On Facing Difficult Conversations from a Trauma Background

On Facing Difficult Conversations from a Trauma Background

If you’ve been following the Assertive Spirituality Facebook feed closely, you know I had one of those difficult conversations this week. Without sharing personal details about the encounter, I asked for support there. Because no matter how skilled you are and knowledgeable you are about conflict, these things are hard. That is especially true when there is a trauma background involved in the conversation—and there was on both sides of this particular encounter. This week’s long-and-raw but hopefully worth it article will give you the embodied experience of how I felt and prepared and reacted to this particular difficult interpersonal conversation I had this week with a relative.

Initial Disclaimer:

I am me. You are you. As with anything in life, your mileage with any of the below may differ. But I suspect many of you have had your own difficulties and traumas and can relate to at least some of this. Even if not, you’re sure to have encountered people with similar situations, whether or not you realized it. Perhaps this will help you have a glimpse into their experience, and help you understand that at least in some situations, when we say things people do hurt us and/or we need support with difficult conversations and situations, sometimes it’s super concrete.

Part 1: The Situation

Sometimes your head decides you need to have a particular difficult conversation, but your body revolts. See, although for various reasons it took you a long time to figure it out, stress responses—felt bursts of bodily energy in response to felt threat—are very strong in this particular relationship, and your body is intensely nervous for you.

These responses to this person have been building up over months and years and decades, and these trauma symptoms don’t always take orders from you well, much less from anyone else. (Little stubborn bastards!)

Part 2: Checking in with What Your Body Has to Say

Because you’ve done your work and put in your time (oh, so much time!), you’ve learned with time and mindfulness meditations and EMDR trauma therapy combined with other methods to thank your body for its strong message and then to judge with your head and emotions together what to do. So you’ve considered carefully if your body can handle this interview.

You have plans to monitor closely and back out or leave early if your body revolts too hard, but you’re planning to stick it out unless the trauma symptoms hit a particular threshold.

Part 3: Following That Still, Small, Potentially Off-Base Voice Because Things Might Go Well

You happen to have expertise in stress, trauma, and conflict communication, which helps a ton with your head’s decision—on some level, in some part of your psyche, you know that at least the knowledge and skills and practices are under your belt. That small voice is the one you’re following now.

The rest of you—mind and emotions and body—is not so sure it’s a good idea. And it has been letting you know that for about a week and a half leading up to this conversation. You’ve been politely thanking it and then ignoring those symptoms as well as you can. Which has not been easy, what with poor sleep and localized trauma pain and a few other unpleasantnesses.

But it’s not yet met the symptom threshold you’ve set for yourself. And it’s not nearly as bad as it would have been weeks or months or years ago.

Part 4: Looking for Informational and Emotional Support

So you seek outside help to stay steady and strong and boost up the signal of that little part of yourself that’s resolved to go through with this conversation.

It’s now August, but you’ve been thinking about (and debating and holding in tension) talking to this relative again since at least June. And so you’ve done what you can to prepare intellectually and emotionally for what you can.

You specifically sought out expert advice on how to listen and talk and manage the emotions of such conversations. (You know because you’re an expert that other experts’ advice can be intensely valuable, and also that you can sift through.)

You’ve also been gradually seeking social support. You grew up as a pastor’s kid, knowing the hurt and help that can be caused by disclosure, so you do this in discreet ways, offering more details to audiences you trust and fewer to those you don’t. In these responses, you filter through the ones that are more helpful than others.

Part 5: Assessing Whether You’ll Be Able to Avoid the “Hitting and Biting”

So yes, your body that is speaking up loud and clear—whose negative assessments of the threat of this conversation may well be valid; you don’t know yet—has gotten plenty of counter messaging. You know this is necessary so you don’t unintentionally sabotage the situation.

See, it’s not just your physiology that is being potentially untrustworthy in this situation. You aren’t sure you trust your psyche’s response, which may filter out into saying things you would not normally say.

You make jokes with some supporters in your circle about leveling your expectations for at least no hitting or biting. This is funnier, in a dark humor way, knowing your history and this relationship and the context.

One of the lovely memes shared with me for encouragement! Love it!

Part 6: Assessing How Your Background Might Come Back Like a Bad Penny

See, you’ve been raised Christian Nice and your particular personality and family/community dynamics mean that even after all these years of teaching and studying and practicing power dynamics, you’re way more likely to put forth a sarcastic burn than anything else.

But while you want to put forth your inner badass by speaking truth to power, you also have a genuine concern about not displacing your emotions onto the other person through hurtful words and tones if you can help it. You grew up being hurt by many of these things, so it’s a strong value of yours to avoid that where possible. But situations of stress like this one throw that up in the air.

Words, communication—they’ve been your gig for most of your life. But in this moment, this conversation, even with intense preparedness and training, you’re not sure if you can trust yours today. You know that’s because all people are somewhat visceral and unpredictable at times.

Part 7: Assessing How the Relational/Power Dynamic History May Affect Things

There would be a risk of strong trauma response even if you didn’t have a history of this person’s traumas interacting in unpleasant ways with your trauma. Which you do. And power differentials making that worse. You’ve known this relative since you were a child, and it’s hard not to think and act like that scared kid again when you’re in this person’s presence. Especially when you’re planning to speak truth to them.

This person’s behavior, after all, is one of the key reasons why you became a conflict avoider and accommodator for years. And beyond even not being sure if you can trust your own reactions, it’s a ball of wax the size of at least Mars about how they’re going to react in the situation to having you speak your truths to them about the difficulties in the relationship.

Part 8: The True Wild Card: The Other Person

You have hopes for your own behavior, but theirs? Experiences have taught your body to respond this way, gradually over time. Ironically, it wasn’t just this person who taught it to do that—others who reminded you of this relative have added to the burden.

Part 9: BUT…

But you also know this person really well. This person’s voice has been one of the ones that has shaped you, which is a con, but also a pro. You know how to speak to this person as an audience. You’ve done the work and the research and thought through all the details a million times. You don’t believe they knowingly let their trauma issues interact with yours, or you would be staying far away. There are lots of bad experiences in which you and they have butted heads, but when you can get past the always-stronger response of the negative memories, you know there were good things as well.

Part 10: A Final Set of Anticipated Challenges

The other problem is that you’ve been trained to over-empathize. You also know that this person’s voice has had WAY more space than yours up till now. So you know damned well that any advice you’ve gotten about listening ought to apply more to them than to you in this situation. You hope it happens, but again, history has shown that could be a problem.

Part 11: Final Preparations

So you put on your armor: (1) comfy, meaningful to you clothing, (2) reminders of those supporting you, and (3) reminders that the goal is no hitting or biting, but that things really might not go as badly as you fear.

And you give space to your symptoms but decide to listen to that small voice that says it might go well despite expectations. You have a super-low bar for this interaction on purpose, but even so, it’s worth trying. So you persist.

Part 12: The Encounter

And you get there.

It turns out the person was also actually preparing for this moment.

They are ready to listen. Not fake listening that fits any of the negative patterns of the past. Real listening, complete with real verbal and non-verbal listening responses that actually confirm your identity as well as your behavior and what you’re saying.

As a matter of fact, this person actually gives you space to do the bulk of the talking. It’s very weird to you, but also healing.

Because you happen to be an expert in stress, trauma, and conflict communication, and came ready to play to your strengths, ready to share and talk, the interaction basically a 3-hour interactive class on stress and trauma and how that all works and how it’s affected the relationship.

Part 13: The Results

The conversation’s actually fairly wildly successful.

The other person asks what actions they can take to improve the relationship, and when you suggest trauma therapy actually shows they are willing to take steps to go there.

Part 14: Waiting to See

Of course, you leave still cautious in your optimism—after all, follow through will be necessary for the relationship to dramatically improve, and habits and trauma responses are both difficult to dislodge and change. But you leave feeling lighter. Because things went well, sure, but even more so because you did one of the hardest things for you and made it through.

Part 15: Disclaimers Part Deux

Warning: For all the reasons implied above, not all difficult conversations turn out this well. It’s entirely wise to decide not to have such conversations, especially if you know they will damage you. I made this decision as a risk for a chance of possibly making things better in the relationship and to feel like I’d done everything I could and to hopefully contribute to my recovery. Your mileage may definitely vary.

And if your actions have hurt someone in a similar way, please know that it’s definitely not their responsibility to “fix the relationship” through having such conversations, and also that mutual consent is so important with these kinds of conversations. Please, please, please, especially if you’ve been in a stronger position or the more aggressive one in the past, if they do want to, come in ready to listen, and to listen well.

At any rate, that was my week. And even though it went well, I’m exhausted, so I’m signing off for now. I’d love to hear in the comments any of your similar or differing advice or stories, telling only as many details as you’re comfortable. As always, stick around, sign up for email, etc. etc. etc.

Thanks so much for listening, and keep on practicing #AssertiveSpirituality! Go team!

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3 thoughts on “On Facing Difficult Conversations from a Trauma Background

  1. I did 9 months of prep with a therapist who actually met with me to the encounter. After I’d stated my case, the offending party proceeded to talk non-stop for almost an hour and a half – saying NOTHING significant, unless you consider “I esteem you.” and “I just don’t know how to deal with you.” helpful. I left feeling satisfied I’d done the right thing in light of Matthew 18, but with no feeling of resolution or a path forward. So I’m leaving that situation and that person behind knowing I’d done my part to try to fix us.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear that you got that response to your thoughtful and courageous effort. You absolutely have done your part, and I’m so glad you’ve set up appropriate boundaries based on the response you got. That actually sounds like a resounding success to me in light of staying true to your values and doing what you could do. A lot of pain to sort through in those circumstances, though, eh? Sigh.

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