuff and then buried me under it. Some days I’ve got my life focused and looking forward, but when I hear “you poor thing,” it knocks me down hard. It takes the wind out of my sails and knocks my breath from my lungs.
I see many people doing this, and sometimes they do it via the charade of “oh, you had worse trauma than me. ” Okay, maybe that’s true, but trauma is trauma. We’ve all had something to deal with in life.
I’m trying to use what I went through to heal my life and help others heal. If you see me as a “poor thing” to pity, then the point of my life’s usefulness is diminished. It almost makes my life out to be meaningless.
3. At Least It Is Over
While you may not see this as a form of pity, I believe it is. When you tell a trauma survivor, “at least it is over,” you have no clue what that means. The events may be long over, but the memories and triggers rage on as if there is no tomorrow.
I think of a book by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, where he states the following about what traumatized people remember.
Traumatized people simultaneously remember too little and too much.The Body Keeps The Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
For most trauma survivors, life continues to be impacted by the horrific experiences they endured. To tell them it is over is a form of pity that does absolutely no good for them. It diminishes what they have gone through and treats it as if it never happened. To the survivors, it is not over.
Yes, many have or are healing, but even with the hard work, they still face so much in life that most do not. Pity that lives in a make-believe world, as if all the trauma is over, does far more harm than good to someone who is walking that journey.
4. Just Move On And Let It Go
This form of pity is insidious. It is inflicted on people while trying to act as the authority on them. Telling a trauma survivor to just move on and let it go is one of the most hurtful things you can say to them.
After all, most trauma survivors are looking for a way out of what they experienced. They are working to move on and let it go, but it isn’t that easy. Of course, we live in a day and age of platitudes, memes, and prayers that act as baseball bats to beat those with traumatic experiences.
People who use this form of pity have no clue what they are saying, but it doesn’t stop them. It takes about two seconds on social media to see this propagated. I’m so sick of it, and it isn’t just social media. I have seen this from well-intentioned healers and friends. In my mind, I wonder, “do they just not understand?”
Moving on from trauma is a journey. It takes people a long time to get to the point where the trauma doesn’t impact every part of their life. Even in those moments, it can rear its ugly head and trigger people back to what they have moved on from in life. It is not a simple one size fits all approach either, as many would have us to believe.
Sure, people might feel pity for someone that has been through trauma, but if you’re doing this you ought to stop it immediately. If you are aware that you are doing it (and you most likely are), then you need to wake up and stop doing it!
5. Just Forgive Them
This might not even be a form of pity, but I believe it is. Too many that feel bad for you just want you to shut up. It is their way of dealing with the horrendous things you’ve experienced.
It is also the way many deal with the family secrets of abuse. If they get you to “just forgive them” or, in other words, just shut up about it, they feel better. The pity becomes a way for them to close their eyes.
You may think this sounds harsh, but if you do there’s a good chance you are one of these people. I’m not sugarcoating this because I have seen it happen so many times to others and myself.
What Can You Do?
Focus On How Far They Have Come
I believe that a trauma survivor needs encouragement. They need heaping doses of it because the odds they have faced require more stamina than most people have. For a trauma survivor, each day can bring unexpected challenges that are exhausting. Even if you give a dose of encouragement today, tomorrow it may have been depleted.
Focusing on how far a trauma survivor has come keeps them looking forward with hope and possibility. It shows them and reminds them of just how far they have walked on their journey. Trauma tends to cloud one’s view of the journey, and when we (or you) focus on what has been accomplished, it brings everything into a more realistic view.
It Is A Journey
Recognize that for a trauma survivor, healing is a journey that doesn’t end. It may become less challenging, and the train station may appear farther in the distance, but the journey is real. If you act as if they journey isn’t real, then you are dismissing the experiences they have been through in life.
Realizing it is a journey helps but more importantly, understand that for each person, it is different. What one trauma survivor may experience and heal from is different than what another one faces.
Often I see people forcing a timeline of how quickly someone should be past all they have endured. From the outsider’s perspective, it is seen as if no progress is being made. To the trauma survivor, it may be that they are running 50 marathons a day. Until you can walk in their shoes, you will not understand their journey.
Speak From Your Heart
When it comes to pity, this is one of the most critical aspects that is missing. Yes, I know everyone THINKS they speak from their heart, but to be blunt, they don’t. Too many are disillusioned into seeing their pity as being helpful when it is nothing more than an added nightmare for a trauma survivor.
We all act as if we are better than we are, which is such a sad part of the human experience. These days, we are getting worse at that, and it is spinning out of control. We’ve forgotten how to speak from our hearts, and instead, the ego-based mind does the talking. We’re too asleep to see that we do this, but it doesn’t stop us.
Of course, speaking from your heart means that you have to be in touch with your heart. Many people think they are, but I hate to be the bearer of bad news: they aren’t!
There’s a statement that says, “healer heal thyself.” In many ways, this is so true because so many think they are helping, but they haven’t cleaned out their own closets. Some may think they have, but if you open the closet door, it is a nasty sight to behold.
When we speak from the heart, it isn’t the words that become important. It is the feelings and emotions through support that matter most. It is empathy that turns pity into strength.
Speaking from the heart is not about reciting platitudes, memes, prayers, and other pretty thoughts. It is sitting down with your arm around another and being there in support. When you do this, no words are necessary. The touch and energy are automatically recognized.
When we turn pity into strength, we enable so much more healing and growth in someone that is a trauma survivor. We bring hope and possibility to the light of day, and we drive the darkness out of existence.
May we all learn how to support one another and do it in an uplifting way, not ego fulfilling.