Psychologists say a single trauma will strike you twice. Once in reality (the ordeal itself) and once in your mind, when you think about it and talk about it with others. Although there's nothing you can do about a bad situation once it has happened, you can be mindful of the way you describe the situation. And this mindfulness might help you feel better faster.
Boris Cyrulnik, a famed French ethologist, says there's good reason to watch what you say. Almost all the women he's worked with who have experienced sexual trauma said that it was not compassion that inspired them to recover; it was being told by others that they were "strong" that made them become strong. Cyrulnik argues that if someone expresses too much pity or horror for you, their view can actually escalate your pain.
I personally relate. I know when I've endured challenges in my life, and I am not feeling so strong, I only want to be around people who reinforce my identity as a strong person.
Cyrulnik warns that after a trauma you need to make sure you don't talk with folks who accidentally keep you in "victim mode" by having you relive traumatic memories with depression-inducing language.
Knowing the subliminal power of words, Morrie and Arleah Shectman, psychotherapists who specialize in bereavement counseling, use empowering language when helping people through a trauma. Morrie says he never talks sympathetically with his patients because it's disempowering and keeps patients coddled in victim mode. They get stuck reliving and examining their feelings rather than moving on.
Morrie is practicing what's called neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) by priming his client's subconscious mind with language that keeps them feeling strong. NLP is a therapy built on the belief that you can influence the subconscious to change behaviors to more positive ones by consciously using positive language and by refocusing on those things in your control to change.
NLP is a pretty amazing phenomenon. In 2000, researcher John Bargh set up the now-famous study that showed how our linguistic context strongly affects our behavior. Bargh gave two different groups of people two different lists of words to un-jumble, telling them that they were being tested on simple problem solving. The first list contained words suggesting impatience, rudeness and aggressiveness; the second list had words suggesting patience, politeness and calm. After the "test" was completed, the participants were asked to bring the lists to an administrator who was deep in conversation with a colleague, and this was when the true experiment took place.
All the participants given the list of words suggesting rudeness and aggressiveness became those exact words, angrily interrupting the administrator. However, of the participants primed with language suggesting patience and calm, the majority -- 82 percent -- never interrupted the administrator at all.
The lesson to be learned: The words we use and hear are powerful. During your recovery from tough times, avoid talking too much about the trauma itself and instead pepper your conversations, therapy sessions and journal writing with strong, uplifting and optimistic words to keep you aimed in a strong, positive direction.
I am a believer in calling on a professional to help you with your recovery. But when hiring a therapist, please be alert to the language the therapist uses and the frequency with which he or she demands that you describe your ordeal. Of course this awareness should be applied across the board with friends and family. Your goal? Create a chorus around you that sings, "You are strong! You are strong!" in an endless loop of support.
Want more resiliency psychology insights and tips? Check out my book, "The Bounce Back Book."