Like birds of a feather flock together, humans were made to connect with each other. Those we connect with become our tribe: we feel safe, understood, and accepted. For many survivors of child sexual abuse, however, their experience with a tribe felt anything but safe and connecting. The mere thought of connecting with others can bring both dread and desire. And when you try to run away from something while running towards it, you usually end up stuck in the middle somewhere—wanting to be seen but also stay hidden, remembered but forgotten, loved but left alone.
Why is it so hard for me to connect with people?
Consider the tale of the village, the Fox, and the Rabbit.
In the backwoods of Slovakia, there lived a fox who was friends with all the townspeople. He helped them build their houses, brought them huckleberry pies, and showed lost travelers the right way to go.
One fall day, an evil north wind blew through the woods and turned Fox mischievous. He began breaking fences, stole from the villagers’ gardens, and even rearranged the stars to confuse passing travelers. Villagers learned to be wary when Fox was around and taught their children to avoid foxes at all costs.
Such caution kept the village safe and alert for many years, but over time villagers began to avoid all of the wood animals, just in case they were dangerous, too. When Beaver came to help the village rebuild a house, the town threw her out. When Owl came to teach children to read, they scared him off. Eventually, none of the wood animals dared to come near the village. Without their woodland friends, the town became lonely and isolated. But, the villagers reasoned, at least they felt safe.
Many years later on a sunny spring morning, something in the air changed. Kind Rabbit came to visit the village and asked if she could just sit on the outskirts of the village. The villagers were cautious but agreed. Day after day, Rabbit came back. As she proved herself, the village began to trust her and eventually they built a close friendship.
To this day, many in that village keep a wooden rabbit on their doorsteps as a reminder of the trust, friendship, and safety they once thought impossible.
Like the villagers in this story, it can be difficult to trust and connect with others when you have been hurt in relationships before, and distrust can extend to all kinds of relationships.
For most survivors of sexual abuse, the person who hurt them was someone they knew, someone who should have been the one protecting them. Because of this, trauma doesn’t only come from what physically happened, but can also stem from feelings of betrayal.1 Many feel additional betrayal when they disclose the abuse to someone who doesn’t respond helpfully or are betrayed by an imperfect justice system that didn’t serve them well.
Through all these experiences, your brain and body have received the message that trusting is dangerous. Connection leads to pain. They won’t accept you if they really know you. Hold on for dear life. As a result, your brain tries to find ways to avoid betrayal and abandonment in the future. Sometimes this means you become numb during relationships. For others, it might mean desperately clinging to relationships, even if the relationship becomes unhealthy. And for many, it’s avoiding relationships altogether.
Fortunately, just like the villagers in the story, your brain can change. Positive, healthy connections can begin to counteract what you learned from traumatic interactions with those who were unsafe.
Fire can warm or consume, water can quench or drown, wind can caress or cut. And so it is with human relationships; we can both create and destroy, nurture and terrorize, traumatize and heal each other.Bruce D. Perry
Below we’ll talk about what’s happening in your brain and how you can begin to develop those healthy connections.
Your brain and the bonding hormone
On the plains of North America lives a cuddly little creature called a prairie vole. These voles are particularly known for something rather peculiar: their human-like relationship behavior. Prairie voles typically choose a mate for life, they cuddle and hold each other, they share roles in building the nest, and they split responsibilities for raising their pups. In contrast, their close genetic cousin, the montane voles, tend to freely mate, are more independent, and don’t stick around to help with the pups.
What allows a prairie vole to bond deeply with another while it’s cousin, the montane vole, doesn’t? It turns out prairie voles have a special hormone system that makes their social bonding possible,2 a system that the montane voles don’t have.
By being able to observe the voles, we are better able to understand more about our own social bonding. Interestingly enough, prairie voles’ behaviors may seem so human-like because humans rely on the same type of hormone system for their own social bonding.
One of the hormones, especially found in female prairie voles, is called oxytocin. In human studies, oxytocin helps with mother-child bonding, developing trust, forgiving betrayal, calming the fight-or-flight response, and feeling close to others.3 Essentially, oxytocin helps you connect with a tribe.
Survivors often struggle with trusting in relationships, connecting with others, and feeling at ease. Studies show that many survivors of child sexual trauma have oxytocin systems that are disrupted, which can make social bonding complicated.4,5,6 However, your brain isn’t doomed to disconnection. Education and new positive experiences can actually make it possible to alter your oxytocin levels.3
Seeking new social experiences can feel daunting, and some survivors may be tempted to ask, “Wouldn’t it be easier to heal by myself?” Though this approach may sound appealing, trying to heal without a support network is like trying to climb a mountain without shoes. The shoes don’t hike the mountain for you, of course, but they help you get to where you want to go. Finding a tribe, especially if that tribe understands your experience as a survivor, not only positively alters oxytocin levels, but can lead to other benefits.
Social support can help a survivor heal from many of the emotional side-effects of child sexual trauma.7,8,9
Greater social support leads to better health and a longer life. 10
Hearing others' stories and advice can give you new perspectives on your own experience.
Receiving validation from others can help improve self-esteem.7
It gives you an opportunity to love and support others on their journey, which in itself can be healing. 10
How do I start to connect?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a support system. True trust and friendship are built steadily over time with patience and care, just like Rabbit and the village. As you build your tribe, here are some helpful pieces to keep in mind.
Connecting to others requires what most of us avoid at all costs: vulnerability. Vulnerability is one of those things that sounds nice for someone else to do, but when it comes to ourselves, we’d rather keep our walls up, thank you very much.
You may find yourself saying, “But my walls protect me from danger. My walls keep shame hidden. My walls are safe.” These feelings are valid, and there are certainly cases where it’s wise to have a few, select walls. But one of the downsides to having entirely impassable walls is they separate us from others who can provide support and validation. Some walls may even put us at risk for other types of unhealthy relationships or situations. Embracing vulnerability allows you to step out from those walls when appropriate, ask for help, and connect with others who may also yearn to be seen.
Take your time.
Your brain may have years of experience being disconnected from others, so it can take time for it to re-wire. That’s okay. You don’t need to share everything with everybody all at once, especially if it doesn’t feel right for you or crosses relationship boundaries. You can start with small shares, small moments of vulnerability, and small victories in developing healthy connections.
Although it’s easier to wait for someone to reach out to you, you can take control by making the first step. Sometimes it will go well, sometimes it might not. Ultimately, you get to choose what relationships you work toward.
As you reach out, comparison to others can set you back. It can lead to feelings of being less worthy, like you don’t belong, or that no one will ever understand you. Look for what you have in common with others. In survivor communities, there is always at least one thing each survivor has in common: courage in the face of great hardship.
Above all, connect with yourself.
Many survivors have spent long years avoiding themselves because they were ashamed or afraid of what they might find. But without a healthy relationship with yourself, it becomes almost impossible to develop healthy relationships with others.
Like other types of relationships, it may take time and patience to get to know yourself again—to learn what you like, what you don’t like, and to find the beautiful pieces of you that may have gone unnoticed.
You are worth finding,
You + all your
one million layers.
Always hold that close.Danielle Doby
Connecting to a tribe is more than just getting to know someone. It’s allowing the Rabbits of your life to be invited in, see past your walls, and appreciate the beautiful pieces of your heart. Connection may not come all at once, but with perseverance you, like the villagers, can soon have symbols to remind you of the trust, friendship, and safety you once thought impossible.
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