Today’s essay is a little different than usual.
Today I want to share with you my responses to students inside of Hard Families, Good Boundaries – my online psychoeducational course and group coaching program – who asked terrific and very common questions over the last few months of our group coaching calls.
These questions my students asked mirror the questions my therapy clients, newsletter readers, and blog commenters, ask, too. They are common questions because they are common circumstances.
The questions are:
- How do I get it – like really get it – that my family of origin can’t or won’t give me what I need. How do I get over this?
- I’m coming to terms with the fact that my family can’t give me what I want. But building a “second chance” family feels hard and I struggle with being close to people.
- The fact that I come from a relational trauma history is impacting my relationship. What tools can I use and what advice do you have?
I wanted to share my answers and these questions with you because, so often in our relational trauma recovery journeys, we imagine that we’re “the only one” – the only one with such a challenging family situation, the only one who “can’t get over it yet,” the only one who keeps going back to the dry well, hoping for water each time only to find none…
My hope is that you will see yourself in one of these questions and find value in the answers if you do.
Remember: you are not alone. It’s just that not everyone is open and publicly talking about these matters.
Keep reading to feel less alone.
You’re Not Alone: My Answers To Your Common Q’s
Theme: How do I get it – like really get it – that my family of origin can’t or won’t give me what I need. How do I get over this?
Q: I feel I’m beginning to accept that I need to “stop going to the hardware store for milk.” I tend to struggle with repetitive thoughts about how I can explain things to my family. I can’t shake the feeling that if I could just explain it to them “properly,” they would someday get it and treat me differently. I know cognitively that that is not at all likely to happen, but accepting this reality on an emotional level has been very challenging. I experience confusion around this, which creates anxiety. I suspect the right thing to do is continue to grieve and support myself and continue seeking out supportive people in the hopes of building a “chosen family,” but I’m curious if you have additional thoughts or advice about this.
It makes so much sense that you would struggle on an emotional level with this because effectively you’re trying to make the illogical, logical.
I mean this in the kindest way.
Literally, I wrote that blog post “Stop going to the hardware store for milk.” as my own personal reminder to stop trying to get some of my family of origin members to give me what they cannot or will not.
Logically, we think that, if we’re super clear, and articulate things perfectly, and use all the right therapy tools and assertive communication tools, something positive will happen.
That they will truly get us and respond well to us.
And with a lot of relationships in our lives, that might be the case!
Roommates, friends, colleagues, most others we might “present our case to” (so to speak) would have logical, appropriate responses.
But inside hurting, stunted, and dysfunctional family systems, there are layers of complexity: sometimes and often people with their own unprocessed pain lacking the developmental capacities to respond in appropriate and healthy ways, unconscious dynamics at play and at force attempting to keep the homeostasis of the family system intact so no one has to feel too uncomfortable, family therapy principles like triangulation, the Drama triangle, etc.
All of that could be true in a dysfunctional family system and none of it can be conscious.
So again, when we approach our dysfunctional family of origin systems, thinking if we just say things perfectly, if we modulate our tone, use the right words, catch them at the right time, etc, we think they will have a logical response.
You can make yourself crazy waiting for that.
And I know: this is the hardest thing! To stop expecting that your needs and wants will be met by your family.
We are hardwired for connection and want to be seen, loved, and known by our family of origin. That’s a primal natural impulse.
But when we are not getting it, when being vulnerable and moving close to those people causes us pain, we need to find other sources to bring our longings to.
Healthy romantic relationships, good girlfriends, therapists, online Facebook communities like the one that comes with this course.
People who CAN respond to your logical responses with logic.
Over time, with enough safe, reparative experiences giving you what you want and need, the draw to turn towards people who can’t meet your needs will ebb. At least that was the case for me and I know it’s the case for many of my clients. But again, none of this is easy.
So, I want to share another tool with you that you can use when your childhood longing to have your family of origin meet your needs comes up.
I would invite you to use one of my favorite clinical intervention tools: Internal Family Systems. (Aka: parts work.)
Internal Family Systems is a powerful psychotherapy modality. It believes the mind is naturally multiple and that is a good thing.
IFS believes your inner parts contain valuable qualities and our core Self knows how to heal, allowing us to become integrated and whole.
The first key idea of IFS is that people have different parts inside them, and these parts do not always agree with each other.
Instead of trying to deal with the abstract idea of “resistance” or grief, it can be productive to think about it as a part, almost like a person inside of you who feels the grief or resistance.
The second key idea is that everyone has a Self and the self always feels kindly to all the parts of you.
So, using the model of IFS, if you are struggling to accept this reality that you see time and time again, I would suggest that some part of you is deeply resistant to really getting that.
And I would want to hear more from that part of you and facilitate a conversation with it, between that part and your Self.
If you were one of my therapy clients and we were in my offices together, I would have you proverbially “put that part on a pillow” to externalize it.
And then I would ask that part of you questions:
“What is hard for you to accept about your family?”
“What are you afraid of if you do really accept who they are?”
“What do you need?”
“What does your Self want to say to this part of you?”
And so on. I would invite you to practice some kind of dialogue between you and this part of you that’s struggling to accept the reality of your family to see what surfaces.
Bearing all of what I shared in mind, making time to connect with the parts of you that feel conflicted or who, no matter what, can’t or won’t accept the limitations of your family of origin, these can be powerful tools to support your grieving, reckoning, and sense-making.
Theme: I’m coming to terms with the fact that my family can’t give me what I want. But building a “second chance” family feels hard and I struggle with being close to people.
Q: As I’m doing the work of grieving and letting go of the fantasy that my family will change and support me the way I need, I’m realizing I need to create a “chosen family.” I think this will take me some time because I’m struggling very much to trust others. I feel that having a dysfunctional family set the stage for a long series of painful relationships throughout my life (work relationships and friendships in particular), where trust has been broken over and over again. I notice I am hypervigilant about trust, but I also am aware that I’m not “just imagining” it–people often DO disappoint me and push my boundaries. I am only recently realizing that I deserve better treatment. This dynamic is profoundly exhausting, and I often cope by withdrawing/isolating. But I really want healthy connections. I’m curious if you have any suggestions on how to approach this. Thank you so much!
A: First of all, I really want to acknowledge and validate how much you’re investing into your own personal growth and healing work.
To both grieve what you didn’t receive, reckon with the fact that your family-of-origin cannot and will not give you what you want, and move forward seeking out reparative relationships is a lot.
I know what this feels like, personally and professionally.
It can often feel vulnerable, confusing, and as you said, profoundly exhausting.
But I do truly believe it’s incredibly, profoundly worthwhile work. I say this being on the other side now with extraordinary relationships in my life.
To support you in doing the same, I have a few ideas that come up for me when I read your question.
To the first point, seeking out and cultivating healthy relationships, we talk a lot about this in Hard Families, Good Boundaries so I won’t repeat all of those tools just now but instead would encourage you to go back to the sections where we talk about the qualities and characteristics of healthy relationships, how to notice them in your life, how to rewire your expectations for them, and how to, literally in practice, seek them out.
And in addition to all the course materials, I want to share this blog post of mine that I wrote a few years back. It’s written from the lens of rewiring our expectations and relational palette in romantic relationships, but I think the tenants are applicable to all relationships.
But, aside from the tools of how to actually identify, seek out, and begin being in healthier relationships, let’s talk about two really important nuances that you mentioned in your message: possible hypervigilance to being disappointed and having your boundaries crossed, and the fact that this isn’t imagined – it does happen – and how to cope with it.
I do think that it’s very common for those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds to develop a hypersensitivity and hypervigilance to being “let down” and disappointed.
We know this experience so well from our childhoods that many of us can develop antenna and super sensitive radar technology to pick this up (as it were).
And this makes total sense!
Your ability to scan, gauge, read and notice how safe or unsafe other people are (or are perceived to be) is likely one of the ways you survived your childhood.
This instinct to protect ourselves – coupled with what for many of us – is a powerful hunger for better treatment after years of being proverbially famished for it, can lead to a low tolerance for any kind of treatment that reminds us of what we experienced in the past.
Now here’s the tricky thing: As we move towards seeking out and nurturing healthier relationships in our life, we need to maintain a balance of both understanding what poor relational treatment looks like and having solid, healthy boundaries to protect ourselves from poor treatment, but also having reasonable and flexible expectations of others.
What I mean by reasonable and flexible expectations of others is this: people aren’t perfect.
Even folks who have mostly really healthy and functional ways of being in the world will, at times, disappoint you, fail to show up for you, cross your boundaries, do something that hurts or upsets you. That’s the reality of being in relationships with other humans.
And that’s why I often talk about how, in a relationship, any kind of relationship, rupture is inevitable but it’s the repair that really counts.
Because even in healthy relationships there will be times when people disappoint us.
For instance, a girlfriend can’t answer our call or really give us much support when we’re in crisis because she’s totally burned out Zoom homeschooling her kids and working during a pandemic.
Or a mentor we deeply respect rescheduled our meeting with them for the second time in a month, crossing our time and scheduling boundaries.
These things happen. And how we respond to these moments we want to pay attention to.
In relational trauma recovery work, it’s sometimes common to feel feelings that are disproportionate to the moment that happens. You feel rage at the girlfriend and start to imagine you need a new best friend. You imagine your mentor doesn’t want to support you anymore and you collapse in despair… in these moments, we want to be curious and ask:
“Is the past present? Are the feelings I’m feeling right now appropriate to the situation, or am I feeling disproportionately triggered because of my past experiences?”
And then, after asking these questions, we take steps to regulate our nervous system, to look at the situation from a different perspective, and then ask ourselves:
“Even though this doesn’t feel good with this person right now, given what I know about them, do they still feel like a mostly safe person for me to try and be close with?”
I do firmly believe that our vulnerability deserves to be met with vulnerability and in our relational trauma recovery journeys, it can sometimes feel extraordinarily vulnerable to be close and connected to anyone.
So most of all, please only go as fast as the scared and uncomfortable parts of you feel safe going, and bear that balance in mind of wanting healthy relationships but also knowing even the best and healthiest among us will fail and disappoint or unintentionally cross boundaries sometimes.
That’s the piece I would have you reflect on as you move forward.
Theme: The fact that I come from a relational trauma history is impacting my relationship. What tools can I use and what advice do you have?
Q: There are so many ways that my ongoing mental health struggles (related to my childhood trauma) affect my loving relationship with my partner of almost three years. While my partner is patient with my slow recovery process, supportive, has even educated himself a lot about my struggles, it’s wearing on our relationship and for a while now, I feel I don’t have much to give emotionally and our relationship is very unbalanced. We’ve been talking about all this and decided to seek out couple’s counseling. We’re really dedicated to not repeating the patterns of our extremely dysfunctional families, but really struggling with how to maintain healthy dynamics amidst my mental health challenges. When I’m in a healthy place, our relationship is really great, but since the pandemic, I’ve been struggling a lot, all my worst patterns are resurfacing, and our relationship is really suffering. What advice do you have about maintaining healthy romantic relationships when one person has a lot of mental illnesses because of trauma (depression, ADHD, complex PTSD, etc.)?
A: First of all, I think it says so much about you and the level of healing you’ve done to even be able to articulate this question and to realize that your relationship is impacted by how well and stable or how challenged you feel (and let’s be clear – this is all of us in relationships, not just survivors of adverse early beginnings).
However, what’s also true is that living with and loving someone who comes from a relational trauma background can have a heightened level of challenge and unique considerations that folks who don’t come from these backgrounds may not have to address.
Some of these challenges may include diagnosed or undiagnosed mood or personality disorders, caregiver stress and secondary trauma for the partner, repeated and ongoing stressors in the form of dysfunctional or abusive family members, and more.
I wrote a piece about this exact topic – what loving someone with a relational trauma history can feel like and how it’s different from a “non-trauma history relationship.” You may want to read it first and then share it with your partner if it feels helpful.
So again, while it may be harder to maintain a healthy, functional romantic relationship when you come from a relational trauma background, it also says a lot about how much healing work that you’ve done to be able to articulate this.
It also says a lot about how much you care about your relationship that you want to find and want to maintain a healthier relationship even while you move through challenging experiences.
And, I’m so, so glad that you’re seeking out couples counseling!
If I can offer some advice: try to make sure that couples counselor is trauma-informed so that they can most effectively help you. I say this because couples counseling, most of the time, presupposes a healthy, functional nervous system and a certain amount of emotional regulation skills available to both partners.
And when you come from a relational trauma background, those skills – affect tolerance, affect regulation, and staying inside your window of tolerance – may be more challenged than the average person.
And then, beyond trauma-informed couples counseling, in order to support your relationship, I would encourage you both to have a conversation about what the signs and signals are when you’re starting to struggle and you notice a toll on the relationship.
Sometimes, the stress of our own mental health taking a toll on the relationship is, for both people, a little like a bathtub gradually getting warmer and warmer – subtle, progressive, and you may not notice it until you’re dizzy with lightheadedness from the heat.
So, to prevent the proverbial water from getting too hot, I find it’s helpful to have frank conversations in advance so that you can notice the signs of the relationship getting more challenging before it’s “too hot” so you can intervene.
Talk to your partner and dialogue about how and when you know things are getting challenging. You might talk about and be curious about the following common “hot water” signs:
- You find yourselves withdrawing from other relationships in your life.
- You find yourselves withdrawing from interests and hobbies and activities that feed and nourish you.
- You are bickering/snapping on a daily basis.
- One or both of you are turning towards your more maladaptive coping mechanisms (hours of gaming, cannabis gummies, bottles of wine, Nyquil to get to sleep).
- You begin to fantasize about breaking up, running away, cheating on them (escapist fantasies).
Whatever your own personal signs and signals look like, talk about this. And if you don’t know what your signs are exactly, invite your partner to (kindly) mirror some of what they have observed back to you.
And then, after noticing and naming the signs that you are beginning to struggle, I would invite you both to talk about what your shared and co-created agreements might be – both as individuals and as a couple – about what you might do when you notice the proverbial bathwater is getting too hot.
What will you do to support yourselves in order to support the relationship?
- How will you responsibly and kindly reflect back to the other that you see that you’re starting to struggle?
- Given that one or both of you are struggling, what boundaries might need to be put in place – even if temporarily – until one or both of you feels better?
- How can you re-engage with social supports and maybe get professional help to support you both right now? Turning to friends, group therapy, an individual therapist or couples counselor are all great options.
- How can you recommit to a self-care routine (individually or together) to get yourself back to a mental health baseline?
- And then finally, how can you both hold some dual awareness right now? Yes, things are hard, but you also love each other and want things to work out. How can you let both things be true right now so you don’t dwell in catastrophic thinking?
Again, I want to reflect back to you what I said at the beginning, it says so much about you, your own personal growth, and your dedication to your relationship that you’re even asking this question.
I’m going to include a few other links to articles I’ve written that could feel fruitful and helpful to you right now to supplement this answer and to supplement the couples counseling you’re seeking out.
- Like hedgehogs in a cold, haunted mansion: Loving with a relational trauma history.
- When someone close to you struggles with their mental health.
- The Reality of Relationships: Twenty Tempering Truths.
- The myth of the perfect partner and the myth that love should be easy.
- Why your relationship is probably like the stock market.
I hope today’s essay felt helpful. I know it’s a little different than the standard essay format you’re used to seeing from me but, increasingly, the older I get and the more years I practice as a relational trauma recovery therapist, the more I see how isolated and alone so many people feel in their personal histories and attempts to overcome them.
I know that was certainly the case for me 20 years ago.
I know now, too, that there is little more powerful than seeing your story reflected in other peoples’ stories and knowing you’re not the only one. That other people struggle with and overcome the very things you’re facing.
So my hope in sharing these common questions and my responses to them is to leave you with value, yes, but also to leave you feeling less alone.
And if you would like an even greater experience of kinship, camaraderie, and company as you journey through your relational trauma recovery, as you navigate your Dark Night Of The Soul, I truly hope you’ll join us inside of Hard Families, Good Boundaries because, quite honestly, the depth of connection, vulnerability, sharing and supporting that happens in our private Facebook group and in our coaching calls is a healing balm beyond words.
(And the 3.5 hours of video lessons, 52-page transformational workbook, and $1800 worth of bonuses aren’t bad, either!)
Join us whenever you’re ready. The program is evergreen and we’re always welcoming new members, new kindred spirits into our fold.
I hope I’ll see you in there soon.