Even when it isn’t explicitly named, how we relate to others is often why we seek counselling. If we have had difficult experiences with the people around us, developing any kind of relationship can feel risky, even though it isn’t always obvious why we keep people at arm’s length.
Our experience of being around other people as children can shape how we feel about being around other people now. It makes complete sense that people abused as children find it hard to believe others are safe – what we learn about the world in our formative years understandably becomes the foundation of our thinking as adults if it isn’t challenged.
As children we often learn that we have to behave in certain ways to avoid being hurt and to ensure that our emotional and physical needs are met, perhaps hiding our true feelings in order to be seen as “good” by our parents. We might use violence to protect ourselves from bullies in the playground. Or we might be made to feel that something is inherently wrong with us, whether by our peers or caregivers, if we express our true identity, and therefore develop a version of ourselves that’s more acceptable to others. This rejection of parts of ourselves often manifests as shame, perhaps even internalised racism, homophobia or transphobia. A lot of survivors of childhood abuse also experience shame, especially if they are told by their abuser that they are somehow to blame for the abuse, or disclosures of their abuse are brushed under the carpet like an unspeakable secret.
As human beings, relationships are hugely important to us – we are social creatures and need to be around others to thrive. When relationships feel risky for us, we might feel the push/pull of craving that connection, but also wanting to protect ourselves from potential harm. People might describe us as blowing hot and cold, or we may find ourselves running away from anyone who gets too close to the soft underbelly of who we really are – and how we really feel.
If we have been shamed because of a part of our identity, we might develop ways to protect us from further shame. We could develop a veneer of impenetrable perfection to hide the parts of ourselves that we have denied, rejecting everyone around us as not good enough to minimise the risk of anyone getting close enough to see our real selves underneath the surface.
We might do whatever we can to feel safe, pleasing those around us, including our partners, seeking to minimise the risk of emotional or physical harm or rejection. Or we might become suspicious of the behaviour of others, not daring to believe they won’t harm us, perhaps trying to control others to try to manage our own anxiety.
Whatever our childhood experiences of relating to others, it is possible to find safe and genuine ways of relating as adults. One of the first things we can do is start to notice how we are around others. Do we people-please, or push people away if they get a bit too close, for example? Looking at our thoughts and feelings when we are with others can also offer useful clues. Do we find ourselves assuming others are out to get us, even when there is little evidence to back this up? Do we feel anxious around others, even when there doesn’t appear to be an obvious reason to feel that way?
By being able to figure out if our thoughts and feelings stem from what is happening in the present, or the ghost of an experience in the past, we can learn how to manage our relationships as adults in the here and now. Quite often we are “triggered” when we have experiences that feel similar to ones we have had in the past, including previous relationships. Finding ways to manage triggered feelings and responses to others can help us stay in the present, and feel safe and grounded enough to judge more clearly if a current situation poses a risk to us.
Being able to take these steps might help us feel safe enough to change the way that we relate – but it can take a bit of time, especially if our experiences of relationships in our childhood were traumatic. Attending a properly facilitated group or counselling can give you the opportunity to explore how you relate to others in a space that may feel safer than other social settings.
However you decide to go about improving your relationships, the main thing to remember is that change is possible. If that change feels painfully slow at times, bear in mind that it is better to make small, gradual adjustments than to feel overwhelmed. Every step we make when recovering from trauma, including relational trauma to put a name on it, is a positive step, no matter how small it may feel. And reading this blog is one of them.
By Michelle Buckberry