Empaths – and the Punitive Response to Trauma.


I have written, exhaustively, about being sexually assaulted by a stranger back in the late eighties – and do not intend to walk down that dark and painful path again.

This post deals with one, to me unexpected, fallout from that moment of horror: The loss of friends, and near loss of my job.

Other people’s emotions can be very hard to handle, even for Empaths. The more powerful and raw the manifestation of trauma, the more confronting it is for those watching. In some it triggers things they have no wish – or, perhaps, ability – to face in themselves. In others, the waters of human emotion are extremely shallow – and they seek froth and laughter and jolliness relentlessly.

Prior to the assault, I had been part of a Word Game Group of friends. We met once a week and had a pretty hilarious time playing Balderdash and drinking wine and chatting and laughing. One of those people had already been my friend for some years – and, even then, we had a deeper bond than the somewhat superficial word gaming scene.

I can see now that I had PTSD – and went into fairly classic shock and grief and anger and acting out mode. I drank and smoked too much. I wept and raged. I withdrew into myself and struggled to be sociable. I felt tainted and damaged and guilty and desperately afraid.

Crucially, for the group situation, I stopped being a laugh – and was rejected as a result.

We all used to meet in the same Weston pub. I still remember the horror of being sent to Coventry by this group of ‘friends’: Of them turning their backs, physically and literally, when I walked in; of being able to hear one of them telling the others, ‘Don’t talk to her…’; of feeling like a pariah, a leper, a criminal; of hearing them laughing at, and about, me. I did not know until fairly recently that they gave my friend a hard time too: Made him, in effect, choose between me and them – and he had little option since, at the time, he was in a relationship with another member of the group and, thus, could not easily go out on a limb.

He has said since that their behaviour was cruel and callous. At the time, I was so busy blaming myself for being broken and faulty and imperfect that I could not see that. All I could see was that I was a naughty and difficult girl, deserved my punishment and had to try harder to be normal and acceptable and socially adept.

The view, both in my social circle and at school, was very simple: I hadn’t actually been raped or seriously injured, therefore I should have got over it very quickly and stopped being so poorly behaved, so antisocial, so self-indulgent.

In vain did I try and point out that violation is violation, that the punch which fractured half a tooth was very real violence, that the imprint of rough hands on my breasts lasted for days, if not weeks.

I do not know, even now, why this assault triggered such a strong response in my friendship group. Were the women frightened that it might happen to them? After all, the man who attacked me was never caught. Did the whole thing engender, in some of the men, a worry about what they might be capable of if sufficiently provoked by a woman? Uncover violent fantasies they did not wish to look at?

Or was it simply that the childlike rawness of my desperate grief and hurt was too much for them to cope with? That it reminded some of them of being small and powerless and prey to the superior (and, at times, punitive) strength of the adult world?

Perhaps some of them secretly thought I had asked for it, walking home alone late at night dressed in pretty clothes.

That wound has stayed with me. Oh, it scabbed over eventually  – and I thought I had both forgiven and forgotten. But sometimes, other incidents have the effect of ripping scabs off a much older cut and bringing both the pain and the blood back into the present.

The friend who was put in an impossible situation remained in my life. None of the others did.

The grim truth of the matter is this: The big severances of life (bereavement, divorce, serious illness, trauma, house moves) confront the deepest feelings both of those going through them and those who watch from the sidelines – and ability to cope is not a given in either group.

Something very similar, though far more subtle and, I have to say, underhand, happened during the divorce process – and the wound from so long ago re-opened with a vengeance. For some, the effects of my grief, pain and fear proved too much. Those who mattered, and that included my friend from way back, stuck with me through the very worst of it.

It is a truism that you find out who your true friends are at the darkest moments of your life, and this is, in my view, accurate.

It is easy to be friends with someone when the sun is shining, the laughter is flowing, when all is light and lissom and lilting and lovely. It is far harder when the sky darkens and rain pelts down and storms batter the land and the other person is not always fun to be around.

The state of the world, in the bigger sense, is a reflection of the way we deal with one another in the much smaller sense. Our social bonds and behaviour define us. Our tolerance for individuals, our fidelity, our emotional honesty are all pointers to a much wider theme.

We all need laughter and fun and joyous shared activities in our lives. A sunny bond is a happy one. Perhaps, however, we all need to ask ourselves at some point, ‘Will I still want to be around this person during the dark times?’ because, Goddess knows, that is a very different, and far more challenging, proposition.

Love, as Shakespeare put it so wisely, does not alter when it alteration finds – and the responses I have had from some people have shown, sadly, that the seeds of love were only ever shallowly planted and became blighted at the first evidence of an emotional Winter.

I think the analogy apt: Those who evince impatience when the effects of trauma do not disappear with the click of a finger are, in the metaphorical sense, complaining because Winter goes on for months rather than minutes. Both, however, will move on to Spring eventually!

And I cannot help feeling that those who campaign vigorously for the world, whilst ignoring the needs of the individual, are, in some ways, rather missing the point.

Compassion and empathy cost nothing. The widespread lack of them, however, could very well cost the earth.



4 thoughts on “Empaths – and the Punitive Response to Trauma.

  1. The talk about Winter and Spring is quite profound.

    Like so many other themes, it gets into the Instant-Versus-Delayed-Gratification, and I feel that the ostracization of a friend after a traumatic event is an example of desiring Instant Gratification, in some sort of warped manner.

    Liked by 1 person

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