Relationship-Building Tips for Trauma Survivors
One of the defining characteristics of CPTSD is having difficulty creating and maintaining relationships. The relational nature of this type of trauma contributes to an inability or unwillingness to trust people. Given everything a trauma survivor has suffered at the hands of people they should’ve been able to trust, this reaction is understandable and normal.
One of the most common challenges I hear from trauma survivors is the ability to connect with co-workers.
Some have asked why connecting with others is so difficult, while others fear connection. I will spend a few minutes discussing why it is difficult to connect and then provide some tips for learning how to connect with others in the workplace.
Why is connecting with people in the workplace so difficult?
Relational Trauma. I know I already mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. The relational element of CPTSD causes us to fear connection with people. That is absolutely understandable. Our past experiences of being hurt by the people closest to us create biological triggers of danger when we start feeling close to someone else.
Have you ever hit it off with someone, and when you start getting close to that person, you start to feel panicky or paranoid that they will hurt you? I know I have. The feeling of closeness is the trigger because, in our minds, those closest to us can hurt us the most.
Armor. In order to protect themselves, many trauma survivors employ the use of armor. I used my armor to hide what I thought, how I felt, and who I was from others. I used some pretty significant titanium armor to protect myself, which worked great for that purpose.
Nobody could hurt me. I would run around the city of Charlotte in the early morning hours when it was dark and felt indestructible and impenetrable. The only problem is that while it worked great to keep the bad things out, it also kept all the good things out…like compassion, connection, and friendship…and it was lonely.
This was one of the first conversations I had with my trauma therapist. I didn’t realize I was doing that because, for me, this was normal. I didn’t know any different. When she asked me how it felt to keep people at a distance, I realized how lonely it was. My first priority was safety, not connection. I had no idea we were designed for connection.
This was also the first decision I made in therapy. When I realized that I was the one who created the armor to keep people away, I also realized that I had the power to step out of the armor to allow people in. This was one of the most challenging and rewarding things I’ve ever done in my healing journey. Allowing others to see me just like I was…scars and all…felt terrifying. It felt like the unmasking of Darth Vader.
I was so sick of pretending to be someone I wasn’t so people would like me and not reject me. I am done pretending. I want to be real whether people like me or not. Some people will not like me…and that’s OK…it’s their loss. This is also where my commitment to the core value of authenticity emerged.
Fear of being seen. Closely related to the armor is an intense fear of being seen. Being seen as a child meant that you were the focal point for all kinds of bad attention and intentions. There is a part in all of us that wants to be seen and acknowledged, but for the trauma survivor, that part is squashed as safety is prioritized.
Especially common in the workplace is a fear of being found out. We fear that people will see our woundedness and reject us. We fear people will think we are incompetent to do our jobs. We fear people will see how much we struggle to function in the workplace.
Difficulty trusting others. Difficulty trusting others is another outcome of relational trauma. To trust other people, we have to risk being hurt again. Some of us are so desperate for connection that we toss aside the internal warnings our bodies give us and end up trusting the wrong people, further reinforcing our reluctance to trust.
How many of you are repeating unhealthy relationship patterns because you trusted the wrong people? Of course, you did…because that dysfunctional connection felt normal to you. That is the kind of connection you’ve had for your whole life. Is there any wonder why that would feel normal?
“Familiar can be more tolerable than something I don’t know.” Dr. Arielle Schwartz, The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook
Tips for connecting with others
Trust your system. Your nervous system has been expertly refined through your experiences to detect danger. It does its job well, so we must pay attention to the information we get from our threat management system. Not all alarms are actual threats, so it is our responsibility to determine whether there is an actual threat in the present. You have the ability and authority to turn off the alarm system if it is picking up threats from the past that are no longer threats in the present.
Just because someone’s behavior reminds you of your abuser doesn’t mean they will abuse you now. Just because your boss’ loud voice reminds you of your abusive father doesn’t mean he is…but it could. You need to determine if he is just normally loud or whether he is actually threatening with his loud speech.
Be yourself. I know this is harder to do than it is to say. Trust me…I get that. However, when we try to hide who we are or pretend to be someone we aren’t, we set ourselves up for fear of being found out. I learned an amazing truth, which helped me…you are allowed to struggle. Everyone struggles with something. Struggling doesn’t make you “less than,” incompetent or damaged…it makes you human.
It takes a lot of courage to be ourselves and allow people to see us as we are, but it is worth it. No more pretending. No more trying to remember the last lie we told someone about what we thought. No more being someone we aren’t. You are ENOUGH…just as you are.
Start small. Learning to trust again is one of the more challenging milestones in this healing journey. Maybe you can start learning how to trust with your therapist or coach…those who should be modeling unconditional acceptance. If you are not experiencing that with your therapist or coach, I recommend finding someone you can trust. You won’t make any progress in your healing journey if you don’t trust the people who are supposed to be helping you.
Learning to trust is difficult, even with our therapist, but trust is built over time. We need to resist our normal “all-or-nothing” thinking when building trust with people. I love how Brene Brown talks about trust using the analogy of a marble jar. Every time people show up for you or do something kind, it adds a marble jar of trust to your jar. When they don’t show up for you, or there is a rupture in the relationship, it takes marbles out of the jar, but it doesn’t mean we totally smash the jar.
There is this thing called the “rupture/repair” process…who knew? I knew all about ruptures and would smash the jar when someone hurt me. I would avoid them and totally write them off.
The repair process was new and foreign to me, and I didn’t learn about it until I was in therapy. My therapist taught me about this and modeled it for me when we experienced a rupture in our therapeutic relationship. It blew my mind at first. I was never taught that I could repair a relationship, but you actually can.
It takes some courageous and candid truth-telling to initiate. I had to trust the unconditional acceptance part of my relationship with my therapist to gather the courage to share how I felt about something she said in our session. It was SO hard because, of course, I was expecting her to reject me…but she didn’t. She listened and asked questions so she could understand my point of view. Again…mind-blowing. And we were able to repair the rupture, and the connection was restored. It’s like breaking a bone…when it heals, it becomes stronger. We have had several ruptures/repairs in our time together, but each time, it has made our relationship stronger and deeper.
Go slow. Building trust and connections is a process that takes time. Little by little, as you get to know someone, you will see what kind of person they are and whether you want to have that person in your life.
I shy away from oversharing unless I need to know immediately what kind of person they are, as in the case of getting a new boss. I did this just recently and just laid it all out there (I am pretty comfortable with where I am in my healing journey, but I never would’ve done this early on…so take this with a grain of salt), and my new manager was able to receive my truth with compassion. As a matter of fact, it went better than I expected, and I have come to trust her rather quickly, which is so unusual.
Most of the time, though, I am for moving slowly and sharing my truth a little bit at a time. Now that I am more comfortable being myself and sharing my truth, I will often take the initiative to share a bit with other people to see how they respond. They may not be ready to hear your truth if they run for the hills when you share. Use your best judgment.
There are different levels of relationships and connections with people
Not all relationships are the same. There are different levels of relationships and connections with people…especially in the workplace. Some people you may know casually but not really know them. Some people you just need to have working relationships with…no personal information necessary.
The reason I am saying this is because sometimes we think that if we don’t have deep relationships with co-workers, we don’t have good relationships. Connections come in all shapes and sizes. If you find that the only relationships you have are an inch-deep and a mile-wide, you may not have enough of the deeper connection kind of relationships that we are wired to need. I experienced that for sure. I was friendly with people, so I had a lot of connections, but I didn’t have any deeper relationships. I didn’t have anyone that I could let down my guard, be myself, and share my thoughts/feelings.
How do we build those deeper relationships? We build them one brick at a time. I suggest starting with someone you already know casually. Is there someone you have things in common with or would like to get to know better? Start there. You only have to take the next right step. You don’t have to worry about going from 0–100 in one step. Take your time. Allow your nervous system to adjust to being more vulnerable with someone. If they respond well and your nervous system has adjusted, take the next step, and so on. This is a process…a very slow process…and that’s OK.
Connecting with me.
I would love to connect with you…Hey, I need the practice, too, you know. My new friend, Katie, and I have been chatting it up over email, and I have been really enjoying the dialogue. It is nice to chat with people who get you.
I invite you to get to know me in a discovery call on Zoom, email ([email protected]), or put a comment at the end of this blog.
As always, you do not have to face this journey alone.
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Believer. Leader. Learner. Advocate. Writer. Speaker. Coach. Mentor. Triathlete. Encourager. Survivor.
Most of all, I am a fellow traveler on the rocky road called, Trauma Recovery. My mission is to minimize the effects of trauma for survivors in the workplace.