My client–we’ll call her Marta–alternately cries and acts tough: “I don’t need anyone…will anyone ever really love me?…screw it.” Her latest boyfriend is just like all the rest, with lots of promises and very little payoff.
Marta has been traumatized. First, as a child, and now, as an adult, she continues to put herself in harm’s way and choose bad bets as partners, which leads to retraumatization. It reinforces the belief that she is, in fact, unlovable, and that people don’t really love and treat each other well anyway. It’s a grim view of the world.
In therapy, I try to help Marta recognize her patterns and where they originate. Therapy is about finding a new narrative. The stories we tell ourselves are powerful, and they can keep us stuck or they can move us forward.
Marta and other trauma survivors often flip back and forth in their beliefs, and in the way they present to a therapist. They’re trying on different identities and different stories. There’s something hopeful about that process. They fear the world is a terrible place, but they’re not 100% sure.
Deep down, they want what all humans are hard-wired to want: to love and be loved. They want to believe the world is safe and that people can be trustworthy.
But their own histories don’t seem to bear that out. And they get so frightened of being hurt and let down again that they often become numb and disconnected. They wall themselves off.
That means they’re not letting in experiences that could change their minds, and change their stories. They choose the same kind of men, the ones who’ll confirm all their old beliefs.
On one level, that means they get disappointed over and over again. But on another level, they’re not disappointed–they’ve been proven right. They don’t have to rethink their entire reality.
Attachment is about finding safety, security, and love. It’s knowing that when we fall, someone will want to catch us. Trauma makes it so that people can’t fathom falling voluntarily ever again. Only an idiot would do that, they reason.
In therapy, I never try to convince people otherwise. Their knowledge is hard-won, and their defenses exist for a reason. But over time, with exploration, they can begin to open up to new stories and possibilities.
Defiant woman photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 23 Feb 2013