It’s good, healthy and human to want love and seek it out. We live longer, healthier lives when we feel close to someone safe. Some people feel painfully disconnected, and long to open up to others. But then they stop themselves from reaching out.
As therapists, we want to empower people to build more meaningful connections. For all of us, healthy relationships matter. In fact, deep relationships are essential to life as a healthy human being. For trauma survivors, the act of deepening relationships in a healthy way can be particularly difficult.
Well-meant urging or pressure to reach out in a time of need does not work for those who have experienced trauma. Something seemingly simple like accepting a compliment may be painfully hard. But the ability to integrate these fears and hesitations is crucial to our work in helping others live a fuller, more balanced life.
Why Entering a Healing Relationship Is Challenging for Trauma Survivors
I want to offer some thoughts to help people explore, rather than criticize themselves for their struggle to connect with others. There are good reasons trauma survivors resist forming deeper relationships. It seems impossible to become vulnerable enough (and stay safe) to admit what they want or need, let alone share it. Self-imposed isolation has become a way to cope:
- Some feel they should hunker down and handle their struggles themselves.
- Some tell themselves, “Nobody will get it.”
- Often, trauma survivors feel ashamed or weak—like they don’t deserve support or compassion.
- For some, it’s the only way they have felt somewhat safe in the past – to be alone!
A trauma-informed approach can guide therapy to help clients see these critical or isolating parts from a new angle. By exploring them, instead of rejecting them, the self-understanding and compassion needed for friendships and relationships can grow stronger. Therapy can be a truly emotionally corrective relationship, where the client learns that having a witness accept their feelings and history allows them to feel safer than ever before!
Trauma creates an urgent need to protect. To a person with a trauma history, a barrier to connection is like a life preserver,