Pursue What Matters
Episode 201: What You Need to Know About Relational Trauma
Please excuse any typos, transcripts are generated by an automated service
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
When you look at your own life, maybe you don’t consider that you have a trauma history, and maybe you don’t. But when it comes to families, we can often experience death by 1000 cuts, or relational trauma. Joining me today to learn what you need to know about relational trauma.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:19
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So last week, we introduced the concept of the adaptive child and the wise adult, as it relates to trauma responses. So these are known as our relational stance. And we talked about the difference between big T trauma and little T trauma. And when it comes to understanding our experience, right, we often think about little T trauma, as relational trauma. So those death by 1000 cuts in childhood that we can sometimes experience that, you know, may not be considered a big T trauma, but they still impact us. So some examples include difficult ongoing family relationships, and interactions, poor boundaries, rejection, intrusion, all of these things that just happen in many families growing up, and that as those continue in an ongoing fashion, right, they can be really corrosive, they can really undermine our sense of self. And we develop some patterned coping strategies to cope with the pain of those experiences. And that often shows up as the adaptive child. So if we had a parent that maybe had poor boundaries, and was intrusive, one of the coping strategies that we might develop as a child is to have pretty rigid boundaries. And then we carry that coping strategy or that relational stance into adulthood. And it might not be very functional, because it might get in the way of us forming good bonds and secure attachment with folks. And so today, I want to help you better understand relational trauma, and how it might show up in in the present day in interactions. And so this conceptualization can help to bring a lot of self awareness because one of the things that we know about relational trauma is that it never keeps to itself, it shows up in the present moment, even if the experiences that were challenging, were decades in the past, it shows up in our current relationships, both at home and at work, and it can emotionally hook us and leave us feeling hijacked. And so really, I talked about this with our last podcast, the goal is not to label or judge or blame anyone for maybe the challenges that you’ve experienced, but it’s really to bring in some awareness and some understanding so that you can feel like you are on solid ground in your present life so that you don’t get emotionally hooked so that you can be intentional about how you relate to others and how you respond to challenges.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:25
And so of course, if anything that you hear is upsetting, or it kicks up some some painful memories, you know, just consider what’s best for you, it might be best for you to pause on the podcast, and take a break from it. So we always want to respect that. And of course, nothing that I talked about today should be considered treatment or intervention. This is all just good education that hopefully you know can be helpful for you. So with the podcast my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead and primarily today, we’re really helping you lead with curiosity. So we want to help you increase your self awareness so that you can have more effective self leadership because when we get emotionally hooked, right, think about one of the ways this this can happen at work is we get emotionally hooked at work. And we end up throwing our shame all over other people. And so it has disastrous impacts for for all of our relationships. And so it is in our best interest to understand that. And so let’s start first with the impact of trauma.
Dr. Melissa Smith 4:32
So first, even if you’ve been through significant traumatic events, including those big T trauma events, it is not a given that this history will unduly impact you. You know, in fact, the majority of individuals who experience significant traumatic events do not develop clinically significant symptoms. And I think that’s really remarkable as humans we are resilient. And so you know, there are some key factors to keep in mind When it comes to the impact of trauma on an individual to kind of better understand like, well, how likely is it that you will have, you know, a significant negative impact as a result of some of these painful experiences. And so we think about the three E’s of trauma, this comes to us from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. And, you know, if you’ve, if you’re familiar at all, with trauma readings, this will probably sound familiar to you. But when a person is, is exposed to a traumatic or stressful event, how they experience the event, greatly influences the long lasting adverse effects of carrying the weight of trauma. And so the three E’s include event, experience and effect. And so let’s start with event. So what was the event? Like? What was the traumatic event? What happened? Was it ongoing? Or was it a one time situation? Was it one catastrophic event, or a more subtle, but possibly still corrosive experience of love having strings attached, not feeling accepted, those sorts of things. So we really want to understand the nature of the event. And this is an example I think, where one traumatic event can actually pale in comparison to more subtle, ongoing caressed corrosive events, because the events continue to repeat over and over again. And that’s not to take anything away from from the big catastrophic events, because they are absolutely incredibly traumatic. But we just, you know, it’s not enough just to say trauma, yes or no, right, we need to understand the individual, we need to understand the event. We also want to understand the experience. So this is the second E. So when we talk about experience, we’re really looking at what was the individual’s experience of the event. So this is where we kind of look at individual differences, we also look at the support around the events. So did you did you experience the event as scary, overwhelming or terrifying? So what emotions were associated with the event? And we know we know from the from the research literature, that two people can have the same experience, and right the exact same experience, right, both in a in the same car accident, for instance. And one can experience it as traumatic while the other does not. And that there are some individual factors that go into that, but also our encoding of that experience, right, how we experienced that event.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:46
And this is particularly true when it comes to relational trauma, right? Because we’re constantly attaching meaning to the experience to the events that we have, right? So we’re, we’re shifting our experience of the event. So some examples here when it comes to relational trauma. So we think about an interested mother, leading to codependent relationships. So maybe mom doesn’t have good boundaries. She pulls in a child in codependence maybe bad talks, the Father, that sort of thing. So one child can see this as I love my mom, she’s my best friend, she’d do anything for me. Look at all this, that she’s confiding in me. And so the child experiences that as love and of being special. And what I would say is like, this is really problematic. But it’s it’s not experienced as upsetting or painful for that child. But you could have another child, say a sibling. And the same things have the same thing happens with the same mom. And it’s seen as intrusive. It includes fear, it includes a worry about Oh, no. Like, do I need to be loyal to my mom? Or do I need to be loyal to my dad? And worry about like, oh, are my mom and dad, okay? Because here’s my mom, dad talking dad, in front of me. And, you know, healthy differentiation can be punished. So you gotta agree with mom, if she’s bad talking dad. It’s not okay to say, you know, I love that or that’s not okay. And so in a very real way, the child’s boundaries and needs are not respected. Right. So the child kind of gets pulled in into the emotional needs of that parent. And so to two siblings, same situation. That’s that event is experienced as very upsetting and painful to one child, and it’s experienced by the other child as I’m special. My mom really loves me. She really confides in me. And again, you neither of them are okay. They’re both right. Like if we think about these situations, right, first of all, it’s not okay for the parent to do that. But the child who sees this as this is great. And like the not having boundaries with Mom is great. That’s a problem, right? That’s actually what’s dysfunctional. The child who sees it as intrusive, and it kicks up worry, like, that’s actually a very adaptive response. And yet, in that family system, it might be punished, right? So that child is seen as the problem. Even though they’re kind of calling out like, hey, this isn’t correct. And so that you can see how those, how those relational traumas get a stack can get established very early on, and a child can feel on the outside of the family system, because you know, they’re not comfortable with the lack of boundaries, they’re not comfortable with the conversations, the blaming, the shaming, the fighting, that’s happening. And so that’s an example of how the child’s experience of an event can be very different. And then the third e is the effect. So what was the effect on the individual? So did the individual have support to make sense of what was happening? Right? So if we go to this example of the kiddo that, you know, struggling with an intrusive Mother, do they have, do they have support or, or relationships where they can get support for like, gosh, this made me feel really uncomfortable. And maybe, maybe it’s another sibling, or maybe it’s a friend to say, like, I don’t think your mom should be talking to you about, you know, her sex life with dad, like that sort of thing. And that can help you to feel like, okay, I guess maybe I’m not totally crazy here. And so you can get some support, and you can make sense of the event. Now, for a lot of kiddos, it’s hard to find that kind of support, be outside of the family system, right? Because the family system is can be so all encompassing. And so that’s, that can be a contributing factor to like the the intensity of the relational trauma. But what was the effect on the individual? So was the individual blamed for the event like this? Is your fault you mess this up? Or did they receive support and encouragement? How did the event impact the self worth of the individual? Right? So were you made to feel guilty or ashamed if you disagreed with mom, or if you, you know, didn’t do what dad expected of you.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:35
So you know, essentially what we really want to pay attention to. So we want to pay attention to this support, right support and encouragement. But also, what Protective Factors did the individual have to help them cope? So that can be externally in terms of support? It could be internally in terms of self worth perspective? And then what vulnerability factors did the individual have then that could have made coping more difficult? So right, maybe you have a kiddo come into the situation with pretty low self worth. And then they get blamed for, you know, some of what’s happening in the family? Well, there’s a vulnerability factor that low self worth, and then you have this onslaught of these relational behaviors. And that can have a that can have a more significant negative effect on that child. And so the three E’s really help us to understand the impact of, of trauma, this can be the big T trauma, it can be the little T trauma, as well. So it’s just adding a little bit more nuance and hopefully clarity and understanding in terms of why do people have different responses to difficult events, right, you can have siblings in the same family, experiencing some of the same behaviors and interpreting that very differently. So the next thing that I want to talk about is I want to share with you four types of psychological injury. So there’s lots of ways to get injured. And we’re just really focusing on psychological injury. And this comes to us from Terence real and some of his excellent work on couples work. And so the four types that he teaches about and I think they’re really helpful ways to make sense of, especially your childhood experience, is, you know, first of all, he makes the point that each type, right of the four types we’re going to learn about each type causes its own predictable concerns and tends toward toward its own particular adaptation. Right. So everything is about like, you know, what are the factors of concern, and how do we learn to cope with it right. So what is the adaptation in our behavior in our emotions? And so the first First type of psychological trauma is, is intrusive and empowering. So when we have a parent that is intrusive, and disempowering. So I’m just going to share an example of each of these, and then I’m going to have some takeaways for you. But then next time, we’re going to talk about the trauma grid, which really kind of builds us out a little bit more, and can help you hopefully make sense of your experience. And I would really recommend that you join me on Instagram @dr.melissasmith because I will have the visual grid to kind of help you visually see what’s happening. And I think that that, that’s very clarifying. So I’m going to do my best to talk you through it today and next week, but I really would encourage you to head to Instagram, where you can, I will have those grids for you.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:49
So an example of intrusive and disempowering is maybe you were sworn out a lot maybe you were beaten. Maybe there was a ton of yelling and blaming and shaming within the family. And so right being beaten right that’s intrusive there’s no boundaries there’s not a respect for the boundaries of the physical self and disempowering, right you’re blamed you’re swore at your maid to your to your be little right so it’s it’s very disempowering. The second type of psychological trauma is intrusive and falsely empowering, right? False empowerment by a parent is not a good thing. So these can some examples of these can include incest, or emotional caretaking now, right, insists on that continuum of trauma is very different from emotional caretaking. Right, so this is an example of maybe big T trauma and little T trauma. But if we think about emotional caretaking for the needs of a parent, throughout your childhood, it still has a big impact, right? It’s so it’s not like one is better or worse. One is, you know, anything like that, it’s just recognizing that the experiences are different, but they’re, you know, we want to respect and make room for understanding each of them.
Dr. Melissa Smith 17:06
So, you know, with incest, of course, it’s very intrusive, there’s no respect for that individual’s physical boundaries. There’s no respect for appropriate boundaries between relations between, you know, family members, and it can be falsely empowering, right? So sometimes with incest, you can see like, you’re so special, you’re so pretty, you helped me feel better, right? completely inappropriate. But we also see that this type of behavior, of course, you know, the scale of it is very different. But with emotional caretaking, right, like I need so so a parent disclosing to a child aspects of their relationship or just adult things that like should not be shared with the child. And this false empowerment like you’re my best friend, you know, I need you to help me feel better. And whether they use those words or not, their communications and their reliance on the child for emotional sustenance, become very intrusive, and it’s this false empowerment. So this child is elevated into an adult role, which of course is totally inappropriate. The third type of psychological trauma is abandoning and disempowerment disempowering, right so we we can see our we’re gonna get to a grid here. So abandoning and disempowering.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:27
So some examples of this include messages that you’re unworthy, and scapegoating behavior. So blaming the child, so we abandon, we abandon them, right? Like we don’t, we don’t have, like we have, our boundaries are too rigid, right? Like we’re not getting enough of support. We kind of leave kids on their own to figure things out. But we’re also talking down to them. They’re blamed, they’re shamed, you’re not good enough, are the messages that we see here. And then the fourth type of psychological trauma that we can often see is abandoning and falsely empowering. So abandoning meaning, like we, we have these walls up around boundaries, we’re not giving love, affection, support, encouragement, kids are kind of on their own to figure things out. And that can often be like on their own to figure things out emotionally. Right. So maybe there’s a big fight at home. And afterwards, you don’t have a parent that sits down and has a conversation to say, Hey, I’m sorry about that. Sometimes moms and dads disagree, are you okay? Let me help soothe you and comfort you. That would be an appropriate response after that situation, but the abandoning response is everyone flees to their corners, and no one helps that child understand what happened. The child is left is abandoned, left on their own, to make sense of what happened. And really the message is you’re on your own mo additionally, and then we also can see that false empowerment, like you’re so great, you’re so special, you’re so perfect or the one child, I don’t have to worry about. And so it really sends the message to the kiddo that you’re on your own. You can’t count on these people for support or encouragement, you kind of have to be perfect. So watch out. And so the ways that that often shows up.
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:22
So from parents that can really be a stance of you don’t need us like you are leaving us. And you don’t need us, you’re special, you think you’re perfect, and kind of that hero mentality, right? So this child is really the hero of the family, we’re really proud of this child. But the child’s on a pedestal, they’re not on the level. And, you know, it can, it can be very lonely for that kiddo up there, right, because they’re kind of forced to be the hero, because their needs aren’t getting met within the family system. And so those are the four types of psychological trauma that Terence real talks about and next week, like I mentioned, we’re going to introduce you to the trauma grid, which really kind of builds this out and helps you to understand how that might be showing up in your present day relationships. And so for today, I have three takeaways for you based on what we’ve been talking about today, right?
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:19
So what you need to know about relational trauma. So the first takeaway is that relational trauma that is repeated or ongoing, may be as damaging, as one circumscribed catastrophic trauma. I think that that is that can that can be a real, real wake up call to a lot of people because that it’s easy for folks to minimize their own experience. And to say my childhood was fine, it was not a problem. But relational trauma that’s repeated or ongoing, can be incredibly corrosive, just as damaging as one big catastrophic, traumatic event. So what Terence oeil says he’s pretty playful about this, but I think it’s also helpful. He says, it’s unlikely that you dodged all trauma in your perfect family. Sometimes, especially when we have a history of relational trauma. We come in, we become invested in saying like, I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with my family, like you don’t want to be dramatic, you tend to minimize this. So he talks about families where for sure, relational trauma doesn’t happen, right. This is this is families that are open and communicative. They share vulnerabilities and emotions. They rarely speak or behave disrespectfully to one another. They apologize in short order. Issues are hashed out. Parents hold compassionate hierarchical power, right. So it’s not a democracy, parents are in charge, but they have compassion and regard and empathy for their kiddos. Repairs in good evidence. Right. We apologize to one another, we make things right. Everyone is welcome. This is the mature emotionally intelligent family. And what Terence real says is, if this was your experience, Count yourself lucky. But this is really the exception, rather than the rule. And he says that our society doesn’t produce many such skilled families. And that’s because, right, in part, this, this rugged individualism, where we kind of have a stuff a stiff upper lip, we don’t talk about concerns. We don’t make things right. And so, you know, Terrence, real says, makes the case that the evidence for relational trauma shows up all over the place. And most markedly, it shows up in our most important relationships, especially with marriage. And if we just looked at the divorce rate, I think we’ve got ample evidence that the impact of relational trauma is showing up everywhere in our families. So we need to take it seriously.
Dr. Melissa Smith 24:04
And that’s really the first takeaway, Understand relational trauma. You don’t need to you don’t need to manufacture anything but but but see what’s see what’s there and respect it right, because it can have a pretty significant impact in the present day. The second type takeaway is that passive trauma can do at least as much damage as intrusive violation. So sometimes when we think about trauma, we think about the intrusive traumas, as most difficult, right? So if you remember, the intrusive traumas are a lack of boundaries. So treating a child as an adult, of course, incest or physical violence, because it’s a lack of boundaries. It’s a lack of respect for the integrity of the individual. But his point is that So trauma can be just as difficult. And when we think about passive trauma, we think about the benign neglect. That’s kind of the way that I think about it. It’s the leaving a child on their own emotionally, it’s not talking about why did we have this big fight, and making sure that the child is safe. And through our acknowledgement of the concerns, we help to make it safe for the kid. But the paths of trauma or the abandonment is everyone has to fend for themselves, right, you’re not safe in the family. Emotionally, you might not be safe in the family physically. And so you need to be on guard to protect yourself because you might not get that protection from your family members. And so we just need to respect how that trauma shows up. And then the third takeaway is that by understanding your own experience, you can show up as a wise adult in your relationships, not as an adoptive child. And again, we talked about those concepts last time. But when you when you have more self awareness and understanding of your relational stance, and how some of these experiences can show up, you can, you can change that relational pattern, right, you can shift from these automatic responses of fear and protection to an emotionally mature response. And so next week, we’re going to do a deep dive with the trauma grid, we’re going to kind of expand this out so that you can really understand your experience and really shift into responses that are more helpful.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:40
And so in the meantime, head on over to my website to check out the show notes for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/201-relationaltrauma. So one more time, that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/201-relationaltrauma Of course, join me on Instagram, @dr.melissasmith for more great resources related to this content. And I also have some resources. So the podcast review also some link links to some of the conversations on trauma. You can find all of those at my website. And in the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai