It’s good, healthy and human to want love and seek it out. We live longer, healthier lives when we feel close to someone safe. Some people feel painfully disconnected, and long to open up to others. But then they stop themselves from reaching out.
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. 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.
Why Entering a Healing Relationship Is Challenging for Trauma Survivors
I want to offer some thoughts to help people 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 feel they should hunker down and handle their struggles themselves.
- Some tell themselves, “Nobody will get it.”
- Often, trauma survivors feel ashamed or weak—like they don’t deserve support or compassion.
- For some, it’s the only way they have felt somewhat safe in the past – to be alone!
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. Therapy can be a truly emotionally corrective relationship, where the client learns that having a witness accept their feelings and history allows them to feel safer than ever before!
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 clients 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 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.
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. There is tremendous healing power that comes from repairing wounds in healthy relationships.
No relationship is perfect. But misunderstandings don’t have to hurt forever. When something injures a healthy relationship, we address it. We clear it up. We heal the injury. We create what we therapists call a corrective emotional experience.
When clients experience relationship trauma, particularly as children, they often learn “put up and shut up” as a go-to coping skill. But this creates other problems later in life. Hiding hurts and withdrawing from a relationship when discomfort preempts the opportunity to heal misunderstandings. Trauma survivors often become adults, without the power of relationship repair tools.
Sometimes, disconnects happen in therapy. Dr. Suzanne LaCombe calls them misattunements in her story about having corrective emotional experiences with a client.
Healing misattunements is enormously valuable. Therapy can provide vital healing experiences by encouraging safety and trust, and providing positive results when a client brings up feeling bad about something that happened in session.
Witnessing feedback about our own insensitivity, when clients are brave enough to share that something we said or did, didn’t sit well with them doesn’t mean we’re bad therapists. Healing this rift can be a huge therapeutic strength as LaCombe’s story explains. When we care enough to respond to hurt feelings with understanding, and give the apology or clarification a client needs, we create the uplifting healing experience of relationship repair. Maybe for the first time in their lives, they see how a painful disconnect can become a point of healing and deeper re-connection.
Corrective emotional experiences can transform a maladaptive idea such as “suck it up” into a useful tool for further healing, such as “speak up,” first inside the safety of therapy, and later, in healthier relationships outside of therapy.
We can help clients learn that having healthy relationships can repair even old emotional wounds.
2. In a healthy relationship with yourself, you can question unrealistic standards you may be holding yourself to, and soothe self-criticism with compassion.
A healthy therapeutic relationship can help clients see different parts of themselves. We can witness where they seem strong, where they seem hurt, and be curious about how these parts might relate (or integrate) in a more compassionate way.
Curiosity is a powerful therapeutic tool we can offer trauma survivors.
For example, we can encourage them to think about how their inner world may actually contain different parts, with different abilities and needs. Clients may more easily recognize the adult, the part they hold accountable, the part that takes responsibility. They may readily see a harsh critical advisor. But what about their more tender human needs for emotional connection? What about the hurt parts such as a scared inner child?
The same adult who would offer compassion to another person can learn to extend this same support to the child or hurt place inside.
By encouraging curiosity about nurturing rather than criticizing parts of themselves, we can help clients use new resources to feed the wise adult parts. They can then learn to help hurt parts heal and grow.
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. Consider the opportunity for secure attachment in the current relationships they have been able to develop as an adult.
Trauma survivors may have experienced relationships as unsafe places to open up. But that may not be true of current relationships.
It takes encouragement and intention to explore unknown parts of a current relationship. As therapists, we can witness what we notice about the strengths and potential capacity for support and love in what we see.
We can witness, or be curious about what a client expects from a current relationship. For example, we can ask if they expect to be a giver, accepting nothing in return. Therapy can support a client in noticing the nature of the relationship he or she actually has, how to find resources for self-nurture and support, and the real opportunity for healing in secure attachment in current relationships
At first, it may feel strange or even risky to see the true depth of the love, support and compassion that caring friends or family members can — and want to — provide.
A real chance for greater emotional connection, safety and security may be closer than our clients think. The awareness to look at relationships objectively and consider this potential .
Allowing the Heart 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—in the good times and the hard times.
Why Corrective Emotional Experiences are Important by D. Suzanne LaCombe
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff