Disclaimer: totally based on personal experience, and not properly researched. Think of it as pop psychology.
To participate in the Trauma Olympics is to partake in the competition of “who has experienced the worst trauma?”. What metrics are used? Quantity (how many events, for how long) and quality (how bad was it). This is not a great culture to participate in, but I have found myself falling victim to it from others and equally perpetuating it onto others.
When talking about traumatic experiences in life, if others around you have experienced seemingly worse things than you, you can either feel within yourself a minimisation of your own experiences, or be explicitly told, “your experiences are not as bad as mine have been”. A negative consequence of this is the feeling that one is not allowed to feel as poorly as they do about what they have been through because of its relative okay-ness to those around them.
If you sense you have had worse experiences than others, as I often do, you may possibly minimise your own experiences to give others space to share their lesser experiences, or you may tout your own trauma so as to feel better about the sorry state of your life. I do both of these, much to my chagrin.
Really, I think the solution to the many pitfalls is to be empathetic to one another. If someone is going through something traumatic, or is healing from past trauma, simply be there for the person. Listen, clarify, ask questions, refer them to professionals who can help, check in with them.
Here is a list of things I avoid saying or doing when someone are sharing emotions, experiences or trauma with me, from my own personal experience of feeling minimised or unsafe in a conversation, as well as what I’ve found seems to work:
- “Everyone has experienced hardship and goes through tough times.”
- “Look on the bright side: what didn’t kill you made you stronger.”
- Talking about how you relate to someone’s hardship can sometimes be unhelpful, if you haven’t actually experienced similar situations to them, but this varies and depends a lot on the people talking.
- For example, for a person talking about their experience with trauma from sexual assault, if the person they are sharing with responds with “I can relate, because I have felt pain and trauma during break-ups”, that may not be helpful, as those two experiences objectively differ a lot. Not to say one pain is worse than the other (we are trying to avoid that) but there are objective differences between those situations that make the “I relate to you” sentiment feel ingenuine or misplaced.
- “But you seem fine, so are your difficulties really that bad, or are you just playing them up?”
Everyone feels their experiences differently. The way I feel, experience and deal with past trauma and ongoing traumatic events is totally different to the way my friends would, because everyone has an individual experience of the world and different capacities for dealing with problems. The Trauma Olympics are not helpful, useful, or loving. Let’s see each other as individual people and get to know others and their experiences, in love and care for one another, and not in competition against each other.