Navigating-Communication

Navigating Communication in Relationships After Trauma

How one communicates with others is a pretty good indicator of the lingering effects of trauma in someone’s life. Because of the trauma history, navigating communication within relationships can be very challenging.

In general, navigating relationships is difficult for those who have histories of trauma, especially those with early childhood relational trauma due to the misattunement with their primary caregiver.  

For a person with an insecure attachment or trauma history, many of the relationship difficulties are created and made worse with the inability to openly and honestly communicate.

Everything inside of a person with a history of attachment trauma has been wired for survival, and part of those survival strategies developed includes never let anybody really see or know you, especially any vulnerability or weakness. Open and honest communication creates a terror where their body physically goes into a panic and tries to override any logic that might be in that situation.

The other stumbling block to open and honest communication in those with trauma histories is that they don’t even know who they are, what they want, or even what they feel.

Normally, communication between two people is what establishes both people to have a similar experience and view of their relationship and its role in each of their lives. A person with unhealed effects of trauma is unable to communicate openly and honestly without experiencing terror.

So, there are actually 3 relationships when one party continues to live with the effects of trauma in their body. There is the relationship that the other person thinks they have based on the communication, the relationship that the person with a trauma history has created in their mind, and then there is the actual relationship between the two.  

In this blog we are going to look at the 2 main communication patterns in those with chronic effects of trauma and how those patterns change as a secure attachment and healing from trauma happens.

 

Defensive and Aggressive Communication

When a person sees threat everywhere, they will always be on the defensive. They never let their guard down, and you’re going to feel their walls and attacks very quickly in their communication style!

The message that they’re really communicating, though usually not saying it directly, is “Don’t mess with me.” The even deeper message is “I’m afraid that you’ll hurt me, so I’ll intimidate and hurt you first to protect my heart from being hurt again.”

This type of communication really comes from a place of lack of trust in themselves. They don’t feel confident in their ability to have healthy and appropriate boundaries with people, so they compensate by just keeping people and intimacy far enough away that they can’t be hurt.

In the angry and aggressive communication, the intent is more to demonstrate strength and a sense of control of the conversation and the relationship. This style of defensive communication often uses direct criticism and shame to further establish a sense of dominance and control.  

While these appear very different, they’re both defensive communication patterns coming from a place of trauma. In these instances, something is triggering them and they feel out of control, so they either don’t communicate or they aggressively communicate to re-establish a sense of control of their mind and body.  

It can be very difficult to have meaningful conversations with these people when they’re in their trauma reactivity, because they feel their very survival depends on establishing control. In this moment, their brain is in full survival mode, and their pre-frontal cortex and logic is not even able to communicate with their emotional and survival brain.  

Yet if you try to walk away, they also can’t seem to let it go. For this reason, these relationships can be very intense. Things are either really good or really bad, causing the relationship to follow their communication, which becomes a rollercoaster ride!

Defensive Lying Communication

Lying is a very common form of communication with those coming from a place of trauma.

There are two main forms of lies that come from a place of trauma, and those are known as white lies and big lies. Both are a defense coping mechanism when feeling afraid about what might happen if they were to communicate openly and honestly with someone.

Big lies are ones that are so obvious, that you wonder how they can even think that you would believe them. These lies are so outrageous!  

You can catch these people red-handed, grabbing a cookie off the plate, and they will look you in the eye and swear up and down that they didn’t. It’s not only that they were actually grabbing a cookie and were caught, but that you become the most awful person in the world to think that they would have done it at all, which will cause them to have a bad day and it’s all your fault.

This type of lying pattern occurs in those individuals with a more severe form of attachment trauma and Attachment Disorder.

The white lies are also a defensive strategy, because they’re afraid of communicating openly and honestly. Commonly, a person will make up an excuse in order to get out of directly telling the other person that they don’t want to do something, because they are terrified of openly saying it.

This is similar to the “Disconnected From Self” form of communication described later.

Shut-Down and Withdrawal Communication

This type of communication comes out as minimal verbal communication, sometimes including sharp and sarcastic comments to further shut-down communication.   

In the minimal to no verbal communication, the person won’t tell you much, keep things very superficial, and make it clear they really don’t want to talk. A lot of times sarcasm is used as a defensive coping mechanism.

In her book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, Janina Fisher describes it as, “You can’t hurt me (anymore) because I’m not really connected to you.”

We’ve been talking about the freeze survival response in the nervous system, and this communication shut-down is one of the features of being in a chronic freeze state.  

Disconnected From Self Communication

This second communication pattern is very classic for individuals with an anxious attachment style due to early childhood relational trauma.  

From infancy, the child learned that their parent was emotionally unstable, and that the parent couldn’t be relied on to help regulate their emotional states. The child instinctively learned how to read the parent’s emotional state and become whoever the parent needed at that moment for the child to get the physical care and attention they needed.  

This dynamic is wired into the body and brain so that a person isn’t really aware of their own emotional states as much, but is very attuned to other people’s emotional states.  

Since early childhood, the nervous system has been refining the ability to both sense another person’s emotional state and how to respond to each emotional state in a way that keeps everyone calm or at least under control.  

The child carries into adulthood the communication pattern saying what they think will make the other person happy.  

The biggest fear for the adult child is to hurt the other person. Using their developed sense of reading other people, they guess at what the other person wants to hear, and then that is what they communicate.

Many times, they don’t know that they’re not being true to themselves and what they’re feeling. They’ve learned to shut down their own feelings so much, they don’t know who they are, what they want, or what they feel.  

While slightly exaggerated, a typical conversation might go like this:

Other Person: “I find myself thinking about you a lot.”

Trauma History Person: “I think about you a lot too.” (it could be true, or it might not be true, but they don’t want the other person to feel bad.)

Other Person: “I really like you and enjoy spending time with you.”

Trauma History Person: “I really like you too and enjoy spending time with you.” (it could or might not be really true! They may not even know!)

Other Person: “I want you to be in my life, be my partner. I feel I need you in my life.”

Trauma History Person: “I would love to be yours.”  

What the trauma-history person most likely meant subconsciously is that they feel safer when someone needs them. If the other person needs them, they are less likely to hurt and abandon them later. In this moment, those words can generate a feeling that they interpret as “love,” which can cause them to override other areas of concern.  

The biggest problem with this type of communication in a person living with the chronic effects of trauma is that it isn’t open and honest communication, because they don’t know themselves well enough to be able to be honest about what they feel.

While their meter for other people’s emotional states is very perceptive, their meter for their own emotional state is off and very dull. It takes much higher levels of discomfort for them to notice their own feelings.  

The typical scenario that results from this communication style is a relationship that will go in a direction that the person is not really comfortable with, but they either can’t feel that or can’t express it out of fear of hurting the other person. They go along with it until things get so bad, they bolt.

So again, we see there are actually 3 relationships in these situations. There is the relationship that the other person thinks they have based on the communication, the relationship that the person with a trauma history has created in their mind, and then there is the actual relationship.  

Secure Attachment Communication

As a person starts to develop a secure attachment, their communication changes.  

Whether you are tracking your own, your partner’s, or your child’s healing towards secure attachment, you can use the communication patterns to track.  

The more secure a person feels in a relationship and with themselves, the more capacity they’ll have for open and honest communication.  

As a person moves toward a secure attachment style, the more they’ll be aware of their own true feelings, and be able to express those without feeling terrified of rejection and abandonment.

One of the first things I look for when I am working with somebody is when they start to share things with me that could hurt me or make me mad. When they’re able to share these things with me in a calm manner and maintain the emotional connection with me rather than putting up their walls, I know their brain and body is healing from their early relational trauma.

Let me give you a few examples:

“I am mad at you.”

“I don’t like you right now.”

“I am upset that you forgot that.”

“I don’t feel good when you joke with me like that.”

For a person coming from a history of early relational trauma whose survival depended on making the parent feel good, communicating these types of feelings in a calm and connected way is a huge step towards healing.  

It’s a sign they trust me enough to know that I’ll accept their feelings, validate their feelings, and not lose my own calm and connected emotional state with them because they’ve hurt or criticized me.  

This type of communication is also a sign that they know what they are feeling, and are letting themselves feel it.  

As Karen Treisman says in her book Working With Relational and Developmental Trauma in Children and Adolescents, “There should be an emphasis on creating a trusting, safe, cohesive, open and honest environment. This extends to the way conflict is addressed, rather than dismissing, ignoring, scapegoating conflict, or reinforcing the culture of a silencing or silenced organization.”

For me, it’s also a sign of the shifts in their nervous system that are happening as they heal in their relationship. They can feel these emotional states and not get stuck in threat and survival mode. Their nervous system is developing more of the natural and healthy rhythm and flow.

It’s also a sign of their increased sense of self-worth that comes with having a secure attachment. They value themselves enough to put their feelings out into the world and know that they’ll be valued and adjustments will be made in the relationship so that both people can be valued and respected.

When a child, or adult, I’m working with communicates openly and honestly with me in a way that they couldn’t have before, we celebrate!  Usually before we have a discussion about what they shared, I give them a big hug and say “I am so glad you felt safe enough to share that with me. I love that you can tell me those things! Thank you!”  

This type of response, so different than what they got in early childhood, is also really helpful for their brains and neurons to rewire and see open and honest communication as a good thing rather than terrifying.

Summary

One’s communication pattern holds a lot of clues into their past and whether they are living with the chronic effects of trauma.  

As a person starts to heal within a relationship, these communication changes can be celebrated!  

You may also know people who you can see have these relationship and communication styles, and yet, you aren’t in the place to ask them about their early childhood, past traumas, or be the one to facilitate healing to a secure attachment.  

If that is the case, with this information, you can make better decisions about how to engage with them or not, and what you need to do to protect yourself from other people’s trauma reactivity.  

What has your experience been with open and honest communication? Do you find it difficult or easy?

Has someone else’s communication patterns puzzled you before? Do you think they might have been using some of their survival coping mechanisms to protect themselves, or maybe that they didn’t really even know who they were?

 

Keep pushing towards healing ~

 

Dr. Aimie

 

 

 

References:

Fisher, Janina (2017).  Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation.  Routledge. New York, NY

Treisman, Karen (2016).  Working With Relational and Developmental Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Routledge. New York, NY

Woititz, Janet (1985). Struggle For Intimacy. Health Communications, Inc. Deerfield Beach, FL.

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