Relational Trauma: Soft Exterior Masks Silent Rage

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With this short break between summer classes and the fall semester, I have had a lot of time to reflect. That can be good and bad. Nature has always been a safe haven for me. I remember running to the large garden in my backyard and hiding among the blossoms as a child to get away when I needed to. I still seek refuge outside.

It’s difficult when your exterior easily hides the inner turmoil. You can become too good at acting fine. Sometimes you may have been flat out told to conceal what you think and feel, as I have, to appear “normal.” Relational trauma can lead to anxiety and depression, and I’ve only recently began to start to heal the compounded effects “relational trauma” has had on my life. The term has been so, so helpful for me, because oftentimes when people hear the word “trauma” they think natural disaster or rape, but someone does not need to have those extreme experiences to be traumatized. In my case, I realized that my relational trauma manifested through having emotionally unavailable parents and a string of emotionally unavailable and judgmental hurtful relationships early on my life up until around age 25. All of which made me doubt my own self-worth, and only very recently have I really gotten down to the farthest depths of that darkness and started to heal it.

What does your relational trauma look like? Take some time to think about how you were taught by other people what to think about yourself. Start with your parents. Did they try to understand your thoughts and emotions? Did they have time for that? I rarely felt heard, validated, or understood as a child. I ended up searching for validation in my younger years from relationships that I found unfulfilling and mostly destructive. My self-hate ran very deep and I likely attracted situations and people to myself that confirmed what I already thought: I was unlovable the way I was, unattractive, never enough, and should be something different. But I no longer look at myself like a victim of my experiences, though I still slip back into the victim mentality from time to time. I’ll give you a brief timeline of how I think my self-hatred was compounded by relational trauma and bad relationship experiences. You’ll notice patterns that I didn’t for the longest time.

  • One of the first boys I thought I loved who was a “best friend” at the time, compared me to other girls often, asked me to dress like celebrities that he thought I looked similar to, and ignored me and spread rumors about me after we fell out. I felt uncomfortable going to school after that.
  • Another guy I dated near the end of high school and into college was very religious. He told me I was going to hell for not believing what he believed and so I felt very judged for that. At the time, I was so hellbent on preserving relationships and getting people to like me or stay (since I had no stability at home), I sacrificed myself. I realize why I did that now, but I’m still angry with my younger self for not recognizing the patterns.
  • A longer-term relationship I had throughout college ended up being very unhealthy. He was supportive about my anxiety at first, but then seemed to tire of it and even did things that would trigger it: Trip me in public, spill water on me, etc. It kills me that I thought that this was acceptable behavior and that I put up with it for so long. He told me posting quotes on my Tumblr was a waste of time and that no one would read them… overlooking that it was something I enjoyed doing.
  • During graduate school I gradually fell for someone I met online who later cheated on me and left me for a coworker and refused to talk to me about it for a long time. I remember never feeling that type of emotional pain. I now realize it had nothing to do with me, and more to do with his own issues, but of course at the time I thought I wasn’t attractive enough, interesting enough, xyz enough … it made sense, because it fit into with what I thought of myself. If I just wasn’t me, things would have worked out. I’ve since processed this situation in depth and have worked through most of my self-loathing related to it.
  • I did also date a guy that treated me very well, but I think with all of the unfinished inner turmoil I had, I couldn’t really connect. On top of that, the long distance circumstances of the relationship were not conducive to me getting the connection I need from a relationship, but it was an experience to see that I can be valued by another person. I started also to fall into old bad habits, though, which included stretching myself too thin, driving 6 hours most weekends to see him when it was becoming detrimental to myself, sanity, and health. It had nothing to do with me not being interested in the relationship, it just wasn’t practical or healthy for me anymore, but I forced myself to do it for a while even when I knew I was breaking down. I have since started to recognize that sometimes I need to make difficult decisions to take care of myself, and it’s ok to take care of myself.

 

Overall, I have done so much personal work lately and have learned that what I thought my past experiences taught me about myself, often had more to do with what the other person was going through. And I lost myself in that. I feel like I’m just now getting back to myself. Getting back to writing. Getting back to the me that I lost throughout the mess that I helped create by straining to achieve some stability and validation through relationships… and I still have moments of rage toward others and toward myself. The rage is deep… sometimes I am filled with so much hate it feels like it will overtake and kill me. How could I let this happen? How could others treat me the way they did? If I were just able to trust one person and feel free to express myself without a sense of betrayal or judgment, maybe I would be so much farther along my personal growth path. It’s hard not to get stuck in that unhelpful “if only …” thought loop, but what helps me sometimes is to remember that everyone is on their own path. How people treat you often says more about them than you. Everyone is struggling… but I have to believe that most people just want to love and be loved and are figuring out how to do that for others and themselves.

I am trying to start a relational trauma (closed) group on Facebook. Please do join if you think it could be of benefit to you. I know I had wished I had other people to talk to about these kinds of things in the past. Here is the link. I’m hoping a community could grow from this and new friends/support can be found.

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Wellness Wednesday: Change Is Hard And Inevitable

Change will come, whether we wish it to or not. To fight it is like fighting the sunrise. Better to say, “Ah, welcome old friend. Here you are again.”

This quote actually comes from a children’s book that I’m reading, but it’s pertinent throughout life. If you’ve been anxiety-ridden like I have, you know that when things don’t go according to plan, you can panic. Change can mean internal changes in a person, or external changes in their environment. Why is change so hard? Humans are creatures of habit and learn to do what works for them. Notice I say, “what works,” i.e., minimal effort, not necessarily what is healthy for them. Habits are hard to break, but change comes into everyone’s life, forcing you to adjust. Some people require substantial pressure and maybe even deterioration of themselves before they will make a change while others are more flexible. Wherever you fall on that spectrum of flexibility, looking at your reactions to change is worth your time.

Do you shut down?

Do you jump all in and have faith in yourself?

Does it depend on the situation?

Do you know what triggers your anxiety response/activation?

Do you have unrealistic expectations of yourself?

Some people avoid change by avoiding new situations because they fear not being good at something right away. I have spent a lot of time due to anxiety, fighting the future and living in an autopilot state where I focus on the past and what I could have done instead of focusing on cultivating what I want right now. If you’ve done this too, try not to beat yourself up about it… that is also a waste of time and energy and robs you from enjoying the present moment (which your anxiety has done to you anyway!). You can stop that cycle by

  1.  Breathing
  2. Doing a reality check. What is the likelihood that the change/thing you are worried about is going to be catastrophic? If catastrophic events have happened in the past and affected you and you are reading this … congratulations. You survived. And you can survive whatever is ahead of you.
  3. The trick is to get yourself to believe that. If you have anxiety, you likely have an enormous amount of energy, even if you don’t realize it. It takes so much energy to do “normal” things with anxiety, like interacting with cashiers. You are stronger than you think you are for getting up and being able to face the day even when you don’t want to. Recognize that you have your own resources to draw from when faced with change/a trigger.
  4. Change can be good, bad, neutral, scary, and on and on. Recognize that even if everything is taken from you, you still have the power to choose how you respond to situations. You can choose to respond with dignity and integrity. That doesn’t mean that you can’t feel broken at times, but it means that you choose to respect yourself and act in a way you can be proud of later (i.e., not lashing out at people, or doing things you’ll later regret). A great (yet extreme) example of this is Man’s Search For Meaning. Viktor Frankl writes about how everything was taken from him, literally every material thing, and the fact that he was a physician didn’t matter. Nothing saved him from the horrors of the concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Yet, he was able to observe that the people that survived kept hope alive by having a goal and preserving their integrity and “human-ness” during times of hardship and atrocities. Nothing and no one can rob you of your choice of how to respond and in reality, that is all you ever have anyway.
  5. Make manageable and realistic goals for yourself regarding an upcoming change. If it is sprung on you, make sure you have a list of healthy coping strategies that keep you level-headed. Don’t assume you will start exercising regularly when a change occurs, make it a part of your lifestyle when things are regularly calm. Don’t expect yourself to use healthy coping strategies only when crisis strikes, you have to be in the habit of doing them already.

Quiet Ponderings

I laughed out loud just now. The lake seems to be waking up, though no boats come by. The lake is still a calm mirror painting of the sky, but birds are more vocal. I laughed when the flute-like sound of a bird was cut through with the flat duck quack. I wonder if it’s like that when I speak.

Reading Sylvia Plath’s journal has seemed to reignite my true introspective self that gets stifled when I’m overwhelmed and anxious. The part of me that wants to write. Sylvia seemed to struggle with the societal expectation she should have kids and “make men happy.” I have similar issues. I’m not against having kids, but if I were to assume the role of stay at home wife I fear I would lose myself, smother my soul, and become miserable. It’s difficult to think about giving up some freedom … when due to anxiety and other issues, you’ve never really felt free, and are just starting to. Hard to reconcile that. Maybe having kids isn’t meant for me at all or maybe I can find ways to not feel stifled by traditional norms. I find myself also raging against conventions.

It’s sometimes a disappointment to realize something isn’t meant for you. But it needn’t be– you figured something out for yourself, defining yourself is at least partly what life is about and things can always change. Maybe now just isn’t the right time. You can always reinvent yourself or redefine yourself, but I sometimes find myself weighed down with what I perceive to be societal expectations of me… that I should want to have a kid and give up parts of my newly found freedom (from anxiety). I’m still figuring it out.

Even Storms Pass

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You may feel like the storm,

constantly twisting and turning in on itself

and dissolving.

You may worry that this storm will destroy you

and that you’ll disappear afterward too.

Storms can be beautiful,

but you are not the storm.

You are the entire atmosphere.

I’m Reading Sylvia Plath’s Diary

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A lot of inner turmoil has been coming up for me lately, but as I write this, it doesn’t steal my peace and I know I have to take time for myself. Sylvia … ended her life at age 30, and I remember in my teens vowing to myself to end my life by 30 if my anxiety didn’t get better. I’m 29 now, and yes, my anxiety has improved, or rather, I have improved my ways of dealing with it. It’s just hard to know that someone you admire (or any human) struggled and lost their battle with a mental condition … and knowing it just as easily could have been you.

Sylvia writes about being acutely aware and living with intensity. Sometimes my anxiety/relational trauma get to me in that way. I over-interpret and misinterpret things, feel too intensely at times, and yet at others it takes a lot for me to really feel anything. And in that I feel isolated. Anxiety makes you very aware of unpleasant things, things that cause you to be nervous or self-conscious, being that type of detail oriented can be good for survival, but not for every day living. So when I am upset or anxious I am hyper aware of my surroundings and what I think people are thinking. On the flipside, at other times I’m blank and feel starved for good conversation and any type of feeling. That may be why I seek out intense experiences like white water rafting. And I can’t do small talk, I want intense conversations. And you could say, “Well, you’re a therapist, don’t you have them all the time?” Yes, but they’re one-sided and not reciprocal, and when you’ve grown up without feeling as though you’re wanted or that anyone cares to get to know your inner thoughts, you crave that a lot. So if you’re familiar with attachment theory, I’m definitely not securely attached, probably more so avoidant or disorganized. I want to spend time with people I find interesting until we’re so tired we can’t make another coherent thought because it’s 4 am. But some people are living the dark and prefer not to think about existential problems, like how you’ll likely never know the last time you’ll do something or see someone, but those are the things that I think about. But living with that intensity can become exhausting, you feel a sense of urgency. I think this is related to relational trauma and anxiety in some way that I haven’t figured out yet.

Therein lies my paradox, though, fulfilling the intensity-seeking part of me and tending to the anxiety-ridden, fearful part of myself that wants to be a recluse… and of course also not going insane/scaring people off with those vacillations lol.  It all comes down to problems with intimacy, I know, that I think are exacerbated when my anxiety flares up and I can’t seem to get out of thought loops. I’ve gotten better with that, though. Here are a few things that are simple, but have helped me in the past. When I’m anxious, I challenge myself by thinking:

  1. How much does this matter? Will I remember this person/situation in a week? In a year? If not, try to use a HEALTHY distraction, like music, coloring, or calling someone and NOT to talk about your obsessive thoughts.
  2. People are likely not thinking about what you did/said even half as much as you are. You are actually not that important and no one pays that much attention to you or puts you under as much scrutiny as you do yourself.
  3. Overwhelmed? Prioritize. What absolutely NEEDS to be done? If even that one thing is too overwhelming, break it down into smaller steps and just force yourself to do the very first one, if nothing else. That usually makes me feel productive and not like a paralyzed bump on a log (which helps when self-hatred runs high).

The Tapes We Play

I’m about to run a group on self concept. A colleague just told me he regularly heard positive things about my groups even though I work on an as needed basis around my school schedule. The comment doesn’t really penetrate or compute. 

I tell the residents in the inpatient rehab where I work all the time that they have tapes and movies playing in their heads that they’re likely unaware of– tapes that tell them who they are and who other people are that may not be accurate. 

The classic example is someone who has spent a lot of time in prison acting as if everyone is talking down to him or treating him like shit. What often happens is he had to act a certain way in prison to survive, view everyone as an opponent. Now though that doesn’t serve him quite as well but he doesn’t recognize he’s viewing the world through prison glasses with his fists up. 

What lens do you regularly look through ? 

I’m still trying to figure mine out. I’m assuming the lens includes some images transposed on it of my childhood where I always felt I was doing something wrong and if I had just done something different then other people would be happy or a situation would be fixed. It likely also has a filter of imposter syndrome and not being xyz enough to be worthy and that’s why people talk over me. I’ll have to think more about it. 
I’m actually not anxious right now before starting group, which is interesting considering I don’t feel well. 

Wellness Wednesday: embodied whilst ill

So who gets strep throat in August?

*enthusiastically raises hand*

If you’re sick along with having anxiety, it can be hard to stay in the present moment but try to take care of yourself by

  • Drinking enough water 
  • Taking needed meds
  • Drinking hot tea 
  • Breathing
  • Being kind to yourself 
  • Getting enough rest 
  • Not forcing yourself to “be ok”

I’m at work right now and thankfully everything is slow so I can pay attention to myself. And no. I’m medicated and not contagious. Lol. 
I am blessed to be healthy and not chronically ill, but it is interesting how much I take my health for granted when I’m not sick. Oh the razor blade feeling when I swallow. I am grateful for being mostly healthy.  I hope you all are well.