The following post is part of the Year of Healing I’m doing on my blog, where I will explore monthly themes on different aspects of healing. February is the topic of Relational Healing. Please click here for more info.
Last week as we began our journey of Relational Healing in the month of February, I talked about how healing begins and ends with what we think about love.
So where do our concepts of love come from? As human beings, we are relationally wired to connect with each other. Relationships form the foundation of how we experience the world. As children, we grow up with parents, we have friends, and we fall in love with people who will shape our ideas and concepts of what love truly is.
A friend of mine who is a counselor has this to say:
“One of the things that as a professional I remember most from trainings is that humanity is relational.We can not be separated from the people who are around us. I would say that so far in my practice counseling others, this concept has only been strengthened…
People from all walks of life always come back to how they are effected by those around them, both positively and negatively…The fact that relationships are central also makes relationship wounds very deep, and often effect multiple areas of life. The more central the relationship to the person, the more effect.”
This can be fine when everything goes smoothly. If you grew up with loving parents and a more or less safe childhood, then maybe love was modeled in a positive, life-giving manner. Maybe you didn’t, though. Maybe your family and upbringing was fraught with dysfunction.
“My father never hit me, but he was emotionally and psychologically manipulative,” shares a friend of mine about his abusive upbringing. “All through my elementary school years, I prayed for God to make my dad hit me so people would finally have a reason to see him in a bad light, and, just maybe, I’d finally be able to get away from him…
“There was no sense of privacy or personal space. Many times growing up, I found my dad going through my trash, picking through my backpack and schoolwork, reading my diary, and (later, when we had a computer), poking through my files and installing spyware to see everything we were doing. It didn’t matter if I had a bad day and wanted to be alone; when he wanted something from me my feelings didn’t matter. When he wanted to go through my personal items–my pockets of my clothes, the compartments in my backpack, the drawers in my bedroom–when he wanted to go through it, he went through it.
“I was afraid of his anger, so to avoid provoking him by saying or doing something he didn’t want, I tried not to write down my feelings, thoughts, or prayers. I learned to bottle up everything I thought and felt, making my only release the tears I shed as I fell asleep. I also learned to hide. To change where I put things, how I wrote or said things, how I reacted when he was around. My brother learned to simply not care; I learned to evade. “
Maybe your parents seemed okay, but you developed a strong attraction to abusive men or women in your life, which shaped your early perceptions of romantic love.
For me personally, I know the the first time I truly fell in love was with a very manipulative, destructive guy—that experience framed the way I’d interpret love for years and years since then. Because he mistreated me and used me emotionally (but wouldn’t commit to me in any real way), I have struggled to be able to ever feel like I am valued and worthy of being truly committed to. I have had countless guys use me emotionally, then throw me aside and never commit. This perpetuates the wounds I feel. So that deepest wound when I was 18 has led to countless other wounds over and over again. This is a pattern I still recognize and notice today, something I’m still trying to fight in my own life.
Relational Trauma & Generational Wounds
Another thing others may not realize is that even if one’s parents were functional, it has been scientifically proven that trauma gets passed down in the DNA of descendants. So intensely damaging things that may have happened to your ancestors actually has a direct impact on how you process the world. For example, even if your parents were decent human beings, if one of your immediate ancestors had trauma, then you will inherit the trauma that is associated with that ancestor. If whole people groups (like Jews in the Holocaust) suffered extreme persecution, that same trauma will affect their children and grandchildren’s own DNA.
In my own personal life, while my parents tried very hard to live decent lives, I come from grandparents on one side that were alcoholics and addicts. I have seen the unhealthy, abusive patterns that are reflected in my extended family play out in my own life as I’ve gravitated towards unhealthy men. (In fact, I’d argue that my own form of “addiction” has been towards men. Addictive patterns are very prominent in my family tree, and while I was always the good Christian girl that never did drugs or drank excessively, my addictive DNA from my generational history manifested in other ways).
And what is trauma, by the way? Some people get scared of that word, so here is a definition:
“My dictionary defines trauma as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Defined like that the events which can be considered traumatic are wide ranging indeed—from what might be considered the stuff of ordinary life such as divorce, illness, accidents and bereavement to extreme experiences of war, torture, rape and genocide.” ~Psychology Today
Chances are, you’ve had a traumatic experience at some point in your life. For example, I know that many people come to my blog because of death and grief, which can be very traumatic experiences. Each person is affected by things differently. What may not seem traumatic to some could actually deeply affect another person. Everyone is an individual.
Hiding and Running from Relational Wounds
Whatever the cause, those hard and painful experiences can leave us in a numbing or “freeze” state when we shut down in a certain area and continue to hide ourselves or repeat the wound in unintentional ways over and over again until we face that trauma and begin resolving it.
Dr. John Townsend in his book Hiding From Love (which I highly recommend) writes that once people have been through something traumatic or experienced unsafe relationships, they begin to hide those broken, unloved areas:
“All of us to some extent live two lives: an external life, in which we learn to express the feelings, attitudes, and behaviors that are ‘safe’ to express; and an internal life, in which we closed away our ‘unsafe’ traits, which exist isolated and undeveloped. Our tendency is to keep the ‘unloved’ parts of ourselves forever under wraps, with the hope that in time, they will go away and not cause more pain.”
[Dr. John Townsend]
Hiding can look like all sorts of things. Addictions like alcohol, drugs, etc. Or simply emotional numbness and unavailability towards the people you love. Not being able to commit to anyone romantically or sexual promiscuity can be forms of hiding, as well as perfectionism and having to have everything in order all of the time. Workaholics or being over-the top achievers can often be a way to compensate for deep past wounds. Even spirituality can be a way to run and not face reality (we’ll be talking more in depth on this topic in April during my Spiritual Healing month). There are as many ways to cope and hide from pain as there are humans, because again—we are all individuals who will deal with things in our own way.
The point is, we are all running, running, running from whatever it is that deeply wounded us. And running doesn’t help.
Trauma gets stored inside our bodies. Once something painful occurs, our emotional right side of the brain reacts first, but our rational left side of the brain immediately steps forward and says, “That wasn’t a big deal,” or can easily try to wipe it all away, rationalize it, and move on. But trauma lives in the emotional side our brains and gets trapped inside us if not dealt with, leaving emotional scars inside us that manifest in a number of physical and mental symptoms.
As my counselor friend says,
“Internalized pain also often effects health, and someone’s physical health symptoms are so intimately connected to relationships.…A whole paper could be written on the effect of negative relationships on the mind. Some general examples of effects on the mind range from: anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, mood swings, negative views of self worth, negative views of the world, hopelessness. Mentally, the type of relationship, how close the relationship was to the person, what type of relational trauma happened all depend on the level of effect on a person.”
Does any of this sound like you? Any of this vaguely ringing a bell or making you uncomfortable? If it sounds a bit overwhelming, it can be. But the good news is that relational trauma can be released and overcome in your own lifetime, as long as you are truly facing the past and healing.
1. I’d like you to is take 30-45 minutes of time and go back to your childhood, your teenage years, and your adulthood.
Think about the most pivotal relationships in your past. How did they shape you? What did they tell you about love? What were the messages that you internalized? Do you notice any dysfunctional patterns that continue on to this day?
2. Now think about yourself.
What do you believe about yourself because of relational wounds?
What were the lies you believed about love because of how others treated you?
If you could define “love” from negative experiences in the past, what would “love” look like? Have you seen those negative beliefs play out in your own life?
What are dysfunctional ways you’ve tried to hide from revealing the broken places in your life?
What are unhealthy coping mechanisms you’ve used to run from pain?
And what are you wanting to do differently moving forward?
If love could be redefined for you, what words would you like to use?
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