Updated: Nov 29, 2019
Trauma is an terrible experience, that unfortunately, many people go through. However, when discussing the concept of trauma with them, it has been my experience that it is not uncommon that those who have experienced it not to see it this way. Furthermore, they may lack a connection between what has happened to them and the patterns of relating to others in their lives leaving them stuck to repeat unhealthy ones. Why is this?
In my experience there are a few supporting factors, though there can be much more. For this article, we will focus on those that I have seen most common in my clinical work, the connection between trauma and relationship patterns, and how to change this.
Before we discuss how we understand the impact of trauma, we must first talk about what it is. The the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th edition) gives a more expansive definition as related to diagnosing of trauma-related disorders. However, we will utilize the a basic definition for the sake of this article's focus. Merriam Webster defines trauma the following ways:
A : an injury (such as a wound) to living tissue caused by an extrinsic agent
B : a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury
C : an emotional upset
Additionally, trauma can also be:
Acute: A single event (such as a car accident or sudden death of a family member)
Chronic: Occurring over long periods of time (such as domestic violence or childhood abuse)
Complex: Multiple different kinds of traumatic events (someone who has experienced the death of a family member, sexual assault, and a car accident)
The key to understanding trauma is that it generally involves the sense of powerlessness. Something happened that was out of one's control. This does not necessarily mean something had to directly happen to that person. It could be witnessing an event, or hearing about a close friend or family member who it happened to. However, the idea of powerlessness still occurs. This can lead to a host of thoughts and behaviors (both conscious or unconsciously). In my work, I have often found that people might change their behavior but not really understand why until examining the trauma.
Creating change can be challenging as the very thoughts/behaviors that one engaged in to survive (mentally, physically, or emotionally) often becomes a way of being and continues to be imposed even when it no longer serves the person. For example, if I experienced childhood abuse then I may have learned not to trust those who say they love me. This might lead to me having very rigid boundaries and low social interactions in my adult life feeling alone and isolated or having continued anxiety and mistrust even if I have been able to get close to someone withdrawing (pushing others away).
Another response might be to have relationships but these relationships being volatile or even abusive. The rationale (whether aware or unaware) might be "I was weak and they hurt me. No one will EVER hurt me again." This may result in someone becoming overly aggressive/confrontational to exert their power as an adult and thwart anyone from potentially be victimized lashing out at those who care. I have also found that when multiple trauma occurs somewhere the frequency of events can be normalized- almost become a way of being in that "This is my life and bad things happen. That's just how it is." This might lead to someone being timid or submissive, low self-worth or lack of assertiveness.
* It is important to note that these examples will NOT apply to everyone but rather a way of understanding how traumatic events can shape thoughts and behaviors.
So how do we break these chains of unhealthy thoughts and patterns? Typically, making the connection between trauma and thoughts/behaviors is paramount. Once it is understood, removing the stigma that it was one's fault can be another tough and common issue to address, opening room for self-love and forgiveness. It is then possible to look at how the behavior once served them but is now blocking them from having the types of relationships they want and finding balance in the strategies. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, finding healthy ways to address the physiological responses to trauma (anxiety, depression, etc.) learning of and building on effective coping skills to make way to form desired loving relationships.
"Trauma." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 24 June 2018.