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20 Common Experiences When You've Endured Relational Trauma

Many of us think, feel and experience these shared realities.

Key points

  • There are many common, shared thoughts and experiences when coming from a relational trauma background.
  • However, most of us believe we're "the only ones" having these thoughts and experiences.
  • The 20 experiences in this essay attempt to make the invisible more visible so you can feel validated.

For those of us on relational trauma recovery journeys, there’s often a set of common shared experiences and thoughts that we might face.

And yet most of us feel completely alone and unique in having those experiences and thoughts. These 20 common experiences that I list in today’s essay are my attempt to make visible the invisible.

These are common thoughts, worries, concerns, lived experiences, and situations so many of us who come from abusive, neglectful, or chaotic backgrounds often struggle with, contend with, and face as adults.

20 Common Experiences When You Endure Relational Trauma.

  1. Things that are not life and death can feel like life and death. Having had our literal survival and safety at risk early in our lives, our memory networks are established for perceiving peril where there may be none and our bodies register that perceived peril with unbelievable amounts of anxiety and stress.
  2. Early on, you may attach to a substance or behavior (or both or many) in the absence of having someone safe, consistent, and stable to attach to. And when stress overwhelms you now, you may revert back to your old coping mechanisms. You may feel shame for doing so.
  3. You may sometimes feel like you’re failing at life and like everyone else got handed the “Handbook to Life” besides you. You wonder if you’re the only one having such a hard time.
  4. You often wonder what life would have been like if you had had loving, emotionally responsible, and responsive, stable parents. You debate back and forth if you’d be as strong, capable, and independent as you are if you had had that. You sadly realize you’ll never know.
  5. You wonder and worry if you’re “too broken to be loved” and dread what would happen if the people you care about knew about the background you really came from, who you’re related to, and what your gene pool is. So you mostly keep yourself from being known.
  6. You feel as if you’re constantly racing from something: the poverty you grew up in, the bad name, the memories, the nightmares, the mistakes and poor choices you made in efforts to survive. And the racing is exhausting. You’re worn out.
  7. You know the states of anxiety and depression well. You live with these realities. They’re a part of you as much as the color of your hair or birthmarks.
  8. You may have (had) a tendency to sabotage your closest relationships and, when you do, there’s a part of you that watches what you’re doing, tries to warn you, and yet you still do it anyway. You may hate that part of you.
  9. You want so badly to be and do differently than your biological parents but may eventually see their dark parts in you and feel awful. You fear that you’re not so different after all, despite all those years of therapy.
  10. Numb is your preferred feeling state and your efforts to achieve this often get in the way of functional, healthy relationships.
  11. You may love following certain celebrities, icons, and influencers but also be incredibly triggered when you realize how privileged they are in terms of the family foundation they have.
  12. You may feel like you’re constantly waiting for your life to start. And yet so much of it is gone already. And you’re sad about the choices unmade and the opportunities lost because you didn’t have the capacity, skills, or guidance to make those choices back then.
  13. You’d give anything to go back in time and make different decisions, given what you know now.
  14. You may have spent (and spend) a huge amount of life energy just coping. Trying to make it look like you’re okay when you’re really not.
  15. Post-apocalyptic, doomsday, scary-as-heck shows and movies often feel like a parallel process to your inner emotional world. You like watching dark, scary things, because it mirrors how you feel.
  16. You watch, rewatch, and watch again shows like Friends, The Office, and Sex and the City, marveling at and craving the kind of familial closeness of the relationships you see on those shows. Hungering for it. Hoping for it. The very thing you never had and want so badly.
  17. You can’t even remotely imagine what it would feel like to have a safety net underneath you. Your peers are swinging from trapeze bars with a big old bouncy net underneath them, waiting to catch them, and you don’t feel that underneath you as you swing. You’d give anything for that net.
  18. You crave being able to text or call a parent about the hard things that are happening to you now as an adult.
  19. You spend your life making others around you feel comfortable and supported when you’ve never actually experienced that yourself. You simmer with resentment but don’t see alternatives. If you stop taking care of others, surely they’ll leave you and you’ll be left with nothing. So you tolerate their taking and feel relationally emaciated from the lack of nourishment you get from others.
  20. You worry and wonder when you’ll stop feeling sad about the childhood you never had. The parents you never had. The functional, firm foundation of life just isn’t in the cards for you. You’re afraid if you start to acknowledge what you never had, you’ll feel sad forever and so part of you doesn’t even want to take a look at this. You wonder if there’s any point in feeling sad about it anyway.

Again, these are just a few of the many shared experiences and thoughts that those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds may deal with.

There are, of course, thousands of other shared thoughts and experiences—many of which I’ve written about here on Psychology Today before.

And if you would like a trained trauma therapist to support your relational trauma recovery, the directory on Psychology Today is a wonderful place to find a therapist.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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