How do we react to emotional trauma?


The situations we lived in our childhood leave a mark on us for better or for worse. These marks last for a lifetime. They are called emotional trauma. If our parents or relatives have hurt us emotionally, or if we belong to a dysfunctional family; it will be up to us to take advantage of these experiences. You can use them as motivation to make changes in our lives to avoid continuing the behavior patterns we saw in our homes.

Emotional trauma

When we look back at our past, and our childhood, we can discover and recognize interpersonal situations that directly influenced who we are today.

According to Horney, basic anxiety (and therefore neurosis itself) could be the result of a variety of critical interpersonal situations we experienced at an early age, including:

“… direct or indirect domination, indifference, erratic behavior, lack of respect for the child’s individual needs, contemptuous attitude, excess or lack of admiration, lack of reliable affection, having to take sides in parental disagreements, too much or too little responsibility, overprotection, isolation, injustice, discrimination, broken promises, a hostile environment, and so on…” (Horney, 1945).

Three broad categories of neurotic needs of an emotional trauma

Throughout her work, Horney describes 10 neurotic needs that can be classified into three broad categories:

  1. Needs that move us towards others

These neurotic needs to make individuals seek affirmation and acceptance from those around them. They could be categorized as dependents, since they constantly and disproportionately seek other people’s approval and affection.

  1. Needs that move us away from others

Its main characteristic is what is called neurotic detachment. These individuals are often cold, indifferent, and distant. They could be categorized as schizoids. According to Horney herself, “they have an intimate need to put an emotional distance between themselves and others.”

  1. Needs that move us against others

These neurotic needs give room for hostility, antisocial behavior, and the need to control other people. They are individuals often described as difficult, dominant, or toxic.

How to use the neurotic needs

People who have well adapted use all three categories in a balanced way, shifting focus according to several internal and external factors. But for people who grew up in a dysfunctional home, they did not feel safe expressing their true emotions towards the people who were inflicting injuries. So, they defend themselves by expressing their anger against people they considered weaker than them.

The other alternative was to self-diminish and view themselves as a worthless person and worthy of the punishment received. Many times this was the action that their parents supported, telling them that it was all for their good (Miller, 1993).

Gestalt therapy talks about the defense mechanism of retroflection, in which the retroflecter does to himself/herself what he/she would like to do to others. The retroflecter is his/her own worst enemy. Instead of expressing emotions and feelings to promote change, he/she directs everything towards himself/herself, doing to himself/herself what they would do to other people. The person directs his/her energy the wrong way, becoming the object of action instead of the environment.

If this is your case, the truth is that you did not have someone who could understand how you felt or who could help you validate your emotions. You felt like a stranger in a strange land. As a result, you repressed your emotions, and your wounds remained unhealed until you reached adulthood.

Intergenerational transmission of emotional trauma

When you reached adulthood, you tried to heal those wounds. You do it by seeking to finally establish a relationship with someone who could understand you and help you heal those wounds. But, the process is not something done consciously and. Besides, you cannot control the other person the way you would like, you ended up not receiving emotional healing.

If all this effort you made to receive healing did not work, maybe because you gave up and tried to resolve these emotional traumas by focusing them on your children. Or by focusing on people who you perceive as weaker than you and easy to control. And now, you feel that you can do to them what other people did to you.

You need to be aware of your emotional trauma

But you do not feel guilty because you are not aware of the trauma you have in your mind. Possibly you treat your children the same way people treated you, thinking that everything is fine. As the adage goes: you cannot fix something until you know how it got broken.

If this is your case, possibly while you do not acknowledge or understand the harmful effects of what your parents or relatives did to you during childhood. You will destine to repeat the same cruel acts you learned from them. You will do it without perceiving them as such.

Instead, you will try to defend or justify your behavior. You will do it in the same way your parents did. So, they claimed they were necessary for you to grow and be like them. This is how traumas that produce dysfunction in our families transmit from generation to generation.

Do you know any other defense mechanisms for victims of dysfunctional parenting? Share it with us in the comments section, so we can help others identify other manifestations of emotional wounds. God bless you.

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