5 Signs of Relational Trauma

Wearing her pink apron, my not-quite-two year old granddaughter stirs flour in a large bowl, swirls of flour-dust wafting up from the bowl, catching in her hair, landing on the floor around her. My daughter’s voice as she speaks to her daughter, “you’re such a good helper, little lady,” makes me smile, as I think about this tradition of baking cookies, passed down to another generation. I am not a great cook, or a master baker, but I did bake cookies with my children. I have vivid memories of the beautiful messes we made in our kitchen.

I remember the first time I baked cookies, but it wasn’t with my mom. I was at the home of my mother’s friend—Mary Lee. She had four small children, much younger than my 12-year-old self. Mary Lee pulled out the ingredients for Nestle Toll House cookies, asked me to bake them, then left me in the kitchen alone. She assumed, at 12, I knew how to bake. For reasons I now understand to be childhood trauma, I was too ashamed to tell her I had never baked cookies. Thus, I had no idea where to begin.

Not learning how to bake cookies isn’t the trauma I’m referring to. Rather, the trauma was my inability to ask for help, and the “why,” which I now realize to be a result of what we refer to as “little t trauma.

We define trauma as any experience too overwhelming for the mind and body to process appropriately. We distinguish between traumatic events in two ways:

Big “T” Trauma is defined as surviving an event such as a major hurricane, a rape, physical or sexual abuse, the Pulse shooting which took place here in Orlando.

Little “t” Trauma is defined as negative relational events, such as a divorce, the death of a loved one, a betrayal by a friend, being called hurtful names on the playground, by your spouse or a parent.

How do you know if you’ve experienced little t trauma? If you’ve been in any relationship at all, then you’ve experienced at least some relational trauma. For example, that boyfriend or girlfriend who broke up with you and started dating your best friend, losing a job, not being invited to a party or the prom. All of the above are painful experiences and bruise our egos. But why is it harder for some people to “get over” such experiences? In all likelihood, the reason has something to do with early life experiences which trigger a strong, emotional response.

Relational trauma often leads to later, dysfunctional relational functioning. Here are 5 signs of relational trauma.

  1. Taking responsibility for others emotional well-being: For example, feeling guilty for saying “no,” being more concerned about pleasing others than doing what is best for you, or feeling the need to “fix” others problems. You might have grown up believing you were responsible for your mother’s or father’s anger or depression and thus, needed to figure out how to fix it.
  2. Being hyper-vigilant in monitoring others moods: Scanning the room to take in the emotional environment, adjusting your mood according to the mood of others, avoiding conflict. Feeling emotionally unsafe in most relationships. You might have grown up around a lot of anger and thus feel the need (unconsciously) to monitor your safety in a relationship. Or, you might have grown up around a lot of depression or anxiety and, therefore, avoid letting yourself feel sad, contemplative or introspective.
  3. Fear of failure: Sometimes thought of as perfectionism, but is characterized by your belief that anything short of perfection is failure. The result is either an inability to step out of your comfort zone—taking the path of least resistance or risk. Or a level of striving which far exceeds the nature of the event. If so, it’s likely you grew up in an environment where mistakes were not tolerated.
  4. Fear of Abandonment: Often unspoken, but behaviors reflecting a belief that others will eventually leave. For example, difficulty ending any relational interaction—lingering too long over coffee, etc., even when the other individual is clearly ready to call it a day, feeling rejected if calls or text messages aren’t returned quickly, believing another’s silence or even anger, means he or she “doesn’t like/love me anymore.” This is a result of either being physically abandoned (even through death) by one of your parents. But it can also result when one or both of your parents were emotionally distant, unavailable or closed off.
  5. Self-Sufficiency: What often appears to be independence, but is rooted in the belief “I’m on my own.” Others either cannot, or will not, help me and to ask is shameful, so I just have to figure it out by myself. The result is often isolation, loneliness and more shame.

Hence, you may understand my inability to ask for help to bake those cookies—how my shame in not knowing what to do came from years of experiencing a negative reaction from my mother if I asked for help, or if I didn’t know how to do something, or if I felt hurt, or sad or angry. Hence, I grew up believing that the need for help meant something was wrong with me—I was either stupid or bad—and definitely a burden.

But here’s the truth. Not only do we all need help once in a while, but it’s healthy to ask for help. We also need to feel safe in our relationships, safe to say no, to make mistakes, to be grumpy, or sad or hurt. If you don’t feel safe, or if any of the above examples triggered an emotional reaction inside of you, I encourage you to speak to a counselor. Together, you can work through experiences which led to your current emotional reactions, your negative beliefs about yourself and others.

What I find hopeful is that healing is possible no matter what the traumatic experience, even chronic, childhood, relational trauma.

That day in Mary Lee’s kitchen I taught myself how to read a recipe and, with the help of that recipe alone, I was able bake my first Toll House Chocolate Chip cookies. A rather sad and lonely way to learn to bake. It is quite possible I began baking with my children when they were young as a result of that experience at age 12. But it is more likely I baked with them, allowed them to make messes, make mistakes and feel emotionally safe because I found healing from my own, negative childhood experiences.

That I am now able to watch my daughter create such an emotionally safe and loving environment for her children is still amazing to me. Actually, it is nothing short of a miracle.

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