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Ambitious, Upwardly Mobile and From a Relational Trauma Past

Do you fit this portrait?

Key points

  • Being ambitious and upwardly mobile and coming from a relational trauma background are not mutually exclusive.
  • Relational trauma can create deficits in skills and supports that ambitious, upwardly mobile women need.
  • There are ways to cultivate those skills and supports on your journey.

I was on a plane the other day, returning back from a long weekend in Seattle where I gathered with some of my best girlfriends when my seatmate asked me what I do for work.

I shared that I was a trauma therapist who works primarily with ambitious, upwardly mobile women from relational trauma backgrounds.

A great conversation ensued when this woman (herself a doctor) asked me what this meant.

We spent the brief but engaging flight with me breaking down what this means and her collecting my business card for a handful of colleagues who she saw in the description I offered.

I wanted to share with you what I shared with my lovely seatmate in case you, too, would like to know more about what it means to be an upwardly mobile woman who comes from a relational trauma background.

First of all, what is relational trauma?

As I define it, relational trauma is the kind of trauma that results over the course of time in the context of a power-imbalanced and dysfunctional relationship (usually between a child and caregiver) that results in a host of complex and lingering biopsychosocial impacts for the individual who endured the trauma.

Relational trauma can occur when caregivers and the early, influential institutions and systems in a young child’s life fail to respect and support their dignity, personhood, and biopsychosocial well-being due to individual or collective deficits.

In other words, parents and caregivers with their own unprocessed trauma histories, unattended mood- or personality disorders, addictions, and other mental health challenges, as well as coercive, shaming, denigrating group dynamics and communities like cults, extremist groups, and other bullying environments, can cause (unintentionally and intentionally) relational trauma by failing to adequately provide a developing child what they need to feel physically safe, emotionally supported, and mentally well in the world.

Many children who grow into women can come from a background like this but also still be ambitious and upwardly mobile.

So what does that mean?

What does it mean to be ambitious and upwardly mobile when you come from this kind of background?

In my experience, some (if not all) of the following “firsts” often apply to ambitious, upwardly mobile women from relational trauma backgrounds:

  • She’s the first in her family to go to college;
  • She’s the first in her family to break the poverty cycle;
  • She’s the first in her family to become a professional;
  • She’s the first in her family to become financially secure;
  • She’s the first in her family to leave the town/state where she grew up;
  • She’s the first in her family to enter a new social or economic bracket;
  • She’s the first in her family to build a career versus holding down jobs.

Additionally, in my experience, ambitious, upwardly mobile women from relational trauma backgrounds also tend to:

  • Long to thrive, not just survive;
  • Long to find, have and keep a healthy, functional romantic relationship;
  • Long to create a healthy, happy family of their own;
  • Long to have a full, dynamic life even though she never saw it modeled;
  • Long to create security, stability, and a platform for her and those she loves;
  • Long to have a life that looks and feels different than anything she saw modeled before her.

Effectively, she is someone who, despite coming from adverse early beginnings, still wants to make something healthy, empowered, and whole from her life.

However, she is also someone who struggles with the biopsychosocial impacts of coming from a relational trauma background at the same time she’s attempting to transform her life and navigate systems and structures she’s utterly unfamiliar with.

Analogously, I think of an ambitious, upwardly mobile woman from a relational trauma background like a mountaineer, standing at the bottom of a mighty, snow-covered mountain, bent on making it to basecamp but instead of having all the proper kit, she’s loaded down with 50 pounds of rocks in her rucksack, a trail guide missing half its pages, and poor-fitting shoes with which to make the climb.

Not to mention the fact that her counterpart peers already started the trek about halfway up the mountain ahead of her…

The journey for an upwardly mobile, ambitious woman from a relational trauma background is going to be much, much more difficult than it will be for her non-traumatized peers.

But still, she is determined to overcome.

Determined to ascend.

Determined to do it.

And yet often she needs some extremely targeted help to do so given those proverbial barriers to a fruitful ascent.

Because it is entirely possible to come from a relational trauma background and still build a big, beautiful, and meaningful life for yourself.

It just may sometimes feel like you’re attempting to scale a mountain with none of the right equipment and with no idea how to keep going.

This is because women who come from relational trauma backgrounds have often missed out on key biopsychosocial developmental milestones as a result of their early childhood environments—environments in which there wasn’t adequate emotional support and safety to develop critical relational, emotional and psychological skills that are increasingly necessary the more responsibilities and pressures we take on as adults in our upwardly mobile journeys.

So that’s where evidence-based trauma therapy can come in to support these ambitious, upwardly mobile women.

To help them re-foundation, as it were, by healing the adverse impacts of their early childhood experiences, supporting them in learning and relearning those critical biopsychosocial skills, providing them with a sense of validation and normalization, and helping them stabilize the foundation of their lives so that they can keep building a big, beautiful proverbial house of life on top of that foundation.

Again, sticking to my metaphor, making it up the mountain with the right gear, equipment, supplies, and trail guide.

If you saw yourself in this post, if any part of you identifies with coming from a relational trauma background, you can begin your search for an evidence-based trauma therapist by searching the directory here on Psychology Today.

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

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