The Road to Healing from Trauma Requires Relationships

Closeup of two people holding hands heartily in support

One of the most amazing gifts we all receive as human beings is our ability to experience and grow in our relationships. It is through our relationships that we learn, grow, and become able to experience love and a sense of connection with others. Without our relationships we would die, even if we were still provided food, water and shelter.

A beautiful component of our relationships occurs when we share our stories with each other. Telling each other stories of significant aspects of our lives is not just enjoyable, it can contribute to the healing of our traumas and traumas of others.

Dr. Louis Cozolino, in his outstanding book The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain, describes situations where people experienced terror to the point where they lose their words and disconnect from reality. He says that in these cases the trauma can get locked within the person and become an emotional soundtrack of their lives.

crying black woman hugging her girlfriend, lady supporting her upset friend, giving her hug

 “The value of someone who is willing to go with this to the Ground Zero of our pain, a witness to our heart, should never be underestimated. Communicating our story to another encourages us to articulate a traumatic experience that may be represented in our brains only as a fragmented collection of images, bodily sensations, and emotions. Once we have a conscious and articulated story, we gain the possibility of integrating the many aspects of what has happened to us in order to find a way to heal. Seeing the reactions of the other to our experiences helps us grasp their meaning and having to make them comprehensible to another helps make them comprehensible to us. In addition, telling the story to others provides us with a new memory of the story that now includes a witness, making it a public experience, and making it available to editorial changes. All aspects of this cocreation of our experience supports the idea that both reality and memory are social constructs.”

Sometimes our stories are just fragmented bits of memories, often not making a whole lot of sense. They may seem like a collection of images combined with accompanying sensations, often sensations of fear, terror, shame, grief, confusion, hurt and sometimes a sense of abandonment. When we have someone who will listen to those scattered bits and pieces of our story – realizing that we have many associations, interpretations and generalizations our minds have created to try to help us make sense of things – that person can sometimes offer perspectives that have not occurred to us.

When we share our stories with others, we receive feedback that can change our minds and allow us to be more open to other possibilities than what first might occur to us. Sometimes it helps us be kinder and fairer to ourselves and remove some of the guilt, shame, and blame that is so often a part of a traumatic experience.

Depressed lady with supporting friend sitting in cafe, hard time, comforting

On the other hand, sometimes we have opportunities to be witnesses to others who can share only pieces of stories that have deeply impacted them in negative ways. We can be a sounding board and also provide new perspectives to allow a person to change their understanding of what happened, reconsider some of what they have decided is true and help them to see things in newer and fairer ways. Sometimes it is enough to hear the bits and pieces of someone’s memories and to acknowledge that it can be frustrating to not be able to remember all of an experience.

The bottom line is that we have an untapped power in our ability to be a resource to others through safe, caring relational connections, inviting them to share their stories and to describe how they are feeling in their bodies as they recall what was a significant life experience for them. For ourselves we also can seek those relationships that are safe and comfortable to share our stories that contain elements of trauma:  fear, terror, unexpressed grief, injustice, abandonment, shame or guilt.

We love each other in part through our willingness to be sounding boards to each other’s stories, to care when a loved one says they are hurting or struggling in some way. Suffering alone can be overwhelming.  Having someone embrace us literally or verbally in the context of a loving relationship can ease that suffering even if the circumstances cannot be changed. Such love nurtures healing. What an amazing gift it is to be able to love and connect! I hope you can risk cultivating love in your relationships so you can both give and receive the healing it offers.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. When you think about the significant relationships in your life, past and present, how often did you exchange stories that include descriptions of your trauma, pain, stress, fear or other significant emotions associated with deep emotional wounding? How comforting was it to be able to safely share those stories? Can you see how they may have contributed to your healing?
  2. Conversely can you recall times when someone significant in your life gave you the gift of their attention, time and willingness to hear your stories? If so, how did that impact your sense of connection and your right to heal from your pain?
  3. How can you be more intentional in allowing others to share their stories with you even when they are not fully clear about what happened, knowing just sharing their stories can help them resolve some of their pain?
  4. How can you risk being more transparent with those you love and feel safe with in order to help you heal? Remember healing through sharing our stories is one of the amazing gifts of love we can share with each other. We can choose to be ambassadors of healing.

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute