On trauma shaming, minimisation, tone policing and kindness…

empathy quotes

If you happen to browse Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok or any other platforms where humans interact with each other and share part of their lives – and let’s face it, this past year of a pandemic has meant a lot more scrolling than previous years – you will inevitably come across something that reads like this:

Person 1: *an emotional post about how life has been recently, possibly talking about struggles they have had, things that they are finding difficult, feeling the need to take a break*

Person 2: *Sympathy/empathy/anything I can do to help?*

Person 3: This post is tone-deaf. Here is how hard I have had it recently…

Person 4: Get over it! We all have had a hard year. Here’s my completely different experience but I’m okay.

Person 5: Calm down.

… and so it would continue.

I read a post by the musician and artist, Amanda Palmer, where she had written on her own personal blog and Facebook about feeling so privileged to be able to take a wellness break and leave her son safely with his father for a week. She wrote emotionally about the strains of the past year of the pandemic, being stranded in New Zealand as sole caregiver to her child in an unknown country for the majority of the year, voicing her true and valid feelings on her own personal trauma and her thankfulness that she is in the position that she is in, her child is safe, and she can look after her mental health.

Rather than allow space and feel empathy for Amanda’s personal happiness and letting her continue to live life out loud by journalling on her personal blog, her comment section was swiftly filled with comments about being “tone deaf”, “you’ve had it easy – here’s what I have been through this past year”, “self-serving” and “you have no idea about *real* trauma”.

Why do people do this? Without thinking it through, they immediately dive into their keyboards to minimise someone else’s experience, trauma-shame and tone police. It often feels like empathy left the building a long time ago and is struggling to find it’s way back.

Tone policing, according to Dictionary.com is “a conversational tactic that dismisses the ideas being communicated when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful or otherwise emotionally charged manner.” We see this used all the time – in toxic relationships it exhibits itself as gaslighting – “You don’t need to get so upset.” Politicians use it consciously to step away from a questioning line they would rather avoid. It is dismissive, belittling and leaves people feeling unheard. Are you responding to the actual subject or are you trying to put someone in their place? If it’s latter, you’re tone policing.

Globally, we are in the middle of a period of collective trauma. Living through a pandemic – no matter where in the world you live, will have had a psychological impact on the population of the world. But understanding trauma is not one-size-fits-all – nor is the experience of trauma, no matter what type, something that can be compared.

Trauma is sometimes referred to in categories: Type 1 (or big T trauma) refers to single-incident traumas which are unexpected and come out of the blue; Complex trauma describes trauma which may have been experienced as part of childhood or early stages of development; Repetitive trauma refers to trauma which has been repeated over a period of time and is often part of an interpersonal relationship where someone might feel trapped emotionally or physically. Historical, Collective or Intergenerational trauma is characterised by psychological or emotional difficulties which can affect different communities, cultural groups and generations. Adaptive coping patterns can be passed intergenerationally, examples include: racism, slavery, war and genocide.

Vicarious or secondary trauma happens when someone speaks to someone who has experienced a trauma or witnessed a trauma first hand. Little t trauma is less prominent. They are experiences which are part of the everyday and are an expected part of life, moving house, the passing of a loved one. They may however be very traumatic. 

Trauma can be experienced anywhere – home life, at school, the work place, in the wider community or in a war zone. Whether an event is deemed traumatic is defined by the ‘subjective experience’ of it rather than the event itself. Therefore there is no specific experience that can be referred to as *real* trauma and there is also no scale of trauma because it relates directly to a person’s own experience.

When someone says something like “I’ve had it worse,” or “Well, that hasn’t been my experience,” they are automatically minimising that person’s trauma, that person’s experience and that person’s feelings. How much kinder our world could be if we could all take a step back before saying something that could cause shame or make someone feel unheard.

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Henry David Thoreau

Kindness and empathy require a great deal of introspection, reflection, mindfulness and emotional intelligence. Everyone needs to work on it within themselves and it is not an overnight fix. When TV presenter Caroline Flack passed away last year, the hashtag #BeKind suddenly flooded our networks, with websites and newspapers swiftly pulling articles and reports that had shamed and berated her, no doubt added to or even caused the trauma experience that led to her death.

A year on, it seems that our society, our media, our keyboard warriors have learnt very little about the power of kindness. The history of persecuting famous women in crisis is long – from Jean Seberg and Billie Holiday to Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse – attacking, minimising and shaming each of them for their struggles. Even when people try to escape it, stepping away and recognising the impact it is having on their mental health, they are shamed and policed for being ‘tone deaf‘ because of their level of privilege. The Duchess of Sussex is a clear example of this who, recognising the pattern of history repeating itself with her own experience, spoke openly about her struggles and still got accused of lying by disgruntled Twitter users because, how could someone with privilege and marrying into the Royal Family be at risk of trauma and mental health problems?! How quickly empathy is thrown away and replaced by opinions, gossip and, sometimes, attack.

We are in the middle of a pandemic yet have have forgotten context, compassion and empathy. We need to be mindful of all of these things now more than ever. Minimising, tone-policing and trauma shaming someone, it rarely does any good. What are you hoping to achieve by pulling someone down or ‘putting them in their place’ in a time where everyone is struggling, exhausted, angry, scared, lonely, or even just feeling unsure about what the future holds?

We are all human. We have all made mistakes. We have all spoken or typed without thinking. What matters is recognising these times and working to either put it right, if that is an option, or working towards being more compassionate and empathetic in the future.

But if we are to every truly have that ideal society that #BeKind alludes to, this is work that has to happen. Being truly kind is brave and asks you to be self-aware and step outside of yourself for a moment. It demands rising above things like pettiness or allowing those immediate gut reactions to take over from understanding and compassion. True kindness is revolutionary.

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