About that “trauma” word we keep hearing so much.

You’re going to run into people who straight up deny that your experience is your experience. 

You’ll try to tell them what you’ve been through, and they’ll say, “nah, that didn’t happen.” 

You’ll try to tell them what you’re feeing, and they’ll say, “are you sure?” 

You’ll try to tell them what you need, and they’ll say, “no, you don’t. You need this other thing.” 

You’ll try to tell them how something impacted you, and they’ll say, “well, THAT’S the wrong reaction.” 

Again and again we run into people who refuse to take our account of our experience at face value. 

This happens all the time when our past includes painful, complicated relationships or traumatic events. 

As hard as it is for survivors to put words to what they’ve been through, it can be even harder to share those words with another human being. 

Survivors are very often used to their experiences being questioned, doubted, or ignored. 

One of the great ironies of the overdue conversation we are now having about trauma and its consequences is that, while it’s given survivors more opportunities than ever to speak out about what it’s like to try to recover, it’s also provided opportunities for survivors’ narratives to be picked apart and cross examined— often publicly. 

The more we, as a culture, learn about what trauma does to our nervous system, our relationships, and our decision-making, the more some people will feel the need to judge and gatekeep whether other peoples’ experience was “really that bad.” 

Some people truly think they’re doing the world a service by announcing that some peoples’ pain isn’t “bad enough” to justify their level of injury or impairment. 

Here’s the thing: nobody’s else’s opinion about how much you “should” be hurting, changes how much you’re ACTUALLY hurting— but their opinion CAN add another layer of shame, self-loathing, and secrecy to what you’re already carrying. 

Somebody else’s opinion on whether the word “trauma” is overused in popular culture doesn’t change how ACTUALLY traumatic your life has been. 

Somebody else’s judgment on whether or not your diagnosis is real or not doesn’t change what you’re ACTUALLY struggling with in your head and heart— but their judgment CAN make you doubt what you’re experiencing such that you feel conflicted and guilty for seeking help or trying to soothe it. 

Speaking as both a trauma survivor and a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of complex trauma and dissociation, I can tell you: I don’t actually care what anybody thinks about the prevalence or use of the word “trauma” in the popular culture or on the internet. 

I care that trauma survivors get what they need to stay alive and start reclaiming their lives. 

Please, please, please: don’t get wrapped up in the discussions you see on the internet about whether an experience someone has had actually qualifies as “traumatic.” 

Don’t get wrapped up in arguments about whether “trauma” is over diagnosed, overused, or overemphasized in our culture. 

Focus in on what happened to you, and how it affected you. 

Focus in on what you need to get through the day alive. 

Do NOT dive in and try to sort through how much your experience “should” have affected you, based on somebody else’s opinion or standard. 

Deal with what happened, and what is happening, to you. 

You don’t have to pick sides in any debate about trauma. 

You don’t have to meet anyone’s standard for “hurt enough” to deserve support and help. 

You don’t have to use any words you don’t want to use to describe your experience. I honestly don’t care if you use the word “trauma” to describe what happened to you or the reactions you now have to deal with. 

What I care about is you staying invested in creating a life that works for you. That is livable for you. That makes sense to you. 

Yeah. They’re going to deny, question, and doubt your experience. Sometimes even the people who are close to us are going to do this, which is a drag. 

Your responsibility is still to you. 

Your quality of life. Your priorities, values, and loved ones. 

Not to their expectations, definitions, approval, or their “side” in any bigger debate. 

Why feeling ignored can trigger us so badly.

Feeling ignored can trigger something very specific in a complex trauma survivor’s nervous system. 

A lot of our woundedness tends to revolve around the feeling that we were unwanted or unimportant to the people who were supposed to want us, care for us, protect us, love us. 

When we get the feeling in our adult lives that we’re being ignored, that we are dispensable— it pokes at that wound. Hard. 

It’s not a matter of feeling “entitled” to attention.

To the contrary: many complex trauma survivors struggle to feel they are entitled to ANY attention or care at all. 

Our conditioning has often left us believing we don’t “deserve” love— or, often, even to take up the space we take up, to breathe the air we breathe. 

The reason feeling ignored or unimportant triggers so many complex trauma survivors so badly is, it activates a very specific fear of abandonment that has haunted us…well, ever since we can remember. 

When we’re kids, especially young kids, to be abandoned by the people who are supposed to care for us isn’t just a bummer— it’s a threat to our very existence. 

Kids can’t physically survive on their own. We instinctively know that. That’s why we’re wired to attach to the people who are meeting our physical needs. 

When the care and attention we receive are inconsistent or conditional, part of us is very aware that our actual lives are in danger. 

Fast forward to adulthood— here we are, survivors of complex trauma, out in the world trying to hold down a job and have friendships and relationships…and our nervous system is STILL on the lookout for signs that we are about to be rejected or abandoned. 

Our nervous system STILL thinks our actual LIFE is in danger if we are rejected or abandoned by the people who we’re supposed to be ale to count on for intimacy and safety. 

Lots of people reading this know what I’m talking about. 

It’s one of the most perplexing things in the world to many survivors, why they feel like the end of a romantic relationship actually, literally is the end of the world— how we really do feel like we can’t live without that person in our lives. 

It’s confusing and discouraging to many complex trauma survivors that we get SO anxious and SO preoccupied by nightmarish fantasies of everyone we love suddenly deciding that they hate us— that we’re too much work, we’re too screwed up, we’re not worth the effort. 

Why on earth are we— adults, mind you— so hypervigilant to even the most subtle or ambiguous signs that a friendship or relationship MIGHT be even a LITTLE in trouble? 

It’s because our nervous system learned early on that attachment and attention might be withdrawn at any moment— without warning, without reason. 

It’s because we learned early on that to be close to someone involves being ready for them to turn on us or run away from us at any given moment. 

It’s because we may have internalized the idea along the way that stretches of silence can only mean one thing— that the relationship is in trouble, and we need to either scramble to save it…or preemptively blow it up to avoid being hurt. 

The “lessons” we learn when we grow up with scrambled attachments tend to be pretty toxic. 

Many survivors tend to blame themselves for struggling with attachment, both in the past and in their adult lives— when the truth is, no kid ASKS for inconsistent or negative attention from their caregivers. 

If you weren’t cared for with consistency, patience, and love, it’s NOT because you weren’t worth caring for. 

If you weren’t loved, it’s NOT because you’re unlovable or don’t deserve love. 

And if you’re hypervigilant about how relationships of all sorts— professional, personal, romantic— feel, it’s NOT because you’re crazy. You’ve likely had experiences in your past that programmed you with beliefs and reactions that fuel that hypervigilance. 

Unlearning those reactions and reprogramming ourselves in realistic ways takes time, patience, and compassion. 

We have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zone— and return to it often enough to rest and consolidate our gains. 

But more than anything we have to be open to the idea that we CAN change— that the beliefs and reactions that were conditioned in us over the course of decades can be reconditioned, with consistency, focus, and purpose. 

You can change. 

How you feel can change, how you react can change, what you believe can change. 

Given enough time, raindrops carve canyons and glaciers reshape continents. 

No, you don’t have to be “grateful” for your “post traumatic growth.”

We don’t have to be “grateful” for the pain that made us who we are. 

It’s true that trauma often shapes us— how could it not?

And it’s true that some of the most empathic, loving, service-oriented people have been profoundly shaped by the painful things that have happened to them. 

But that doesn’t have to lead to the conclusion that it was somehow a “good” thing that abuse, neglect, or other trauma happened to us. 

I don’t know who I would be without the painful things that have happened to me. But I know I probably would’t be a psychologist. 

I know I probably would’t be writing these words right now, or the words that I write every day on my social media pages. 

I do think— or hope, anyway— that my words are helpful to people. That’s why I write them. 

But that doesn’t mean I am “grateful” for the painful experiences that inform what I write. 

Many people very much want to find some “good” in painful events. Of course they do. 

Some things are so painful that it feels like the fact of them is too much to bear. We feel as if we have to find SOME way of balancing out the sheer enormity of their awfulness. 

I imagine everyone reading this can relate to being told some version of “at least they’re at peace now” or “they’re in a better place” after the loss of a person or a pet. 

Similarly, if you’ve done any trauma work, and if you’ve been open about doing that work, I’m sure you’ve had at least somebody try to tell you that what you went through made you “stronger.” Or “kinder.” Or that it provided you the opportunity to show the world how “resilient” you were. 

Speaking for myself, I could have lived without the opportunity to prove how “resilient” I was. 

I’d have lived without being made “stronger” or “kinder.” 

I’d have preferred safety and connection. 

I once heard addiction referred to as “the sacred disease.” The person who said this was trying to emphasize how battling addiction essentially forces us to develop strength of character we wouldn’t have developed otherwise. 

As someone whose character has ostensibly been shaped by “the sacred disease,” I can affirm that I did not ask for or appreciate the “growth opportunities” addiction has afforded me. 

My point is that you’re going to feel pressure to find the “upside” of your pain. 

At some point someone, probably more than one person, is going to press you to reframe your pain as an opportunity to grow, emotionally or spiritually. 

You need to know that you don’t HAVE to feel (or not feel!) any specific way about your pain. 

Failing to find the “upside” of trauma or depression doesn’t mean you’re emotionally or spiritually underdeveloped. 

You didn’t ask for this pain. 

You’re under no obligation to be grateful for the chance at “post traumatic growth.” 

Deciding to “forgive” people or institutions who hurt you ISN’T the ultimate or only measure of spiritual growth or maturity. 

You don’t have to have positive feelings about situations or people that hurt you. 

There are a lot of paths to healing. Some people can and do find growth and solace in learning to appreciate who they’ve become in the wake of what happened to them. 

But “getting over it’ such that you can say “thank you” to the universe for that experience is NOT a prerequisite of healing. 

You have a right to be exactly as angry and hurt as you are. 

You’re under no obligation to reframe your strong negative feelings into anything more gentle or forgiving. 

Repairing the damage to our nervous system done by trauma, depression, or addiction requires, above anything else, authenticity. 

Being true to ourselves, our experiences, our reactions, and needs. 

Successful recovery requires a HELL of a lot of honesty— with ourselves and with the world around us. 

And that honesty is more important than “gratitude” or any other positive spin anyone says we “should” put on what happened to us. 

Why trauma recovery is an inside job.

It’s not the case that “nobody will love us unless we love ourselves.” 

It IS the case that if we don’t feel SAFE with ourselves— in our own head— that it’s hard to feel safe with anyone else. 

The attacks that come from outside us are one thing.  Our ability to prepare for and defend against danger from without will always be imperfect. 

But we have far more influence over the attacks we launch against ourselves, in our own head. 

When abuse, neglect, or other trauma is a part of our personal history, we often arrive in adulthood with certain beliefs about ourselves. 

We often believe we’re not worthy. 

We often believe we are “born to suffer.” 

We often believe that there’s nothing we realistically CAN to to positively impact our quality of life. 

We often believe that if we express what we feel— or if we’re even too in touch with what we feel— it will lead to humiliation and punishment. 

We didn’t ask for these beliefs. We seem to arrive in adulthood with them fully formed— often because they’ve been conditioned in us for years in some of our most important relationships. 

We carry these beliefs around with us wherever we go— and even when we’re not explicitly focused on them, they impact our safety and stability in every context. Especially our relationships. 

It’s hard to feel safe with ANYBODY if we’re constantly on the verge of belittling ourselves for not being enough. 

It’s hard to feel stable in ANY situation when we’re so vulnerable to thoughts about how hopeless the situation is and hw helpless we are. 

It’s hard to feel secure in ANY relationship if we’re constantly subjected to memories and narratives in our own head bout how relationships are necessarily dangerous and deceptive. 

Many of those beliefs, attitudes and thoughts aren’t at the forefront of our minds all day, every day— but every trauma survivor can tel you how the lurk at the periphery of our minds. 

We can be spending time with or in a relationship with the most trustworthy, transparent person on the face of the planet— but if our nervous system is still responding to trauma cues from years of conditioning, it’s going to be really hard to meaningfully internalize that safety. 

If we’re going to meaningfully recover from trauma, particularly complex trauma (i.e., inescapable trauma that we endured over time or in close relationships), we need to prioritize making our internal world and our self-talk safer. 

We need to be serious and real about how the messages and treatment we received over the years shaped our nervous system and our belief systems. 

One of the reasons why trauma survivors can be confusing to people who aren’t looking through an explicitly trauma-informed lens is because the ways trauma impacts our ability and willingness to attach and take interpersonal risks isn’t always obvious or logical. 

Trauma has a way of making us feel REALLY “crazy.” 

We want closeness but we’re afraid of it. 

We want space but we get very lonely very quickly. 

We crave structure but we’re terrified of it. 

We need to understand but we know there are no words for so much of what we’ve been through. 

You need to know you’re not “crazier” than other people who struggle emotionally and behaviorally. Trauma impacts our nervous system in overwhelming, often unpredictable ways. 

But Job One in trauma recovery is always going to be making our internal world safer and more stable. 

If we want ANY external changes to register, we need to have a realistic handle on what’s happening inside of us.

Wanna talk about “trauma informed care?” All right, let’s.

Trauma treatment and recovery isn’t about affirming anyone’s identity as a “helpless victim.” 

It’s not about changing the past. 

Trauma recovery isn’t about anyone being saved or rescued. 

It’s not about staying stuck in the past or effortlessly “letting it go” through the magical power of “forgiveness.” 

Trauma informed treatment is not a “fad” or a “buzzword.” (It’s my experience that people who claim it is don’t seem to understand what it is.)

Experience has taught us that people who have survived awful things in their lives have specific needs in therapy and recovery that are not obvious or universal. 

Victims of abuse and neglect in particular struggle with many traditional approaches to psychotherapy. 

Unfortunately, the profession of psychotherapy has not always been great at acknowledging that different patients with different problems often require flexible approaches. 

Often trauma patients who didn’t respond well to traditional therapy were labeled “treatment resistant.” Or “noncompliant.” Or “borderline.” 

Elaborate psychodynamic theories were even proposed to explain why trauma survivors were so gosh darn “resistant” to therapists’ best intentions and therapy’s most well-established methods. 

The truth was actually staring us in the face all along: trauma, especially complex interpersonal trauma, tends to impact the nervous system in ways that make traditional therapy— particularly with its pronounced power dynamics— relatively less effective with survivors.

Complex trauma survivors tend not to do well in therapy relationships with obvious, dramatic power differentials— because this recreates dynamics that exist in abusive or neglectful families. 

They tend not to do well in therapy situations with arbitrary or inconsistent boundaries— because this recreates dynamics that exist in abusive or exploitative relationships. 

Many complex trauma survivors need more than the traditional once-a-week, 45-minute outpatient session schedule— and they often need specific resources in place for crisis management and safety options. 

Over time, as we learned more about what survivors of trauma needed to be successful in their recovery, we developed therapy modalities that accommodated many of these needs— a paradigm which is currently referred to as “trauma informed care.” 

All “trauma informed care” means is adapting psychotherapy to what we know about how trauma survivors tend to work and what they tend to need. That’s it. 

It’s not about the therapist “rescuing” a survivor— and it’s definitely not about a therapist positioning themselves as a “savior” to the survivor in juxtaposition to others in their sphere. 

Trauma informed care is about creating safety in the therapy relationship by being realistic and flexible about what the survivor has been through and how it has affected them. 

Every therapist— along with every helping professional of any kind— can and should be trauma informed. 

The more we all learn bout what trauma is and how it works, the more realistically we can recover and support others in their recovery. 

Trauma informed care is not about “coddling” survivors. Infantilizing or patronizing survivors recreates abuse dynamics, and it’s the opposite of trauma-informed care. 

Believe me: trauma survivors will kick your ass. As a group, they have no need or want to be “coddled.” 

Trauma informed care is not a “fad” or a “marketing tool” or a “brand.” It’s a pillar of the competent practice of psychotherapy. 

If you’re a psychotherapist, and you say “I don’t treat trauma,” I have some news for you: yeah ya do. 

That life we were “supposed to” have.

I don’t know what I was “supposed” to be when I grew up. 

Neither do you. 

All we know is what we were told, directly or indirectly, about our “potential”— and the ideas and beliefs we elaborated from that. 

When we’re young, we get this idea of who we “should” be and what life “should” look like. 

We’re told over and over again that it is our responsibility to live up to our “potential.” 

For some of us, that was more concrete— we had very clear ideas about who we were “supposed” to become, what we were “supposed” to do, what we were “supposed” to accomplish. 

Sometimes it was less concrete than that— all we had was this general idea that we were “supposed” to grow up and be happy and functional. 

Many of us were programmed with the idea that we were “supposed” to have a certain kind of relationship, have a certain kind of family of our own. 

And then, for many of us…life happened. 

We didn’t grow up to feel or function the way we were “supposed” to. 

The relationship or family we were “supposed” to have didn’t materialize. 

The career we were “supposed” to create didn’t happen. 

Sometimes it was very specific, identifiable events that got in the way of the life that we were “supposed” to live…but other times, it wasn’t that clear. 

All we know is that we were left with this feeling that life didn’t go the way it was “supposed” to go…and very often, we blamed ourselves. 

After all, all those people told us we had so much “potential” when we were young— how could it be anybody ELSE’S fault that we didn’t become who we were “supposed” to be? 

Here’s the thing about “potential” and the life we were “supposed” to live: it’s all BS. 

Belief Systems. 

Nobody plans for or expects things like depression, trauma, addiction, or an eating disorder to intrude upon the awesome life they were “supposed” to live. 

Nobody asks for any of it. Nobody “lets” it happen. 

To get knocked off course by emotional or behavioral struggles isn’t a “failure” on your part, any more than it’s a “failure” on the part of an equestrian to get thrown from their horse. 

I wouldn’t have chosen the life path I ended up on. 

I wouldn’t have chosen to be abused. I wouldn’t have chosen ADHD. I wouldn’t have chosen a vulnerability to addiction that has come very close to ruining and ending my life on multiple occasions. 

None of that was in the plan. 

And none of that a “failure” on my part. 

My horse threw me.

Your horse might have thrown you, too. 

We don’t choose our past. We don’t choose our vulnerabilities. We don’t choose our pain. 

The choices we DO get— the ONLY choices we get— is whether we are going to acknowledge our pain, manage our vulnerabilities, and decide how we’re going to relate to our past. 

I choose recovery because I do not want things I DIDN’T choose to run my life. 

Life didn’t go to plan. I was “supposed” to be someone else, living a much different life. 

It was all BS. Belief Systems. 

This is the hand I was dealt. This is the hand you were dealt. Right here. Right now. Me writing this; you reading this; both of us with the specific wounds and strengths we both have, right in this minute. 

Mourn the life you didn’t have. 

Forgive yourself for the life you didn’t have. 

And bring everything back to this moment. 

This moment is real. 

And in this moment, we have real, meaningful choices. 

About that “victim mindset.”

“They” will try to tell you the reason you’re not feeling or functioning optimally is because you’re being “immature.” 

They’ll tell you to “grow up.” 

They’ll tell you that everybody has pain and problems; that yours aren’t unique, and you can’t use your pain or problems to avoid your responsibilities. 

They’ll tell you people who are open about their pain and problems are “attention seeking.” 

They might even tell you that there is a “victim culture” that “celebrates” dysfunction— and that to be excessively in touch with your own pain, or to make recovering from your own pain the centerpiece of your life, is to buy into that “victim mindset.’ 

Yes. “They” will say a lot of things. Chances are MANY of the people reading this have heard versions of ALL of these things— and more. 

The truth is, we live in a culture that is very conflicted about vulnerability, pain, and recovery. 

Many people do not like the fact that anyone can struggle with emotional pain or behavioral dysfunction— so they pathologize it. They “other” it. 

They make believe that emotional pain or behavioral struggles are experienced by people who are somehow, in some way, flawed or otherwise “different” from them. 

It provides “them” with a sense of security. A sense of control. 

It’s an illusion— but it comforts “them,” so they perpetuate it. 

Central to this illusion is the idea that people who suffer— or, at least, people who are expressive about their suffering— somehow “buy into” that pain. 

I’m sure somewhere along the way you’ve been told a version of “you’re only a victim if you let yourself be a victim.” 

As if anyone wakes up in the morning and cheerfully decides to adopt a “victim mindset.” 

“Choose not to be a victim” is a powerful cultural belief— that has discouraged countless people from acknowledging the enormity of what happened to them and the depth of their pain. 

Denial f*cks up recovery something awful. 

I have never met anyone who has aspired to be a victim. 

I HAVE met many, many survivors who have invested ENORMOUS energy in denying and disowning their emotional pain precisely BECAUSE they don’t want to be one of ‘those people.”

It sets the recovery work back months, sometimes even years, if the first hill to climb is accepting that something that badly wounded us, badly wounded us. 

People are not motivated to work on something they fear they’ll be mocked or dismissed for admitting is even affecting them. 

It seems that lately it’s popular to mock and dismiss people who are expressive about their pain or vulnerability as wanting to be unrealistically “coddled.” 

I’ve even seen certain therapists describe the desire to be “coddled” as a widespread problem that is negatively affecting the culture. 

I don’t think the desire to be safely seen, heard, and even cared for, is pathological. 

I think if we deny and disown our wanting to be visible, important, and— God forbid!— held, physically and emotionally, we deny and disown an important piece of our humanity. 

I think if we shame our fellow humans for being expressive about their pain and open about their vulnerability, we erect walls that are really hard to take down later— walls that separate us from realistically meeting our needs and meaningfully connecting with each other. 

“They” are going to say a lot of things. 

It’s not always easy to tune “them” out. They are relentless and their influence in the culture is pervasive. 

We have to work hard to secure the territory inside our head and heart. 

And make no mistake: that is YOUR territory. 

And it IS worth defending. 

It’s not as simple as “hurt people hurt people.”

It’s true that some people who exhibit aggressive behaviors have a history of being abused themselves. 

But it’s NOT universally true that “hurt people hurt people.” 

People who have survived abuse or neglect know that it often leaves us with MANY intense, overwhelming feelings, needs, meanings, beliefs, and associations. 

Trauma often hands us this HUGE tangle of contradictory emotional and behavioral “stuff”— and we have no idea what to do with it. 

Among the feelings that many survivors have no idea what to do with are anger and powerlessness. 

What on earth do we do with anger that we never felt safe or entitled to express? 

What on earth do we do with the feeling that we can’t possibly escape pain, even if we tried? 

Some people do fantasize about channeling their unexpressed rage and their conviction to never again be powerless into aggressive behavior toward others. Some people imagine that going on “offense” in life and the world is the only way to ensure that they’ll never again be victimized. 

It doesn’t follow, however, that experiencing trauma automatically turns someone into an aggressive, angry person who got through life looking for ways to lash out. 

I’ve worked with hundreds of abuse survivors. I am an abuse survivor. For everything that it’s possible to say about how trauma TENDS to impact human beings, i can assure you that there is ENORMOUS variability in how people experience, respond to, and cope with THEIR trauma. 

It’s incredibly important to understand how our history impacts how we feel and function every day— especially if our history includes complicated, painful relationships or experiences. 

But we have to be SUPER careful not to reduce our emotions and behavior to “we experienced X, thus we HAVE to do Y.” 

I’ve met MANY abuse survivors who are TERRIFIED of what their history of abuse can “make” them do. 

I’ve met survivors who are absolutely HORRIFIED of the supposed inevitability of becoming abusers themselves, because “hurt people hurt people.” 

I’ve met survivors who want absolutely nothing more than to NEVER hurt anyone else the way they were hurt, who were CONVINCED that their abuse had planted a “poison seed” within them to lash out at others— even though there is not a bone in their body that desires pain to be inflicted on ANYONE (often INCLUDING those who hurt them). 

It’s just not as simple as “hurt people hurt people.” 

Yes, hurt people CAN hurt people— but so can people who do NOT have abuse or neglect in their history. 

In my experience, many abuse survivors are so powerfully averse to hurting anyone the way they were hurt, that they do backflips to avoid even the appearance of aggression or anger— often sacrificing basic assertiveness in their quest to NOT become their abusers. 

A history of abuse or neglect MAY be part of the puzzle for why a person is aggressive or hurtful to others. But, as we say in psychology over and over and OVER again: correlation is not causation. 

You, the person reading this, who is afraid that your experiences have planted a “poison seed” inside you that will inevitably blossom into you behaving hurtfully toward others: it isn’t true. 

Yes, your history will impact what you believe, what you think, what you feel, and yow you behave. 

Yes, you probably will have to do some work around what anger and assertiveness and powerlessness and regaining your agency MEAN in your life. 

But because you were hurt does NOT make you more likely to become a monster. 

Your trauma may have impacted or even shaped your personality in some ways— but it has not REPLACED who you are. Even if it feels that way sometimes.

There is no script for what you HAVE to do or be because you were abused. 

In my experience, the thing most hurt people want is to not hurt anymore. 

Being attached to a painful person, habit, or situation.

Sometimes we’re going to be attached to a person, habit, or situation that’s harmful to us. 

It’s not that we want to be harmed. It’s that the person, habit, or situation is what we know. 

It feels familiar. It feels “right.” 

It can be hard to break with a person, habit, or situation that we’ve gotten used to— even if we KNOW that it’s causing us damage. 

We didn’t wind up with that person, repeating that habit, or in that situation by accident. 

Sometimes we get convinced that we CAN’T break away. 

We might get convinced that, even if a person, habit or situation is harming us, it’s what we “deserve.” 

Sometimes we’re terrified of what we’d have to face if we DID break away. 

What could possibly come next when we abandon this person, habit, or situation that has been such a big part of our everyday life? 

We may not trust ourselves to be able to survive and function WITHOUT that familiar person, habit, or situation. 

It’s not necessarily that we want to stay with a person, continue doing a thing, or stay in a situation that is causing us pain. Many people would give ANYTHING to be ABLE to give up a relationship, behavior pattern, or circumstance that they feel trapped in.

But it’s just not as simple as deciding “I’m not doing this anymore.” 

When we’ve repeated patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving over and over and OVER again, those patterns have momentum in our nervous system. 

Trying to step away from those pattern can create a GREAT DEAL of anxiety— so much so that we may actually experience physical discomfort or even pain when we try to make a big change. 

It’s not a matter of “willpower.” It’s not a matter of “character” or “grit” or “toughness.” 

If we’re going to successfully break with a person, habit, or situation to which we are attached, we need to be realistic about what comes next. 

We need to have specific strategies mapped out for when the anxiety comes rushing in like cold sea water. 

We need to identify specific skills that will keep us from running BACK to the situation we’re trying to escape. 

We need to have supportive people handy who know what we’re going through, who understand the stakes, and who are willing to help us handle the uncomfortable feelings that WILL happen when we try to break longstanding patterns. 

The good news is: just because we are attached to a person, habit, or situation, doesn’t mean that we have to stay enmeshed with them. 

We CAN set limits. 

We CAN change our habitual patterns of thinking, feeing, and behaving. 

People do make massive changes in what they think, feel, and do every day. 

People do recover from addictions. 

People do end destructive relationships. 

People do leave jobs that are sucking their will to live. 

People do leave toxic families. 

People do leave destructive communities. 

When we grow up without positive or stable attachment experiences, we’ll often attach to certain people, habits, or situations that aren’t healthy for us— and it can be TREMENDOUSLY painful and confusing to try to set limits with them. 

That’s not your fault. That’s how attachment works. 

Meaningfully changing your life takes patience, commitment, and support— and the conviction that you DO deserve positive, non-hurtful attachments in your life, 

Even if you’ve never HAD positive, non-hurtful attachments in your life— you STILL deserve them going forward. 

It wasn’t on you to be an adult as a kid.

When you were a kid, it was not your responsibility to set or enforce boundaries with the adults around you. 

When you were a kid, it was not on you to understand things like an adult, respond to things like an adult, or understand the motives and behavior of the adults around you. 

If hurtful things happened to you as a kid, you did not “make” them happen. You did not “let” them happen. You are not responsible for things that happened TO you. 

As adults, we read statements like this, and often we intellectually agree— but our gut tells us a different story. 

Our gut often tells us that if we were abused or neglected, it MUST be because of something WE did or failed to do. 

Our gut often tells us that there MUST have been something we could have done to prevent the bad things from happening to us. 

After all, we tell kids over and over and over again to tell someone if they’re being touched inappropriately or hurt or bullied…so doesn’t it follow that if those things happened to us, it MUST be because we DIDN’T tell someone? 


The truth is, there are LOTS of reasons why kids struggle to speak up about bad things that are happening to them. 

It’s often not at all clear to a kid what’s happening when they are being abused or neglected. 

(It’s often not even clear to ADULTS when they’re being abused or exploited— but that’s a different discussion.) 

Those who abuse or exploit kids often go to great lengths to create confusion about what is happening. 

Almost always, adults in a kid’s life are in positions of power— and they leverage that power to instill doubt, fear, and embarrassment in a kid’s head about what’s happening. 

As adults, we’re often told that “what we tolerate is what will continue” in relationships, and “we teach people how to treat us.” 

Those statements are…complicated, even for adults. It’s just not that black and white, even in adult relationships where we have comparatively more autonomy and power to set boundaries and escape bad situations. 

Kids, however, are NEVER responsible for “failing” to put the brakes on a situation being perpetuated by an adult. 

It wasn’t your fault. 

It wasn’t your responsibility. 

You were a kid. 

They were the grownups. 

Many of us carry shame about not having stopped an abusive situation. Many of us carry shame for not having told someone. 

Many of us carry shame because we’re retroactively applying the “what you tolerate is what will continue” standard to relationships when we were children. 

I’d tell you to forgive your past self for not being able to put a halt to abusive situations when you were a kid…but that’s not something you NEED forgiveness for. 

Abuse did not happen to you because you were bad. It did not happen to you because you were irresistibly attractive to or seductive toward an adult. 

It happened because an adult made a choice. 

Neglect did not happen to you because you were unlovable or unworthy of care. 

It happened because an adult didn’t or couldn’t do what it was their responsibility to do. 

These are not excuses. They are statements of fact. 

It was never as easy as “what you tolerate is what will continue”— especially when you were a kid. 

The kid you once were needs to know that you know, that you really, really accept that. 

The kid you once were needs to know they’re not bad, dirty, or unloveable. 

The kid you once were needs to know you don’t blame them. 

Because it wasn’t your fault.