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How to Trust in a Healing Relationship as a Trauma Survivor

Reprinted with permission from author. A very well respected therapist in Virginia.

How to Trust in a Healing Relationship as a Trauma Survivor

trust after trauma

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, as it is believed that disconnection keeps them safe, and then in turn it validates a person’s needs for safety. Instead of criticizing themselves for their barriers, clients can explore curiosity about them, for example: “Is there a self-protector part inside you who says: “I’m going to withdraw and stay safe so you don’t hurt me”?

In addition, trauma-informed therapy can offer clients a vision of what healthy connections look like. For example, we can support them in exploring positive affirmations like this:

I deserve deep relationships. I welcome feeling cared for and nurtured. I accept another’s compassion. People care about me—and it’s healthy to lean on them and ask for help when I need it.

In part, healing trauma involves discovering what it means to have healthy relationships. Here are three concepts I like to share in therapy, to help clients move forward into deeper relationships:

1. There is tremendous healing power that comes from repairing wounds in healthy relationships.

No relationship is perfect. But misunderstandings don’t have to hurt forever. When something injures a healthy relationship, we address it. We clear it up. We heal the injury. We create what we therapists call a corrective emotional experience.

When clients experience relationship trauma, particularly as children, they often learn “put up and shut up” as a go-to coping skill. But this creates other problems later in life. Hiding hurts and withdrawing from a relationship when discomfort preempts the opportunity to heal misunderstandings. Trauma survivors often become adults, without the power of relationship repair tools.

Sometimes, disconnects happen in therapy. Dr. Suzanne LaCombe calls them misattunements in her story about having corrective emotional experiences with a client.

Healing misattunements is enormously valuable. Therapy can provide vital healing experiences by encouraging safety and trust, and providing positive results when a client brings up feeling bad about something that happened in session.

Witnessing feedback about our own insensitivity, when clients are brave enough to share that something we said or did, didn’t sit well with them doesn’t mean we’re bad therapists. Healing this rift can be a huge therapeutic strength as LaCombe’s story explains. When we care enough to respond to hurt feelings with understanding, and give the apology or clarification a client needs, we create the uplifting healing experience of relationship repair. Maybe for the first time in their lives, they see how a painful disconnect can become a point of healing and deeper re-connection.

Corrective emotional experiences can transform a maladaptive idea such as “suck it up” into a useful tool for further healing, such as “speak up,” first inside the safety of therapy, and later, in healthier relationships outside of therapy.

We can help clients learn that having healthy relationships can repair even old emotional wounds.

2. In a healthy relationship with yourself, you can question unrealistic standards you may be holding yourself to, and soothe self-criticism with compassion.

A healthy therapeutic relationship can help clients see different parts of themselves. We can witness where they seem strong, where they seem hurt, and be curious about how these parts might relate (or integrate) in a more compassionate way.

Curiosity is a powerful therapeutic tool we can offer trauma survivors.

For example, we can encourage them to think about how their inner world may actually contain different parts, with different abilities and needs. Clients may more easily recognize the adult, the part they hold accountable, the part that takes responsibility. They may readily see a harsh critical advisor. But what about their more tender human needs for emotional connection? What about the hurt parts such as a scared inner child?

The same adult who would offer compassion to another person can learn to extend this same support to the child or hurt place inside.

By encouraging curiosity about nurturing rather than criticizing parts of themselves, we can help clients use new resources to feed the wise adult parts. They can then learn to help hurt parts heal and grow.

I recommend Kristin Neff’s phenomenal book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and Lisa Ferentz’s new book, Finding Your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons from the Therapist’s Couch.

3. Consider the opportunity for secure attachment in the current relationships they have been able to develop as an adult.

Trauma survivors may have experienced relationships as unsafe places to open up. But that may not be true of current relationships.

It takes encouragement and intention to explore unknown parts of a current relationship. As therapists, we can witness what we notice about the strengths and potential capacity for support and love in what we see.

We can witness, or be curious about what a client expects from a current relationship. For example, we can ask if they expect to be a giver, accepting nothing in return. Therapy can support a client in noticing the nature of the relationship he or she actually has, how to find resources for self-nurture and support, and the real opportunity for healing in secure attachment in current relationships

At first, it may feel strange or even risky to see the true depth of the love, support and compassion that caring friends or family members can — and want to — provide.

A real chance for greater emotional connection, safety and security may be closer than our clients think. The awareness to look at relationships objectively and consider this potential .

Allowing the Heart Open to Compassion, Support and Deeper Relationships

Asking for help can be especially difficult for those who have survived trauma. Learning to allow the heart to open takes courage, time and responsive, compassionate support.

Through trauma-informed therapy, it’s possible to help people realize that they do truly deserve deep relationships as they grow and change through life—in the good times and the hard times.

More Resources

Why Corrective Emotional Experiences are Important by D. Suzanne LaCombe

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff

Finding Your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons from the Therapist’s Couch by Lisa Ferentz

More From Our Blog

Healthy Relationships Matter More Than We Think by Robyn Brickel

How to Find Healing in Relationships After Trauma by Robyn Brickel

Trauma’s Impact on Relationships: Finding New Skills to Talk Through Relationship Pain by Robyn Brickel

Uncomfortable with Compliments? Why Being Able to Take In Kind Words is So Important by Robyn Brickel


Why Close Encounters With Animals Soothe Us

Chapter 3 of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There” culminates with Alice’s coming to a wood “where things have no names.” Immediately upon entering, she is unable to identify anything around her, knows not what to call herself or the surrounding trees or the strangely fearless fawn that soon approaches. Mutually enchanted, the two commence walking along together in utter peace and calm, Alice’s arm cradling the fawn as they go. The assuaging grace of this trance is broken only upon coming to a clearing where name recognition returns and the startled fawn bounds away in fright, leaving Alice bereft and forlorn.

Carroll’s parable about the distancing effects of human consciousness and language has particular resonance at a time when close encounters with nonhuman animals are increasingly being sought to heal our psychic and social woes. It is, in effect, a kind of wood with no names into which animal therapy allows its participants entrance. At equine-therapy programs like Compton Jr. Posse in Los Angeles (pictured here), inner-city adolescents find a refuge from drugs and street-gang culture by developing equestrian skills and learning to regard the knowing gazes of 1,000-plus-pound horses and guide their beguiling power. In return for striving in school, the program’s participants, ranging in age from 8 to 18, are taught to ride horses, groom them and clean their stables. These experiences keep them within what Mayisha Akbar, the founder of Compton Jr. Posse, calls the horse’s “personal circle.” Horses have a profound effect on humans. “Whether they have a physical handicap or an emotional handicap or a mental handicap, when you’re around a horse,” Akbar says, “the energy is so powerful that it tunes the body up. That’s why there are so many therapeutic riding programs, because they do see physical changes in people who are around horses.”

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Eniko Barber, Age 9

“We both trust each other. So if I feel scared, he will feel scared, and he might stop sometimes. And then if I feel confident, he feels confident and he would jump for me.”

— Interviews by Hallie Bateman CreditIlona Szwarc for The New York Times


Kenneth Player, Age 14 (Left)

“Most people, they don’t have the horse environment. They say, ‘Ah, I don’t want to ride a horse.’ They’re scared. They probably just see horses on TV and that’s it. When they actually learn about them and start doing the things you can do with horses, they go, ‘Oh, now I want to ride them.’ ”

Assata Allison, Age 18 (Right)

“I have seen the kids change. The boys that were once loud and rowdy, they come here, and well, they are hyped from school, but they come here and they’re calm and they want to talk to the horses, and I’ve noticed with the girls also, they’ve become more open.”CreditIlona Szwarc for The New York Times


Asia Carter-Thomas, Age 10

“I feel like there’s a piece of my heart missing if I don’t ride a horse. Just the feeling that you get when you ride and you trot and you jump. It feels like you are soaring through the sky and you don’t have a care in the world. Reality can’t even catch up behind you. You’re just free. Until you get off the horse, of course. Then reality catches up to you so fast that you’re stunned and shocked.” CreditIlona Szwarc for The New York Times

Something extraordinary occurs when we’re in the presence of a fellow sentient being. When we let go of language’s tacit conceptual constraints and judgments, we allow ourselves a kind of time travel toward our own inner animal. Science is revealing the ways that the physiology of our psychology can be found across species: the common neuronal structures and attendant nerve wirings that we share in varying measures with a startling array of both vertebrates and invertebrates, including fellow primates, elephants, whales, parrots, bees and fruit flies. Animal therapy makes us aware of this cross-species interconnectivity on the purest, subconscious level.

It has been established that the tactile element alone in animal therapy releases endorphins, so called feel-good hormones that counteract the trauma hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. But neuroscience is also revealing the ways in which the brain’s neural networks can be both experientially marred and therapeutically mended. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, among many others, have demonstrated the brain’s “neuroplasticity” by showing that the mere act of meditation and thinking compassionate thoughts can physically alter and enhance the wiring of the brain’s empathic pathways. Felicity de Zulueta, a psychiatrist who worked with victims of extreme trauma, including former child soldiers in Uganda, at Maudsley Hospital in London, told me that the healing of trauma has physical correlatives in the brain just as assaults on our psyches do, forging new neuronal connections that bypass the traumatically scarred regions.

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