These 20 common experiences that I list in today’s essay are my attempt to make visible the invisible.
The thoughts, worries, concerns, lived experiences, and situations so many of us who come from abusive, neglectful, or chaotic backgrounds often struggle with, contend with, and face as adults.
20 Common Experiences When You Endure Relational Trauma.
- Things that are not life and death can feel like life and death. Having had our literal survival and safety at risk early in our lives, our memory networks are established for perceiving peril where there may be none and our bodies register that perceived peril with unbelievable amounts of anxiety and stress. People tell us we’re okay but we just don’t believe them…
- Early on you may attach to a substance or behavior (or both or many) in the absence of having someone safe, consistent, and stable to attach to. And when stress overwhelms you now, you may revert back to your old coping mechanisms. And you feel so much shame for doing so (“Shouldn’t I know better by now?”).
- You may sometimes feel like you’re failing at life and like everyone else got handed the “Handbook to Life” besides you. You wonder if you’re the only one having such a hard time…
- You often wonder what life would have been like if you had had loving, emotionally responsible, and responsive, stable parents. And you debate back and forth if you’d be as strong, capable, and independent as you are if you had had that. You sadly realize you’ll never know.
- You wonder and worry if you’re “too broken to be loved” and dread what would happen if the people you care about knew about the background you really came from, who you’re related to, and what your gene pool is. So you mostly keep yourself from being known. Really known.
- You feel as if you’re constantly racing from something: the poverty you grew up in, the bad name, the memories, the nightmares, the mistakes and poor choices you made in efforts to survive. And the racing is exhausting. You’re worn out. Bone tired.
- You know the states of anxiety, depression, and even the painful reality of questioning if life would be better if you weren’t here. You live with these realities. They’re a part of you as much as your brown hair or birthmarks. You know them well, but still, you hate, resist, and dread these states.
- You may have (had) a tendency to sabotage your closest relationships and, when you do, there’s a part of you that watches what you’re doing, tries to warn you, and yet you still do it anyways. You may hate that part of you.
- You want so badly to be and do differently than your biological parents but may eventually see their dark parts in you and feel awful. You fear that you’re not so different after all, despite all those years of therapy. And when you glimpse their face in your face in the mirror, you feel scared, defeated, and maybe even a little disgusted.
- Numb is your preferred feeling state and your efforts to achieve this often get in the way of functional, healthy relationships. You look forward to your evening routines and weekend rituals. Your comforts and escapes. That evening cocktail (or three). That binge-watching. That weekend gaming. Those edibles. Your off buttons. You don’t want to feel all your feelings.
- You may love following certain celebrities, icons, and influencers but also be incredibly triggered when you realize how privileged they are in terms of the family foundation they have. Your opinion of them may change (“Of course, they found success! Look at what they started out with in life!”) and you may hunger for models of possibility who resemble you and what you lacked and still somehow became successful.
- You may feel like you’re constantly waiting for your life to start. And yet so much of it is gone already. And you’re so damn sad about this. The choices unmade and the opportunities lost because you didn’t have the capacity, skills, or guidance to make it those choices back then. And you’re angry and sad about it.
- You’d give anything to go back in time and make different decisions given what you know now.
- You may have spent (and spend) a huge amount of life energy just coping. Trying to make it look like you’re okay when you’re really not. You really are an extraordinary, Meryl Streep-like actress at presenting like you’re “normal.” Like you’ve got it all together. “Nothing to see here, folks…”
- Post-apocalyptic, doomsday, scary-as-heck shows and movies often feel like a parallel process to your inner emotional world. You crave the dark, the hard, the brutal because you GET it. You need to see situations that express how brutal it all feels to you,
- You watch, rewatch, and watch again shows like Friends, The Office, and Sex and the City, marveling at and craving the kind of familial closeness of the relationships you see on those shows. Hungering for it. Hoping for it. The very thing you never had and want so badly.
- You can’t even remotely imagine what it would feel like to have a safety net underneath you. Your peers are swinging from trapeze bars with a big old bouncy net underneath them, waiting to catch them, and you don’t feel that underneath you as you swing. You’d give anything for that net and know your peers can never fully understand your daily experience of fear and loneliness should something awful happen…
- You crave being able to text or call a parent about the hard things that are happening to you now as an adult. You long to tell them but at the same time realize how stupid that would be. Like going to a hardware store for milk. So you book another therapy session instead. Finding room in your budget for a proxy parent.
- You spend your life making others around you feel comfortable and supported when you’ve never actually experienced that yourself. You simmer with resentment but don’t see alternatives. If you stop taking care of others, surely they’ll leave you and you’ll be left with nothing. So you tolerate their taking and feel relationally emaciated from the lack of nourishment you get from others.
- You worry and wonder when you’ll stop feeling sad about the childhood you never had. The parents you never had. The functional firm foundation of life that just isn’t in the cards for you. You’re afraid if you start to acknowledge what you never had, you’ll feel sad forever and so part of you doesn’t even want to take a look at this. You wonder if there’s any point in feeling sad about it anyways…
Again, these are just a few of the many shared experiences and thoughts that those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds may deal with.
There are, of course, thousands of other shared thoughts and experiences – many of which I’ve written about on this blog before.
And again, the point of today’s essay was not to “add more fuel to the fire” and make anyone with a relational trauma history feel worse about themselves and their circumstances; my goal here is to help anyone with a relational trauma history who has familiarity with these thoughts or experiences TO FEEL LESS ALONE.
Relational trauma, disownment, estrangement, and parental abuse (be it overt, covert, grandiose, or subtle) are still largely under-discussed topics collectively.
And because these conversations are under-discussed, many of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds can feel lonely, “other” and “crazy” for having these thoughts and experiences.
Hopefully reading today’s essay helped you feel even a little less alone, a little more seen, perhaps even a little “less crazy” about what you feel, think, and live through.
My goal in all of my work – through my 1:1 therapy work, through my online course, through my writing – is to help folks feel less alone, and to create a little community of like-minded others who can relate (as well as share education, tools, and support) because community is a critical component to healing from a relational trauma history.
(And if you’d like to find more community, if you’d like to feel less alone, please consider enrolling in Hard Families, Good Boundaries to join our private Facebook group of fellow relational trauma recovery journey-ers…)
And then, once you’ve read today’s post, please leave a message in the comments below letting me know:
- Which of these relational trauma experiences did you identify with?
- What other relational trauma experience might you include on this list?
Did you know that we have about 20- 25,000 website visitors per month on this little corner of the internet?
It’s a lot of people seeking out information about relational trauma recovery and so you never know when you leave a comment on the blog who you might be helping feel less alone or more hopeful when you share your personal experience.
So if you feel inclined to share, please do. I’d love to hear from you and so would so many others.
And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
Thanks for this wonderfully written blog. Sad to say I identify with all twenty of these consequences but it’s reassuring to know that’s a normal reaction to such abnormal circumstances
Jinal Chaudhari on
I sometimes feel so helpless and drown in my own sorrows, trying to understand just why is my life so complicated that even I cannot understand why can’t i be “normal”. I relate to the not being handed the guide to life so much. thank you for making me feel a little more understood.
Shirley Bly on
I would like to be added to your email list if possible. I read this blog today after a friend shared it with me. It really resonates with me.
I can relate to most of those 20 experiences. I’m unemployed, soon-to-become homeless, old, alone, most my friends don’t understand or don’t accept the idea of complex parental trauma and I’ve spent lots of money with psychotherapy (including EMDR from a non-trauma-informed professional) and neurofeedback. Only acupuncture brought me some relief.