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How to Heal from Relational Trauma (and what that is)


A storefront window saying, "Growth is painful. Change is painful. But there's nothing as painful as staying stuck somewhere you don't belong."

I’ve been wanting to write this blog for some time, but was struggling with a good opening line. [See: Therapy for Overthinking. Ha!] Then I saw this EPIC photo posted by a wise friend of mine on social media, and BOOM–there it was. The origins of the picture and the quote have proven difficult to locate (if you know from whom this started, I’m eager to give them credit), but the truth of these sentences is profound. And in my humble but also professional opinion, one of the most accurate places in which this truth lives is within our relationships, when the interactions we have with another person or group of people leave us struggling with growth, change, and moving on.


Throughout all our lives, we encounter various experiences that shape who we are and how we relate to others. While many interactions leave positive imprints on our lives, there are instances where our encounters can result in lasting emotional scars. Relational trauma, also known as interpersonal trauma, refers to the psychological wounds that occur within the context of relationships. These wounds have a profound impact on our ability to trust, connect, and form healthy bonds with others.


BUT AMY, HOW ON EARTH DO I KNOW I HAVE RELATIONAL TRAUMA IN THE FIRST PLACE???


The quick answer: Most folks don’t know this term exists (well, fine, now you do) or what it encompasses. For many, the more obvious signs or symptoms that often highlight the presence of relational trauma include:


  • Low self-esteem or negative self-image

  • Social anxiety

  • Difficulty becoming independent or self-sufficient

  • Being too independent-avoiding relationships or vulnerability within a close relationship

  • People-pleasing, or sacrificing your own needs to accommodate others

  • Difficulty setting and maintaining boundaries with others

  • Emotional dysregulation in connection with others


It’s hard to know you’re dealing with the muck of relational trauma until you start to see the patterns you engage in, along with (usually) repeated consequences. And it’s really tough to do that on your own. But in general, relational trauma shows up as a spectrum of negative or dysfunctional exchanges that you have with someone else-someone you’re in a relationship with.


We’re essentially trying to repeat an unhealed trauma, usually from an early childhood relationship, but we’re doing it unconsciously. In other words, you grow older and get in a pattern of dating the same abusive or emotionally damaging person and expecting different results.


These exchanges can range from physical abuse or severe neglect to emotional abuse or deprivation or can be simply consistently invalidated emotions. And they can occur with ANYONE you are in relation to. It’s not just the closest people in your innermost circles. It’s not limited to family, partners, or best friends (though we tend to see the roots of relational dysfunction and trauma as coming from the earliest childhood caregiving figures such as parents or guardians).


Here’s an example of relational trauma from a FANTASTIC show that was pretty popular a while back, “Friday Night Lights.” (If you haven’t watched this show yet, RUN, don’t walk, to your TV or other device and get on Hulu and devour this entire series ASAP. It’s my current favorite, hands down. Epic examples of all kinds of relationships, both healthy and toxic. I’ll try to avoid spoilers but no promises…)


In “Friday Night Lights” we meet Tim Riggins, gorgeous high school young man who happens to be the star fullback/running back of the football team around which the show is based. Over the course of the first season we learn that Tim’s family background is extraordinarily neglectful, to say the least. His parents are absent (his father makes an appearance at some point-and screws things up further, naturally-but I don’t recall a mother ever showing up), but he has a big brother who tries to look out for him even though he too has a ton of dysfunction in his own life.


Tim’s relational trauma is fairly easy to spot: absent parents. What unfolds from that is his reputation as a guy who sleeps with just about every girl within his orbit, a habit that eventually extends to much older women (two of them single mothers; Freud would have a field day with this angle). Tim drinks all.the.time. and takes almost nothing seriously, but then at times he’s the most dependable friend, teammate, brother, and semi-committed boyfriend you see on the show. In fact, he literally sacrifices himself in one way for his brother. (I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a brilliant example of putting the needs of someone else above one’s own, Tim Riggins-style.)


From the outside looking in, the other characters usually see him as a self-absorbed, hedonistic, budding alcoholic who won’t ever make anything of his life. He cheats, steals, and does all sorts of not-future-focused things mostly in service of someone else, to avoid rejection and abandonment. He checks almost ALL of the hallmark signs of relational trauma I mentioned above, minus maybe social anxiety. (My one regret about this show is that they didn’t give this character a spinoff series, to explore his eternal quest to replace his absent mother with all of these maternal-ish female conquests, but that’s a story for another blog.)


Still with me? I could go on about Tim Riggins for hours. But go watch the show for yourself after you finish reading here.


Do you find yourself struggling to say “No, thank you,” to someone when they ask something of you? Even when you know for sure you don’t have time or are too exhausted from doing all the OTHER things you’ve said yes to, mostly because you’re afraid saying no to someone will make them angry with you or think you’re incompetent? Does the phrase “bending over backwards” literally make your back ache because that’s what you keep doing?


Are you dating the same person over and over again, but just with a different name/body/background, and having the realization that you keep getting to a certain point in the relationship that you can’t get past, or become triggered by and have to break things off?

Do you notice significant anxiety whenever you have to go out in public or be in front of a group of people who might be in a position to be critical of you, your work, or something else? Are you maybe even having panic attacks at the idea of finding a job, leaving a position, or successfully leveling up to the next phase of your life?


Okay, fine. I get what you’re saying (I think). But what do I DO about all of this now?? Can I just pretend it doesn’t exist and go back to my life?


Sure, that’s an option. However, once the Pandora’s box of new knowledge gets opened, well, you all know how hard it was for those folks to cram everything back inside, right? ;)


What to do for relational trauma


  • Find a good therapist. (Maybe me! I specialize in trauma work, especially in helping clients discover how their early childhood family dynamics have impacted their current relationship challenges.)

  • Gather supportive relationships. Ask for encouragement and help when you need it. (Spoiler alert: We ALL need help.)

  • Work on self-compassion. WORK ON LOVING YOURSELF.

  • Consider trauma-focused therapy work such as EMDR.

  • Practice, practice, practice, PRACTICE setting boundaries in your relationships. Put yourself first, as much as you can tolerate. Notice how your inner voice and self-worth start to shift as you have success engaging in this process. Notice where you struggle greatly to set boundaries with someone. Chances are, they too have relational trauma that they aren’t aware of or haven’t yet worked through, so they engage in boundary violations too. (Send them to me, I’ll help with that!)


Relational trauma can profoundly impact any of us, and often does have a significant impact on our lives. It affects how we learn to trust, connect, and form healthy relationships; of course it ripples far and wide everywhere you consider your connection to all others. But it IS POSSIBLE to grapple with and work to reduce the long-term impact of this challenging trauma area so that you have a chance to grow and heal some of what’s been done.


Getting a good therapist, adding those healthy and supportive relationships to your circles of friends and family and coworkers, practicing self-compassion (PUTTING IT AGAIN IN ALL CAPS IN CASE YOU SKIPPED THAT PART BEFORE–PRACTICING SELF-COMPASSION), creating and maintaining boundaries for yourself (the word “No” is actually a complete sentence, you know), and digging deeper through EMDR or another trauma-informed therapy process, you get to choose YOURSELF first and do so in a way that will actually allow you more freedom from reactivity and fear. And that’ll give you more time to watch amazing stuff like “Friday Night Lights.” (See what I did there?)


I hope this blog post was helpful. And as always, please feel free to contact me to learn more, start therapy, or get your questions answered.


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