In the previous article, we started a discussion on trauma and some of the contextual factors impacting the experience of traumatic events. Rising to the surface of this exploration of trauma is the role of relationships. Our relationships can serve as a protective buffer against some of the impacts of trauma and they can also intensify the pain and betrayal of an experience. Trauma threatens the very survival of the human species because it can damage our ability or desire to engage in social relationships. When we experience trauma in the absence of healing, we learn that life brings little more than betrayal, devastation, and loss. We learn that we cannot trust those around us, and oftentimes, we cannot trust ourselves. Trauma can also mean that we never have the chance to learn things important to relationships. Some trauma survivors may have never experienced a safe and secure relationship. As a result, they may not know what it feels like or how to recognize it. They may not have been taught how to handle big emotions in a way that allows them to feel regulated and stable. They may not have learned what healthy boundaries are or may believe that implementing them brings danger or loss.
This exploration begins by considering the lessons that some trauma survivors have not had the opportunity to learn. Humans learn how to regulate their internal experience through a stable and secure attachment to a trustworthy adult who supports their physical and emotional needs (Shore & Shore, 2008). In the absence of a secure attachment, the experiences needed to learn internal regulation skills are too infrequent or too chaotic to help the young human learn things like how to get their needs met in a relationship and how to respond to big emotions like anger, fear, and shame. As they move through life, they may struggle with these same areas all while carrying the burden of the pain brought on by the trauma itself. Our early attachment experiences, whether traumatic in nature or not, form what is referred to as a person’s attachment style. An exploration of attachment styles is beyond the scope of this post, but readers can find more information here. Instead, we will focus on the impact trauma can have on one’s experience of intense emotions and the challenges survivors may face in their interpersonal relationships as they learn, or re-learn, what healthy boundaries look and feel like.
Central to the development of fulfilling, mutually supportive relationships is the ability to recognize and communicate one’s personal boundaries while listening and respecting others’ boundaries in return. A boundary refers to the limits we set with others that allow us to maintain a separate identity and experience while also creating a relationship. They can be likened to the way a house functions where doors and windows allow some people access while others may not even be provided the address. Some trauma survivors may have difficulty determining who should be allowed access to the house and how much access they should have. For example, they may tell most people they encounter personal details about themself or they may avoid sharing personal information of any sort. They may experience fear at the thought of saying yes or no to someone when they are asked for a favor – if they say no, the person may reject them and if they say yes, they might be taken advantage of. Even when people are aware of what boundaries they need, experience may have taught them that it is dangerous to implement them. As a result, they may feel the safest course of action is to stay silent when boundaries are crossed even when a person in their life has communicated a willingness to respect them. The complexities trauma survivors may face in recognizing and implementing boundaries can have a profound effect on the quality of relationships.
It is a fact of human life that we will all experience emotions that feel powerful, whether profoundly enjoyable or deeply painful. We learn how to interpret and respond to these internal sensations through experiences and lessons from those around us. When trauma occurs we learn the world is unsafe and people cannot be trusted. Due to the profound impact trauma has, survivors may experience their internal world as overwhelming. In the absence of a supportive figure who can help restore a feeling of safety, survivors may find strategies to decrease the intensity of their feelings. For example, it is common for many survivors, particularly those with a history of early or frequent traumas, to disconnect or dissociate from their internal experience by cutting-off awareness of things like emotions, thoughts, or sensations (ISSTD, n.d.). The implementation of this strategy enables survival but also comes with a cost. If a person is not aware of what they are feeling or thinking in a given moment, they are not able to communicate this information to their friend, partner, family member, etc. Not being present can negatively impact levels of intimacy in relationships.
Dissociation is just one tool that can be used to defend against intense emotions. Some survivors may feel unable to control their expression of emotions and feel that they are at the mercy of their emotions (Dvir et al., 2014). They may respond to seemingly innocuous encounters with more intensity than might be expected for someone without or with a different trauma history. This too can limit intimacy in relationships. The survivor may feel incapable of handling emotions, viewing themselves as too sensitive or being viewed by others as such. Sometimes the people interacting with them may feel that their encounters are unpredictable and also feel a lack of control in keeping the relationship stable. When a survivor is aware they are in a safe relationship, but still respond with the intensity of emotions that occurred when they were not, they may feel shame or guilt for responding in the way that they did thereby prompting yet another wave of painful emotions.
In the same way that traumatic life experiences can influence the way people respond to their internal and external worlds, healthy life experiences can allow for healing. We can read or listen to material that helps us make sense out of these complex interpersonal tasks. However, we must also experience what it feels like to be safe with others and ourselves. Most psychotherapy approaches for the treatment of trauma recognize the importance of developing a secure therapeutic relationship in which healing moments can occur alongside the development of emotional regulation and interpersonal skills. In a secure therapeutic relationship, boundaries are clear and consistent while still allowing space for flexibility as a person’s needs change. As people experience boundaries and practice implementing them in therapy, they are more prepared to use boundaries in their social relationships. When inevitable challenges arise during this process that results in strong emotions, people can have more ways to respond to themselves to help reduce the intensity of these feelings. As this process unfolds, people are able to identify who is a safe and respectful person that they want to continue to develop a relationship with, providing even more opportunities for healing relational moments.
If trauma is something that “destroys social systems” then healing comes through the restoration of those very social systems. It is through a relationship with someone else that we come to realize those lessons learned may not be so black and white. We realize that we can experience pleasant emotions of joy and connection as intensely as we feel the aversive ones. We remember what it is to trust, although we may do so with greater levels of discernment. We remember that we are, just as all beings are, worthy of being recognized as a valuable and vulnerable form of life that is deserving of being treated with dignity.
Dvir, Y., Ford, J. D., Hill, M., & Frazier, J. A. (2014). Childhood maltreatment, emotional dysregulation, and psychiatric comorbidities. Harvard review of psychiatry, 22(3), 149.
The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Dissociation FAQs. https://www.isst-d.org/resources/dissociation-faqs/
Schore, J. R., & Schore, A. N. (2008). Modern attachment theory: The central role of affect regulation in development and treatment. Clinical social work journal, 36(1), 9-20.
Full link to attachment resource: https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/four-attachment-styles/