How to Build Healthy Relationships

Ever wish you could laugh and talk more easily with others? When you try to share your feelings and get closer to someone, what happens?

Do you freeze and say nothing? Does too much spill out? Do you have a short, awkward conversation? Do you end up feeling bad about yourself?

People learn early in childhood whether to expect to feel safe or unsafe opening up to others in life. If you felt unseen, rejected, or criticized growing up, you may struggle in relationships today.

As an adult, opening up, making friends, getting close to someone, or even liking yourself may seem incredibly hard.

Why Some People Learn to Hide Who They Are

Showing your emotions may have gotten you into trouble growing up. Maybe those you were attached to punished you, shamed you or ignored you for trying to connect with them in some way.

When you feel rejected for having emotional needs, shame often results. Feeling ashamed of your own emotions and problems can make you feel trapped with them.

That’s trauma.

Feeling “not okay” inside is often one agonizing outcome of growing up with trauma.

It may feel like the important people in your life found your needs unacceptable. You learned that having those needs and feelings left you feeling rejected.  So you buried your feelings.  How can you accept yourself when those who really matter to you don’t accept you? That’s how the trauma of unmet needs may confuse and damage a person’s sense of self-worth.

Fortunately, self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion are powerful healing skills you can learn.  The more you can experience being fully present to yourself, mindful of today, the easier you can learn to form healthy relationships.

A relationship with someone where you learn to share your feelings, be vulnerable, and who can hold your feelings can help you heal.

Often, this first healing relationship is with a therapist. A trauma-informed therapist focuses on helping you feel safe. Teaching you about building safety in relationships through consistency and compassion.  Then you can find ways to manage intense feelings like loneliness and shame.

The Challenges of Emotional Connection for Trauma Survivors

The desire to feel accepted and cared about is a natural human need. And when someone important seems distant or angry, you can end up feeling ashamed, bad or terrified. You may not realize that your needs are normal and healthy, and that your suffering has a name — trauma.

You may have grown up believing relationships hurt, so you’re on your own.  You may have learned to cope by thinking:

  • “I have to keep to myself.”
  • “Why try to explain? Nobody will get it.”
  • “No one wants to be around me.”
  • “Being on my own is all I can expect.”
  • “I’m better off alone.”
  • “The only person I can trust to be there for me, is me!”

A person feeling shame and isolation may cling to the idea of being “better off alone” like a life preserver. Loneliness creates pain. Pain drives the need to protect.

Therapy provides a safe space to review thoughts created to cope with isolation. Seeing painful feelings, exploring them, and accepting them creates a healing experience.

How Therapy Provides Healing Experiences

A trauma-informed therapist brings an important, new perspective.

Healing trauma involves discovering what it means to have healthy needs in healthy relationships.

In therapy, we hold loneliness with compassion instead of shame. Loneliness comes from a healthy drive to build friendships and caring relationships.

Here are three concepts I like to share in therapy, to people in order to move forward into deeper relationships:

1) You may be holding yourself to inhuman standards. We’re not meant to go through life without connection. Living is more than surviving without love and care. You are born worthy of kindness and compassion — first from yourself.

In a healthy relationship with yourself, you can question beliefs that don’t serve you well now, like “I’m better off alone.”

You can learn to soothe self-criticism with compassion.

Therapy is a place to work through sometimes conflicting thoughts and ideas. There’s a part of you that takes responsibility. You may have a harsh internal self-critic. You may have a part that wants to be alone. You may sense a small inner child who needs emotional connection.

If you can offer compassion to another person, you can learn to extend this same support to the child or hurt places inside of you.

In therapy, you can explore compassionate curiosity.  What if you could accept the different parts of yourself?  They can be valuable in helping you see and say what you need.

2) No relationship is perfect. But caring partners can make repairs. That’s how you can trust and feel good with someone for a long time.

In healthy relationships, you can repair a connection with someone who can hear and understand your needs.

Sometimes even therapists misunderstand.

Learning to fix a relationship in therapy is enormously valuable. By encouraging safety and trust, a therapist makes it okay to say when you are hurting. Healing happens when a person can feel the positive results of talking through uncomfortable feelings that happened in session and the person you are in the relationship with owns their part in hurting you and apologizes.

When we respond to a client’s need with acceptance and compassion, therapists allow the uplifting experience of relationship repair to happen. Maybe for the first time, those with a trauma history can see how speaking for their needs can lead to acceptance and closer connection.

3) You might already know one or two people who can offer a healthier friendship or relationship.

At first, it may feel strange or even risky to believe that a caring friend or family member can — and wants to — provide love, support and compassion.

Therapy is a safe neutral space to think about relationships objectively and how to explore whether they can feel safe.

Trauma survivors may have experienced relationships as unsafe places to open up. But one or two current relationships may be secure enough to deepen by being vulnerable.

Trauma-informed therapy can give clients a sense of what healthy connections feel like. For example, we can explore positive affirmations like:

  • 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.

Therapy can help a person become more aware of their expectations. For example, we can ask if they expect to be a giver, accepting nothing in return. Or what it would be like to be willing to give in a relationship and also expect their partner to reciprocally give back to them.   Curiosity can allow a person to “try on” new expectations.

Opening to Compassion, Support and Deeper Relationships

A healthy relationship is a great place to explore healing and growth after trauma.

Fortunately, the more you learn about self-care and healthy relationships, the better you can embrace yourself as-is.  Accepting yourself and your reality is powerfully healing.

When you can see and accept who you are — no matter what happened to you, no matter what feelings you have — you can become “way okay” with who you are.

As human beings, we are wired to feel good being present to ourselves and others we care about. Your desire for love and connection is healthy. Maybe even beautiful.

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

Why You Need a Trauma-Informed Therapist, Even if You Don’t Think You Have Trauma by Robyn Brickel

How to Heal Trauma By Understanding Your Attachment Style by Robyn Brickel

About the Author

Robyn E. Brickel, M.A., LMFT Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT is the director and lead therapist at Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she founded in 1999. She specializes in the therapeutic treatment of individuals (adolescents and adults), couples, families and groups. Robyn E. Brickel offers treatment and psychoeducational services for many life issues and transitions, such as: A history of trauma and/or abuse, including Dissociation; Addictions, as well as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) issues; Body Image issues and Eating Disorders; Self-Harming behaviors, including Emotional intensity and instability; Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; Challenged family systems; Chronic illness; Co-dependency; Dysfunctional relationships; Life transitions; Loss and bereavement; Relationship distress; Self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; Stress reduction. She is an LMFT, as well as a trained trauma & addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.

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