One of the great privileges of my career as a psychotherapist is being allowed to be inside the hearts and minds of so many extraordinary people, bearing witness to parts of them and their experience that they share with very few others (if anyone).
And this is such a privilege.
It’s a privilege, not only because my clients trust me so much and allow me to be with them in their vulnerability, but also because in the last ten years of this work, I can now see how common certain thoughts and patterns are for individuals who come from relational trauma backgrounds.
Witnessing story after story, hearing thought after thought has shown me how common and natural certain thoughts and experiences are for my clients.
And with knowledge of how common certain thoughts and patterns are, I can, when appropriate, share what I know to help others feel better.
Of course, what I share is always confidential, spoken of in generalities, and never ever meant to diminish or dismiss the experience of anyone.
Rather, when I share with my clients how common certain patterns and thoughts are, my hope is to reduce the shame, isolation, and loneliness they may feel for feeling/thinking/and acting certain ways.
You see, folks who come from relational trauma backgrounds already feel a high degree of isolation and otherness – that’s usually how we felt inside our family systems – and so widening the lens on how common certain experiences are can feel normalizing, validating, and can help my clients feel less alone, less “crazy” for thinking and feeling certain ways.
Knowing how helpful it can be for my clients when I reflect back on certain experiences, today I want to share 5 familiar experiences you may relate to if you yourself come from a relational trauma background.
So if you yourself relate to coming from a relational trauma background, pour yourself a cup of tea, and prepare to feel less alone.
5 familiar experiences when you come from a relational trauma background.
1. When you come from a relational trauma background, you may feel invisible. Like you “pass” and that you straddle two worlds. You go through the motions of your “functional present-day life” – going to work, socializing with the parents of your child’s privileged preschool. And yet you may also feel like your phone is a bomb in your pocket, waiting to explode with texts about your brother needing rent money or your father being paroled. You dread that standard second-grade project your kid will have to complete – The Family Tree – because how are you going to explain the aunts and uncles they’ve never met and (hopefully) will never meet? And, at times, living with this paradox of passing inside of you, you can’t believe that your friends are complaining about the heartache of their kid not getting into their top choice private school, or that closing on a second vacation home in San Diego is their biggest struggle. You “fit in” with these people but also you don’t because they don’t know about your past and even if they did they could never relate to it given how seemingly functional their backgrounds are. This is such a common experience when you come from a relational trauma background.
2. When you come from a relational trauma background, you may find yourself saying things like, “Well, it could have been worse.” Or, “at least my parents didn’t sexually assault me.” You – like so many – may have been taught/gaslit into believing that your experience “was fine” and that your distress was just you being “overly sensitive.” This self-doubt conditioning combined with the fact that denial and diminishment are common psychological defense mechanisms may result in you frequently diminishing, dismissing, caveating, and excusing your own painful past. And while your personal recovery and healing work will ultimately involve ceasing your own self-diminishment, it’s important to recognize that this pattern of self-diminishment is a common one for folks who come from relational trauma backgrounds.
3. When you come from a relational trauma background, you may alternate between magical thinking and self-loathing (but you may not call it that). You may have highly contrasting, quickly shifting thoughts – about your marriage, work, yourself, and more. For example, you may alternate from wishing you were with a different spouse and believing you’re only worthy of a husband like Jamie Fraser in Outlander (no average husband will do for you!) to thinking no one will possibly want you if you end up on the dating market if you do end up divorcing your spouse. You may, in one hour, believe you’re the best contributor on your team and a shoo-in for promotion, strongly doubting yourself and questioning whether you are even employable in the next hour. This mental vacillation can be exhausting, confusing, and is often a common hallmark of coming from a childhood history that failed to help you integrate a reasonable, sound, and stable self-image.
4. When you come from a relational trauma background, becoming a parent can feel both healing and triggering to you at the same time. The experience of becoming a parent can feel healing because of the love you feel for your child and the reparative experience of getting to treat someone in the way you wish you had been treated. But also, the experience of becoming a parent can also be triggering because you now have a vivid contrast to how you were treated and this contrast can make you feel even angrier at your caregivers for failing you so egregiously. And also – and this is important to understand – you may even be triggered with jealousy of “how easy your kid will have it” compared to what you went through. You can want the best for your child and also feel jealousy about it at the same time. When you come from a relational trauma background, these contrasting experiences aren’t mutually exclusive – both things can be true at once when you parent.
5. When you come from a relational trauma background, you may feel like you have to work harder than most to “stay positive” and keep mentally healthy and you can sometimes (or often) resent this. You have habits and routines – like vigorous exercise, journaling, therapy, your support groups – but unlike for many people, they’re not just “nice to haves”; they’re necessary to help keep you in a window of tolerance, to keep you feeling steady, and when you can’t access them, you feel strongly, negatively impacted. On the one hand, you’re glad that you know what helps keep you “sane and steady.” You’re glad that you know what the proverbial power tools in your mental health toolkit are. But, on the other hand, you may resent that you feel so dependent on practices and supports to help you feel reasonably good and you imagine that life would be easier if you were “less sensitive” and didn’t require these supports so much.
These five experiences are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shared, common experiences coming from (and recovering from) relational trauma backgrounds.
If what I shared today resonated with you, if you’d like to learn more about relational trauma recovery, I hope you’ll spend some time exploring other essays I’ve written on this topic and browsing the comments below the posts.
You may feel alone in your experience, but as you’ll see from the blog commenters on certain essays, you’re not alone at all.
Thank you so very much. I’m so excited to hear from you and to support you and others like us in any way I can.
If you would personally like support around this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.
Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.
Robin Watson on
How does a person who comes from a relational trauma background create a stable self-image for oneself? Also, I am starting a new job and I want to do my best and I don’t want to repeat the damaging patterns from the past. What advice can you give me as a person with a relational trauma background in being successful in the workplace?
Donna Jansz on
Thank you for this Annie. I do all of these. Nice to know I am not alone.
You’re so welcome, Donna. I’m so glad my words feel helpful to you. Warmly, Annie
Hi Annie, thank you for this article. It is very helpful to recognize these as common behaviors. I do them all. I tried taking your survey but the link says the file has been deleted from Google Drive?
Hi Deidre, I’m so pleased that this article felt helpful to you! I appreciate your willingness to participate in the survey. It has since been closed, but thank you for trying. Take such good care of yourself. Warmly, Annie.
I wonder if you might choose not to use the example of, “at least my parents didn’t sexually assault (abuse) me” … or at least mention something like the following: for those of us who did have that happen, this oft-used comment is a hard twist of the knife. This is not the ultimate comparison of harm. Those of us who have experienced this are not the worst of the worst – the too-far-gone, the most-lost. One can and does recover from this abuse (with determination/focus/perseverance/hope and kind & safe *help*) just as much as from any other – even though, yes, it’s horrific and the harmful effects are significant and long-lasting. Thanks for the article. Lots I liked & found helpful in it.
Hi Helia, thank you so much for your comment – what you shared was really thought-provoking for me and so important. My intention wasn’t to say that sexual assault in the family system is the “worst of the worst” but to illustrate this as a common, self-soothing comment for many. I agree with you wholeheartedly that recovering from sexual abuse is absolutely possible and I also agree with you that using this example that people so often cite reifies the further marginalizing and othering that can happen for childhood sexual assault survivors. I’ll be mindful of this next time when using illustrative anecdotal examples. Thank you so much again for taking the time to comment and enrich the conversation. Warmly, Annie