Healing From Trauma? You Might See Your Relationships Differently

As trauma survivors begin to heal or experience post-traumatic growth, they often gain new insight about so many parts of their life, including relationships.

Once beginning to view life through a trauma-informed lens, so many differences may appear. What you notice inside yourself, present in these relationships, may feel new or different. You may start to notice what you experienced as not ok or what you didn’t have in your life as missing. You may even notice or wonder why the people in your life — friends, family members, and loved ones — are staying the same. Why are they not changing their view, too? This is one of the difficult parts of healing from trauma that sometimes gets overlooked. 

Dr. Glenn Doyle says, “Ironically, when we start to get better, we also get sad — because we start to realize how much we’ve missed out on, how badly certain people failed us, what the younger version of us actually deserved. Healing involves healthy grieving. No way around it.”

If you’re healing from trauma, and your narrative around the important relationships in your life is starting to change — if you are noticing you feel sad or upset, disappointed or confused, wishing it was different — you are not alone.

What you might notice…

A newly sober person goes into recovery from drugs and alcohol. They start to realize that all of their friends also use drugs and alcohol to dissociate or manage their life by feeling differently.  

A person recovering from trauma starts to notice that friends also use protective parts or act from a place of flight or flight — acting out their own trauma responses and are unable to be present for their friends or themselves. 

A person who thought they came from ‘the perfect family’ realizes that their parents’ lack of arguing was really their lacking communication.  

It might seem like suddenly, everywhere you look, you see people acting from a place of unhealed trauma. 

How you might feel…

When you start to view yourself more clearly and compassionately for all you have been through, you may start to see some of your relationships or childhood as disappointing or sad. The process of trauma recovery sheds light on so many things you may not have expected. Growing up, you may have thought you were part of the Beaver Cleaver family. Or perhaps you thought that (no matter what was happening) your upbringing was just like everyone else’s — perfectly normal. Children are brought up to be loyal to their parents — to think they are great. To not question. Everyday survival depends on it. Yet, once you experience safety and stability in a different way, allowing for curiosity — and processing trauma begins — your life view may change. You may see the lack of secure attachment, or the losses you experienced in your life. You may need to grieve all that you didn’t have or receive.  

You may move forward, now understanding your behaviors make sense, given your history. You may notice how attachment styles and survival mechanisms, this view you had of your life — what was your reality — has suddenly shifted. There is a different truth emerging. An understanding that perhaps, the upbringing you experienced wasn’t so normal or healthy after all.

Today, as you’re working hard to be grounded and present, and to respond with your wise adult brain online … the people around you may still be doing the same things they used to do. And now you can see it clearly. This can be a very difficult reckoning.

How they might feel.

Before healing from trauma or the addiction you used to survive your life, your place in the relationships you had was steady. It was consistent. The relationship was founded on similar life beliefs or survival skills. A certain dynamic existed. Now, you’re changing the rules. You are being curious. Holding space for your life, compassionately. Although this is an incredible step forward for you, your friends and family may not be able to see that … most often because it feels scary or threatening to them. They see the world through their own perspective — their own ways of survival. They may not be able or ready just yet to let go of what they are doing to survive. Maybe their coping mechanisms are still working well enough for them. Maybe they are just not ready to explore the traumatic residue that still lives on their bodies, providing for trauma responses. Be aware that if they get angry at you, or pull away, or try to push you into the old way of doing things, they are simply afraid of what you changing means for them. How is it that you were so close, so similar, and you see your life so differently now? You own the use of alcohol or other dissociative mechanisms and how that behavior was attempting to just help you feel less badly. How it was harming you. They may not be ready to ask themselves the hard questions: Do I use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, like you did? Do I have unhealed trauma that’s causing me to act a certain way? Are my own relationships healthy? Etc…

When you start to notice the losses — the loss of relationships, the loss of the story you once believed, the loss of, perhaps, an old version of you, the grief that ensues can be palpable. It can feel unexpected and heavy.

What to do about it?

Here are 7 steps to navigate relationships during trauma recovery: 

As individuals, we are constantly evolving. And when post-traumatic growth occurs, it can be a big shift in your life view. While change may not be easy for trauma survivors, it’s important. It’s part of your growth. It allows you to heal. Here are 7 important steps to help you navigate through relationships as you heal.

  1. First, compassion for you. What you are doing isn’t easy! This is hard — hard to grow differently than your loved ones. It is common, normal, and a necessary part of healing, and you can handle it. It’s ok to be sad. Loss is sad!

  2. Then, compassion for them. Understand that the people in your life are doing the best they can with the coping skills they currently have. Think about what it took for you to see life so differently … Everything you had to endure first. All the work you are doing and have done. How difficult it was. Maybe they have not reached the breaking point yet. Maybe their survival skills are still working for them. We can’t expect that everybody is going to be ready to do the work at the same time. 

  3. Take inventory. As they are, do these relationships still give back to you? Do they still feel good enough? Do you feel safe? It might not be possible to continue certain relationships, especially those where drugs, alcohol, or abuse were present — and in order to take care of you in the healthiest way, you can’t be around those things. Again, it’s ok to be sad. Loss is so hard. 

  4. See what can exist with your health and safety. Are you able to expand your window of emotional tolerance or regulation safely — while you hold space for people who are still actively just trying to survive in any way they can? Can you make room for this person to still be in your life, and still have space for your own healing and growth? The answer may be yes, and it may be no. Both are okay! There may be relationships that feel safe, and those which don’t feel safe at all. Some may be in between. Adaptations may need to be made in order to keep some of these people in your life.  

  5. Set boundaries or add distance. Can you set boundaries to keep yourself safe? This may look like defining a set amount of time for a visit with a friend or loved one. “I’ll come from 6-8” or “We can meet at the coffee shop” or “I’d like you to come to dinner. There will be no alcohol.” Some may respect these boundaries; others may not. That provides further clarity. That clarity may highlight your sadness or loss. You are ok; you are worth it! “

  6. Grieve accordingly. When you start placing boundaries, some you hoped would be there for you, may not show up at all. A change in a relationship, or a loss of a relationship, will understandably come with sadness and grief. There will be a mourning process. Allow it. We grieve for losses that matter. Feel your feelings. And please be compassionate with yourself along the way.

  7. Stay open to new connections. Wanting healthier relationships is a normal part of trauma recovery. The more you heal and recover, the more open you are to new and sometimes different healthy relationships. There is healing in connection.  

What if you want your people to change?

When you see those you care about suffering, and you have found a path that is helping you, it is natural to want them to try it, too. If you want to share your experience, explore or encourage therapy for them, do so delicately. Remember how you felt when you weren’t ready.

Approach gently. Share your experience, don’t demand them to change. “I’ve been doing therapy and it’s helping me feel better” — instead of, “You need to go to therapy.” Talk about your experience and plant seeds of hope. Understand some may not respond the way you wish.

One of the most beneficial things you can do for those you care about is to lead by example. 

Keep doing the work. Continue on your healing journey. Maybe they will come around at some point. If you can safely stay in their lives in some capacity, you may be there when they are ready to heal.

If you’re a trauma survivor who is seeing the changes in your own life — and seeing the changes to your relationships — you are not alone. 

Continuing to live in a way that feels good and growth-oriented for you is the only way.

Whatever boundaries or choices you need to make to take care of yourself are ok!

It’s ok to be sad and grieve the loss of relationships you had — they mattered, and they made sense at the time!

Know that you are equipped to hold sadness now; you can handle whatever comes your way. 

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