Making friends should be easy. Easy, particularly for those of us, who are naturally outgoing, possess some social skills and enjoy people’s company. Whether one had a happy or a disturbing childhood, it usually does not play much role in establishing the initial contact with people. The ease with which we establish social contact comes down to our temperament and experience. Striking a conversation, sharing pleasantries and continuing to engage actively are routine components of modern day social lives and with an easy access to multiple events in a big city, meeting people and making friends should not pose great difficulty at all.
Those first steps are easy, however it is further and later stages of relationships where childhood trauma survivors begin to struggle. Despite often having hundreds of acquaintances accrued on social media and through various hobbies and events, moving towards deeper, stronger, long lasting and ultimately more satisfying friendships are often the parts where trauma survivors struggle.
Many of my clients, who attempt at building long-lasting friendships fail over and over again. They feel like giving up and rather decide to settle for a broad circle of distant acquaintances that bring a “social component” to their lives but unable to provide deeper human connection. I got curious to explore why this happens, what road blocks get in the way of childhood trauma survivors, who may desperately need connection and validation and yet are unable to attain (and most importantly!) sustain it for a prolonged period of time. We can blame the social media or our busy lives, trying to explain why sustaining friendships is not easy anymore. We may suggest that all people struggle with these issues more or less, especially in a big city in our modern day and age. However, as I work with childhood trauma survivors, for whom issues of building trust and strong relationships are often prevalent, I cannot help but notice a few common denominators that stand out for this category in particular.
Examples from individual lives I draw below are used to highlight and better understand typical barriers that pose major road blocks to the success of all relationships.
Note: All Names and stories from clinical cases below were altered to protect clients’ privacy.
Linda encounters a rough patch in life. She struggles to tell any of her friends about what is really happening. She says that she cannot trust that even the closest of friends won’t judge her and can support her. She says that she would rather keep things to herself then open up to a friend. When I ask her whether she trusts no one, she corrects me by saying of course she can trust one or two very close friends. Then she catches herself contradicting her own words and says “Yes, even when I sort of trust, I guess I cannot trust entirely”. Isn’t it stupid, she asks, to trust someone completely?
We explore how deep her mistrust lies. To her own surprise Linda realizes that it is indeed very profound. Her statement “I am a trusting person” is only a visible surface, available for people to see on the first few encounters. As her relationships develop, she is unable to retain that trust. In fact, the longer a relationship lasts, the more mistrust grows. She says she simply cannot envision someone being there for her during a difficult time. She even reckons that her friends may be secretly happy when they hear she is in trouble!
When Dan saw a message from his friend canceling their dinner together, he couldn’t sleep. He lay awake, thinking the message over and remembering their last meeting. Did he say or do anything wrong? Was there a reason his friend wanted to cancel? Was his friend angry with him? Was his friend not willing to be friends anymore? Was he just busy and had to cancel for some innocent and simple reason?
Dan got annoyed with his friend for cancelling, annoyed with himself for overthinking it, and annoyed with people in general, who can randomly cancel plans. In the morning, having had little to no sleep he presents in our session, where we can use this example to see how his mind is often expecting the worst. How, regardless of the friendship, the trust, the knowledge Dan has about this person, his tendency to expect the worst can override his brain logic and rush towards catastrophic thinking.
After looking at the situation Dan notices how his mind indeed expects the worst, and immediately braces for rejection, abandonment or abuse. That the expectation is always there, no matter how life turns out to be. And when inevitably someone lets us down, these expectations are confirmed thus reinforcing the beliefs, and continuing the cycle.
Anna often feels lonely. She tries to reach out to her multiple acquaintances for some company, often to no avail. She is a cheerful outgoing person, who likes to go out during the week and stay active on weekends. However she finds it increasingly hard to find people to accompany her. She receives rejection after rejection and feels so alone when receiving yet another “no” to her invitation. She acknowledges that these rejections are massive barriers for her to develop friendships further. “If a friend cannot meet me for casual walk or a dinner, how can I rely on them in more serious circumstances?” , she exclaims.
Anna, while acknowledging loneliness as a massive issue in her life, is reluctant to really work on it and she is keen to find excuses. People are just busy, she says. I cannot expect to be accompanied all the time. Perhaps as a childhood trauma survivor, she learned to withdraw and tolerate disappointments, and rather give up on asking and expecting entirely then face any more rejection.
Leanne often says that she is easy going and accommodating. “Whatever” and “I don’t mind” are the words she often repeats. As soon as she hears that some of her friends were invited to a party, she feels a pang of resentment that she was not. She cannot help but notice her brain start recounting the events and going over the friendships in her mind. Is she more or less important friend of so and so? Why one person remembered to ring her and another did not? Is she caring more about her friend than her friend cares about her? Who gets more attention, more validation and more love? Leanne realises that she is never, in fact, “easy going”. Her brain, in the background, always recounting and paying attention and keeping the score of what is going on around her. In fact, her brain always compares self to others. What others get, what they do, how well they do, how she herself “looks” in comparison, etc.
Childhood trauma survivors are used to comparing themselves with others. In a sense they had it worse then the others from the beginning, as they were unlucky children born to dysfunctional families and had to suffer neglect or abuse or both. Starting from school, looking at other kids that seemed to have more normal families and often nicer homes, and fuller fridges, and cleaner clothes, childhood trauma survivors already started feeling inferior and ashamed of these deficiencies, despite the fact that they had no control over them. These comparisons tend to stick around for a long time, as once our brains learn to operate in a certain way, it gets hard to re-learn.
SOCIAL Withdrawal AND GIVING UP
All of the issues above make building friendships a rather hard work. Spending time with friends, that should be satisfying and bring joy is often riddled with self-doubt, mistrust and brings exhaustion and more self-doubt. Withdrawal from social contacts are necessary breaks that childhood trauma survivors often take in order to have some breathing space before bracing themselves again for this hard work. While many of us these days are familiar with the fact that long lasting friendships are necessary for good mental health and even help us feel happier, reduce stress, anxiety and overall sense of wellbeing, those are not easy to build and maintain. My thoughts go to childhood trauma survivors in particular for whom the difficulties encountered on the pathway to building relationships are often chronic and persistent. Therapy usually takes years and achieves limited success. Life in general can take us to dark places of rejection, and exacerbate depression and anxiety, increasing the sense of hopelessness and helplessness. However I still urge my clients not to give up the quest for friendships entirely. I try to encourage them to keep the hope alive and continue to swim against the current.
Childhood trauma is like a current that picks us up early on in life and continues to carry us throughout. Swimming against it would include taking risks, hoping for the best, connecting and getting to know people and living your life fully. It certainly would take the courage.
It is worth remembering that one has got nothing to lose when putting themselves out there.
Risking living, even if it means risking rejection, abandonment, and all the unpleasant emotions we sometimes consciously or unconsciously choose to avoid would still be preferable then avoiding life at all. Because what can be more sad than an unlived life?!