Today I talk with Alex Howard, the author of It’s Not Your Fault — Why Childhood Trauma Shapes You and How to Break Free about the trauma that keeps us from love and how we can begin to take the steps to heal that trauma. Alex makes the complex simple, helping us to understand our trauma in new ways. In this episode, we talk about the many ways that trauma echoes throughout lives and Alex opens up about the time in his life spent trying to outrun his sadness. He also offers us a map to work through the trauma in our relationships.
Listen in to learn how our childhood traumas shape our capacity for love and what we can do about it.
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- What is trauma
- How does trauma originate in childhood
- What is the difference between overt and covert trauma
- How does trauma impact relationships
- What are our three core emotional needs
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How has childhood trauma shaped your capacity to love? And what are the research-backed tools to heal trauma, catalyze deep self-love, and allow us to experience greater, healthier intimacy? Stay tuned to this powerful interview with Alex Howard, author of It’s Not Your Fault: Why Childhood Trauma Shapes You and How to Break Free.
Hello everybody and welcome to the Deeper Dating® Podcast. I’m Ken Page and I’m your host and I’m the author of the bestselling book, Deeper Dating, the creator of the Deeper Dating® Intensive and the creator of deeperdating.com. I’m so glad to be here with you today sharing the beautiful, heartfelt and brilliant work of Alex Howard, who’s going to help us understand trauma in some new ways and also offer a map for how we can work through trauma in our relationships and intimacy life. This is a really important and exciting and heartfelt interview and I’m just so glad to be here with you for this.
So let me tell you a little bit about Alex. Alex is the founder and the chairman of the Optimal Health Clinic, OHC, which is one of the world’s leading integrative medicine clinics. He’s got a team of 25 full-time practitioners supporting thousands of patients in 50-plus countries and integrating a therapeutic coaching approach with functional nutrition.
And Alex is the creator of the Therapeutic Coaching Methodology. And since March 2020, he’s been documenting his therapeutic work with real-life patients via his In Therapy with Alex Howard YouTube series. In the last few years, he’s created some of the largest online conferences in the health and MindBody markets, including the world-leading Trauma Super Conference, and his conferences have been attended by over a million people, and I have just recently been very honored to be one of the speakers in his Healing Toxic Relationships Super Conference.
And Alex has published academic research and publications such as the British Medical Journal, Open and Psychology and Health, and he’s the author of the books, Why Me? and Decode Your Fatigue and his latest book, which is absolutely amazing and powerful and important is, It’s Not Your Fault: Why Childhood Trauma Shapes You and How to Break Free. And that book is available now. The thing that I want to say also about Alex’s work is that he makes the complex simple and brings humanity to some very, very profound and difficult concepts. So I’m just thrilled to have you here, Alex, and welcome.The walls that we create to protect ourselves become our prisons. Click To Tweet
Well, that’s a lovely introduction, Ken. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to get into this together.
Wonderful, wonderful. My audience is an audience of people who care deeply about intimacy. Most of my audience is single, but not all, but everyone is really interested in the deeper work of intimacy, and I think that anyone who’s interested in intimacy and the deeper work of intimacy is aware of trauma, because all of us have lived through what are called large T and small T traumas. And the truth is that the dating world is pretty traumatizing on its own, and re-triggers childhood trauma. And God knows relationships are complex and challenging as well.
And I’d love to hear, well, there’s so many things that I want to hear from you that I think are going to be helpful to my audience, but maybe we could start with you talking about what trauma is, how it originates in childhood and how that impacts our relationships. And I just want to start with a fabulous quote of yours, that very touching and just says so much, which is, you say that “The walls that we create to protect ourselves become our prisons.” Let me let you talk about trauma and how that relates to our relationships.
Yes. So when I was writing the most recent book that you mentioned, I felt some pressure to answer this question, what is trauma? Having interviewed hundreds of the world’s experts on this topic and having heard in a way hundreds of different answers, and to me a lot of my work is focused on the impacts of childhood trauma on adult life.
So this can include shock trauma, it can include that more classical sort of PTSD trauma where we go through a massively traumatic single event. But really for me, what I came to with going round and round and round on this topic, is that trauma is less about the events that happen and more about the way that they shape us in our life in the future.
That in a way we can go through events that may be horribly difficult and painful to experience, but then those events are past and the things that happen to us in childhood, they’re not happening anymore except the challenge often is that they are in a way because trauma is like an echo.
Trauma becomes an echo:
Something happens and then that echo reverberates and that echo spreads in our experience through time. If we take an example of this, let’s say when we are a child, yes, there’s the obvious what we call adverse childhood experiences, physical abuse, sexual abuse and so on. Those things of course shape us. But what also shapes us is sometimes these quite subtle experiences that we normalize to.
So let’s say for example, one day in class, at school, we put our hand up and we were really enthusiastic and we gave the wrong answer and the teacher laughed and everyone else laughed. And it wasn’t what one would classify as a childhood trauma except what happened was we got home and we felt sad. And what we needed was emotional support holding to be allowed to have the feeling state that we were experiencing.
But our parents, let’s say in this example, our parents were really busy. Maybe what they believed was the best expression of love for us as a child was to provide the best education, the best holidays. And so they were themselves emotionally depleted, not because they didn’t love us, but because they did love us, because of all the effort that was going into creating and providing all these things. And so that night we went to bed and what we’d really needed was just to have a cry and just be allowed to have the sadness that we experienced in that moment.
But what we learned was that we got more of what we wanted in the moment from our parents by pretending we were fine, and maybe we even got rewarded by saying, oh, what a big boy or girl you are to not worry about the steady people in the classroom laughing you. Well done for being a grownup.
And so we learned to not feel our feelings. And this wasn’t necessarily a single event, maybe this was just what we learned about feelings and emotions through childhood. And so we normalized to that. That doesn’t become, oh, something I learned from my parents. This becomes the way the world is, that you don’t express your feelings, you don’t express your vulnerability and you don’t feel your feelings.
And so trauma becomes an echo, because all of these things that we learn in childhood become the model through which we meet the world through the rest of our lives. And so going back to the quote that you mentioned in the introduction, the walls that we build to survive at childhood, like for example, not expressing our emotions, not asking for help, not being emotionally vulnerable.
We build a wall around those things. But the rule that helps us survive becomes the prison. Because what helped us survive in relationship with our parents as a child now becomes the wall to us being in intimate connected relationship with other people in adulthood.
And then maybe the feedback that we consistently get when we’re dating is that we’re not emotionally available, but we don’t understand what people are saying because we’re like, well, what do you mean I’m not emotionally available? Because we’ve just normalized to that way that we’ve learned to not feel our feelings.
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Yes. And the example that you gave is such a great one, and it’s one that in my work I hear all the time, and because you described in that original story, the kid being really enthusiastic with their answer and then being shamed, and then there’s this link between enthusiasm and shame. So there they are in a relationship and they’re in that bursty excited place. Then there’s the echo of the trauma. They shut that down and they feel shame around that.
And then that affects how they interact with their partner. Somehow they believe their partner won’t accept this about them. There’s an assumption of not being loved and seen, even though they never showed their enthusiasm. And there’s this echo effect right there.
I love that you chose enthusiasm because that’s one that I found that we really learn to get ashamed around really easily. So yes, this echo concept, that’s just a beautiful way to capture it.
And then just to take that a step further, so echo is a metaphor, but echo is also an acronym. So if we just break it down a little bit more, going back to what I was saying about it’s not just the events, but the events are part of it. And so in the acronym of echo, the E is the events.
Those events can be what sometimes was referred to as big T and small T trauma. I tend not to use that language because I think that sometimes what will be classified as small T traumas, like the example that I just gave, sometimes actually impact us more than those more obvious events. And so-
That’s really true. Yeah.
So I tend to talk about overt and covert trauma. And so overt trauma being things; physical abuse, sexual abuse, absent parents, things that we can clearly identify as being traumatic. And then covert trauma events are these more subtle things that we may not, particularly if they’re normalized in society, that everyone else has sort of drunk the same Kool-Aid, that that’s the way that it is, that we don’t necessarily recognize them for what they are, but they still have an impact on us. We have the events.
And then just to briefly run through this model, the C of echo is the context within which those events happen. We all have three core emotional needs, and these emotional needs are not nice to haves. They are as important to our emotional development as food, oxygen and water is to our physical development. And so briefly, these needs are the need for boundaries, the ability to say yes and no, yes and no to other people, but also yes and no to ourselves.
The need for safety as a small child. This is having co-regulation of our nervous system with our caregivers as we move into adulthood. It’s the ability to self-regulate our own nervous system. So to bring ourselves back to a place of safety when we become triggered or overstimulated.
And the need for love, not love of being told we’re loved, not love of knowing we are loved as an idea, but that felt sense of feeling loved. And this is the important bit, not for what we do and what we achieve, but for who we are as we are. So when these three core emotional needs are met in a healthy way as a child, we learn how to meet these needs for ourself in adulthood. I think this will be good one to come back to in a minute.
Because when we don’t learn how to meet these core emotional needs, it causes all kinds of problems when it comes to intimate relationships and looking for other people to meet those needs for us and all the ways that that can become problematic.
But just to complete this piece on this model briefly. So those are the events. There’s the context of these three core emotional needs. When the events overload us and when the core emotional needs are not met, it impacts our nervous system. And so our nervous system, just like all of our other bodily systems, has a place of balance, what we call a point of homeostasis.
Homeostasis means same, safe, stable, consistent. And so the homeostasis of our nervous system starts to shift and we start to become dysregulated. What in my work over the years we’ve come to call a maladaptive stress response. Healthy stress response – You and I are walking down the sidewalk in New York, we don’t see the big truck coming towards us. We leap out the way to survive. We need that hit of adrenaline and cortisol to respond to that stress. That’s a healthy stress response.
A maladaptive stress response is our nervous system behaving like the truck is following us the whole time. And so we live in a dysregulated state. That’s what happens when the events of trauma meet these core emotional needs not being met. So the H of echo is the homeostasis in our nervous system shifts.
But then here I think is the point that is important and often missed. We have to figure out how to live in a point of dysregulated homeostasis. And so there are certain outcomes in our lives. There are impacts of this. Impacts like living with chronic anxiety. We’re constantly in a dysregulated state. Impact such as depression. Our system freezes as a way to protect ourselves from the dysregulation.
We don’t feel sad and depressed. We don’t feel joyful and happy. We just sort of live in this numb state. Or addictions. We try to self-medicate our dysregulated nervous system with drugs, alcohol, sex or whatever it may be.
Or chronic self-esteem issues. We constantly find ourselves in repetitive patterns of unhealthy relationship dynamics to get rejected, because in a way, it’s become the familiar place because that’s what we’ve normalized to, and we’re trying to get back to a state of regulation by being in these places that feel familiar.
And so to go back to really just to answer this question of what is trauma – what brings most people to therapeutic work, to self-development and so on, is the symptoms of unhealed childhood trauma. People come with anxiety, depression, self-esteem issues, addictions.
But just like in a lot of mainstream medicine, someone comes in with a headache or back pain and they get painkillers to treat the symptom. We want to look at what’s underneath the symptom. And so often what’s underneath the symptoms is unhealed childhood trauma.
Put another way, a bunch of ways of relating to ourselves, to our feelings, to our emotions, relating to other people and relating to the world, which is perpetuating the cycle of suffering. We are no longer in that environment, but we now live in that inner world of that environment. And now we start to resonate with people and situations which are not good for us, but they’re familiar.
Yes. To really breakthrough from trauma, we’ve got to understand these pieces and then we’ve got to have a plan to break through it.
Trauma becomes an echo because all the things that we learn in childhood become the model through which we meet the world through the rest of our lives. Click To Tweet
Yes. And conceptually, all of this makes so much sense. Seeing the damage that it causes is so clear, including this concept that you brought that the people who feel like home are often people who retraumatize us because that feels familiar. That feels like our homeostatic place.
So then thinking about this though, brings up something very scary. Does this mean that I have to touch that stuff that has been unfixable, unhealable, dark, dark kind of space, a Pandora’s box? And that’s something you speak about really beautifully and with a lot of vulnerability. And you have spoken about that in terms of your earlier experiences with chronic fatigue.
And in your current book you speak about that in relationship to the panic attacks that you’ve had. Your story that you describe in the book about your interaction in the retreat center with Prakash, am I saying his name correctly? Was so moving and captures the hero’s journey of being willing to finally go there. I’d love it if you could tell that story.
It’s interesting actually in the context of this topic as well. So I found myself in my mid 20s. So I’d had chronic fatigue syndrome as a teenager, and that had catalyzed a whole path of self-development and sort of spiritual development and so on. I’d made a full recovery after seven years from that condition and I’d set up the clinic that I’d really wanted to exist in the years that I’d been ill.
And that had become very successful. And I found myself in my mid 20s in this place where I had a lot of career success in certain ways, but I was suffering from debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. I couldn’t have a relationship longer than three months. And it’s interesting, I didn’t struggle to start dating. I just struggled to continue dating with someone. And that was a strange one because I’d really struggled at school in terms of I’d been sort of the fat kid that couldn’t get a relationship.
And so a part of me was really enjoying the fact that I had some career success and I had some confidence. And so I was finding myself in these various situations. But it was also deeply painful that what I really longed for was more than just dating. What I longed for was an intimate, lasting relationship, and I couldn’t seem to have it.
And so I found myself at this point where I was having this constant panic. I couldn’t have intimate, lasting relationship, and I realized that I could continue down the path that I was on, but it was painful and I didn’t want to continue down that path. Or I was going to have to turn towards the feelings that ultimately I was trying to get away from. And the problem was that intimacy, and I’m sure I’m not the first person who would’ve used this quote on this podcast, but intimacy is “into me see”. That we let someone see into where we are.
And that’s a problem if you’re spending a lot of energy trying to avoid what’s happening inside of you, which is what was going on. And so when I was in a relationship, as soon as it got vulnerable and close, I was gone. You want to put it in attachment styles, I was avoidant attachment style. I really struggled at that time with that intimacy.
You were the one who left.
I was the one-
You were the one who pulled away.
And that’ll make more sense in a moment in the story. And so I was on this retreat and it was all about turning towards those, literally the exercise that was set was I want you to turn towards and explore all the feelings and emotions you spend your life running from. Talk about confronting exercise.
And I’d been on the same retreat a couple of years earlier, and I literally got in the car and drove home. I was like with all kinds of excuses of like, oh, I’m too busy. This is a load of nonsense. It’s a load of depressed, middle-aged therapists, whinging about their childhood like, I had all kinds of narrative and defensiveness around it.
Brave of you to come back knowing what you were in for.
Well, I think I’d reached the point that I realized that running wasn’t working very well. That running just meant that everything got more painful and more difficult. And then later in that week, I’m having a one-to-one session with one of the teachers that was called Prakash, and the invitation to really turn towards those feelings and those emotions.
And what became clear very quickly in that, and I’d done a lot of therapy as a reflection prior to this moment, but it had never really been clear in this way, was that I had a deep emotional trauma and wound of the fact that my father had left soon after I was born. So of course it makes sense that I was the one that left relationships, because I was the one that got left. And so that was the familiar pattern.
And so in that work went through initially a place of very intense hatred and rage and anger, and then the recognition that that was a protection from the place of longing and desperation and sadness and abandonment, and was really held in going through these emotional layers.
And then found the place in that experience of for want of better words to describe it, the love which is inherent within all of us and within everything. And in a way that very powerful muscle memory experience of when we truly turn towards our pain, actually we discover that which is missing. And all of the avoidance and distraction and patterns that we use to get away from, all it does is it perpetuates that cycle of suffering. And the panic attacks was really the result of my nervous system running so fast to escape feeling.
Because when we slow down and when we connect into ourselves, we feel. And so if it doesn’t feel safe to feel, what are we going to do? We either numb, depression can be the response. We use drugs or alcohol or whatever addictions or we go into anxiety. And what I’d learned was to go into a state of anxiety.
And so just to sort of complete this story, for about the next six months, if this was a Hollywood movie, of course one would’ve come out of that therapy session and one’s whole life would be actually fixed, and that’s often not how these things go. So the panic attacks did stop almost immediately.
And then for the next six months, I was just ragingly angry every day. And thankfully I wasn’t leaking it over other people particularly. But just all of these years of unfelt hatred, rage, anger, which many of us have, many walk around our lives with a big black sack full of all the stuff we’ve not dealt with. And then at various points the top comes off and it comes leaking out, and then we try and shove it back down again.
And as soon as I thought I’d made progress on the hatred, anger, and rage, I then spent the best part of six months just crying and just feeling sad and just feeling the longing place. But the interesting thing was on the other side of that, apart from the fact the anxiety and the panic attack stopped, I found myself in a very different way of being in relationship with myself. I could really allow and feel my feelings.
But I also found myself, and I didn’t talk about this in the book, but I found myself in a very different type of relationship in terms of dating. And so the joke had been for many years if I could just be in a relationship longer than three months, because that seemed to be the point that I got to three months and I was gone.
And I’d gone through a number of cycles of these problematic, and when I say disastrous relationships, they weren’t actually bad people. Actually I’m still friends on Facebook with some of the people I met at this time in my life and I have real affection towards them. I wasn’t ready, the relationship wasn’t right or whatever. But then as I continued to do this work, I reached the point that I realized that I wasn’t truly being authentic in relationship.
One of the other impacts of trauma was I had an idea of who I needed to be to be attractive, to be loved, to feel safe, to go back to the point I made earlier around core emotional needs, to feel, because I didn’t have that inner sense of safety, that inner sense of love, I was trying to be the person I thought I needed to be. And I’m sure you’ve had many conversations on this podcast about how that doesn’t go very well, and we try to relate from that inauthentic place. And so-
Just to add one other layer to that, another layer of trauma, is that culturally we are bombarded with that exact message, which is if you want to find love, you have to be, essentially you have to look authentic, but be inauthentic because you can’t rest in your humanity because that’s just not going to be confident enough. So yeah, just adding that other layer of this cultural bombardment of messages telling us not to do just what you’re describing, you had to relearn how to do.
And so I then met, to give away the end of the story, but I want to say a few words about it. I then met my now wife and we’ve been together now for I think 13 years. She was the friend, I met her on a retreat, funny, the same retreat group where I had this breakthrough. And she was the friend initially that I was going to talk about my relationship disasters. So she was sort of the loving friend that would be there.
And then I reached the point, I was like, I don’t want to be that person anymore. And so I stopped dating profiles, I stopped all of this whole sort of saga and this whole thing that was going on. And then I realized I had a problem because I didn’t have many friends, because basically I was either dating or I was working.
And so we started hanging out and then we had some chemistry between us. And then she says, Alex, I don’t just want to be the next in line of your relationship disasters, which was crushing when it was a chemistry that was happening between us.
And she’d also done a lot of work herself and she’d left a relationship after a number of years because he hadn’t been willing to commit. And she was very clear that she wanted to have children, didn’t necessarily want children with me, but she was very clear that that was something that she wanted to have in her life. And I was very clear that I didn’t want to have children at least, it’s very funny, because I said to her the other day, I was like, I think I now have reached the age when I planned on having kids, which is a bit of a shame because I’ve already got three.
But the point I want to make, which is one of those very strange destiny things, is I said that if I could just get to three months. And so we find out that out she’s fallen pregnant and it’s a miraculous conception. I won’t go into all the sort of biological details, but it was one of those situations that wasn’t supposed to happen.
And the due date of our first daughter was our one-year anniversary when we got together, which means if you track back the nine months of pregnancy, she fell pregnant at three months. So that was me saying, if I can just get to three months, and there’s the universe’s way of saying, well, you wait till you get to three months and let’s see what happens.
Oh, Alex, how beautiful.
And so we now have three kids. We’ve been together for 13 years. And what I really learned from that, and actually another detail here that I think is important was, one of the dynamics in our relationship at the start was if anyone knows the Enneagram, I’m an Ennea type three, which means that I think that I’m more lovable when I perform and I achieve and so on, which meant that my relationship style was to try to impress and as I said a little bit earlier, to try to be that person.
And every time I did that, she’d pull away, not necessarily deliberately, but energetically that was a repulsion, not an attraction on her side. And so it was like a living inquiry of learning how to be authentic and learning how to be rewarded in intimacy connection for actually being intimate and connected. And so I want just to summarize, I know I’ve said a lot of pieces here, but what I learned was to have a loving, intimate relationship, I had to work with my own pain.
And I couldn’t have an intimate relationship without doing that because I couldn’t be intimate with myself, because I was trying to avoid and get away from those wounded places inside. And if I wasn’t going to go close to them, no one else was going to get close to them.
And so going back to what you said right at the start about the walls, the walls that I’d built to protect those wounded places were the walls in the way of having true intimacy in relationship. And my observation working with people over the last 20 or so years, is that to truly have healthy lasting, intimate relationship with another person, we have to be able to have that relationship with ourselves. And to have that relationship with ourselves, the heart of that is showing up to healing those impacts of the past.
Alex, that was beautiful and powerful, and also it was a roadmap to finding intimacy. And there were so many points that you made that are such key, key points, and I just want to highlight a few of them, because you articulated a map to healing the wounds that can allow us to have love. And you did it in so many ways in that story. I just want to point out a few things that really struck me. But first I want to tell you that we are brothers in a lot of this. I really relate. For me, it was six weeks. That was my marker.
There you go.
I couldn’t get past six weeks. And as a gay man, my shame was what kept me from letting anybody in, even though I wanted love so badly. But I just want to go back to your talking about two feelings that you particularly ran away from and then claimed. And one is anger and even hate. I just want to acknowledge your bravery and acknowledge the power of accepting that we can have that kind of rage.
If we consider ourselves loving good people, that’s a scary thing to do. I loved your bravery in the book. In talking so clearly about hate, the word hate and feeling hate, then your bravery in being able to bear and live with all of that anger, but you were consciously feeling it so you weren’t inflicting it unconsciously. And then sadness. And then you speaking about that your protection was to try to run faster than your sadness, and then you stopped doing that. You were able to sit in your sadness too.
These are beautiful, beautiful stories. These are stories of learning love. And then your experience of how the people that you dated shifted. And then as you did this, the person you gravitated toward because of all of your healing was someone with whom your soul and your heart truly felt safe. That’s like the deep wisdom of finding love, is exactly that. And how fabulous that your wife is the kind of human being who when you pretended and when you tried to be something else, it hurt the intimacy and you could actually see that.
And then when you were yourself, she could move closer and you both could be closer, which is the mark of a healthy, beautiful relationship. And then that piece about the three months and what happened unconsciously is just amazing.
So to me, your story was an allegory, a beautiful, beautiful allegory for the journey. And in our time, I’d love to move on to the next piece, which is then what’s the map? What’s the map for everyone who wants deeper intimacy but is dealing with this trauma? And you’ve developed a map in your book and in your work, that’s very powerful. I’d love in the time we have left for you to just say something about that too.
The map through trauma to deeper intimacy:
Yeah, of course. Well, the real key here is going back to what we touched on earlier, which is our intimate relationships are really defined by how we’re in relationship with ourselves. And to be in healthy relationship with ourselves, really what we’re doing is we are learning to meet those three core emotional needs, that may or may not have been effectively met during childhood. So just to unpack that piece a little bit more, because I think this piece of the map is probably the most relevant in this conversation.
And so let’s look at boundaries. Boundaries is the ability to say yes and to say no. Yes to other people, but also to ourselves. Going back to using my story as a point of teaching here, the recognition that running faster to get away from sadness is not working. To stop that is partly a boundary issue, to go, I’m going to stop.
Or the recognition of being in a relationship pattern that is just toxic and unhealthy and going from one relationship to another and saying, I am hurting other people and I’m hurting myself, I’m going to stop. Healthy boundaries in childhood. And you and I grew up in a generation where typically boundaries were too rigid, and that meant that if you did something wrong, it was often harsh critical of immediate shutdown.
The current parenting generation at times have swung too far the other way, and there’s an absence of boundary. And so there’s a sort of what the risk of an over entitlement and a sort of over sense of importance and specialness of the individual, which I notice when those folks come into the workplace, they often struggle.
We have a company of about 80 people and we have people at different ages, and it’s not about any one person, but there’s certainly a challenge when people are younger where they haven’t had enough boundary. And we’ll come to healthy boundary in a minute. They also don’t know where they stand. And there’s a sort of lack of safety that also comes from that.
And so healthy boundary is there are edges, they’re held in a loving way, they’re held in a responsive way. And so we can push them and we can sort of find where they move, but also they love us enough to show up and to hold those edges. And what that means in parenting is a lot more work in the short term for a lot less work in the medium to long term-
… is my recognition. And so if we haven’t had good boundaries modeled for us in childhood, when it comes to adulthood, quite honestly, we can find ourselves just doing, if I can use slightly rude language, just dumb shit again and again and again, because we haven’t got that ability to say stop, like enough. I know this feels compulsive for me and it feels easier in the short term, but going back to what I just said, I’m hurting other people and I’m hurting myself and this isn’t okay, and so I need to stop. And so there’s the boundary piece is a really important piece here.
When we truly turn towards our pain, actually we discover that which is missing. And all of the avoidance and distraction and patterns that we use to get away from, all it does is it perpetuates that cycle of suffering. Click To Tweet
Boundaries with others, but also self boundaries.
Exactly. I’m particularly focusing on self boundaries there, but also boundaries with others. Sometimes our boundaries are very controlling about how someone’s allowed to be in relationship with us. One of my biggest lessons in intimate relationship is compromise. It’s like I actually, and one of the dangers of doing a lot of inner work is we get really good at listening to our own needs. And this is one of those great examples of the breakthrough at one stage becomes the trap at the next stage.
Beautiful. Beautiful. I love that.
We come to therapeutic work and we’re not paying any attention to our needs. And then we really learn to take care of our needs. And now we’re an absolute nightmare to be in intimate relationship with because we expect anyone we’re in intimate relationship with to be completely attuned to our needs all of the time, regardless of the fact that we’re not paying attention to their needs.
And so there’s a real artistry here of learning our needs, taking care of our needs, owning our needs, asking for help and support, but not making our intimate partner, the mom and dad that we never had, that were perfectly going to take care of our needs all of the time.
And so it’s really figuring out where is that boundary of taking care of our own needs, taking care of the other person’s needs, and also recognizing that where possible we’re each responsible for taking care of our own needs, and where is that balance of connection and intimacy where we merge together, but we’re also not collapsing together and looking to the other person to meet a need that we actually need to meet for ourselves.
And so just to bring the other core emotional needs things, I think they’re good examples of this. So the need for love, going back to what I was saying earlier, as a child, in the ideal scenario that most of us don’t get to experience, this is love for who we are, not for what we do. And so if we’ve learned that we are not loved for who we are, we are going to have a love deficit and we are going to have this idealized idea that the person we’re in intimate relationship with is constantly going to fill this bottomless pit inside of us where we feel deficient.
And one of my biggest personal realizations around this, was nobody else can fill an inner abyss inside of us. If we have a place which is unhealed in us, there is no amount of external relationship that fixes it. We have to do the work to heal that place. And we can talk maybe in a minute about how we might do some of that.
So when it comes to relationship, if we are looking for the other person to meet our core emotional need of love for us because we’re not meeting it, we are in the definition of a codependent relationship. We are dependent upon the other person to meet that need.
But of course, breakthrough at one stage becomes the trap at the next stage. We can go too far and we can become so fixated on meeting all of our needs ourself that we’re not much fun to be in relationship with because we become avoidant.
What I’ve really come to realize when it comes to relationships, like many things in life, there aren’t hard and fast answers. There’s an enormous amount of nuance and subtlety and balances and different things needed in different ways at different times.
The more that we can learn to meet those needs ourselves, of boundaries, of safety and of love, the more likely we are to find ourselves in healthy relationship with someone else that can meet those needs for themselves. And then relationship becomes the cream on the top of the cake where we then get to also help meet those needs for each other.
Exactly. So you’ve defined three kind of stages here. The first stage of not honoring our needs, the second stage of learning to honor our needs. And so it’s like from codependency to independence, and then the third stage being interdependence, where we know those ways in which our partners being there for us can actually be healing, but we can put words on that and we don’t ask for everything, and we know what we’re asking for and we can give the same thing back. It’s a beautiful depiction of those three stages and how they all have to happen in sequence.
Meeting our own needs first:
And then I want to just touch on, well, how do we meet those needs?
Please do. Yes.
I’m going to give a relatively simple answer to a very complex subject, which is not as simple as I’m going to describe it, but what we needed most as a child was the loving presence and attention of our caregivers. Most likely mom and dad, could be adoptive parent, foster parents, grandparent, whoever that is. And what parents think their children most want and what their children most need is rarely the same.
It was interesting, as an aside, I picked my oldest daughter up from a friend’s house a few weeks ago, and she’s at a special educational needs school. So there’s a real variety of families and kids there. And this girl happens to live in a probably 25 million pound mansion in Notting Hill in London with butlers, all the sort of the most sort of financially privileged environment that really you can imagine.
And it was really interesting with the girls driving home, I was picking I think four of them up from come back to a house for a sleepover, sort of hearing them talk about it and describe it. And the realization that what kids think they want is to have every new thing they ever can have and they want all that stuff. What they need is the loving presence of their parents.
And often as parents, what we can think our children want is nice holidays, more of this, more of that, it’s normally what we think we need to be seen as successful and loved and so on.
But what kids need is that presence, because that presence shows us the boundary and the edges. It helps us feel safe, and the presence tells us that we’re loved. That that person they want to be present to us because they love us, because they enjoy us as we are.
So when it comes to the healing, doing one’s own healing work, the method of healing is less important than the way the method is applied. And what I mean by that is if what we’re providing to ourselves is giving space to our feelings and emotions, we’re present, we’re showing up, we’re allowing the hatred, the anger, the sadness to be there.
And we’re doing that in a patient way. We’re giving it time. We’re loving ourselves in our experience. We’re not rejecting what’s happening. That is the very essence of the healing.
That was so beautiful, that was so beautiful. What you just did was resolve complexity into simplicity in an amazing way. That just captured so much.
Like the method, whether the method is traditional counseling and psychotherapy, whether it’s gestalt, whether it’s internal family systems, whether it’s coaching based work, to me the “what it is” is less important than the way we apply it. If we are meeting ourselves, we could be using a really outdated, not particularly effective psychotherapeutic methodology and use it in a way that has safety, love, boundaries. The healing will happen.
We can use the most cutting edge technologies to fix ourselves, to make things the way that they should be in that harsh, critical way. And we are perpetuating our cycle of suffering. And so my real invitation to people, is that there’s no miracle answer. There’s lots of different paths and all of those paths have value to them. But the most important piece is how we show up to ourselves. And that in of itself is such a powerful source of healing.
Alex, that was so beautiful and so rich, and I just want to tell all the listeners that Alex’s new book actually then articulates a very specific research-based cutting edge map of how to heal trauma. We haven’t had time to really go into that beautiful map, but the book is available, his work is available. And to me, you gave us the heart and soul of what we most need to know, and you related it to intimacy and relationships, including relationship with self. I thought this was inspiring and heartwarming and so helpful.
Well, thank you, Ken. And if I could just add one thing as well, which is that one of the great blessings of my life in recent years is, I have a series on YouTube, which I think you mentioned in the intro, which is people’s filmed therapeutic journeys. And I know a lot of people have, either they have financial constraints in their ability to access therapeutic work, they have their own personal blocks or fears or struggling to find the right person to work with.
And so on my YouTube channel, there’s over 100 hours of filmed therapy sessions on a whole range of different people and backgrounds. And so it’s a really good way of seeing what happens. And people often report in the comments that watching that work has an impact on them in their own experience as well. So just it’s another, thank you for mentioning the book, but that’s another great place for people to access some of these ideas and see it in action.
That’s wonderful. And you’re a wealth of resources. So how can people follow you, learn more about your work, dive into what you teach, what are the ways to do that? If you could just let us know.
Thank you. So my personal website’s probably the easiest place to signposts. That’s alexhoward.com. And you can link to the clinic there, the conferences that you mentioned. There’s actually a five part video series that breaks trauma down into a more, it takes the echo framework and puts it in some sort of practical homework and assignments that people would do. And there’s also links there to our therapeutic coaching practitioner training as well where people can train themselves as practitioners in this methodology.
Beautiful. Beautiful. Alex, I hope to have you on again because there’s just so much more here. I think you provided us with so much context and also so much hope and direction. So this was a joy, and thank you so much. Is there any last thing that you want to say to everybody out there who’s looking for a relationship, trying to build a relationship? Any last piece that you would like to share?
Yeah, two things I’d like to say. One, there is going to be an annoyance to people that are looking for a relationship, and the second hopefully will be helpful. For me being in a loving relationship and sort of family home, which was the thing I didn’t have in childhood, which was a whole other story, is the greatest blessing and joy in my life.
And I know that when people are looking for a relationship, it can be a really hard and a difficult, sometimes long journey. And I just want to say the journey’s worth the destination.
And the second thing I want to say is that as we touched on in my story, this is a dangerous piece of advice because it may be really wrong for some people, but sometimes what we’re looking for is right in plain sight. When I first met my wife, there wasn’t resonance because I was doing the dance that was the problem. And when I stopped doing the dance that was the problem, I could then see what was right in front of me.
And so sometimes the narrative is I can never meet the right person. And it’s not that they’re not around, it’s the way that we are looking and the way that we are relating, and we do the work on ourselves, and suddenly there’s a whole new world of possibility that can open up for us.
And that’s where I think, that’s the message of hope, because if we think that finding love is we’ve got to find this needle in a thousand haystacks of this one soulmate on earth that we keep struggling to find, that’s a pretty hopeless journey. And when we recognize that actually the work of the journey is much of it is work on ourselves, and when we do that work, different possibilities happen, it’s a much more empowering place to be.
That is wonderful. Thank you. The work is home. The work is close to home. If you would like, you can watch this on YouTube, you can listen to this on the podcast, and if you go to deeperdatingpodcast.com, you could get the complete transcript. Alex, this was a joy and I’m really grateful to you for being here, and now all of you know how to reach him and discover his work. Thank you, and I look forward to seeing all of you on the next episode of the Deeper Dating® Podcast.
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