Why Can Communicating with Others Seem so Difficult?

While communication is something that has been a part of our day-to-day lives since childhood, it can still feel like a foreign terrain that is impossible to navigate through. Whether it’s a dispute with a coworker, a misunderstanding with a loved one, or an unexpected strain on a long-term friendship, issues with communication can continue to crop up in our relationships, no matter how much effort we put in or how well-meaning our intentions are.

Communication can especially feel like an uphill battle when we face new conflicts, endure uncomfortable transitions, or are placed in unfamiliar social situations. There is also the added fact that communication involves at least one other person, whose thoughts we cannot read or behavior we cannot predict.

All of these factors can make communication daunting for anyone in any given situation. But for those with a history of trauma, like child sexual abuse, communication can be especially challenging.


How Can the Traumatic Events of My Past Impact My Relationships in the Present?

How we relate to and interact with others in adulthood is heavily shaped by our experiences as children. This is why a survivor’s perception of themselves, others, and relationships can be significantly altered by the trauma of child sexual abuse. This trauma is not only related to the abuse itself but to how it can influence the survivor’s sense of safety and self-worth, which underpin the way they interact with others.1, 2

A trauma like child sexual abuse doesn’t just change a survivor’s self-perception; it can have a profound impact on the way their brain receives and interprets information and social cues. Survivors may function in a state of hypervigilance which can interrupt their ability to focus on what others are communicating and sharing with them. They may also misinterpret nonverbal communication signals as they converse with friends, family, co-workers, or even strangers they encounter in the community. These barriers in communication can, over time, place a strain on a survivor’s relationships, whether they be casual, professional, or intimate. Such tensions can lead to a lack of long-term, trusted relationships, which are so critical to a survivor’s healing and well-being.

How Emotional Issues Affect Communication

Survivors of abuse may experience lengthy periods of time where the dominant emotions they feel are anxiety, anger, or depression. These emotions can deeply influence not only how someone communicates but also how often they choose to communicate. Sometimes this can manifest as long pauses during conversations, interrupting others often, or taking additional time to message back in digital exchanges.

In other cases, these dominant emotions can lead to strained conversations or interactions that others perceive as “one-sided.” Survivors may be completely aware of these patterns and feel a pressing sense of shame because they wish they could change the way they relate with others but can’t seem to make much progress in addressing these communication issues. They may, in turn, experience feelings of isolation or loneliness.

Communication Patterns Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse May Experience

Take a moment to read through these examples of survivors sharing some of the communication issues they have experienced. Do you identify with any of them?

  • “For a long time, I found it difficult to refuse the requests or demands of others, even when I knew I didn’t want to participate.”
  • “I am very reluctant to express my personal thoughts or opinions. If I even sniff out a tinge of criticism to what I do share, I will quickly shut down and withdraw.”
  • “I bottled up my emotions and stuffed them deep down inside me. Eventually, I would get to a point where I’d have to emotionally unload on my close friends. It wouldn’t take long before they would get overwhelmed and sometimes wouldn’t answer my calls.”
  • “My partner keeps telling me that I need to listen more. I am trying, but I guess I don’t show it very well.”
  • “When I am introduced to new people, I get uneasy and tend to ramble. Sometimes it makes it very hard to connect with others, which is a big part of my job.”
  • “The abuse I endured at age 14 created a lot of fear for me. I fought this fear by becoming intimidating and combative when I spoke with others. Looking back, it worked to deter people I didn’t trust, but now I still find I slip back into ‘fight mode’ even when I don’t want to.”

Taking Back Your Voice

Improving the quality of our interactions with others often takes time and a lot of work; but these efforts are worth it! Even taking steps to acknowledge how your ability to communicate with others was impacted by past abuse can be an important victory you build upon. As with most skills, our ability to communicate is something we can improve and even become experts at with the right tools and strategies. Practicing new styles of communication can result in a refreshed sense of confidence and clarity that everyone needs, especially if they are working to heal from trauma.

Resources to Improve Communication Issues

Below are three recommendations from our resource library. Each of these recommendations are tools that might be effective in helping you improve the communication issues you are currently experiencing.

Assertive Communication

This resource can help you better understand and practice assertive communication rather than passive or aggressive styles, which may have been undermining the relationships you are working to build.

learn more

Practicing Boundaries

Determining what your boundaries are will help provide clarity, consistency, and safety in your relationships. Pair this practice with openly sharing what your boundaries are with others and requesting that they honor them as they interact with you.

learn more

Support Network

Building up a network of supporters can provide you with various safe spaces where you can refine your communication skills. For instance, a therapist can help you identify and improve the communication issues you may be experiencing. A support group can offer you the time and place to express your voice among fellow survivors. And trusted loved ones can help you practice the communication skills you are working to build.

learn more
References:
1. Nielsen, B. F. R., Wind, G., Tjørnjøh-Thomsen, T., & Martinsen, B. (2018). A scoping review of challenges in adult intimate relationships after childhood sexual abuse. Journal of child sexual abuse, 27(6), 718–728.
2. Perry, Bruce D., & Winfrey, Oprah. (2021). What Happened to You? Flatiron Books.