Written by

Angela Scharfenberg

Relationships, whether they’re with family, friends, or colleagues, are a huge part of our lives. But for many, they leave us feeling distressed, uncertain, and anxious. Sometimes we’re so worried about what others may think, that we’re unable to relax and be ourselves. Some of us avoid relationships altogether, preventing anyone from getting too close. Others find themselves going from 0-100 in new relationships, with things often ending as abruptly as they began. These patterns can feel familiar, but at the same time confusing, particularly when they’re at odds with what we want from relationships and our lives. So why is it that we find ourselves stuck in this loop? It might sound clichéd, but the relationships we have (or, in some cases, don’t have) when we’re growing up, can provide a lot of answers.

Our early life experiences have a massive impact on how we think, feel, and behave, shaping our beliefs about ourselves and the world. If we’re fortunate enough to spend our childhood surrounded by people who provide consistent love, support, and security, we’re likely to believe that we’re loveable, that people can be trusted, and that the world is a safe place. But if that doesn’t occur, we may believe that there’s something wrong with us, that people are unpredictable, and that the world and the people in it are dangerous. If you take a moment, you can probably imagine just how differently two people who’ve been in the above scenarios might think, feel, and behave.

For normal social and emotional development to occur, children need a positive relationship with a primary caregiver, someone who’s consistently available and responsive to their needs. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. This can occur for a variety of reasons, including neglect or abuse, divorce, illness, or the temperament of the caregiver themselves. When this bond between a child and their caregiver is disrupted, attachment trauma can occur, impacting the child’s sense of self and their ability to form relationships. When we think of trauma, we often think of big events, like interpersonal violence, accidents, or the loss of a loved one. But the subtle and pervasive nature of attachment trauma, which can leave children feeling alone, unsafe, or distressed over extended periods of time, can be just as impactful. When these feelings are unresolved, they can cause a range of difficulties as we get older.

The effect that such experiences have on people differs based on a range of things, including genes, temperament, and environmental factors. Some people who experience disrupted attachment do not appear to suffer any negative consequences. For others, it leads to problems such as mood instability, impulsivity, substance use, or difficulty with interpersonal relationships. Depending on the nature of their experiences, some people may also develop symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD (CPTSD). When figuring out if something is an issue for you, it is important to consider the impact it is having on you and your life, not what you think you should feel or do based on the experiences or opinions of others. If you’re not feeling great, that’s a good enough reason to get some extra support.

Should I get help?

Deciding to seek the help of a psychologist can feel overwhelming. You might worry about not knowing what to say or being judged. But rest assured, a psychologist is there to support you and will never pass judgment on your thoughts or feelings. They can help you find the words to express yourself, even if it takes time. Whatever your current situation, a psychologist will meet you where you are and help you explore the historical factors that have contributed to how you’re feeling. This can empower you to take a more active role in therapy and make informed decisions about the best course of treatment for you. It can also provide reassurance that you’re not alone in your experiences, and your feelings are valid and understandable in the context of your life.

Multiple therapeutic approaches can be used to help people address these issues, two of which are dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) and schema therapy. DBT can be used to increase awareness and acceptance of thoughts and learn skills that create space between emotions and behaviours. On the other hand, schema therapy can help you to uncover and understand the unhelpful beliefs you have about yourself, others and the world (referred to as schemas), that develop when our needs aren’t met as a child and can often underlie challenges we face in our adult lives. Once you and your psychologist understand the difficulties you’re experiencing, you can decide together which treatment is likely to be best for you.