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How to be human: when (and how) do I open up about past traumas?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Dear Leah,

I was in a relationship with an incredibly abusive individual for roughly two years. I won’t go into any details, but they did a lot of damage that has taken, and will continue to take, a long time to overcome. I’ve developed coping mechanisms and have made a lot of progress, but there’s one aspect I’m struggling with that I’m hoping you can help me out with.

I recently met a girl and spent a few weeks dating before breaking it off. In that time we both opened up about having been abused, and in hindsight it was much too early to be talking about those things. I don’t plan on dating for some time, but I’m struggling with knowing when is the right time to be open about it because it’s something that will affect my future relationships in some capacity. So I’m not sure when it stops being too soon, and I’m also worried about waiting too long.

I’m also concerned about how to talk about it. I’m worried that talking about it in the wrong way might scare them off, or make it look as though I haven’t made as much progress as I have.

Thank you so much.

Recovering

Hey Recovering,

Before I get going into any advice, I want to tell you how sorry I am. Saying "I’m sorry" feels clumsy and insubstantial, but it’s true. I’m glad you’re out of that relationship, and I’m glad you’re working on getting to a better place.

You spared me some of the details, which I imagine was more for you than for me. I’m okay with hearing details, and in fact I wish I had at least a few more. How long ago did this relationship end? Do you have to interact with this person at all? What kind of support system do you have, and does it involve a therapist? You mention some coping mechanisms, which hopefully you’ve developed with a therapist. But if that’s not the case and you aren’t seeing someone for help, I definitely want you to find a therapist very soon. And I’m glad you’re taking a break from dating — not because I think you aren’t worthy of love or a relationship, but because I want you to feel stronger and safer before you become vulnerable again with a new person.

Vulnerability is a funny thing. It’s absolutely terrifying. But it can, like many scary things, be deeply rewarding. The urge to be close to someone by connecting over deep emotions and often deeply raw experiences is really powerful. It’s so powerful it can override our common sense along with any sense of self-preservation we might have, make us open ourselves up faster and wider than we ever intended. This is true of people who open up easily, but it can also be true of people who are more reticent and closed off, who take a long time to trust someone.

Ah, there it is. There’s the word that all this is about. Trust.

Let me tell you an embarrassing little secret about me, Recovering. I am someone who jumps into things too quickly. This is not my favorite quality. I know my openness is something other people love about me, but I also know I can protect myself better and get to know people more slowly. But oh, it is so hard to not give in to that rush of feeling, that heady, woozy, glorious feeling of finding someone who seems to really get you, and then there you are like some sort of geyser, stories and emotions pouring forth. But of course, geysers aren’t constantly active, and worse, when they’re not venting out all that steam and water and pent-up pressure, they’re basically a hole.

I sometimes wonder why I do this over and over, beyond my general openness and genuine love of connecting with other good humans. Sure, it feels good but that feeling doesn’t last, and it’s nearly always followed by feelings that range from vague discomfort to gut-wrenching misery. Why do I rush in and fall headfirst and go too quickly and say too much?

Fear.

Many people are afraid they are unworthy of love. Many, many people. People who grew up in loving families, people who grew up in abusive families, people who have had good relationships, people who have had bad ones. A lot of people think they are very weird or difficult, or have had experiences that other people simply won’t understand or will balk at having to hear and empathize with. I see so many people out there who believe this that I am firmly convinced there is no such thing as "normal." Yes, there are even-keel humans who seem to generally be in good moods and haven’t been through much (or anything) that we might categorize as bad or traumatic. But those people are somewhere on the range of human experience, just like you and I are, just like people who have had lives filled with unfathomable tragedy.

I don’t say this to minimize your experience or say it’s somehow not "that bad." I say it so you can know what you hold inside you is okay and not something that marks you as bad or other or unlovable.

So the first thing I want you to do right now is write this down: I am worthy of love. Tape it next to your bathroom mirror. Or hell, tape it in the middle of your bathroom mirror. Look at it every day and repeat it to yourself. I might do that, too.

Here are four reasons I bet you fell so quickly into sharing with the person you recently dated, and why she fell so quickly into doing it, too.

One: dealing with crisis, trauma, and pain can feel like being on an island. Not just any island, but an island like Alcatraz, where you can hear the sounds of other people living their lives and having a fine old time, but they can’t seem to hear you. That regular old life is simultaneously so close and so goddamn far away. So when you run into someone else on that island that you thought was otherwise deserted, you cling to them for dear life. We’re not alone!

Two: you each wanted the reassurance about what you’ve experienced and who you are. Someone who’s been through a similar experience can help validate you in ways no one else can. This is especially true when they know what it’s like to blame themselves for someone else’s terrible behavior. When I came out of a relationship with an emotional bully, I felt very alone. It took me years to understand what had actually been my fault in that relationship — and there were certainly things I did wrong — and what he’d been able to convince me was my fault (through such fun techniques as redirection and gaslighting). It’s helpful to find communion with someone who can remind you to not listen to the voice in your head that says, "But maybe, I mean just maybe if I’d been different? Or acted better?"

Three: you probably wanted to feel like you were safely out of the dating world, where shit is tough enough even when you’re not dealing with relationship trauma. You were like two little sea stars clinging to some coral after weeks of stormy seas.

And four: you each wanted to feel desired and lovable, despite what your brain says to you. Abusive relationships of any kind, whether personal or professional, can make you question your desirability for a long time. I remember once when I worked for someone who was a bully, I ran outside so I wouldn’t burst into tears in the office (I’d been told by other bosses to never cry at work). As I walked and cried, I thought to myself, "But who will want me? Where will I go?" Abuse and bullying can destroy your confidence and your sense of self. It can take a long time to get it back.

You wanted to know how long to wait, and how to talk about what you’ve been through. There’s no standard answer to that, no formula I can give you. New relationships are fragile things, basically gossamer cocoons. They can’t withstand too much weight or pressure, and they can’t stay the same snug little harbor forever or you run the risk of suffocating. Over time, as you get to know a person, you learn each other’s language and you build trust, both of which are necessary to strengthen the relationship. You learn whether this person can hear you when you talk about stuff that matters, whether they respond in a way that makes you feel safe.

We all put our trust in people who haven’t earned it or who treat it shabbily, and sometimes those are people we really thought we knew. Sometimes we share something scary and personal with another person, who then turns around and uses it against us or who disappears, because they don’t know how to or simply can’t take on what we’ve got. But I sincerely believe taking some time to get to know them — paying attention to how they speak and act, not excusing away behaviors we think might be red flags because we want them to like us — can help mitigate all of this.

There are certain things we all need to share on a schedule of sorts. It’s absolutely necessary to talk STIs and sexual health before you have sex. For some people, it’s also necessary to talk about whether either person has other partners before having sex. But emotional stuff is trickier. I think the best way to decide when to talk about it is to ask yourself, "Do I feel an intense urge to tell this person everything all at once? Or do I feel as if I’ve gotten to know this person, and we’re getting closer, and I can calmly share a small bit of it to test the waters and see how they respond?" That first feeling is the one to guard against, the one that lays you bare and comes from wanting someone else to tell you that you’re okay. The second one is more protective of yourself, and of the relationship you’re building.

As far as how to talk about it, my only guidance here is to start with a small piece that feels safe to share. Be straightforward and honest, but don’t feel like you have to talk about details or specifics. You don’t owe anyone anything that you don’t want to share or feel comfortable sharing. Make sure you are not diminishing what you went through to reassure the other person, or immediately comparing relationships, or trying to prove you’re worthy. You are worthy, and wherever you are in your journey is okay. This is a piece of you, but it’s not all of you. It’s a chunk out of what I hope will be a very long life, full of wonderful people and experiences and joys. You’ll find the words to share this piece and all these others, when the time is right. Trust yourself.

Lx