Updated: Nov 29, 2021
One way we begin to learn about the impact of trauma on our daily functioning is to notice when our trauma brain is running the show. One of the easiest ways to spot it is noticing an almost obsessive need to be liked, desired or chosen by new friends, colleagues and most often romantic prospects.
If you grew up in an emotionally neglectful situation, or if you had caregivers who were not able to meet your emotional needs (due to addiction, mental health issues, significant external stressors, or their own trauma responses), it's not uncommon to seek affirmation, validation and attachment everywhere and anywhere you can.
We are desperate to be seen and loved and validated; we are trying to un-do the relational wounds obtained much earlier in life. -Kimberly Mahr
I see this a lot in this era of online or digital dating where people become obsessed with the "quick hit" or "high" of attracting the often fleeting attention of a possible romantic partner. You swipe, he swipes... he compliments you and tells you all the things you've waited a lifetime to hear.... and for a hot minute you feel loved, important, beautiful, sexy.... desired. Then, once you spend a little time with that person you realize how painfully wrong you were and you swing to the next prospect to fill the void.
The challenge with allowing the trauma brain to run the show is that it rarely takes into account what actually FEELS GOOD to us or what we REALLY NEED. In fact, those of us with significant relational trauma often simply lack insight as to what it is we really want and need, or what truly feels good to us. We chase the immediate and urgent buzz and disregard or simply don't have awareness that those partnerships or relationships are not actually good for us, good to us, or alignment with our long term truths, desires, and relationship goals.
So how the hell do you begin to shift?
Slow Your Roll: If you are noticing a pattern in yourself similar to what is described here, the first step is to slow your roll. Put the pause button on dating until you get a little more clarity. I know...this is hard when all you really want is to feel connected, but trust me, you're never going to find a lasting and satisfying connection until you develop that connection with yourself.
Connect To Your Body: People with trauma histories are often very detached from their bodies. Ask them what they're feeling in their bodies and they'll often say "stressed" or "anxious." No. When I say connect to your body, I mean actually asses the physiological shifts or experiences of your body. For example: I feel my jaw clenching, my neck feels tight and achey, my breathing is shallow and rapid, my chest feels heavy, my pulse feels faster, my stomach feels rumbly and crampy, my legs feel tense, my posture feels closed, my feet feel fidgety.... etc. Get it? This takes practice, but a few mindful moments of breathing deep and scanning your body several times a day will help you learn about your body's clues. These physiological clues can help you learn, down the line, when something feels good and right for you or not... it's your best source of intuition.
Clarify Your Values: This one takes some work, but it's really important. Spend some quiet time with yourself figuring out what are your core values, goals, and dreams. It may be helpful to work with a therapist or coach to drill down on this. Then, make a list of what characteristics are non-negotiables on your wish-list for a partner and asses if these are in alignment with your values? Give thought to how you'll learn if a potential partner has these characteristics... is this something you can truly "know" in a span of a few dates?
Boundaries: I'd tell you to trust your instincts, but trauma survivors often struggle with crossed wires and instinctual systems that are always on red-alert for danger (even when there is no current danger present). In the absence of a deep trust of instincts, developing some carefully thought out emotional, physical and sexual boundaries can be very helpful. It pays to establish in advance, so you enter situations already prepared and knowing your limits of what is good and not good for you - then stick to them! Again, a qualified therapist or coach might be a great place to begin this work.
Trauma and it's long-lingering effects impact all areas of life and don't just go away with time. You have to actively heal from trauma. This involves acknowledgement of the areas in which your functioning is impaired, authentic willingness to explore past hurts, then re-learning new ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting.