It’s good, healthy and human to want love and seek it out. Yet for some people, showing emotional needs may be linked to painful memories and experiences. As attachment research shows, people learn in early childhood whether to expect to feel safe or unsafe expressing emotional needs.
Feeling rejected, devalued or invisible for one’s human needs often triggers shame. These painful emotions may inhibit future efforts to connect. Those who experience their needs as ‘unacceptable’ may come to feel trapped with them. They may not realize that their desire to connect and find comfort are normal and healthy, and that their distress has a name — trauma.
A person with attachment trauma may cling to the idea of being “better off alone” like a life preserver. They may have learned to cope by developing beliefs such as:
- “I have to keep to myself.”
- “Why try to explain? Nobody will get it.”
- “No one wants to be around me.”
- “Being on my own is all I can expect.”
- “I’m better off alone.”
Well-meant urging to ‘be friendly’ does not usually work well for those who have come to feel ashamed of who they are and how they feel.
Trauma-informed therapy provides a safe space to review thoughts, feelings and actions created to cope with isolation. Seeing painful feelings, exploring them, and accepting them creates a healing experience.
Corrective Emotional Experiences in Therapy
Trauma survivors have good reasons to mistrust the prospect of forming deeper relationships. Traumatic rejection and feelings of shame have made it very hard to develop the self-awareness, self-acceptance, and life experiences needed to make friends.
As trauma-informed therapists, we want to help people explore, rather than criticize themselves for their struggle to connect with others. The ability to integrate these fears and hesitations is crucial to our work in helping others live more fully. Compassion for the agony of emotional isolation is key to making emotional energy more manageable, alone and in relationships.
In therapy, we hold emotional distress with compassion instead of shame.
Here are three concepts I like to share in therapy, to help people move forward into deeper relationships:
1) You may be holding yourself to inhuman standards. We’re not meant to go through life without connection. Living is more than surviving without love and care. You are born worthy of kindness and compassion — first from yourself.
In a healthy relationship with yourself, you can question beliefs that don’t serve you well now, like “I’m better off alone.”
You can learn to soothe self-criticism with compassion.
Therapy is a place to work through sometimes conflicting thoughts and ideas. There’s a part of you that takes responsibility. You may have a harsh internal self-critic. You may have a part that wants to be alone. You may sense a small inner child who needs emotional connection.
If you can offer compassion to another person, trauma-informed therapists invite you to learn to extend this same support to the child or hurt places inside of you.
In therapy, you can explore compassionate curiosity. What if you could accept the different parts of yourself? They can be valuable in helping you see and say what you need.
2) No relationship is perfect. But caring partners can make repairs. That’s how you can trust and feel good with someone for a long time.
In healthy relationships, you can repair a connection with someone who can hear and understand your needs.
Sometimes even therapists misunderstand.
Miscommunication happens. Dr. Suzanne LaCombe calls such moments mis-attunements in her story about having corrective emotional experiences with a client.
Learning to notice, attend to and repair mis-attunements in therapy is enormously valuable.
By encouraging safety and trust, a therapist makes it okay to say what has hurt them. Healing happens when a person can feel the positive results of talking through uncomfortable feelings that happened in session with the therapist and feel heard.
When we respond to a patient’s need with acceptance and compassion, therapists allow the uplifting experience of relationship repair to happen. Maybe for the first time, those with a trauma history can see how speaking for their needs can lead to acceptance and closer connection.
3) You might already know one or two people who can offer a healthier friendship or relationship.
At first, it may feel strange or even risky to believe that a caring friend or family member can — and wants to — provide love, support and compassion.
Therapy is a safe neutral space to think about relationships objectively and how to explore whether they can feel safe.
Trauma survivors may have experienced relationships as unsafe places to open up. But one or two current relationships may be secure enough to deepen by being vulnerable and authentic.
Trauma-informed therapy can give clients a sense of what healthy connections feel like. For example, we can explore positive affirmations like:
- I deserve deep relationships.
- I welcome feeling cared for and nurtured.
- I accept another’s compassion.
- People care about me—and it’s healthy to lean on them and ask for help when I need it.
Therapy can help a person become more aware of their expectations. For example, we can ask if they expect to be a giver, accepting nothing in return. Curiosity can allow a person to “try on” new expectations.
Corrective emotional experiences can transform a maladaptive idea such as “suck it up” into a useful tool for further healing, such as “speak up.” When such a shift happens first inside the safety of therapy, it can happen later, in healthier relationships outside of therapy.
Among other resources, I recommend Kristin Neff’s phenomenal book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and Lisa Ferentz’s book, Finding Your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons from the Therapist’s Couch
Allowing the Heart to Open to Compassion, Support and Deeper Relationships
Asking for help can be especially difficult for those who have survived trauma. Learning to allow the heart to open takes courage, time and responsive, compassionate support.
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, no matter what feelings arise from the past.
Fortunately, self-awareness and self-acceptance are powerful healing experiences people can learn. Trauma-informed therapy is key to helping trauma survivors experience being present, integrate their emotions more fully, and form healthier relationships.
Why Corrective Emotional Experiences are Important by D. Suzanne LaCombe
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff
Healthy Relationships Matter More Than We Think by Robyn Brickel
How to Find Healing in Relationships After Trauma by Robyn Brickel