Your dating difficulties are not caused by something about you that’s permanently flawed. If you’ve experienced trauma, being vulnerable in relationships reveals the old wounds that never healed. Each new connection you make can be challenging because, for you, it is an opportunity to finally be fulfilled or to suffer yet another potential heartache.
What Trauma Does
Traumatic experiences alter the ability to connect with others authentically. You build walls. Fear guides you. “Worst-case scenarios” are everywhere. You develop unhealthy coping strategies. Trauma changes your view of the world and yourself on so many levels. It changes thoughts, feelings, the nervous system, and your ability to trust.
Trauma is much more than a story of what happened to you. The feelings, beliefs, and body sensations that you soaked up during the trauma are still very much alive in you—not as memories, but as reactions in the present.
Trauma is also what did not happen to you but should have—all your unmet needs, abandonment, and neglect.
Can you relate to any of these? Do you see a connection between your past experiences and your beliefs and fears now when it comes to dating?
When it comes to psychological trauma, the “event” doesn’t matter as much as how you were or were not able to process it. So no event that’s been traumatic to you is “too small” or “irrelevant.” Your trauma matters.
The Antidote to Trauma
The antidote to trauma is experiential healing. I am sure you can think of many examples where what you can logically understand does not translate into feeling the same in your heart. What you know and what you do are two separate things sometimes. Traumatic events are stored in the right hemisphere of your brain. They are fragmented, somatic, nonverbal, emotional, and behavioral. To heal, you must show (not tell) your nervous system that you are safe.
Our nervous system constantly scans the environment for cues. It then classifies each cue as either safe or unsafe. This process is called Neuroception (coined by Stephen Porges). We shut down or open up and grow depending on how safe our environments and relationships are. Human beings are wired for connection from birth. Traumatic experiences rewire the brain to seek protection instead. There’s no time for play, joy, trust, and relaxation if you are tensely looking out for danger signs. This constant search for safety happens on a subconscious level, so you may not even be aware of it.
You don’t have to go through this alone. Emotionally safe people can help you regulate your nervous system. Everyone needs safe connections for coregulation. Who in your life makes you feel safe?
Emotionally safe people create a safe space for thoughts and feelings. That safety is felt in their presence, body language, and “energy.” These relationships can help regulate your immune system through co-regulation. Co-regulation happens when another person sees and hears your feelings and experience. This allows you to feel comfortable.
If you don’t have a person like that in your life at first, that’s okay. Can you search for other ways to regulate your nervous system? Spending time with your pets? Being in nature? Taking a bath? You can engage in these self-care activities while working on increasing your support system to include safe, supportive people. Sometimes your first safe person is your therapist and that’s also a beautiful start for healing. If you don’t have a therapist, find one on the Gottman Referral Network.
The Power of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is needed regardless of what therapeutic modality you use to start your healing journey.
The more you disapprove of yourself, the less able you are to change. No one grows and gets better by being put down or criticized. The more you accept how you are in this moment, the more able you are to choose to feel differently in the next moment.
You learn better when you are self-compassionate. All that dislike, hate, and criticism you feel towards yourself is a form of self-protection. But it doesn’t help and protect you anymore, see? Observing yourself in the present without negative judgment, acknowledging that you are a flawed human being yet deserving of kindness is so important. You are no different than anybody else, and everyone deserves compassion.
Self-compassion doesn’t mean you are making excuses for or lying to yourself. It simply makes space for safety and change. Healthy dating starts with showing up for yourself first with compassion.
Brené Brown often talks about the difference between “fitting in” (which is becoming who you think you need to be for acceptance, such as people-pleasing) and belonging (being your authentic self and knowing that you belong to yourself). While you’re on your healing journey, the first step is working towards being authentic to yourself, asking what you need and giving that to yourself, and connecting with yourself and safe people to feel that sense of belonging.
“A loving relationship is not about one person having the upper hand-it’s about holding hands.”Dr. John Gottman
Once you start dating or getting into a relationship, it’s important to accept your partner as they are. But it’s also important to decide what your deal-breakers are. A healthy relationship needs both: acceptance and boundaries.
Five Things to Look for in a Relationship
Dr. John Gottman suggests paying attention to these five elements that should be present in your relationship.
- Honesty. Don’t trust someone who lies to you. Don’t come up with excuses for them for why they lied.
- Transparency. Are they an open book? Are they inviting you to join their life, family, and friends? You should feel comfortable asking questions and getting answers. Please note, that there’s a difference between secrecy and privacy (which we all need to have because it represents healthy boundaries). While they don’t need to tell you their deepest secrets right away, it should feel easy and comfortable getting to know them.
- Accountability. Do they keep their promises and follow through on their commitments? Remember actions speak louder than words.
- Ethical actions. If you are detecting immoral actions or if you are uncomfortable with their morals, then move on. Again, this goes back to being authentic to your true self.
- Proof of alliance. Do they take your needs into account or do they only act out of their own self-interest? If they are able to demonstrate that they have your back, even in small ways, then that’s a great sign.
Just because dating is challenging for you due to past trauma doesn’t mean that it always has to be that way. Healing is possible. Start with taking the first step of compassionately choosing yourself.
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