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The Role of ‘Chosen Family' in Trauma Recovery

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

They say healing from trauma can only happen in connection with healthy others. Choosing who these others are is tantamount to developing renewed trust in others and more importantly, reclaiming a sense of safety within one’s self. While blood may be thicker than water, your biological family may not be the ones who can best accompany you on your trauma healing journey. The good news is, you have the agency to select a chosen family and with that choice comes tremendous strength.

• What is PTSD?

One of my favorite Brene Brown quotes, and there are many, is a quote from her Netflix special “The Call To Courage.” She states: “The deal is that you have to be very specific about people whose opinions of you matter. It’s not that you don’t give a s*** what anyone thinks, just don’t give a s*** about what some people think. And then really solicit feedback from the people that do give you good feedback. And you know who makes that list? I’ll tell you who should make the list: People who like you, not despite your imperfection and vulnerability, but because of your imperfection and vulnerability.”

To my mind, this is the perfect criteria for who gets to be included in your chosen family. 

When I began my healing journey from childhood sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and covert incest some six years ago, I thought that my blood relatives would be by my side to help see me through to the other end of what is turning out to be a very long winding tunnel of trauma healing. I shared my stories with them with the expectation that I’d receive empathy and support. After all, we’d always been a super tight-knit family growing up, always in each other’s business but strictly adherent to ingrained intergenerational hierarchical rules… something I have since come to realize is an unhealthy pattern of enmeshment, but I digress. What I got instead for the most part was skepticism, judgment, and a hearty dose of resistance. I was challenging the rules of the family and that threatened to disrupt the role of every member within that dysfunctional family system. While I remain in communication with some of them, the interaction is infrequent and not filled with much depth. 

On the other hand, the people I have selected for my chosen family have shown up for me. They are made up of a motley crew of delightful characters who have hopped onto my chosen family wagon train along the way. This group is made up of mostly friends, my husband and his family, people I’ve met in online support groups, and, of course, my therapist. These people have seen me at my best and my worst, never rejected me or shamed me, were my cheerleaders during challenges and, above all, forgave me when I may have said or done something hurtful. These people understand the value of boundaries, consistency, showing up, and normalizing mental illness. They validate my trauma, remind me of my progress even when I fail to see it, and have picked me up when I felt like I had fallen backward in the ebb and flow of the spiral that is the healing journey. They are my family.

But here’s the thing: finding your chosen family isn’t easy. It takes courage, vulnerability, and plenty of trial and error. I used to be tremendously guarded about my personal life because I was terrified of seeming imperfect. I didn’t want others to know I was hurt, felt pain, or had needs. That was too dangerous. So when I started to delve into my trauma in therapy, I ripped that bandage off, and in my desperation to feel less alone I divulged far too much, far too quickly, to people who didn’t deserve to hear my story. I learned the hard way that not everyone has the bandwidth to sit with hard truths. That’s on them, not you. But what is on you is figuring out how much and how quickly to trust people.

I have found that I have categories of chosen family that intersect to some capacity. They all know my trauma story, mostly because I write about it publicly, but some know more intimate details than others. Some are really good at being sounding boards when I need sage advice. Others are great at helping me feel understood when I’m feeling triggered. A handful are my go-to for “crisis management.” Still, others are good at making me laugh and helping me to self-soothe when I feel emotionally deregulated. And then there are those magic beings who are good at all of the above.

Part of the benefit of having a chosen family is knowing who within the family you can go to for what. This is a critical aspect of the healing journey: the development of emotional intelligence and the acceptance of people’s boundaries as self-protective and not a commentary on their love or care for you in their lives. I’ve had to learn to stop overanalyzing every word of every text or lack of response as something directed at me and to meet people where they are at. This means that the people you spend the most time with will shift over time, some people falling away for a bit only to return when they can at a later stage. Honoring this ebb and flow has been a huge blessing. 

There’s no way around the fact that on the journey to finding your chosen family, you will get hurt. People you thought would be there for you will abandon you, people will decide they no longer have the emotional capacity to hold space for you, and… people who made promises to be by your side will betray those promises. That’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just life. Not everyone belongs on our journeys, but… when you find the right people, don’t let go of them. Nurture the relationships, reciprocate the support, and above all, respect the myriad of ways that people can and will show up for you.

Photo by Antonino Visalli on Unsplash

Originally published: September 21, 2021
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