This New Year’s Eve I was, like pretty much every other person on the planet, happy to see the clock roll over and to leave 2020 behind.
Now, I know 2021 isn’t some magical silver bullet to the COVID-19 global pandemic, nor an immediate rebound of the economy, nor an instant rewind on climate change, or a return to social normalcy of any kind.
Good news in the form of an impending Biden administration and staggered vaccine rollouts are on the horizon, of course, but we have a very long way to go. I get that.
So while I embrace 2021 for the semblance of relief it promises, mostly I’m happy to see 2021 because it marks the ten year anniversary of some of the biggest and most important events in my life.
In 2011 I got together with my husband. I met my best girlfriend. I saw my first psychotherapy patient. And I moved from Esalen on the cliffs of Big Sur, California to Berkeley to plant roots and make a long-term home and community for myself in the Bay.
It was a big, momentous year that followed what had previously been a very dark and hard one.
I don’t know if 2021 will feel the same way (though I certainly hope more good things are coming!), but the calendrical changeover certainly has made me reflective about all that I’ve learned in this last decade as I’ve trained as a psychotherapist and found my voice and clinical expertise in this niche area of relational trauma recovery work.
From shaking with anxiety the first time I ever saw a “real” paying psychotherapy client as a student intern in 2011 to now being a licensed psychotherapist with expertise in my content area, founding and running a boutique therapy center with a staff of 8 other trauma-informed clinicians, to being a psychoeducational online course creator, to having my clinical opinions featured in media and press over 120+ times in outlets such as Forbes, NBC, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and more, to having 40,000 unique monthly visitors to my website and niched blog, I’ve come a long way as a therapist.
Seriously, what a difference a decade makes!
So, in honor of those ten years, of those lessons learned personally and professionally, I wanted to write up some of my reflections on relational trauma recovery work. Things I know now that I didn’t necessarily know then that I want to pass on in case these ideas and thoughts can be of support to you, too, in your own healing journey.
Reflections On Relational Trauma Recovery Work
1) Not having an accurate name for this kind of experience causes people to not see themselves or get the right kind of support.
To be clear, I didn’t head into grad school or my clinical internship experiences thinking, “Hmm, I can’t wait to specialize in relational trauma recovery work!”
No one had ever said this term to me before and, in those early days of learning and training, I was patchworking together my ideas about what I wanted to specialize in and, moreover, even what the cluster of experiences I and others had gone through should even be called.
Childhood abuse was a term that felt limiting and somewhat divisive. C-PTSD didn’t seem to take into account the complexity of how adverse early experiences could manifest (and that diagnosis still isn’t in the DSM, actually). The famous Kaiser ACE’s study failed to encapsulate a larger range of experiences that seemed to also be leading to trauma impacts for a select group of people. So what to call this cluster of experiences? Neglect? Developmental trauma? Coming from a bad childhood?
So as I moved through my training and internships, gaining more clinical knowledge and reflecting more on the healing journeys of myself and so many others, I started organizing my thoughts by using the term relational trauma recovery and defining it in a rather wide way:
Relational trauma is the kind of trauma that results over the course of time in the context of a power-imbalanced and dysfunctional relationship (usually between a child and caregiver) that results in a host of complex and lingering biopsychosocial impacts for the individual who endured the trauma.
Under this definition, I could see myself and my story more clearly and help my clients start to see themselves more clearly.
And this defining process felt (and still feels!) so important to me because the more people who can see themselves and their stories more clearly, the more opportunity there is to receive the kind of help they need to get targeted, specific support which is so needed when coming from this kind of background.
2) Relational trauma recovery work requires a different kind of approach than “straight-forward” trauma work.
I’m a trauma therapist, yes, but my work differs from trauma work designed to support those who experienced isolated, single-incident traumas as adults (like car crashes, assault, etc.).
Trauma that takes place over a long period of time in the context of a power-imbalanced caregiver relationship tends to have impacts that are more complex and so it requires a commensurately nuanced and different treatment approach.
When working with my therapy clients, my relational trauma recovery work is evidence-based, psychoanalytically-driven, and housed in a relational, humanistic frame. Moreover, my work is grounded in four key principles which, after a decade of doing this work, I believe are critical to relational trauma recovery.
These four principles include: research-backed psychoeducation, evidence-based skills-building, trauma-informed processing, reparative relational experiences.
Each of these pillars is, in my personal and professional experience, critical to attend to the complexity of the impacts of someone who came from a relational trauma background in a way that “straight-forward” single-incident trauma therapy sometimes doesn’t address.
Through my essays on this blog, I try to attend to pillars one and two while pillars three and four are primarily provided to my small handful of therapy clients and online course students.
3) You can be very “high-functioning” and come from a relational trauma background.
Trauma is, for most people, one of those terms that has a strong pejorative association.
Many people equate trauma with war veterans, or car crashes, or rape survivors. Or when they hear the term “childhood trauma” they think about growing up in chronic poverty and being beaten.
Of course, these are all traumas.
But it’s also possible for someone to look quite “high functioning” and still come from a trauma background when we define it in the way that I do.
This means that you can have grown up going to New England’s best prep schools, you can be a founder of your own tech company in the Bay, you can make 400K a year, you can have grown up driving your own Range Rover at age 16 in Beverly Hills and you can still come from a relational trauma background.
Your past and present socioeconomic status is not an indicator of whether or not you had a functional childhood. The schools you attended nor the job you hold don’t recuse you from this definition.
It’s totally possible to be “high functioning” on paper and have had financial, professional, and academic success while still coming from a relational trauma background and feeling those lingering, complex impacts play out in different ways and different areas in your life.
Again, this is why I feel it’s so important to define the term more broadly and help widen the perspective on who can experience relational trauma so more people can see themselves more accurately.
4) Relationship wounds, but boy does it also heal.
Again, as I define it, relational trauma is the unique kind of trauma that takes place over time in the context of a power-imbalanced and dysfunctional relationship (usually between a child and caregiver, but it can also be with a child and coach, or a child and a whole evangelical spiritual community).
In this way, the wounding takes place in the context of a relationship. It doesn’t take place in the context of a person and a thing (like an event like a car crash). The wounding takes place in relationship.
And so, I firmly believe that, when our early wounds take place in the context of relationship, it’s through relationship – a certain kind of healthy, attuned, deeply caring relationship – that the biggest healing happens.
That’s why I place a large emphasis on building this kind of close, reparative relationship with my clients, using appropriate self-disclosure, and sharing stories, fables, myths, and anecdotes of others to help them feel less alone.
And to be clear: reparative relational experiences that support your trauma recovery do not just have to be with your therapist. You can have a deeply healing and reparative relationship experience with a good, kind romantic partner. With a loyal, loving, supportive best girlfriend. With a grandmotherly neighbor who watches out for you.
And so, whether you ever get into therapy or not, whether you ever consciously do your personal work to overcome your relational trauma history or if you “stumble” into your healing (as I, quite frankly, did), be mindful of the ways that the good, healthy relationships in your life are helping you heal, and lean into those more.
5) We are geared for growth, wholeness, and healing. All we need is the right conditions to do so.
One of my most well-read essays – Tend to the soil; don’t blame the plant. – effectively summarizes one of the core principles of my work: We grow and adapt to the circumstances around us. However, we are and all that we are makes sense when we explore and reflect on the context we grew up in.
And also, we are all geared for growth, wholeness, and healing. It’s a “soft” psychotherapy belief to espouse, yes, but it’s also a belief reified by the Adaptive Information Processing model that underpins EMDR.
Our brains, bodies, souls, and psyches naturally want to make movements towards healing, growth, and wholeness. When that isn’t happening, when we are stuck in maladaptive responses and patterning – be it emotional, social, physical or neurological – we can support ourselves to move towards healing in a more constructive way by providing ourselves with the right kind of conditions for this.
We help integrate neural pathways and memory consolidation in EMDR, we provide you with a safe, attuned, caring relationship in therapy, we work to establish boundaries that keep abusers out of your life, etc.
Creating the “right conditions” can look many different ways, but when we do it, it can deeply support our natural movements towards healing.
6) Estrangements, disownment, and brittle, fractured family systems are unbelievably common. But most people think they’re the only ones.
Family strain, dysfunction, and estrangement are very under-discussed topics. But, they’re statistically incredibly common. This means that many people out there – possibly you – deal with very challenging family members and the strain this can bring.
To illustrate how statistically common strained and estranged family relationships are, I want to share a few statistics with you: Studies done through the UK non-profit Stand Alone suggests that 1 in 5 British families have some sort of estrangement within them.
And another 2016 research study done by authors Megan Gilligan, J. Jill Suitor, and Karl Pillemer found that about 10% of mothers were estranged from one adult child. A 2015 study by Richard Conti that was based on college and graduate students, primarily female, showed that more than one-quarter reported extended estrangement, while close to 44 percent reported being estranged at some point.
The percentage of those estranged was even higher in a British study conducted by Lucy Blake, with more than half reporting estrangement and some 77 percent stating that emotional abuse was the cause.
So with these statistics we know that there are many, many people out there who deal with challenging – if not seemingly impossible family members.
But still, so many people going through these kinds of experiences feel alone. Like they’re the only one. And this isolation on top of an already painful experience can feel so very hard. This is why I write prolifically about experiences like this. To help others feel less alone and to soothe that isolation pain.
If you currently feel alone in your experience of having a strained, estranged, or fractured relationship with your family-of-origin, I hope you’ll spend some time digging deep into the rest of my blog archives, specifically reading the comments below the essays to see how “not alone” you are.
7) Estrangements don’t always last forever. You never know how time and personal work can change people and situations.
This next point is one I feel like I could only write about now that I’m 38, and about 15 years deep into my own healing journey, and 10 years into my professional career. It’s a belief I wouldn’t have understood or believed back in 2007, 2010, or even 2014.
It’s the reality that, even though you may be estranged from someone right now, even though a family-of-origin relationship feels devastatingly awful right now, it may not always look and feel that way forever.
The reality is that I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what will be empirically true for you in the future.
I can only speak from my own personal experience and also from having witnessed hundreds of clients over the last decade and suggest that we just don’t know what will happen with the passage of time.
People can get into therapy and do their personal work to shift and change dynamics. Time, age, parenting can soften you and your hurts and resentments. Death or near-death experiences can shake up circumstances and previously rigid patterning in family systems.
We just don’t know what the future holds.
And so if you’re hurting, if you’re grieving, if you feel like your heart is broken and you can’t imagine how things will ever get better, just keep breathing. Keep taking things one day at a time, get yourself some really good professional support, take such good care of yourself, and maybe let a tiny seed of hope take residence in your heart for the possibility that things might change in the future.
8) You don’t have to put your life on hold until you’re healed.
One of the biggest myths that so many people hold is that we need to put our lives on hold until we’re “done” with our healing work.
I personally believed this for years, too. I thought, “I can’t be in a romantic relationship, I’m too screwed up!” “I definitely can’t have children yet until I’m more together.” “I can’t go after that professional goal – I’m not up for it yet!”
All of these are, effectively, dreams deferred because of beliefs in our defects.
While I do think that, in some circumstances and for some people, it makes sense to pause pursuits or fully step away from the “world” to heal and cocoon and recover (and I know how deeply privileged I was to have stumbled into those kinds of circumstances in my mid-twenties when I moved to Esalen), it’s not always necessary nor is it even realistic.
And here’s the other thing: those very things that we imagine we can’t pursue because of “how screwed up we are” can very often be the greatest catalysts for our own healing.
I know that my marriage to my husband – a good, kind, incredibly loyal, and generous man – has been one of the greatest sources of my own healing in my life. And I would have missed out on that if I had held onto that belief, “I can’t date and be in a relationship until I’m fully healed.”
Also, what does “fully healed” even mean, really?
The work isn’t a linear, 20-step process kind of thing with a concrete start and end. It’s somewhat never-ending and, moreover, it comes in waves. Read on.
9) The work will come in waves. And it will take time. And that’s okay.
When you come from a relational trauma background, the reality is that your healing work to recover and move past your past will take time. And it will come in waves.
And, quite honestly, at some level, you may always live with a constant series of little losses and griefs that get re-triggered from time to time.
Your sadness may be evoked again on your wedding day when you walk yourself solo down the aisle, lacking a relationship with your father that would otherwise allow his arm around you.
New memories and aches may surface when you cuddle your baby, feeling a ferocity of love and protectiveness on a cellular level and at the very same time having the painful thought, “And why didn’t they love me this way?”
A memory chain of trauma may be triggered and opened when someone threatens litigation and, even though your adult self understands that you’re safe and fine, your 8-year old self and unprocessed trauma memories where you felt your life was at stake is deeply re-traumatized again.
Relational trauma recovery work is not “one and done.” It’s a journey and it takes quite a bit of time and different work and different modalities at different times.
I say this, not to overwhelm you, but rather to normalize what you can expect.
Your wounding didn’t happen overnight, nor will the attendant healing happen overnight. But that’s okay.
You can still move forward and build a beautiful life for yourself, even while you’re in the midst of the journey.
10) There is no other work more worthwhile than this because it will change the quality of our days forever.
Finally, and I say this with all the conviction in my heart, after ten years of doing this work professionally, after 15 years of doing this work personally, I believe wholeheartedly that relational trauma recovery work is some of the most worthwhile work we will ever do in our lives.
At its core – at least in how I practice it – relational trauma recovery work is about trying to move forward and build the most beautiful life possible for yourself, despite your adverse early beginnings.
It’s work that helps you dramatically and positively shift and change your relationship to yourself, to others, and to the world.
This is work that helps you show up for your life with more clarity and more enlivenment, work that can help you live a higher quality of life for the rest of your days on earth.
It’s second chance work. It’s happy(ish) ever after work.
Look, it will always be my great wish that every infant, baby, toddler, child, and young person on the planet can have a protected, peaceful, and magical childhood.
It will always also be my hope that one day I’m unemployable because no one will need the work I do.
But while that wish and hope remain unrealized, I think that giving ourselves the gift of conscious, deliberate relational trauma recovery work as adults is about the next best and most important thing we can do for ourselves.
And so, to close this essay, to close out these reflections, I’ll leave you with a quote that has guided my work these past ten years and that will continue to guide the next ten:
“She could never go back and make some of the details pretty. All she could do was move forward and make the whole beautiful.”
– Terri St. Cloud
Thank you so much for being on this journey with me, friend. It’s an honor to be of support to you in any small way I can.