Trauma Thieves


“I don’t like sharing my story with Americans. They cry and then I have to comfort them” from Rwandan refugee at refugee health conference 

Last week I attended one day of the three-day North American Refugee Health Conference in Rochester, New York. I scribbled my notes everywhere: on the back of the program, in a small note-book, and on the courtesy pad of paper given by the host hotel. There was so much to learn and I am a novice. And I heard stories, and more stories. Case studies of impossible situations and discussions with those who are far more advanced in this work.

But the statement above, heard at the conference, made me think about empathy. What is true empathy? I was primed ahead of time for this thought process – partly because of my work and partly because I read The Empathy Exams, an essay now turned into a book by Leslie Jamison. It resurrected more of what had already begun in my mind and heart.

One of the reasons I became a nurse was my strong sense of empathy for patients. Only was it empathy?

I always imagined that empathy is about hearing the trauma that happens to others, and imagining how I would feel, imagining what I would do, how on earth I would survive. And I think many of us do this. We hear a story from a refugee that enters our skin, our blood stream. We hear about the rape, or the hunger, or the food insecurity and we can’t stand it. It hurts too much. But is that being empathic or is it stealing their pain, pretending it’s ours?  Are we trauma thieves?

In the essay I cited above the author says this:” I used to believe that hurting would make you more alive to the hurting of others. I used to believe in feeling bad because somebody else did. Now I’m not so sure of either. I know that being in the hospital made me selfish. Getting surgeries made me think mainly about whether I’d have to get another one. When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy or theft.” She then gives the example of a family member and their bout with Bell’s Palsy, a condition of temporary paralysis resulting in one half of the face being unable to move. Physicians treat the disease with high doses of steroids. The author says that she obsessed with her brother’s condition, she would look in the mirror, imagining her face being unable to move, imagining the difficulty she would go through. She goes on to say that she was “stealing” her brother’s trauma and taking it on herself.

Maybe in a world where we have so much we feel we have to steal trauma. But does that help anybody? Does guilt over my lack of trauma help the person who is traumatized? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that refugees or other survivors of trauma want that. I think they want to tell their stories, they have to tell their stories to heal. But the listener needs to enter into this with permission and respecting boundaries. It is not the story teller’s job to comfort me, the listener. 

So when I listen to the stories of refugees and others who have gone through untold difficulty, when I read about tragedies a world away in places that I love, when I sit with patients who are struggling in body and soul, am I stealing their trauma and imagining what is not mine or am I entering into it humbly, as someone who doesn’t necessarily know what it feels like, but wants to walk the journey with the person any way?

I don’t know – but what I do know is that I am called to walk into hard places with people, and to walk with humility – ever learning, ever listening, ever-present. And I hope, I so hope that this is empathy.

“Empathy comes from the Greek Empatheia – em (into) and pathos (feeling) – a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border-crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” from The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

What do you think? What do you believe true empathy is? 

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16 thoughts on “Trauma Thieves

  1. This really made me think, an I resonate with both sides of the issue. I do sometimes hesitate to tell traumatic parts of my story, I think in part because I don’t want other people to do the grieving I have already done. On the other hand I know that at times I have been guilty of stealing trauma by taking away the space for the story and the authentic response of the teller.


    1. I remember a couple of years ago specifically not telling someone part of my story, because I knew it would create a crisis on them and I had no energy to deal with their crisis so I didn’t. It was a good decision. So this comment resonated with me. Your words at the end articulate it beautifully– we have to leave “space” for the story – we have to allow the storyteller the chance to be “authentic”. So perfectly put! Thank you!


  2. I think you put it well…empathy is about humbly and teachably walking alongside someone else on their own particular journey, and maybe helping them to not feel quite so alone…if only for a moment. As soon as humility and love exit the equation (meaning when it becomes more about US and our feelings and needs than it is about them) we have left the world of empathy and entered into something that is more selfish and twisted and yucky.


    1. Yes! I think you were more articulate in this than I was in the post – so thank you! And i love that word “teachable” – But the best word of the comment is yucky – exactly! Sometimes words like that say it best.


  3. Our posts today are related. Yours brings up a question that I didn’t raise in mine but surely could have. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing! Always…


  4. I am not at all certain that folks voicing these opinions are necessarily on opposite sides. At a Montreat (NC) mission conference years ago a person who was attending from Africa (the south) said “[If] you want to help us, come stand WITH us.” Is it theft – is a challenge and the question is – what it means to be present and to “stand with” someone. This works out especially in a (long-term) marriage (wedding 1967 September).


  5. Marilyn, I somewhat agree with this, but with reservations. The reservation is that it feels like another way to make me somehow guilty for the world’s trauma. All my life I have resisted the guilt placed on Americans for the sorrow and the suffering of the world. Since I have been back at University, working on a doctorate, I have heard, over and over, that it is missionaries who inflicted suffering on the happy natives by colonizing them.

    And part of the heritage of many TCKs is to truly take on themselves the sorrow of the world. When I hear the story of the hundreds of girls stolen from their families in northern Nigeria, I can visualize the scene, because it is 40 miles from the boarding school where I graduated from high school. When I hear of the thousands homeless in Croatia and Bulgaria in the recent flooding, my feet feel wet, because I have walked those streets and seen those fields blooming. This has become MY trauma, because it is the story of MY life.

    My daughter, also a TCK, calls herself an empath because she so often picks up the feelings of people she is near. She would come home from teaching her first college composition classes feeling confused and unable to cope, and it worried her until she realized that she had picked up the feelings of her students. Now she uses that gift for empathy to help her students feel less confused and hopeless on the first day of class.

    I think the over-sensitivity to another’s pain is my trauma.It is my pain. It is the way I have grown to be because of my life story. And I refuse to be made to feel guilty for it any more. In my experience, weeping with those that weep is not an insult to their sorrow, but a relief.


    1. Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment – I’m so sorry if it felt like I was doing the guilt thing!! I hate it when others do it – hate it even more when I do. I think I’m with you though in what you’re saying. I think where I struggle is when it really does become about me. I get so lost in my imagining what if? What if it were me? How could I survive? That instead of empathizing I’m thinking about my own pain. Does that make sense? All the other things you’ve mentioned I would agree with – I too as a TCK take on the pain of “my” countries and I think that is natural. Just as people in the U.S grieved 9/11 – so with us do we grieve the atrocities against our countries. So I think I agree with Bob who said that the opinions are not on opposite sides. Rather – I think you bring more clarity to the post.


  6. When reflecting on Romans 12:15 “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep”, I think of true empathy. We are simply present allowing the individual to experience and live through their emotions; thus, healing can occur.


    1. That verse is perfect Petra – thank you. I think that picture of allowing people to experience whatever it is they are going through is huge. Not trying to rush it, to turn it into ours, to manipulate it, but just allow it to be there and walk with them.


  7. Oooh, thought-provoking post. “Trauma thieves.” That title sounds so abrupt, but it reminds me of when my husband’s mom was dying, and people in the church were more tearful than he was, in conversations. He said it felt like a burden, like he was supposed to comfort THEM. No answers for what true empathy looks like, although I wonder if it requires more emotional control than we assume — if it means reining in our tears out of respect for the other person? Maybe we just assume if we can feel other people’s pain, then that is enough to comfort them? I certainly know I’m no comfort to someone when I can’t feel their pain at all, and I have definitely been at that heartless place, too many times. I don’t know, I just know your description of trauma thieves struck a chord with me.


    1. It does sound abrupt doesn’t it? Only I hadn’t really realized it until you said that. Your example of Jonathan is perfect. That’s exactly the sort of thing I was thinking about when I wrote the piece. Try and take a look at the essay The Empathy Exams – it is really interesting. It’s the beginning essay of the book I talk about and is free online.


      1. A few weeks ago you wrote about grief, I think, and recommended the Empathy Exams to someone in a comment. I read some of it. Sort of hurt my head. So confusing to try to untangle all this! But very interesting. And I can see especially in the medical field why it’s so important — but also how it could be hard to learn how to treat patients well. I know plenty of docs and nurses who do, I just don’t know how they do it.
        On another note, our summer intern has a psych degree. She was telling me how you have to let other people’s pain, BE their pain. We can take it from them; then it’s our pain, and not theirs. We should be with people in their pain, but not take it from them. Again, sort of confusing, but perhaps saying what you’re saying as well? And she also noted that when we start taking on other people’s pain, it is probably because it is triggering some of our own unresolved pain, and we need to go back and examine ourselves and figure out what is unresolved. I have had a few experiences like that in life, so it’s probably pretty accurate.


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