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February 12, 2020

The Journey from Childhood Trauma to Toxic Relationships.

This relationship is toxic; you know it.

You’ve given it your best, but you end up feeling depleted, less than. But still, leaving feels so scary.

Sound familiar? This phenomenon is common and can happen with any type of relationship—romantic love, friends, colleagues at work.

In a toxic relationship, the main unspoken agreement is that there is no room for change or growth. Both parts will act, recreating this endless cycle of exhausting emotional highs and lows and overthinking patterns, but chances are life will stay pretty much the same. The reason for that is the part of you that engaged in that relationship from the very beginning is a younger part. To be precise, a part of you got stuck when it was wounded. So, let’s go back in time.

We are wired for secure attachment. It means we have all that it takes inside us to build harmonious relationships, and that’s what we consciously want. But as we grow up, our priority is to belong to a tribe; that’s how we feel safe. We can’t survive on our own, so we will adapt to our caregiver’s expectations whether they are mentally and emotionally healthy or not.

Let me share an example that I see often with clients, and it’s kind of my story too:

You grow up in a household where everything is orientated toward executing tasks. That’s how you get validation (= love). To adapt, you’ll become good at being productive. But let’s say you are a sensitive child with an active emotional life. What would be comforting for you and soothing for your nervous system looks more like a touch or a hug, a comforting conversation with someone listening to you, doing something not task-oriented just for pleasure with one of your parents.

In the household I am describing here, there is no space for that.

It’s a waste of time and energy to blame the caregivers. The reason they are productive and not nurturing is because they probably never experienced it themselves. But in your mind, their lack of emotional attunement can create some pain, and some beliefs that are not even conscious. I see this one often: “I have to work hard to be loved.”

When your needs are not met, you enter a stress cycle. Your nervous system is not happy with the outcome. A part of your nervous system is related to your subconscious mind. That’s why sometimes it acts like a wild animal doing his own thing.

What it desperately wants is a different outcome. In my example, it wants touch, it wants connection, it wants nurturing. As a kid, you adapt and don’t have the capacity to step back and realize you need something different. When you grow up, you become more conscious of having this need.

At that point, you might think, Easy! I can choose now to engage in relationships with nurturing people, right?

Theoretically, yes, but not always.

Not if this wounded part of you is still looking for completion (or the different outcome). And the key is here: It will look for a different outcome with people who resemble the caregiver who was involved in the wounding in the first place. Why? Because we always go for what we already know. It feels familiar, it feels like home. We have a program inside that intuitively says, “That’s love.”

I remember a tantric master in India saying, “Whatever he receives, for a child it’s always love, it would be unbearable to acknowledge it was not love.” It’s a more psychological approach, but it matches what the nervous system does.

When you bond with your caregivers in any way, a set of chemicals is released in your system. And whether the situation is healthy or not, the same chemicals are released, and they make you feel alive. This is the best drug, and we are all addicted to it. We will always try to source it through the mechanism that we are familiar with.

So there it starts, the toxic relationship, with that friend, that boss, that partner who will make you go again through the same challenge. If we follow our example, there will be no space for your emotional needs in that relationship, and you will go through the same pain. You will imprint more of that program in your nervous system. This repetition creates some beliefs like, “No one listens to me,” “I don’t matter,” “I am loved if I need nothing.”

And you will behave from that story, and perpetuate the cycle that generates more pain, again and again.

I took an example that is quite common in a society focused on productivity and measurement. Of course, it can happen as well to reproduce a past experience of abuse or violence.

So how to get out of the downward spiral?

First, you have to complete the stress cycle. You want to discharge your system from that “wanting another outcome,” and the depleting, longing, and pain associated with it. It is easier to do so with a professional who can work with your nervous system (somatic work, embodiment, not only cognitive work) and can support you. If your past experiences involve trauma, choose a practitioner who is at least “trauma informed” or “trauma aware.”

Then you need to follow up with a practice that helps you generate a new response if the trigger shows up again in your life. In this process, it’s important to stay connected to your body. It will be your ally, giving you the signals you need. You will first create safety in your nervous system, and from that place, you can make new choices aligned with the secure attachment you want to now experience in your relationships.

At the beginning, it will feel counterintuitive because it’s not familiar and our systems always resist changes. Your intention is to keep building neural pathways toward secure attachment. It takes a bit of time.

The result you consciously want in your life is more happiness. From a body-mind perspective, you actually need to rewire your system. The result you are after is to be able to change your internal program to now experience this “chemistry of aliveness” and attraction toward the people who are not toxic for you.

Keep in mind, it’s completely doable even if it requires some efforts. Our internal circuitry is alive and dynamic. You can change the program any time.

So if you feel stuck, ask for help before the negative beliefs become the truth you live by.

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Céline Levy  |  Contribution: 3,855

author: Celine Levy

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Editor: Kelsey Michal