If you struggle with C-PTSD, then you understand how difficult it can be to let go of the learned behaviors your brain developed to protect you in survival mode. On the road to recovery, many of us seek out genuine relationships but aren’t quite sure how to find success in them. There’s a ton of trial and error involved, which can be discouraging.
A healthy relationship might feel boring. Safety might feel deceptive. Kindness and love might feel like a trap. We also may not trust our own red-flag radar due to past experiences. So, how do we shift our mindset to move out of survival mode and develop healthy connections? We must work to rewrite our stories and remind ourselves what authenticity and genuine connection felt like before (if you ever knew it). If not, we can learn to tell the difference between love and abuse.
Navigating relationships after C-PTSD is anything but easy. We learned how to adapt to our trauma as a method of survival, disrupting our sense of safety and self-identity. Breaking free from our trauma responses and learning to trust others, ourselves, and the world again is easier said than done. But it’s not impossible.
Step 1: Be Kind to Yourself
You can’t expect to flip a switch and suddenly find yourself in a perfectly healthy relationship without issue after escaping the source of your trauma. Your nervous system is still on high alert and the extreme coping mechanisms you developed aren’t going to disappear overnight.
Learn about yourself, your patterns, and your relationship goals. Make a list of characteristics your future partner must possess and a list of deal-breakers as well. Keep in mind that immediate, intense “chemistry” is likely your lizard brain telling you to RUN! It could be an indication of Love Bombing or merely a subconscious familiarity of unresolved issues from childhood or former relationships. With self-awareness and boundaries, we can break out of our previous patterns.
With time, you will adapt to a healthier and more predictable life. Be kind to yourself and give your personality time to begin to shine through again. As you move forward, you’ll find that your trauma responses will become less intense and your personal narrative will begin to shift. It’s important to remember that you will get there, but it will take time.
Step 2: Identify Your Triggers
When your trauma triggers have been a part of your life for so long, it can be incredibly hard to identify them. Take the time to identify your triggers and practice mindfulness to pull yourself out of the past and into the present. Once you understand your triggers, you can begin to free yourself from the pain and fear they bring.
If you feel that one of your triggers is being set off, find a way to ground yourself and remind yourself that you are not stuck. Pressing my hand against a cold, hard or a rough surface and focusing on that physical sensation helped me ground myself and escape the intrusive thoughts.
Another thing that helped me when looking for a new relationship was to keep a “Bottom Line” and “Red Flag” list. After examining past interactions, especially abusive ones, I wrote down all the warning signs I either didn’t recognize as such or dismissed, making excuses for them. Now when I see them, I know what they mean and I can get myself out of a situation before it feels inescapable.
You have options, you can take control of your mind and body, and you have the ability to leave any situation that makes you uncomfortable. If you feel it’s dangerous to leave, there are resources available to help you escape. Choose to use them. One of the most powerful things I ever learned was from an old Tony Robbins book: If you’re not in control of your life, who is?
When you remind yourself that you have the power of choice, you can start to expand your emotional capacity and learn to tolerate tension. In future posts, I’ll be talking more about distress tolerance as well.
Step 3: Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help
One of the most important steps in breaking the pattern of trauma responses and healing your mind and body is seeking help. While therapy is a wonderful tool for many, by no means is it the only option. Some can’t afford therapy, and even if you can, it’s difficult to find a good therapist or even get an appointment since Covid. There are free resources available. Check out your local women’s shelter, for example. A counselor there was of great help to me in the wake of my assault. Reach out to fellow survivors and utilize free resources like RAINN.
There is no such thing as too much support when dealing with the aftermath of trauma.
Explore your options until you find the healing tool that works for you. This could be therapy, meditation, yoga, painting, medication, spirituality, music, running, or any other positive avenue for healing that you choose. Learn self-care through my “If You Could Do Anything” tool or use it for inspiration to develop what works for you. When it comes to transforming from surviving to thriving, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to the process.
Step 4: Take Things One Day at a Time
As you begin to form new connections, your brain may trick you into believing that your feelings and desires are wrong or shameful. When you feel this way, stop and ask yourself why. Identify where this sensation is coming from and reflect on your personal values. Did someone say or do something to you that has led you to believe that these new feelings are wrong? Do these new feelings conflict with your personal values?
By clarifying your values and reminding yourself that it’s okay to find new connections that make you feel good, you can start to banish the internal dialogue that causes those feelings of shame. Be open with your partner and discuss what they can do to soothe you or make you feel safe when it’s needed. Determine a safe word to use with them in case you’re triggered and have difficulty articulating your needs in a tough situation.
Finding and developing authentic connections after C-PTSD is not an easy road to travel, but it’s important to remember that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You are deserving of compassion, trust, and love. You are free, you are safe, and you are in control of your own destiny. Remind yourself of that for as long as it takes to feel it.
May you find peace.