For those providing nurture and support to trauma-impacted individuals, it’s important to appreciate that you’re approaching them in a loving, nurturing and supportive way can be filled with doubt, fear, avoidance, confusion and hesitation. Most trauma-impacted individuals deeply believe the message, “I was born bad and I have no worth. I do not deserve to experience safety, relational connections, love. It’s my fault that I am not lovable. I should have known how to behave. I am incapable of changing.” How does someone reconcile messages that express love and a desire to be in a safe and caring relationship with these messages of profound unworthiness?
In his Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics training (NMT), neuroscientist and child psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry shares that first experiences lead to initial beliefs, which are intractable. They can be modified over time, but the initial belief remains permanent. Even in the womb babies are forming hundreds and eventually thousands of beliefs about life, themselves, their relationships, what to be afraid of, the degrees to which there is safety in the world, and how worthy they are. Those earliest impressions are the stickiest, which can be a very sobering realization for parents and parents-to-be.
Because insecure attachment is a major, insidious form of trauma, the resulting messages of unworthiness are extremely powerful. The person with this issue is typically unaware that they are insecurely attached. They only know that they do not feel safe around many, if not most, people, they deeply believe they are unworthy of healthy, loving connections, they expect to be rejected by those around them, they expect to be ignored, belittled, bullied and in other ways treated with disrespect and disregard.
Those around them soon discover how insecure they are, how filled with self-doubt, even in the face of warm affirmations. In the back and forth interactions with a trauma-impacted person and someone attempting to be nurturing, these responses can be confusing and even off-putting. It’s hard to remain attentive and loving toward someone who is rejecting that attention and messages of appreciation and care. A vicious cycle can begin, a self-fulfilling prophecy experienced by the trauma-impacted person: “See, I knew it. I am unworthy. Look how people turn away from me.”
Once someone who is supporting a trauma-impacted person appreciates this tendency for that trauma-impacted person to expect rejection and to be fearful of attachment, open, authentic, trusting and vulnerable, they need to continue transmit messages of acceptance, unconditional love and a desire to be in a close and connected relationship. They simultaneously cannot be offended by the walls the trauma-impacted person may put up. Knowing that person deeply expects to be rejected can promote a deep sense of compassion for how lonely and painful it must be for the them. Remaining steadfast in those messages of love, acceptance and affirmation has the power to eventually break through the walls of doubt, at least to some extent.
If Dr. Perry is right, those walls may be permanently installed in the trauma-impacted person’s deepest beliefs, but he also includes that those beliefs can be reframed. “I am unlovable and unworthy of love,” can be modified to believe “except by a few people who I think actually do love me and believe I am worthy.”
For anyone nurturing trauma-impacted people, please know how important your compassion, patience and tolerance is when you find resistance to your messages of love, acceptance and a desire to connect. The inner world of the trauma-impacted person is so filled with self-contempt and self-doubt that it is only through that patience and tolerance that modifications can be made, allowing healthy connections to begin.
Invitation to Reflect
- If you have been someone who has nurtured trauma impacted children or adults, to what degree does this information resonate with your experiences? What are some of the ways it has manifested in that person?
- Can you appreciate the frustration in someone who is attempting to nurture a trauma-impacted person because of the resistance that is often projected by that person?
- In what ways does this information inspire you, renew your willingness to remain engaged, patient and persistent? If so, please know you are helping to right some of the wrongs and injustices that are inherent in the lives of a trauma-impacted person.
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute