An Integrated Approach to Young Adult Mental Health Rehab

Creating Authentic Connections: Healing Relational Trauma

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Authentic connections—close, supportive, and nurturing relationships—are essential to mental health. Research shows that the quality of our relationships is directly linked to our happiness, well-being, and self-esteem.

Unfortunately, early childhood trauma can impede our ability to create and maintain healthy relationships. When the parent-child bond is disrupted early in life, we carry the psychological scars into adulthood.

However, relational therapy for trauma can help young adults heal from these experiences, understand the characteristics of a healthy relationship, and learn the skills to build authentic connections. The healing process involves practicing compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance—for others and for yourself.

What Is an Authentic Relationship?

Authentic relationships begins when we reveal our true self to another person. That means being genuine and vulnerable in our communication and interactions. Moreover, we are congruent; in other words, what we feel inside is consistent with how we act and what we say to others.

Authentic relationships begins when we reveal our true self to another person. That means being genuine and vulnerable in our communication and interactions.

Relationships aren’t always easy. While we can’t control others’ actions, we can control how we react when we’re triggered. In moments of feeling defensive, hurt, or abandoned, skills for managing emotional reactivity are key. For example, you might step back and reflect on whether the reaction is really about the way the other person is acting, or if it’s about your own fears and issues. In addition, relational therapy for trauma can help young adults recognize whether their reactions are a response to their own childhood trauma. If so, being open with others and sharing their own story can be a way to support authentic relationships and reveal more of one’s true self.

Furthermore, transparency is another of the characteristics of a healthy relationship. For example, it’s important to be clear about what you are feeling when having an emotional conversation, so you leave the interaction without resentment. That means being honest and direct about how you’re feeling, while remaining respectful. In addition, active listening is part of building authentic connections—listening in a way that demonstrates that you are truly hearing what the other person has to say and that you value your relationship with them.

Attachment Style and Authentic Connections

The nature of the original attachment bond between a child and their parents (or primary caregivers) is crucial. That’s because this original bond, in large part, determines how easily that individual will be able to make authentic connections as a young adult.

Attachment theory originates with British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. The American developmental psychologist Mary S. Ainsworth further developed many of Bowlby’s ideas. She studied the way small children reacted when separated from their parents. In addition, she analyzed how they reacted when their parents returned. Consequently, she used this research to categorize children in one of four attachment styles:

  • Secure
  • Insecure anxious
  • Insecure avoidant
  • Insecure disorganized.

These four attachment styles follow children into adulthood and impact their friendships, their romantic relationships, their family relationships, and their relationships with colleagues. Therefore, children who have a secure attachment with their parents typically mature into adults who have the ability to trust others and form intimate relationships. And children who demonstrate insecure attachment style may mature into adults who have trouble creating authentic relationships.

How Attachment Style Affects Adult Relationships

Attachment style in childhood sets the tone for future relationship patterns and interactions. An insecure attachment style translates into insecurity and anxiety in adult relationships. According to Pia Mellody’s Post Induction Therapy model for development immaturity and resolution of trauma, family roles formed in childhood are taken on in adulthood. There are three roles included in this model:

  • Lost Child— dependent, disempowered, passive-aggressive, manipulative, creates intensity in relationships, relationships “keep them alive,” appears powerless, feels less than others
  • Scapegoat—falsely empowered/disempowered, aggressive, out of control, seeks intensity to feel alive, overly dependent, feels “less than”
  • Hero—falsely empowered/all-powerful, passive-aggressive, controls others, feels they are better than others

In relational therapy for trauma, the client observes how their emotional reactions in the moment may be triggered by childhood traumas. For example:

  • Wounded child—internalizes hurt, expresses this with tears/grief
  • Rebellious teenager—internalizes resentment, expresses this with anger/rage
  • Adaptable functional adult—presents who they would like to be rather than who they really are. This is often not authentic; they may act one way at work, another at home, etc.

Forming Authentic Connections in Friendships and Relationships

Insecure attachment styles in childhood can impact friendships, family relationships, and romantic relationships in adulthood. Individuals with insecure anxious attachment style might be especially needy or clingy in their relationships. They may be more concerned about rejection and abandonment, and tend to be more jealous. Therefore, they require ongoing reassurance from both friends and romantic partners.

Individuals who fall into the insecure avoidant category are more likely to be loners and have a hard time depending on other people, whether friends or partners. They prefer to be on their own and often feel that close relationships are more trouble than they’re worth. They tend to close themselves off as a form of emotional self-protection.

The attachment style known as insecure disorganized shows up in young adulthood as conflicting and unresolved feelings about the past and about relationships. Therefore, these individuals have trouble maintaining authentic connections and often can’t tolerate intimacy in relationships. Their friendships and romantic connections may be especially volatile—prone to intense highs and lows. In addition, those with disorganized attachment style are more likely to develop depression and PTSD.

Know the Facts

Family relationships are also affected by attachment styles, even when children have matured and no longer rely on their parents.

Family relationships are also affected by attachment styles, even when children have matured and no longer rely on their parents. In fact, research shows that the attachment style formed in childhood can influence an individual’s relationship with their parents throughout adulthood.

Relational Therapy for Trauma

Mental health disorders develop from underlying issues that can often be traced back to early childhood trauma. Childhood trauma may be acute—such as the loss of a parent—or it might take the form of what’s known as relational trauma. Relational trauma refers to a disruption in the relationship between the child and their parent(s) or caregiver(s), typically leading to an insecure attachment style.

Furthermore, young adults who experience relational trauma tend to internalize the belief that they are not good enough or don’t belong. Furthermore, this becomes part of their identity. Hence, relational trauma and insecure attachment contribute to the likelihood of mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, PTSD, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and impact how we respond to stress.

However, when young adults receive therapeutic support to heal their childhood traumas and rediscover their true self, mental health challenges usually improve. Therefore, the need to self-medicate by engaging in maladaptive behaviors, such as substance abuse or eating disorders, is reduced. Therapy for relational trauma includes learning to identify the triggers for stress, fear, abandonment issues, and depressive symptoms. Moreover, therapy for relational trauma may challenge core beliefs and issues to redefine a young adult’s sense of self. Trauma therapy with adults may also include multigenerational work that identifies the positive and negative traits we have learned or unconsciously inherited from our parents.

Learning to Make Authentic Connections

Happily, childhood trauma doesn’t have to define and inform your relationships forever. In addition, healing relational trauma can go hand in hand with developing a secure attachment style. This is known as “earned secure attachment” because adults learn to build it themselves through conscious effort, rather than learning it instinctually through the parent-child bond. Thus, they gain skills for establishing the types of authentic connections they didn’t experience as children, by doing their own inner work to set the foundation.

An “earned secure attachment” style, as defined by Dr. Mary Main and Dr. Dan Siegel, starts with processing childhood traumas. Therapy addresses the underlying issues that may be inhibiting the ability to form true connections. In addition, young adults with insecure attachment styles learn tools for managing the stress associated with relationships. In addition, they break old patterns of behavior that stunted their relationships in the past. Hence, they are able to strengthen their existing connections and build new, healthy relationships.

3 Steps for Building an Earned Secure Attachment Style

1. Stay in the present.

  • Practice mindfulness to help you remain in the present moment rather than falling back into old patterns. Stay aware of your feelings. Emotional awareness and regulation skills are critical to avoid what might be a stress-induced reaction or trauma response.
  • Express feelings in the moment, in a nonreactive manner, to prevent future resentments. Avoid internalizing the pain.
  • Rather than judging your own or other’s behavior, practice compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness. Self-compassion in particular is a powerful tool for creating the conditions for change and growth.

2. Process your personal story.

  • Write a coherent narrative of your life. Identify your early childhood traumas. Consider how your growing understanding of how the past impacts your present relationships.
  • Look for the positives in your story. Rather than blame your parents for what you didn’t get from them, focus on what worked in your relationship. Rewrite your story and identify the gifts you did receive.
  • Grieve the pain of your traumatic experiences. Grieving is part of processing and healing the past. This helps to rewire your brain to create a sense of security.

3. Create a secure attachment with someone who is emotionally available and responsive.

  • The safest place to start in building authentic connections is with your therapist.
  • Form authentic relationships that are free of emotional involvement or codependency. These can be with coworkers or with friends who can be objective and present.
  • Once you are capable of developing secure attachment to others, begin the process with family members, particularly parents if possible. Let go of expectations of the outcome. Model the attachment you want. You are doing this for yourself, not to get something from the other person.

In conclusion, the work of healing from relational trauma and building authentic connections can be challenging. But it’s worth it. Until we have an authentic relationships with self and with others, we are never truly happy, joyous, and free. We don’t realize just how superficial our relationships have been until we have experienced the fulfillment and pleasure that comes from truly authentic connections. To learn more about how to improve your relationships with others and build self-acceptance and self-esteem, contact Newport Institute today.

Sources

Curr Opin Psychol. 2017 Feb; 13: 19–24.

Attach Hum Dev. 2017 Aug;19(4):382-406.

Korean J Fam Med. 2017 Jan;38(1):34-39. 

J Psychol. 2018 May 19;152(4):226–236.

J Anxiety Disord. 2015 Oct;35:103-17.

J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2009 Mar; 38(2): 219–231.

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