How to Understand Trauma: Why Empathy is Crucial to Trauma-Informed Care

Two women sit across from each other at a table in front of a window, deep in conversation.

All humans experience trauma at some point in their lives. It’s pretty impossible to get through life without experiencing loss, discrimination, danger, pain, fear, or sorrow. A moment or moments of powerlessness. Of course, not all of us process trauma the same way, but we’ve all been through something traumatic. We can leverage our unique experiences of trauma to express empathy.


Knowing how to understand trauma is critical to serving others, connecting with them through expressions of empathy. Others can’t teach us empathy or offer some secret to “making us care” about other people (and that wouldn’t work anyway). But people are born empathetic. It’s just a matter of learning how to enhance our ability to express it skillfully and with intention to connect with and develop rapport with those we serve. Rapport and connection are the number one indicator of a positive outcome in any service relationship. Science tells us this and likely your own experience. If we’re in a human services role, providing Trauma-Informed Care, empathy is a crucial skill to develop.


So, how do we understand trauma and express empathy? How do we work to build that all-important rapport?


Defining Empathy: Putting Yourself in Someone’s Place

Our simple and specific definition of empathy is the ability to deeply understand another person’s perspective and experience. In studies of very young children, empathy and prosocial behavior are evident. Empathy comes preloaded into our wiring. It is innate to human beings.


Empathy is how to understand the impacts of trauma and connect with others who may have unique experiences from our own.


But of course, as we journey into adulthood, some of that empathy might become harder for us to bring to the surface, especially when we might be interacting with someone who is feeling hostile, angry, and frustrated with the situation they find themselves in. We may not know how to understand their trauma, and we may struggle to relate. Understanding Trauma-Informed Care and the impacts of trauma on humans helps us to empathize with those we serve, even when our commonalities aren’t initially evident.


The number one way to offer effective Healing-Focused Care is by asking ourselves what our guess is as to what it would be like to be this person. What is our best guess as to how they would feel? What is implied by their words and behavior? What do we think they might be going through, and what would it be like to say the things that they are expressing? What is our intuition telling us?


When we start to put ourselves in the other person’s head and heart—asking ourselves these questions about their emotions and the impact of their experiences—we’re forming a complex reflection and learning how to understand trauma. We’re tuning in.


A complex reflection is the primary way that we express empathy. Complex reflections help us provide Healing-Focused Care, to be trauma-informed. We are not dismissing, judging, or assessing the traumas that may have been part of the served person’s experience. Instead, we’re looking at their traumas through a lens of deep understanding to intuit their emotions and impacts of experiences on the served person’s journey.


Empathy means we deeply understand the other person’s experience and perspective. It doesn’t mean we’re making a judgment or assessing that experience; we’re stepping back and understanding that each person processes trauma differently. We might not have the same experiences or reactions, but we can connect with how it feels to have the emotions that they’re expressing. We can see and respect them for who they are and what they’re going through. Healing-Focused Care is very much a human-to-human interaction.


When practicing Healing-Focused Care, we want to avoid making assumptions. Remember that it’s not about passing judgment, but we are making a guess or guesses as to how the other person feels. We’re not assuming but instead developing an informed hypothesis based on the implications of the person’s words combined with our intuition. When we marry what is implied by the words of the served person and our intuition together, out comes a complex reflection. We express empathy. Empathy leads to the person feeling heard and seen which leads to connection, a sense of safety in the service relationship. And trust developing over time.


How to Understand Trauma and Different Experiences

Almost all humans carry hidden traumas with them. These traumas might not readily surface most of the time. They can be largely invisible or masked as hostility, frustration, or indifference. A host of adaptive behaviors.


When we talk about hidden trauma, we often refer to it as “the invisible wound.” The word trauma means wound, and when we explore the concept of trauma, we learn how it’s typically an unhealed wound that humans carry with them. When people are in stressful situations, overstimulated, scared, or even when something seemingly innocuous occurs, it can retrigger that trauma. Sometimes triggers can come from a word, story, image, or interaction that isn’t obvious or clearly related to the past trauma. Triggers can be explicit or implicit.


The retriggering results in people acting grumpy, aggressive, or passive and checked out. If we want to get past that wall of protection, we need to tap into our innate capacity to express empathy.


When we’re offering Healing-Focused Care, we want to help people become aware of how the experience of trauma might be influencing their behavior. For example, they may use alcohol or drugs to mitigate the psychological and emotional pain they’re experiencing. They may isolate themselves or experience thoughts of self-harm or even other harm. In some cases, when we’re providing trauma-informed care, the served person may not readily recognize the connection of their behavior to their trauma.


In Healing-Focused Care, we want to help the served person tune into their resilience. Just as every human experiences trauma, every human has resilience or the ability to bounce back from a traumatic experience. That doesn’t mean that ability is evident to them at first, and it can take time and support, but it can begin a process of healing those wounds. Resilience is something that requires nurturing, support, and encouragement.


Even when wounds heal, there are always scars that remain. We can think of healing trauma as healing any wound. The scar may still be there, but the wound won’t be as easily triggered. Like a broken bone that’s healed—when a storm comes through, it may ache, but it won’t go into the same full-blown pain of the original break.


Identifying Our Own Trauma

As human service professionals, it’s essential to recognize that we often have our own unhealed trauma that we’re carrying with us. That trauma can help us empathize with the people we serve, but it can also be painful and difficult.


The first step as a professional offering Healing-Focused Care is to recognize our own trauma and take steps to begin the process of healing ourselves. We’ve discussed the importance of self-care and team wellness for providers to help us avoid compassion fatigue, burnout, and vicarious traumatization.


We need to recognize our own needs and the headspace and heart-space we’re working from, especially if we often want to tap into our empathy and compassion. Like the metaphor of the oxygen mask on a plane—it’s vital to put on our own mask first to ensure we’re in a position where we have reserves so that we can offer support to those around us.


Beyond focusing on Team Wellness and self-care, the next step is recognizing that trauma is a moment or moments of powerlessness. If we have a hard time relating to someone else’s experience or knowing how to understand trauma, we can remember the times when we felt powerless. We may not have the same experiences as the people we’re serving, but most of us have felt powerless at one point or another. We can leverage that feeling, those experiences to help us express empathy.


It’s important to focus the conversation on the needs of the served person (rather than focusing the discussion on our own experience). When providing Healing-Focused Care, we gain the skill of tapping into our past experiences and empathy, channeling those feelings as a way to relate to our fellow human beings in front of us. We want to make the conversation about the served person and their journey forward, not ours.


When we start to empathize and begin those authentic interactions, we’re on the path to building rapport and overcoming emotional barriers. We’ll offer more effective and efficient care and create a safer, more supportive space where sharing and healing can begin.


If you and your team would like to learn more about Healing-Focused Care, please reach out. We would love to facilitate your next team conversation about this vital work.


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