5 Familiar Experiences with a Relational Trauma Background
Becoming aware of common experiences can help dismantle isolation and shame.
Posted January 31, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Today, I want to share 5 familiar experiences you may relate to if you come from a relational trauma background.
You see, people who come from relational trauma backgrounds already feel a high degree of isolation and otherness—that’s usually how we felt inside our family systems—and so widening the lens on how common certain experiences are can feel normalizing, validating, and can help clients feel less alone, and less “crazy,” for thinking and feeling certain ways.
1. When you come from a relational trauma background, you may feel invisible, like you “pass,” or that you straddle two worlds. You go through the motions of your “functional present-day life”—going to work, or socializing with the parents of your child’s preschool. And yet you may also feel like your phone is a bomb in your pocket, waiting to explode with texts about your brother needing rent money or your father being paroled.
You dread that standard second-grade project your kid will have to complete—the family tree—because how are you going to explain the aunts and uncles they’ve never met and (perhaps hopefully) never will?
At times, living with this paradox of passing inside of you, you can’t believe that your friends are complaining about the heartache of their kid not getting into their top-choice elementary school, or that closing on a vacation home in San Diego is their biggest struggle.
You “fit in” with these people, but also you don’t, because they don’t know about your past—and even if they did, it feels like they could never relate to it given how seemingly functional their backgrounds are.
2. When you come from a relational trauma background, you may find yourself saying things like, “Well, it could have been worse.” Or, “at least my parents didn’t sexually assault me.” You—like so many—may have been taught or gaslit into believing that your experience was "fine” and that your distress was just you being “overly sensitive.”
This self-doubt conditioning, combined with the fact that denial and diminishment are common psychological defense mechanisms, may result in you frequently diminishing, dismissing, caveat-ing, or excusing your own painful past.
And while your personal recovery and healing work will ultimately involve ceasing your self-diminishment, it’s important to recognize that this pattern is a common one for those who come from relational trauma backgrounds.
3. When you come from a relational trauma background, you may alternate between magical thinking and self-loathing (but you may not call it that). You may have highly contrasting, quickly-shifting thoughts—about your marriage, work, yourself, and more. For example, you may alternate from wishing you were with a different spouse and believing you’re only worthy of a husband like Jamie Fraser in "Outlander" (no average husband will do for you!) to thinking no one would possibly want you even if you did end up divorcing your spouse. You may, in the span of an hour, believe you’re the best contributor on your team and a shoo-in for promotion, and strongly doubt yourself and question whether you are even employable.
This mental vacillation can be exhausting and confusing, but it's a common hallmark of coming from a childhood history that failed to help you integrate a reasonable, sound, and stable self-image.
4. When you come from a relational trauma background, becoming a parent can feel both healing and triggering at the same time. The experience of becoming a parent can feel healing because of the love you feel for your child and the reparative experience of getting to treat someone the way you wish you had been treated. On the other hand, the experience can also be triggering because you now have a vivid contrast to how you were treated—and this contrast can make you feel even angrier at your caregivers for failing you so egregiously.
Also—and this is important to understand—you may even be triggered with jealousy of “how easy your kid will have it” compared to what you went through. You can want the best for your child and also feel jealousy about it at the same time. When you come from a relational trauma background, these contrasting experiences aren’t mutually exclusive: Both can be true at once.
5. When you come from a relational trauma background, you may feel like you have to work harder than most to “stay positive” and keep mentally healthy—and you can sometimes (or often) resent this. You may have habits and routines—like vigorous exercise, journaling, therapy, your support groups—but unlike for many other people, they’re not just “nice to have”; they’re necessary to help keep you in a window of tolerance and to keep you feeling steady. When you can’t access them, you feel strongly, negatively impacted.
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On the one hand, you’re glad that you know what helps keep you sane and steady. You’re glad that you know what the proverbial power tools in your mental-health toolkit are. But on the other hand, you may resent that you feel so dependent on these practices and supports to help you feel reasonably good, and you imagine that life would be easier if you were “less sensitive” and didn’t require these supports so much.
These five experiences are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shared, common experiences coming from (and recovering from) relational trauma backgrounds. If what I shared resonated, I hope you now feel a little more seen and validated on your relational trauma recovery journey.