What makes it hard to relate to others

What makes it hard to relate to others and oneself? The answer seems to lie in developmental trauma.  Learning about developmental trauma has helped me understand what impacts our relationships on a deeper level. So I’d like to share this information with you too, in case you or someone close to you might be struggling with relationship issues that seem to have a deep-rooted cause.

What is developmental trauma?

I’m sharing this information based on Dr. Laurence Heller’s book, “Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship”. His perspective is based on his NeuroAffective Relational Model (NARM).

According to Dr. Heller, developmental trauma is what happens when five biological core needs aren’t met during the very early years of our lives. They’re called “biological” because not meeting them has real psychological and physical effects. The development of our brain, nervous system, sense of Self and capacities such as those in the chart below are all negatively impacted – hence the name “developmental trauma”.

NARM core needs
From: "Healing Developmental Trauma", Dr. Laurence Heller

Those of us whose needs were met adequately by attentive caregivers grow into well-adjusted children, teens and adults.

But what if we had an emotionally unavailable, depressed or highly anxious parent (on the mild end)?  Or a narcissistic, abusive, volatile or negligent parent (on the severe end)? Or were born into an environment that wasn’t a good fit with our temperament?

We feel disconnected, disorganized, overwhelmed by our emotions, and all alone.  So we develop certain coping, or survival styles.  Those styles lead to difficulties such as the below:

NARM core difficulties
From: "Healing Developmental Trauma", Dr. Laurence Heller

These styles lead to certain ways of defining who we are. That affects how we relate to other people. There are two types: shame-based and pride-based. Those identities look like this:

NARM identifications
From: "Healing Developmental Trauma", Dr. Laurence Heller

Do you recognize any of these, to some degree, in yourself or someone you know?

I do. The pre-EC/BC/MAP me had a lot of baggage which affected my children so I did what I could to help them. Now that I know about developmental trauma, there’s still more I could do! As one fellow practitioner and mother said to me, “It’s a journey.” It sure is.

How can developmental trauma be treated?

So what can be done to change these identities into healthier ones?

I’m sure there are more, but based on my readings so far, these two therapies seem very effective:

1) Dr. Heller’s NARM

2) Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz

NARM uses awareness of our body, senses, thoughts and feelings to explore both negative and positive experiences of other people.  That helps build resilience and create a more accurate sense of Self. IFS focuses on resolving conflicts between inner parts and learning how to live as our main Self. IFS can also address conflicts within the family, too.

More about parts

Speaking of parts, this article explains them in more detail from an IFS point of view. Below is another perspective from Process Healing, created by Dr. Garry Flint, which the MAP Method™ is based on.

According to Dr. Flint, parts are formed during times of trauma. Trauma here is defined as a never-before experienced event that forces the brain to mobilize. These parts have memories, emotions, thoughts and behaviors which they learned from that experience.

During traumatic events, our higher functioning Self gets “pushed out” and a more primitive, emotional self takes over. When the event is over, the main Self comes back, but the trauma part stays hidden. Until we’re faced with a situation that reminds us, unconsciously, of what we experienced at the time. That’s why we sometimes act totally out of character when triggered; we go back to being that trauma part.

Trauma parts can be integrated with the MAP Method by asking the brain to disconnect from any barriers that prevent it from joining with the main Self. Integration helps us become more whole, coherent, and better able to cope.

MAP integration
From: "A Theory and Treatment of Your Personality", Dr. Garry A. Flint

Putting it together

How we relate with others has a lot to do with the identity we created.  That identity is based on what we experienced as a very young child.  If we weren’t able to sufficiently develop capacities to connect, attune, trust, be autonomous and love because of developmental trauma, the likelihood of developing a distorted (i.e. a shame or pride based) identity grows stronger.

To change that identity, a NARM or IFS therapist can help us learn how to regulate ourselves better and build an accurate sense of Self, or resolve conflicts between our inner parts. Trauma parts can also be integrated with the help of the MAP Method.

By developing a healthier sense of self, we can relate better to others, and to ourselves.

I hope this information helped you gain more perspective on why you or someone close to you might be struggling with relationship issues, and what can be done about it! If you have any further questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to me here.