Center for Shared Insight, PC

Working Through Trauma with Corrective Experiences

October 21, 2020
Posted By: Kristen Hick, Psy.D.

We learn nearly everything we know through experiences. That might be the experience of reading about something, doing a certain activity, or being immersed in a situation. These can be positive experiences, like learning how to cook growing up with your mother, chopping vegetables in the kitchen together, or negative experiences such as “learning love” through the relationship with an unreliable parent.

Corrective experiences are opportunities to repattern negative associations or emotions by activating and replacing them with more positive emotions. In the simple example related to the situation above, a child might grow up feeling like they can’t rely on others due to the programming they received over the course of their life spent with an absent parent. However, they may find a parent figure - such as a therapist or romantic partner - in their adult life who shows up consistently, attentively, and willingly. That corrective experience can help the individual associate more positive emotions with an attachment figure moving forward. It can repattern their experience of love and that they are worthy of having their needs met. Healing can occur in that corrective experience.

In this post, we talk about ways to identify your own traumas and how you might tap into corrective experiences, or other opportunities to repattern, as part of your healing.

Identifying Trauma

Before you can explore the use of corrective experiences for healing, it’s important to reflect on what exactly you need to heal. Getting to this answer comes from being introspective about your existing life challenges, and evaluating them objectively as a witness. Maybe you struggle to find and keep a healthy relationship in your life, or maybe you don’t advocate for what you need at your job. Identifying where your current emotional pain exists can help you tie that back to early trauma that is still impacting you right now.

For example, if maintaining a healthy relationship is a challenge, look to your earliest models of love -- such as what you saw between your parents, grandparents, or even the relationship you had with your caregivers. Any friction that you witnessed in those early experiences became part of your pattern today, impacts your perception of relationships, and influences the way you respond to your partner. From there, it’s important to recognize and believe that something better than your initial experience of love exists in the world.

Using Corrective Experiences

If you recognize that, growing up, your parents had no time to spend with you because they were preoccupied with their own lives and priorities, you might look for that kind of disengagement in your partner.  Since you were told that they loved you, yet they were absent from your day-to-day life, you have associated love with that behavior and even look for that quality in partners. A corrective experience in this situation might look like seeking out a partner who has a love language of “quality time” and is attuned to your needs and interested in being intimately involved in your world. Although it could be difficult to let this person be close to you (e.g., finding flaws in an effort to push them away), because it’s so different from the way you have been programmed to view love, being in a relationship with someone who is present and highly engaged can help you repattern your understanding of love from preoccupied and absent parents. This firsthand experience can challenge your false belief about love.

A corrective experience like this isn’t limited to a romantic connection. Longer-term therapy (six months of therapy or longer) also has the potential to offer a corrective experience, when it feels like a “good fit” As a therapist gets to know you and your background, they learn how to respond to you in an attuned way, matching your effect, validating your thoughts and feelings, and showing up in ways that you uniquely need. This is significant in laying down new neural pathways, so that your brain starts to know this is the “new normal”. The emotional experience of having someone meet your needs helps you begin to look for and nurture that in your outside relationships.

Another example of a relationship that can provide a corrective experience is a good friend who is present to your needs and available for support, which can correct any patterns you might have of associating love with emotional absence. In some cases, even a pet that is loyal and present can start the healing process.

At their essence, corrective experiences are unlearning opportunities. They help to disassociate past experiences from our perception of what’s normal. They are incredibly powerful opportunities for active, experiential healing and growth. At Center for Shared Insight, we can help you evaluate what opportunities for healing exist in your life through corrective experiences. Our team of therapists can support the introspection needed to identify the way early childhood experiences impact your behaviors and needs today. 

Connect with us for a free consultation.

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