As therapists, we want to empower people to build more meaningful connections. For all of us, healthy relationships matter. In fact, deep relationships are essential to life as a healthy human being. For trauma survivors, the act of deepening relationships in a healthy way can be particularly difficult.
Well-meant urging or pressure to reach out in a time of need does not work for those who have experienced trauma in their lives. Something (seemingly) simple like accepting a compliment may be painfully hard. But the ability to integrate these fears and hesitations is crucial to our work in helping others live a fuller, more balanced life.
Today, I want to offer some thoughts to help patients explore, rather than criticize themselves for their struggle to connect with others. There are good reasons trauma survivors resist forming deeper relationships. It seems impossible to become vulnerable enough (and stay safe) to admit what they want or need, let alone share it. Self-imposed isolation has become a way to cope:
- Some patients feel they should hunker down and handle their struggles themselves.
- Some tell themselves, “Nobody will get it.”
- Often, patients feel ashamed or “weak” like they don’t deserve support or compassion.
A trauma-informed approach can guide therapy to help clients see these critical or isolating parts from a new angle. By exploring them, instead of rejecting them, the self-understanding and compassion needed for friendships and relationships can grow stronger.
Trauma creates an urgent need to protect. To a person with a trauma history, a barrier to connection is like a life preserver, as it is believed that disconnection keeps them safe and then, in turn, it validates a person’s needs for safety. Instead of criticizing themselves for their barriers, clients can explore curiosity about them, for example: “Is there a self-protector part inside you who says: “I’m going to withdraw and stay safe so you don’t hurt me?
In addition, trauma-informed therapy can offer patients a vision of what healthy connections look like. For example we can support them in exploring positive affirmations like this:
I deserve deep relationships. I deserve to be cared for and nurtured. I deserve compassion. People care about me and it’s healthy to lean on them and ask for help when I need it.
In part, healing trauma involves discovering what it means to have healthy relationships. Here are three concepts I like to share in therapy, to help clients move forward into deeper relationships:
1.Know that having healthy relationships can repair old emotional wounds.
Healthy relationships can heal old attachment wounds. (Kelly Clarkson’s song, Piece by Piece, is a current and heartwarming example.) If you grew up without secure attachment or weren’t nurtured, it can become what you expect from others or your relationships as you grow. As I spoke about in loving a trauma survivor, healthy relationships can be restorative. Stan Tatkin, PACT, Sue Johnson, EFT, and Harville Hendrix, IMAGO are all founders of models of relational therapy who have done important work in this area.
2. Consider the unrealistic standards you may be holding yourself to.
Would you expect a child or friend to be as self-sufficient as you expect from yourself? It is true that as an adult, you must hold yourself accountable and be responsible for yourself. However, adults have human needs for emotional connection, too. Bring the compassion you have for those you love to yourself as well.
I recommend Kristin Neff’s phenomenal book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and Lisa Ferentz’s new book, Finding Your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons from the Therapist’s Couch.
3. Allow yourself to see the depths of your current relationships.
Oftentimes, trauma survivors are givers who expect and accept nothing in return. It might be tough to see the true depth of the love, support and compassion those close to you can (and want to) provide you. Try to look at your relationships objectively and consider this potential.
You deserve compassion, support and deep relationships.
Asking for help can be especially difficult for those who have survived trauma. Through trauma-informed therapy, it’s possible to help people realize that they do truly deserve deep relationships as they grow and change through life in the good times and the hard times.