When I graduated from seminary in 1977 I committed to an intern position at a large church with 24 full-time pastors on staff. I worked 85+ hours a week without compensation for three years. I would work from 7 am till 10 pm each weekday and then help the janitorial staff clean the church from 10 pm to 2 am. Many nights, Eileen and I would sleep in the parlor of the church. We lived off Eileen’s salary which was $9k per year. Why did I do that? At the time, some said because I loved God and the church. But underneath, in my desire to be the best I could be, there was a desperate need to gain the smile of approval from the senior pastor. You might say I was stuck in stargaze.
I came into my adulthood with a hole in my soul. My dad worked hard at three different jobs to meet the needs of our family of 12 kids. I believed that if I worked really hard then I would get the attention and acclaim that I missed from my dad because of his absence. I wanted this pastor to notice my hard work. Looking back I was stuck in desperation for approval. Yet, I could never get enough. After many years of workaholic ministry, the pastor promised that I would become his replacement. However, I later learned that he made the same promise to five other guys. I felt like a fool.
In recovery, I was challenged to examine my tendency to reach out to destructive people and believe in their false promises. While demonstrating relationship savvy in most friendship connections, I had a pattern of unwarranted loyalty and allegiance to authority figures in my life. Repeated and unresolved childhood trauma created a pattern of trauma repetition that undermined my emotional health and had to be addressed.
Do you ever wonder why you tend to bond with people who hurt you in your life? Addicts have the propensity to bond with people who are emotionally unavailable. Blindly, they lose themselves in unhealthy relationships that trigger desires to meet their unmet needs. They lose themselves in the intensity of the relationship in hopes that this one special connection will replace what has been missing. It can be a strong affiliation with a person of power at work, an intense alliance with an organization leader, or becoming hooked on a romantic relationship. Individuals frequently marry with a deep-seated desire to work out with their marital partner what was unaddressed in their family of origin. It can be an inward repressed longing that must be recognized before authentic contact can occur in an intimate relationship.
Trauma occurs during vulnerable and early developmental stages in life and is often unrecognized and invalidated. People become fastened to this nexus of early trauma. There is a tendency to repeat the trauma in later years of life.
Every child has developmental needs to be addressed. Touch, mirroring value, predictability, knowing that you matter, etc. are just a few developmental needs that must be met in a healthy way. When these needs are satisfactorily met safe attachment is formed. There is an embodied sense of security and acceptance. There is an ability to self-regulate with the capacity to form close connections as well as have separation from those with whom you are most personal.
However, when these needs are not met then developmentally you resemble a chunk of Swiss cheese with holes. There is an intense desire to fill the needs (holes) from the outside by achieving power, position, and control with accomplishment and relational approval. This need is overwhelmingly intense but can only be addressed with healthy attachment on the inside. In the attempt to fill these needs from the outside, you can become like a child who cannot get enough sugar. There is never enough achievement or approval from others.
As an adult, the process of addressing this destructive dilemma is to grieve the losses of deficits suffered way back in childhood. Embracing sadness, anger, resentment, shame, hate, and other feelings associated with loss is both unpopular and uncomfortable. Recognizing these painful feelings as energy streams is important. Moving the energy of unwanted feelings from the original source person to the issue (lack of attachment) and then creating what you want in your life through boundaries and personal empowerment requires accessing the maturity of adult self-parenting. Most times, people need therapy to develop this skill set.
Fritz Perls, who is credited as the father of Gestalt therapy, once said that “nothing ever changes until it is real”. You must come to a place where you recognize that the relationship with a toxic person is an attempt to fulfill a psychological need that was never addressed as a child or grieved as an adult. This is the reason that you never get enough of what you really don’t want in a relationship with a toxic abusive person. The crazy-making experience is that you keep creating the same toxic relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable and abusive.
When these hurtful trauma-bonding experiences are not addressed, people become stuck in their own stargazing experience whether it be name-dropping, preferential treatment toward those perceived as important, or pedestalizing a partner subconsciously hoping they will meet a need within.
Addicts struggle with looking outside to others to find answers for approval that can only be discovered within. There are no gurus to lead you. The late activist Grace Lee Boggs was right when she declared that “We are the leaders we are looking for”. Trauma bonding is a way of repeating an abusive relationship hoping for safety. Those who are willing to take the courageous steps toward addressing the pain of past trauma