The Impact

Unresolved trauma can impact people’s lives in many ways. It creates challenges for people in how they engage with the world. People often feel trapped because the fear of experiencing a trauma-related trigger can leave them frozen with fear. People can even lose close relationships due to unresolved trauma. Although relationships and developing deep connections with friends are essential for our well-being, unresolved trauma can leave us feeling disconnected from these same friends; people often are left to manage their trauma memories by themselves. 

Terry Real, MSW, LICSW describes two parts of someone’s mental state who suffer from the aftereffects of unresolved trauma. The first part of someone’s mental state is referred to as the “wound child” mental state. The wounded child’s mental state may be caused by experiencing emotional, abuse, and/or sexual abuse when she was a child. This child experienced, Terry tells us, the abuse occurred about the time when the child was pre-verbal or just beginning to speak words. This mental state often attaches to emotions like the desire of connecting with loved ones and is overwhelmed by the idea of getting too close to them. Being close to another is comforting and frightening at the same time. Unresolved trauma has the potential to ruin relationships. 

Terry identifies the “adaptive child” as the next mental state a person may be in when they experience unresolved trauma. The adaptative child’s mental state is the child’s version of an adult that was created by the mind of a child to protect the wounded child’s mental state. The characteristics of the adaptive child’s mental state are the person is often perfectionistic, harsh, and unforgiving. Often, she sees the world as black and white: decisions are not based on grey areas. She often has difficulty learning new skills as she grows up; she may often only care about self-preservation; and views intimacy as a threat. This child may see aggression towards others to protect herself in any context. Closeness will seem impossible for this child to see as non-threatening. Unresolved trauma can ruin relationships. 

The Functional Adult 

In contrast, Terry introduces a mental state that is related to a person who processed unresolved trauma. The term he uses is called the “functional adult”.  The functional adult mindset informs a child as they grow up to make thoughtful decisions. She is mature, thoughtful, nuanced, and usually competent in how to show forgiveness. She remains in the present moment when under distress and does not avoid emotionally intense experiences. She understands imperfection and ambiguity and is comfortable with these thoughts. She can make sense of trauma and its impact on her relationships. Lastly, she may be adaptable which is unlike the previous child’s mental state; the functional adult mental state allows a child to learn new skills. Relationships can be ruined by unresolved trauma and relationships can be repaired and thrive when a person processes personal trauma. I tell my patients the healing journey is worth it. 

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