Let’s Talk Trauma: Part II

Let’s Talk Trauma: Part II

Let’s Talk Trauma: Part II

Last week, we kicked off the first of a 3-part series that we’re sharing on trauma and its impact on relationships.

In Part I, we defined ‘trauma’ and provided an overview of how adversity in childhood or early adulthood can affect our present day relationships.

Today, in Part II, we identify how trauma most often shows up in relationships so that you can begin to recognize it and approach it with more awareness and compassion.

When trauma wounds are activated and we find ourselves caught in the grips of unconscious and automatic behavior, it prevents us from fully connecting to ourselves and others. When these emotional wounds are not tended to, they keep us behaving in ways that perpetuate distance and separation, which in turn impairs the trust and safety of the relationships that are most important to us.

‘Supersized’ Reactions

How can we begin to recognize when our reactions are likely being driven by earlier trauma?

A good rule of thumb is that any reaction that seems to be out of proportion (i.e. ‘supersized’) to the trigger is likely fueled by trauma – a protective response that was developed early on as a way to survive the distress of emotional needs not being met.

Case Example: Sam & Elizabeth have been married for 7 years. Sam comes from a physically abusive childhood home. Elizabeth grew up in a family of divorce whose father left when she was 3 years old and started a new family. One morning, Sam walks into the living room, coffee in hand and immediately steps on a lego barefooted, spilling the coffee. He starts raging – yelling at the kids and Elizabeth, name calling, threatening to throw all the legos away, and walks out of the house declaring, “I’ve had enough of this family.” (fight response to a trigger of being hurt and surprised). Elizabeth responds by quietly cleaning up the spilled coffee and makes the children quickly look for any more legos. Later that day, she starts drinking wine to ‘take the edge off,’ terrified that this just might be it for Sam. (freeze and flight response to a trigger of verbal violence and feared abandonment).

What is clear is that the reaction is disproportionate to the stressor and this response should be one of your first clues that some trauma has been triggered.

These patterns can feel deeply ingrained, leading to beliefs such as “I’m fundamentally flawed or unlovable,” or “Nothing I do is ever good enough,” or “s/he will leave me.” The more we’re hijacked by the fear and hurt, the more we lose touch with our wiser adult self.

So what are the most common trauma-driven patterns that separate us and disconnect us from others?

  • Responding in a judgmental manner, lashing out, yelling or raging
  • Stonewalling or shutting down emotionally
  • Experiencing extreme anxiety, panic, or in some cases dissociation
  • Controlling, manipulating, exerting “power over” another
  • Getting easily hurt and feeling victimized, withdrawn, or shut down
  • Grasping onto others, becoming overly dependent
  • Burying anger and negative feelings in an attempt to “act normal”, while inadvertently building resentment
  • Becoming overly accommodating to others, often a result of burying our wants and needs out of a fear of rejection
  • Using alcohol, other drugs, food, work, sex or other escapes to check out and disengage from overwhelming feelings

While these patterns can feel deeply wired, with ongoing practice, you can bring healing to these attachment wounds that drive the reactivity. Patterns can change, and awareness is the first step.

Next week, in Part III, we will discuss ways to heal and cope with trauma when it shows up in your relationship.

Tip of the Day:

Be Curious

Remember, when these earlier wounds get triggered, our brains and nervous systems go into fight, flight or freeze.

Which of the trauma driven patterns (either in yourself or your partner) can you relate to?


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