Tag Archives: distress

Crisis Tactics

One of the things it is common to lose to abuse is a sense of where your own edges need to be. Abusers will work to erode your confidence and self esteem, because when you don’t feel you can say no, you’re more vulnerable to their predations. Standing my ground, defending myself, flagging up problems and expressing distress all still put me in a place of expecting to be knocked down harder than I was by the initial problem. It’s hard to hold boundaries when you fear that protecting yourself will invite twice as much trouble.

I’m not living in that kind of environment any more. However, that knee-jerk reaction remains. If I need to express distress, then fear of what that will bring is with me. Until I’ve tested something like this, I don’t know how anyone will react to me – will they double down? To navigate this I’ve given myself a set of rules. Having established this rule set means that under pressure and feeling emotionally vulnerable, I have a set of defaults to work with.

One. I am entitled to say no to anyone for any reason and I am not obliged to justify that decision. If someone hurts me and I want to just back off and not deal with it, I am allowed to do that.

Two. If I express distress then there are a number of acceptable responses – anything with an element of care, concern, apology. Anything that accepts my response as valid even if it wasn’t where I was supposed to end up. Anyone kindly explaining why it wasn’t meant that way. Any kind of ‘oops’ or ‘oh shit’ noises. I may need further conversation to sort things out, but any of these responses are worth working with.

Three. If I express distress and am met with blame, criticism, mockery, dismissal, being told why I shouldn’t feel like that, being told why I ‘made them’ do it or why their position is justified, or anything else of this shape, I am entitled to end the conversation and step away from the person.

Four. How much slack I cut is totally up to me. How much I am willing to forgive is totally up to me.

Five. How much I love a person is not a reliable measure of that person’s inherent worth. If a person does not value me enough to care when they have upset me, then they do not merit the gift of my care and attention. I am allowed to feel that I have made a mistake in investing in them.

Six. How a person treats me when I am upset is not a measure of my worth – although it may well be a measure of my worth to them, which is not the same thing.


Stealing the language of distress

If kindness is part of who you are, then the last thing you’d want to do is add to someone’s suffering. But, how do we tell between people who really are in trouble, and people who steal the language of distress for other reasons? It’s a really hard call to make.

I have no doubt there are people who permit themselves to be fragile rather than face down their problems. I can’t easily tell by looking who has real issues, and who isn’t prepared to deal with the grit and shit of life and shoulder their share of responsibility. Not at the first glance, although over time it gets more obvious.

People dealing with real issues will have things they can’t deal with because body and/or mind just can’t, but otherwise will tend to do the best they can with what they’ve got. People with genuine issues often hate being seen as victims (but not always). People who have survived massive doses of crap tend to have courage, determination and backbone – at least some of the time.

If someone is obviously financially secure, and obviously more well than not, and educated and resourced then I may be a little less inclined to see fragility as something to respond to with care and support. I am especially wary of people who use the word ‘triggered’ when they mean discomforted, and people who talk about being bullied when I can see what happened didn’t have that shape. Being told no, is not automatically bullying. Being disagreed with is not necessarily bullying. People with a lot of privilege who get entitlement issues when told they can’t have things their way, can be quick to claim victimhood, and to use the language of disempowerment to try and get their own way. It’s important to take a long, hard look at how much power people have.

One of the things I will do is help people get stuff done. The person who can make use of that help and use it to get stuff done, I will keep helping. The person who wants me to do things for them – and we’re talking things they clearly could do for themselves – I am not going to indulge.

It is hard for victims to talk about bullying and abuse. It is hard for people with mental health problems to talk about vulnerabilities and triggers. It can be really difficult for people with bodily health issues and physical limitations to flag up what they need. Privacy, and dignity are big factors here. For the person who just wants to have it all done for them, privacy and dignity aren’t issues in the same way. However, by using the language of triggering and disempowerment, what these people do is make it that bit harder for people with real problems to get taken seriously. That makes me cross.

There are also people who take this language and use it deliberately to further disempower those who are already in trouble. Take the ‘all lives matter’ response to ‘black lives matter’ as a case in point here.  Take the people (I‘ve met some) who can say without irony that they think middle class white boys are the most prejudiced against group there is. Take the Christians who see any kind of equality for other faiths and people as an attack on their rights and freedoms. Take the man who is fighting for the right for a grown man to walk into a comics store and not be forced to buy a copy of Squirrel Girl (he was on twitter).

There are no easy answers here. Precise use of language goes a long way. If we let people who are basically fine take over the words needed for talking about large and serious problems, then we shut down whole areas of conversation. And when we do that, we keep power in the hands of those who had it all along, and keep silencing people who need to be heard.


No hierarchy of distress

Some years ago, I spent two terms on a course for abuse survivors, run by the Freedom Program. It really helped me get over what had happened and move on, and it taught me a great deal. One of the things I learned was this: Everyone there felt that other people present were far worse off than them.

Everyone had stories, and those stories were ghastly, heartbreaking and all too real. They were all far worse than anything I’d been through. But then an odd thing started happening, because other women, on hearing my stories, would say they thought it was far worse than what had happened to them. This shocked me. We all thought we’d probably deserved what had happened to us, but refused to accept that anyone else could possibly have deserved what happened to them. Through this we all began to question our feelings about our own experiences. It was a challenging process.

The idea that someone else has it worse, and we therefore shouldn’t make too much fuss may be relevant if you’ve merely broken a nail, or been slowed down by bad traffic. Perspective is useful in face of middle class, first world problems. However, that same line of thought absolutely does function to keep people in dangerous and damaging places. After all, it’s not like he cut you, other women get cut. Compared to being raped by a stranger, forced sex from someone you know really isn’t so bad. It was just a slap, not the same as being beaten up. It was only being beaten up, it’s not like you died…

Women who were imprisoned will say how much worse it must have been for women who were beaten, who think the victims of sexual assault were much worse off, but they in turn look to the women who lost their children in court battles, and feel that was much worse and the women who lost their children are so thankful that at least no one destroyed their mental health and the women whose minds were broken are busy feeling fortunate compared to the ones who were made prisoners in their own homes.

There is no hierarchy here. This is no reason for telling 90% of the victims to shut up and recognise that only one of these was really bad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering is used to make us shut up and stop complaining. I was hit by one only this week – I should be grateful because I’m not picking plastic off rubbish dumps in a third world country. But here’s a thing: The shitty situation in my country is not a separate issue, and tackling problems here would also tackle our habit of creating this kind of waste and sending it abroad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering breaks down the connections between problems and obscures the truth that these things are all connected. None of the things that are wrong in this world exist in a vacuum.

Think properly about the misery of the traffic jam, and you might indeed come to question commuter culture, city planning, economic pressures, modern economic models, international trade agreements and the whole structure of modern society. You can do that starting from anywhere. Don’t look for the hierarchy, look for the connections. Look for how your problem is related to someone else’s, and is part of it, feeding the same mess and creating misery. That way we can start to see what small things we might solve, that lead to actually fixing even the biggest things that are wrong. Most of those big things are gatherings of small problems, too, and it is the act of not taking the small problems seriously that prevents us from getting anywhere near the big stuff.


The accidental counsellor

There are far more folk who find themselves in crisis than ever there are trained professionals available to help them. It can take months to get counselling in the UK, but people caught in the immediacy of their own grief, trauma or anxiety can’t really afford to wait. The official advice from the UK’s national health service for folk in crisis is to talk to someone.

So, what do you do if you find yourself the chosen ear of a person in distress? My brother found himself with one of these last week, which is what has prompted me to write today. Most of us aren’t qualified, but we still have to step up. And as a Druid, you may attract the need and distress of others, especially if you put yourself forward by running things. I’ve seen this topic discussed on pagan forums, where the fear of causing more harm than good, or inviting litigation, makes people wary about offering themselves. So, we’re not talking about being a counsellor here, we’re talking about being the person who gets the late night phone call from a friend who doesn’t know how to carry on, or being the one a family member confides to about some horrific experience. We don’t get to choose these, they happen to us. How do we deal with them?

The single most powerful thing you can do for a person in distress is listen to them. No matter how much it disturbs you, or whether or not you are able to believe what they say, listening and giving the space for them to speak is tremendously effective. Unless you feel there’s immediate physical danger to them, or someone else, go for listening. Make sure they know you are listening, by making affirming comments. “I hear you.” Don’t be afraid to acknowledge if you are out of your depth. If you don’t understand and can’t relate to it, say so. A person in crisis will not appreciate you claiming you know just what it must be like, if you blatantly cannot know. If you do know, it can be helpful to share.

In the short term, don’t think about trying to find solutions. Focus on the listening, and letting them talk until they are calm. Avoid any comment that in any way might be construed as telling them they shouldn’t feel as they do – they are feeling it, they need to feel it, if you let them talk it will pass. Ask why they are feeling a certain way, ask how you can help, what they need, and if the answer is ‘nothing’ then just keep them talking.

It’s not your job to find a solution. Any solution to the problems have to be the choice of the person in crisis. Making suggestions may be helpful, but be careful to avoid anything that feels like you taking control of things. Crisis is a loss of control, the person in crisis cannot afford to have more of their right to self determine taken from them. Support them, offer advice, but do not give instruction, or do things for them unless you’re down to very physical issues of preserving life, or making cups of tea.

Giving people food and drink affirms normality. People in distress may also be in shock, so make sure they are warm.

Often what people need is a sounding board, someone to test ideas on while they work out what they need. If that’s what you’re getting, questions like ‘will that work for you?’ ‘what do you need?’ ‘how do you feel about that?’ will help them with the process. Avoid anything that seems like you being asked to choose for them. You can say what you would do if it was you, but make sure it’s on those terms.

Sometimes people just need a witness or a cheerleader. They need someone else to believe in them because they’re having a hard time believing in themselves. Encourage them. Praise their courage and determination, acknowledge their difficulties, affirm that there must be a way through and that they will find it. If appropriate, remind them of things they’ve achieved before, of qualities in themselves that will get them through.

In this way, it’s possible to help and support a person without having to take responsibility for them, and without having to internalise their distress. This protects us from being drawn into crisis with them. It keeps control in the hands of the person who is in trouble. It’s very easy to do, and to remember, and is actually the underpinning of talking therapies used by councillors. Listen, encourage, ask and try not to judge. It’s surprising how big a difference these things can make.