Cultivating Social Wellness after Trauma

Cultivating social wellness after trauma. Image © Shuttertsock/Sirtravelalot
Image © Shuttertsock/Sirtravelalot

A guide to learning positive social habits for mental and physical wellbeing by unwilling introvert, Aleney de Winter

Growing up I was a timid child who spent most of my days hidden amongst the folds of my glamorous mother’s skirts, determined not to be noticed. It was a trait that served my narcissistic mother well. I wasn’t supposed to be anything other than a living breathing tool in her never-ending psychological battle against my father.

My job was to fail, and in doing so provide validation of her martyrdom. She would reinforce daily that I wasn’t clever enough, pretty enough or good enough. Because I was my father’s daughter and, I was told with disturbing frequency, she was the one suffering for it.

But instead of failing I achieved, at least academically and artistically. But any successes were frowned upon or dismissed, unless my mother could take direct credit for them. I would be angrily declared a precocious upstart if I got an A, and a loser if it I got anything less. If I bought home an award or an artwork, it would be immediately binned because it was “just clutter”.

Despite her dismissal, I worshipped her and her love and approval was all I ever really wanted, but I was in a lose/lose situation. So I just quietly got on with doing my best and stopped reporting back. Things came to a catastrophic head when a primary school teacher summoned my mother to chat. The teacher explained she was worried about me because I was an empathetic and naturally gifted child who could be anything I wanted when I grew up … if only I could work on building my self-confidence. I was chuffed. So was my mother, bathing in the glory of her genius progeny. At least until we left.

“She wasn’t talking about you, of course. She clearly had you confused with some other child”, she snapped coldly, her words dancing merrily on the grave of what little self confidence I had left. That verbal kick in the teeth was emotionally disabling. Unconsciously, I began to withdraw from the world, the invisible tendrils of my mother’s judgement ensuring a full blown anxiety attack if I was asked my opinion or a question in class.  At school I continued to perform well on paper, but was rendered virtually incapable of speech. Even during playtime I would hide within the relative safety of the library, just to save myself having to interact with people. Because I couldn’t bear  everyone else realising how stupid I was.

There’s much more to wellness than just physical health. It’s a multidimensional beast with interdependent tentacles that encompass our physical, mental, emotional, environmental, spiritual and social needs. It is the latter, the way we connect with people, that is the piece of the puzzle that most often gets overlooked.

Humans are innately social creatures and our ability to make and maintain meaningful positive relationships and create positive support systems – with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours – fundamentally affects our overall wellbeing.

A decade after leaving home, I became increasingly unwell. Crippled with paralysing anxiety, my blood pressure was haywire and my immune system went in a tailspin. But a short, failed marriage to – perhaps unsurprisingly – another narcissist sparked the epiphany that not only was I far from dumb, my childhood trauma was affecting my choices and my health.

Determined to leave it behind me, I set myself on the following 10-step journey to social wellness.

Step 1:  Let go of blame

By acknowledging emotional accountability but letting go of blame, you can cultivate clarity, and take responsibility for your own emotions instead of being locked into fruitless feelings of anger and judgement.

Step 2:  Acknowledge your part

While you have every right to feel hurt by the behaviour of other people, you must acknowledge your part in giving it power. By redirecting and taking charge of your feelings, you can take back control of your wellbeing.

Step 3: Learn to love yourself

It’s easier said than done but good social health begins with how you see yourself. Let go of self-defeating thoughts, stop comparing yourself to others and be kinder to yourself. With self-love comes an added confidence to connect with others.

Step 4: Set boundaries

Know and understand your limits. Setting physical and emotional boundaries is necessary for maintaining positive social wellness, allowing you to comfortably navigate relationships and a sense of self.

Step 5: Practice active listening

Truly engaging means listening attentively to a person without interrupting. By taking the time to understand what the speaker is discussing before reflecting, and responding, you make people feel heard and valued.

Step 6: Find something nice to say 

Reinforcing a person’s value is a powerful gift that strengthens relationships. Interjecting genuine, thoughtful praise into our interactions helps us to see and appreciate the good in ourselves.

Step 7: Stop competing

Happy people don’t compare themselves to others because there will always be someone smarter, better-looking and more successful than you. Be happy instead of jealous of other people’s successes or you risk never feeling good enough.

Step 8: Do unto others

Mutually beneficial relationships operate out of mutual respect and consideration. There should be equal parts give and  take with both parties taking on the role of being the supporter and being supported.

Step 9: Avoid toxic people

Minimise contact with people who add negativity, stress and upset to your life. People can leave you with feelings of resentment and discomfort leading you to fall back into self-destructive social habits. You don’t need them in your life.

Step 10: Give a little

Giving is good for you. Studies show that an act of altruism can trigger the brain’s reward centre, increasing feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, lowering blood pressure and increasing self-esteem.

My own journey to social wellness has been a slow road. But I’ve sown the seeds with intention, care and effort, and the flowers that are now blossoming have positively impacted every aspect of my health.

Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health or mental health, seek appropriate medical care or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.