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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