• Paul Fjelrad

Living With PTSD - Please don't tell me I'm brave.

Adapting to living in the wake of trauma can mean maybe you aren't ready to hear positive affirmations, and that's ok too.

This subject is a tricky one, so maybe I need to start with some declarations so we all know where we stand.

I think positive affirmations are great...for other people. I encourage you to be positive in the way you think and talk, not only about others but also yourself, yet at the same time I'm asking you to try and put yourself in the shoes of the person you're talking to, and be understanding. Some of us just aren't ready to hear it, and some of us are just grumpy types (that's me by the way) who aren't into that upbeat, life-affirming vibe that works so well with others, and that has to be ok too.

Women hiding her face in her jumper
Do compliments make you uncomfortable? - Photo by ShutterStock

I'll be honest, I don't do well with compliments. But this isn't a self-confidence thing, and I'm certainly not into false modesty. Because of my chosen career as a freelance consultant, I've spent 20+ years selling myself and I know damn well what I'm good at and what I'm not. Bizarrely, considering the relentless psychological abuse inflicted on me as a child, where I was constantly battered with the idea I was not only useless, but a danger to all around me, I somehow held on to a self-belief that was often all that got me through the worst. I don't entirely understand it, and it even confused my therapist at times, but it's there.

But, that doesn't entirely explain why I don't I want you to tell me I'm brave, or why I'm asking you to consider the inner-workings of the person in front of you when you're getting into the positive affirmation thing.

So, let try and break this down...

It all started when I finally used the "A-word" about myself. If anyone called me brave before that, I don't really remember. I'm sure it happened at some point, but it's not something I paid particular attention to. I should declare upfront this wasn't as word my mother would have used in a typical scenario, such as when I fell into stinging nettles or scraped my knee. Whining, making a fuss over nothing, hyporonderiact, sure...brave? No.

But in my late-30s when I finally spoke for the first time about what I had gone through, suddenly I was being called brave, I didn't understand why, and I didn't like it.

You see, I have Complex PTSD, and in my particular case the trauma started so young that I have "no pre-trauma identity". I have experienced flashbacks from events that I remember, but don't recall, which my therapist described as "pre-language". That's two horrible phrases right there.

This means that trauma raised me. It's the world I grew up. To me it was normal. In fact I was a teenager before I finally understood that it wasn't normal, and it wasn't like this for everyone. I know that sounds hard to understand, but not if you think about it for a moment. I just assumed this was what happened to all children, and it was just one of those things that happened behind closed doors and we didn't talk about it.

Someone in therapy
Therapy by Filippo Bacci (Getty images)

So when I said it out-loud for the first time, the counsellor told me, "you must have been very brave to survive that", and I frowned and responded, "why?".

I went on to explain, and it goes like this. If an explore climbs a mountain in a strange land, you call him brave. He left his warm, comfortable, safe world and went somewhere you consider dangerous. But if on the way he meets a family, who live in a village near the top of the mountain, and to them this dangerous world is home, are they brave? Or is just normal for them? Same thing about a child born in a war-zone. He plays games in the bomb craters, collects ammunition shells as a hobby, saw his first dead body when he was 4 and falls asleep to the familiar sound of artillery fire. To him that is normal, that is home.

When that mountain village family travel to Kent, to visit the mountaineer, are you going to say they are brave? When the child is rescued by an aid-worker and is brought to live in Cornwall, he is scared, and finds it hard to fall asleep with nothing but silence and the occasional woodland animal noises. So what is brave in that situation?

A climber atop a mountain
The Mountain Climber - Photo by ThinkStock

I had a second objection. If I'm brave for surviving, does that mean those who didn't survive weren't brave enough? I've come to know a lot of people who have attempted suicide, including in my family. Does that make me brave because I didn't succumb to my suicidal thoughts, and therefore make them cowards?

Of course not.

My counsellor was just trying to give me a positive affirmation, and to make me feel better when she saw how difficult it was for me to talk about the abuse I survived, and how distressed I was. I wasn't ready to hear that, and that positive affirmation had the opposite effect to the one intended. I got angry, even offended. I didn't want to be called brave, or strong, or inspirational and I still don't.

Some would reasonably say that it took courage to admit something difficult, or to be willing to admit you need help and to seek out a therapist, and I do get that. So, perhaps you are now thinking that my unwillingness to accept a compliment was a sign of my mental illness, and once I was "better" then I would have no problems with positive affirmations. Whilst there is some truth to that, as is so often the case, the whole truth is not quite that simple.

If someone's mental health is being negatively impacted by a lack of self-belief, and self-confidence, then hearing good things from others can have a positive impact, but in truth what is really needed is that they learn to think and say these positive things about themselves. If they only ever get affirmation externally, then their mental wellbeing is always going to suffer. If you are looking for a missing piece of yourself in someone else, then it's never going to fit properly. You can't fill a void within your own psyche with the positive attitude of another person. You'll get a temporary lift and then it's gone and it will almost feel like the void gets a little deeper each time. Affirmations become your narcotic and you'll always be on the lookout for your next dealer to give you your next hit.

So if it wasn't complement and affirmation, what did I need?

Of course, as I was in therapy and going through the process of recovery, I discovered deeply embedded issues with my self-belief and confidence. It took time, an amazing trauma specialist as a therapist, and a lot of hard work to get to those issues, dig them out, and address them one-by-one. I was fortunate to have my amazing daughter, and a few close friends, who helped me through that process. But they understood that I didn't need to just be bombarded with empty compliments and hollow affirmations. I needed people who took the time to listen, and tried their best to understand what I'd been through, how I felt and thought, and what I was going through now.

A lot of thumbs up
The cheerleading vibe - Getty Images

When I was struggling the most, my therapist even told me to stay away from "cheerleaders". That I didn't need that right now, it wouldn't help me, and I should instead seek out those who were prepared to just listen.

That was the biggest compliment they could give me. For them to make the effort, and it was by no means an easy road, to understand things for which they had no frame of reference. To listen to traumatic stories that no-one wants to hear. To vicariously re-live my abuse alongside me, as I re-lived it during my therapy, during nightmares, and during flashbacks. There was no better affirmation to receive, than for them to not just tell, but show me that I was worth it, and worthy of their time, their compassion and their love. They walked with me through horrors and not once did they turn away. In those times, there wasn't anything I needed them to say. There weren't any answers, any affirmations, or any solutions to be offered. To be listen to was all the affirmation I needed.

For a long while, I thought perhaps this way of thinking was just me being me. As anyone who really knows me will doubtless tell you, I'm a bit of an odd fish. And I'm ok with that. I like the person I am now. We are all shaped by the events and experiences of our lives, so if you have survived trauma, or know someone who has, then you'll recognise how much it changes us. So I know I'm not the only odd fish out there.

Yet the pressure to fit in his relentless. In today's social-media driven society we like to talk about how individuality is prized, yet conformity is demanded, and difference is at best socially frowned upon, if not punished. So for abuse and trauma survivors there is a double-whammy, of accepting who they are now within themselves, and then trying to be accepted by those around them.

So maybe you think that what's needed is to be relentlessly positive, and shower those around you with compliments and affirmations, and that's great. But, if you have friend or loved-one who doesn't want that, is the answer to try and force it on to them, or tell them that if they don't like it that means there's something wrong with them? Or do you perhaps stop and listen to them? Perhaps who they are, or where they happen to be in that moment, needs something else.

I hope you understand that I'm not saying compliments are bad. I'm also not saying that if you struggle with compliments, that there isn't something you need to work on. I've got a lot better with compliments, though it's still in my nature that I want to know that it's actually based on something real, and not just a surface response. What I'm really trying to point out is if someone doesn't like compliments so much, there might be more to it. If you already know that person has been through traumatic events, which have impacted their mental health, then do them and you a favour, take it slow, talk honestly and directly, take the time to listen, and it's ok if they don't want you to give them any answers, compliments or affirmations.

Maybe, just like me, they don't want to be told they are brave.

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