It happened, but I can’t get over it


When we think of trauma, we think of the unspeakable, we think of unbearable hurt and pain, we

think of the worst of the worst; then we stop thinking, we stop feeling, we go into denial. Due to

this denial, survivors of trauma work very hard to push through their experiences on their own.

Why do we deny? While there is no one real answer to this, fear is a large factor; fear of pain,

fear of suffering, fear of powerlessness and lack of control. If this happened to this person, it can

happen to me and now I am fearful. Not a very nice feeling to have for long, so we deny the

survivor’s experience; it did not happen the way they remember, they asked for it in some way, I

am different, therefore it will not happen to me. Now I feel better! You’re wondering about this?

Let me tell you about the people who don’t deny and support the trauma survivor through their



As a mental health therapist, I am trained to deal with my client’s trauma. I have spent

considerable time working through and processing my feelings around my own experiences of

trauma so that I am better equipped to help my clients work through theirs. Is this fool proof?

The answer is a definite no. As with all people, therapists are subject to life stressors, health

problems, etc., so vicarious trauma is a possibility for people in the field of mental health.

Vicarious trauma is something that happens over time in response to the traumatic stories of

others. For friends and family that are exposed to their loved one’s trauma, secondary trauma is a

possibility. Secondary trauma is more immediate and can happen when exposed to just one

traumatic story. When confronted with horror, it makes sense that we would choose to deny it in

some way, shape, or form.


Denial doesn’t just come from others; it can come from the survivors themselves. After a trauma,

survivors are highly vulnerable and more often than not, are not supported in a positive and

validating environment. Again, this is usually due to the people around them not being able to

deal with the reality that their safety is at risk too. When this occurs, survivors can become

entrenched in a spiral of shame and confusion. Confronted with the denial of others, survivors of

trauma start to question their experiences (confusion) and worse of all start wondering how they

may have caused it to happen (guilt). This brings up huge feelings of shame; I did something

bad/stupid, others think I did something bad/stupid, therefore I am bad/stupid. Except it was not

their fault! Someone else chose to violate them! Often survivors of trauma are unable to come to

a fair assessment of their conduct (unrealistic guilt) and balance this with denial of responsibility.

They did not seek it out by anything they said or did, but faced with a less than supportive

environment, their own unrealistic guilt, survivors emotionally shutdown, try to tell themselves

and others that the trauma really wasn’t a big deal, and become numb in order to cope.


This is what re-traumatization looks like. The first trauma, if dealt with right away in a

supporting and validating environment can be healed with minimal effort; when it isn’t, the

second trauma that occurs, the re-traumatization, is harder to heal as the shame the survivor feels

is compounded daily by the judgement of others who are unable to deal with or accept the reality

of the traumatized person. It has been reported that survivors of trauma that do not have

supportive families are at increased risk for persistent post-traumatic symptoms.


Then we have the justice system. This is a system that we as a society count on to charge the

perpetrator and put on trial so that the perpetrator pays for the pain and suffering they have

caused to an innocent person. It’s not a terrible system unless you are a traumatized individual

that has to go through the process to get the justice they seek; then it becomes a place of

nightmares. We see this re-traumatization clearly as traumatized individuals move through the

court process. Our justice system works on the premise that a person is innocent until proven

guilty; great! But this means that it is upon the survivor and their legal team to prove that their

story is true. On the other side, the perpetrator’s legal team is formulating questions that will

poke holes in the victim’s story. So now the trauma survivor has to convince people that they are

not liars; that their experience is valid and it is as they say. This is where re-traumatization occurs

and can be even more devastating than the initial trauma; I think it is safe to say that it is more



Survivors of trauma need to understand that what they are feeling is normal. Experiencing

trauma can make a person feel very isolated, powerless, that their sense of self has been

shattered, that they are disconnected from others, and that they cannot trust anyone. The focus of

the victim is to establish a sense of safety and to regain some sort of security. After a trauma has

occurred and a sense of some safety and security has been established, it is imperative to move

into rebuilding some form of trust. Reconnecting with people after a trauma is also a primary

necessity as being able to trust someone helps us feel safe and protected. Studies show that

survivors of trauma that have supportive people in the aftermath of trauma report shorter times of

recovery! The kind of support is key to this recovery and even with supportive family and

friends, it is important that you seek professional help. Therapists are trained in trauma and better

equipped to help you navigate through the thoughts and emotions you are experiencing. Family

and friends are a great support, but the journey towards real healing takes its toll on those we

love too.


Is there someone in your life that is trying to cope with a trauma and you are wondering how you

can support them? First off be aware of your responses to the survivor’s story. It is very normal

for family, lovers, or friends to be over protective which can impede the survivor’s ability and

need to reestablish their sense of autonomy. This can take the shape of aggressive outbursts, the

family insisting on deciding their own course of action, or an intimate partner attempting to seek

revenge in spite of the survivor’s wishes. It is imperative that as a supportive person that you do

not override the survivor’s wishes as this only compounds the trauma by further disempowering

them. Giving support to someone that has been traumatized is like walking a tight rope as even

positive affirmations (they are not at fault) can trigger the survivor’s shame and guilt. This is due

to the survivor’s focus on fairness of moral responsibility; did I do something to make them do

that to me? Am I certain that I did not create a misunderstanding? The thoughts and feelings

around the trauma can be very complex for the survivor, so it is important to remain neutral in

your support.


Here are a few more tips to providing someone with a safe space to share their story:

  • Let them know that you are there for them and that they do not have to go through this


  • Actively listen. This means that you just listen and do not assign blame! When we are just

able to listen, this can allow the survivor to work through the experience and hopefully

can come to a realistic judgement of their conduct and a fair understanding of responsibility.

  • Empathize. Do not tell them you understand! Everyone’s experiences are different. Let

them know that you can imagine the pain and suffering that they are experiencing.

  • Validate. Suspend what you believe or don’t believe. This is where you are letting them

know that whatever they say is the gospel truth.

  • Support them in actively seeking out resources, such as a therapist.


The good news is that you can come to terms with the traumatic experience and create a new and

better future for yourself. If you are suffering symptoms due to a traumatic experience, know that

you are not alone and you do not need to go through it alone. Seek help right away! The sooner

you get the support you need, the faster you will recover. At Interactive Counselling, our

Kelowna counsellors are trained professionals that can support you through your journey of

healing and empowerment.

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