In this short series of exploring trauma informed ways of being, we are being invited to think about developing what it is that sits behind was has been termed Trauma Informed Practice (TIP).

#1 started us off with sitting in a place of love and curiosity, not fear and judgement
#2 helped us think more about awareness
#3 asked us to think about the dance between reflection and action

Setting the scene in thinking about TIP, each post in this series will remind us what the 6 guiding trauma informed principles are that have been developed by the CDC and SAMSHA. These are:

Trustworthiness & transparency
Peer support
Collaboration & mutuality
Empowerment & choice
Cultural, historical & gender issues

For #4 I’m going to invite empathy into the room.

What is it? Empathy is often described of as the ability to stand in the shoes of another while trying to imagine what it is they are feeling or experiencing. It involves standing alongside another with compassion and ‘being with’ them wherever they are at. It is not about fixing, controlling, silencing or cajoling and it is not always easy.

We all have tendencies towards behaving in ways that can make empathy a challenge. I for one can be very practical and set about the business of sorting things out. I have definitely improved over the years but the tendency to ‘fix’, having written a long list about what needs to be done, is never far. What about you? What tendencies do you have that need keeping an eye on when you are being called to stand ‘with’ someone in pain?

Empathy is often mistaken for sympathy. Brene Brown’s video helps unpick this.

Here’s the messy stuff. Empathy is not about collusion, having blurred boundaries or preventing someone from benefitting from the learning that is available to them. Empathy is connection in the moment which opens the door for what many refer to as co-regulation, which then leads the way to any difficult conversations that need to be had. I prefer to think of empathy as making a space for deep resonance; that beautiful moment when you both hit the same note at the same moment and have that deep understanding that in that moment, there is no judgement, no fear and no them and us. We are just humans together, doing our best with what we have and where we are.

Why is empathy so crucial in trauma informed ways of being that sit behind trauma informed practice? Because where there has been trauma, there can be behaviours that we can find challenging. Bringing empathy into that sentence would be to change the word behaviours to adaptations. Surviving trauma requires adaptations that support surviving trauma, yet often those adaptations do not work so well when in other situations. Empathy helps us to not take another person’s behaviour/adaptations, personally.

Empathy helps me know where I end and you begin.

As always, these ideas are not exhaustive, rather they are support to stimulate thinking. Why not take the idea of empathy into your team meeting or supervision and discuss what it means to be empathic towards yourself. I often find that those working in the helping professions have a lot of empathy towards others and yet struggle to have empathy towards themselves. Think about why this might be problematic and how better self-empathy can be created. Another reflection might be to think about what gets in the way of empathy towards others. What biases are held that bring judgement to the fore rather than empathy? Does naming it tame it?

*Before any discussion that explores these areas, focus on safety. We will look at creating safety in more detail for #5 in this series. If we don’t feel safe, we can’t explore these things deeply as they require vulnerability.

This journey of understanding supports us in how we can respond better to the legacy of trauma. We are always aiming rather than arriving!

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