Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA

Healing Trauma’s Wounds

When Getting Close Equals Getting Hurt, Part Two

Addressing the struggle for intimacy

Posted Oct 02, 2015

 Wavebreakingmedia/DepositPhotos
Source: Photo: Wavebreakingmedia/DepositPhotos

In part one of "When Getting Close Equals Getting Hurt," we explored a common relationship dilemma for trauma survivors: wanting to be close and being simultaneously terrified that allowing for that degree of intimacy would inevitably lead to getting emotionally hurt. I received feedback from many therapists, echoing the fact that this issue is, indeed, incredibly prevalent in their practices. The push-pull of clients distancing and re-connecting with their therapists can create an “emotional rollercoaster” in treatment and, sadly, is often clinically pathologized.  Since this need for attachment paired with the fear of betrayal and abandonment is often misunderstood and not looked at through the lens of trauma, clients gets mislabeled as “difficult,” “borderline,” or “manipulative.”  

As you think about some key questions to use to help your clients begin to take healthy risks towards seeking and sustaining closeness, it’s important to never minimize or ignore the impact of past traumatic experiences.  With this in mind, consider using some of the following prompts to help clients connect the dots between their traumatic past and the objective reality of the present. These questions can be processed verbally, or through journaling, role-playing, collaging, drawing, guided imagery, incorporating objects in a sand tray, as well as processing somatic experiences that show up on the body when the questions are posed.

  • Is it possible that the negative perception you have about yourself, and your belief that people won't want to be close to you, is rooted in a damaged and distorted mirror that your parents held up to you?  Is it possible that the problem was not you, but the mirror?
  • How old do you feel when you back away from people? Is that choice being made by a wounded child part or your most adult self?
  • What are your thoughts about the relationship you have with your therapist? Have you considered the possibility that this relationship is evidence that it’s possible to be close and still be safe?
  • Can you name a relationship with a person or pet that was truly safe and gratifying? What were the qualities in you and in them that made it so? How can you re-enact that again now?
  • What would it mean, in the present, if you were able to connect and be close to others? What would you gain? What would you lose?
  • Is it possible that even if you did get wounded in an adult relationship that you now have the resources and support to cope with it in ways that you couldn't when you were a child?

Oftentimes, exploring the distinction between “then“ and “now” is the first critical step towards reassessing whether or not old coping strategies and protective behaviors are still needed.  And the aforementioned questions can jumpstart that exploration. Oftentimes, clients need help in realizing that it doesn't really make sense to take past traumatic experiences and translate them into factual information about the present or the future.  And even when we normalize the fact that there’s always a degree of vulnerability and healthy risk taking when they open themselves up to other people, in the present, they can handle the outcome, learn from it and move on.  Emphasizing these realities in therapy can free up traumatized clients to experiment with closeness and reap the positive benefits that it can yield.

How have you used the therapeutic relationship to teach clients that emotional intimacy can be safe?  Please share in a comment.

Missed Part One of this series? Read it here.>