What is a reparative experience, and why does it matter in relational trauma recovery?
We all know that relational trauma has far-reaching consequences that extend well into adulthood.
Research has shown us that the experiences of childhood, particularly adverse ones, are not just fleeting memories; they leave a lasting, tangible imprint on the brain’s architecture and functioning.
And, research has further shown that those of us who live through adverse experiences and whose brain architecture changes as a result, often develop toxic stress responses, perceiving even benign experiences as life-threatening, which can further manifest in a range of maladaptive social and behavioral coping skills with subsequent health consequences.
Our adult health and well-being can still then be impacted by events, perceptions, and experiences that took place decades ago.
Obviously, getting the right kind of help to address the impacts of childhood trauma experiences is critical and certainly foremost among the preferred help modalities is trauma-focused therapy.
EMDR, TF-CBT, and other gold-standard trauma therapies are extraordinary modalities and interventions for childhood trauma recovery work.
But I do want to suggest that reparative experiences – both inside and outside the therapy room – can also play a role in the metabolizing, sense-making, and healing from childhood trauma.
So, what is a reparative experience?
These are experiences or scenarios specifically designed to fulfill the emotional and psychological needs that were unmet during childhood.
Essentially, a reparative experience is not just about revisiting the past; it’s about creating new, positive experiences that provide the emotional nourishment missed during childhood.
But what’s the science behind this?
Why can reparative experiences inside and outside the therapy room actually support that biopsychosocial healing from trauma that I was talking about?
Beyond the terms “nurturing our inner child” and giving ourselves the “emotional nourishment” missed during childhood, what’s really happening in our brains and bodies when we have a reparative experience?
Let’s talk about that more.
What’s the science behind how and why reparative experiences are supportive for those who come from relational trauma backgrounds?
The science behind how and why reparative experiences are supportive for individuals who come from relational trauma backgrounds involves a complex interplay of neuroscience and psychology.
Essentially, though, the key lies in the brain’s ability to heal and reorganize itself, a process known as neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.
In the context of relational trauma, this capacity allows for the re-wiring and reinterpretation of traumatic experiences.
Relational trauma, especially during critical developmental periods, can create neural pathways characterized by heightened arousal and fear responses.
These pathways often result in a persistent state of vigilance, contributing to long-term psychological and physiological challenges.
However, the brain’s neuroplastic nature means these pathways are not immutable.
Neuroscience research suggests that through trauma-focused therapies and reparative experiences, such as supportive, nurturing, and positive interpersonal interactions, the brain can develop new, healthier neural pathways.
This process involves reinterpreting and integrating traumatic experiences in a more adaptive manner, facilitating recovery from relational trauma.
So how do reparative experiences play out in the therapy room?
Let’s take a closer look at that.
How do reparative experiences play out in the therapy room?
In the world of trauma therapy, especially for those grappling with relational trauma, the concept of reparative experiences plays a pivotal role in the healing process.
This concept is grounded in robust research within psychotherapy.
At the forefront is the neuropsychoanalytic research by Allan Schore, a distinguished psychologist.
Schore’s work emphasizes the critical role of therapists in understanding and responding to their clients’ emotions, especially in healing traumas rooted in early-life relationships.
Essentially, the therapeutic relationship helps meet unmet needs in childhood: attunement, mirroring, empathy, constancy, positive regard.
By responding to the emotional needs unmet in past relationships, therapists can foster new, positive experiences for clients.
The therapeutic relationship, therefore, becomes a crucible – a relationship laboratory – for fulfilling unmet childhood needs like attunement, mirroring, empathy, constancy, and positive regard.
Supporting this, research by Zilcha-Mano, highlighted in the “Journal of Counseling Psychology” in 2017, demonstrates that a robust, trusting therapeutic relationship significantly enhances the efficacy of trauma therapy.
Such a relationship provides a secure environment for clients to process and heal from their trauma.
Collectively, these studies underscore the importance of positive, corrective emotional experiences within the therapeutic relationship for trauma recovery.
But, here’s another thing for us to think about: can these reparative experiences – both relationships and experiences – happen outside the therapy room?
Can healing and positive emotional experiences happen in broader life settings, extending the principles of therapy into everyday interactions and relationships?
I would argue yes.
Can reparative experiences happen outside the therapy room?
As a trauma therapist, I would absolutely argue that, yes, reparative experiences can happen outside the therapy room, assuming they have essential ingredients at play, much like they would in the therapy room.
So what are these essential ingredients? I would suggest that they include:
- Safety and Security: Fundamental to any healing process is the establishment of a safe and secure environment. According to the preeminent traumatologist and clinician, Judith Herman, MD in her seminal work “Trauma and Recovery,” safety is the first stage in recovering from trauma. A secure environment allows individuals to express themselves without fear, which is essential for healing. Therefore safety is an essential ingredient in a reparative experience both in and outside the therapy room.
- Empathy and Understanding: Empathetic understanding is crucial for healing. Research by Batson and others in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” underscores the importance of empathy in fostering emotional connections and aiding in trauma recovery. So whether inside or outside the therapy room, empathy for oneself or from others becomes an essential ingredient.
- Unconditional Positive Regard: The beloved and influential therapist Carl Rogers emphasized the significance of unconditional positive regard in therapeutic settings for client growth and self-acceptance, as outlined in his 1951 book “Client-Centered Therapy.” This concept is critical in creating a non-judgmental space for healing. And while very often we think of unconditional positive regard coming from others towards us, I want to suggest this is something we can give ourselves, too, to support reparative experiences outside the therapy room.
- Consistency and Reliability: Consistency in relationships and experiences helps build trust, a key component in healing from trauma. Dr. Judith Herman highlights the importance of rebuilding trust in her work on trauma recovery.
- Positive New Experiences: Positive experiences can aid in rewiring neural pathways, a concept supported by the neuroplasticity research of Pascual-Leone. Engaging in activities that bring joy or satisfaction can create new, healthy associations.
- Connection and Relationships: The role of secure, positive relationships in mitigating the impact of past traumas is well-documented. A study in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” by Brooke C. Feeney and Nancy L. Collins explores the role of supportive relationships in fostering resilience and emotional recovery. So whether you have a secure relationship inside or outside the therapy room, this is also a key ingredient.
It may seem like a very tall order to find all these ingredients outside the therapy room – a place where a licensed mental health professional is trained in being able to provide these essential ingredients to clients – but personally and professionally, I do think it’s possible.
For instance, many individuals with relational trauma histories can find these ingredients in relationships with romantic partnerships, good friendships, in spiritual or faith communities, and sometimes even at work with colleagues.
And with a greater degree of awareness around both the essential ingredients that might make something a reparative experience combined with an understanding of what our unmet childhood needs are, we can aspire to, as the late, amazing therapist Mariah Fenton Gladis illustrated in her book – “Tales of a Wounded Healer” – consciously create exact moments of healing; moments grounded in awareness that precisely respond to and provide for our needs that we have now in the moment and that were unmet in the past.
But how do we do this? How do we consciously seek out and cultivate and create reparative experiences for ourselves and exact moments of healing as adults on a relational trauma recovery journey?
How can we as adults on relational trauma journeys cultivate more reparative experiences for ourselves outside of the therapy room?
The answer to this question is going to look different for each person but, in my opinion professionally, it will hinge on both the awareness of unmet childhood needs and mindfulness of those essential ingredients we spoke of before: Safety and security, empathy and understanding, unconditional positive regard, consistency and reliability, positive new experiences, and connection and relationships.
What do I mean by this?
You could begin to get curious about cultivating reparative experiences for yourself by asking yourself some key questions:
What was missing from my childhood? What did I not have that I really hunger and long for?
Perhaps this is financial security. Perhaps this is regular medical appointments. Perhaps this is a safe house with a door that locks. Perhaps this is a sense of being in community in a city versus isolation in the country. Perhaps this is constant best friend and companion to be at your side through hard times. Perhaps this is built in time for play. Write down a list of your needs and wants that went unmet in childhood.
And then ask yourself: how can I give these to myself and/or how can I involve others in these longings to help me meet them?
Perhaps this means emphasizing your own financial education and setting up a consistent savings and investment plan. Perhaps this means moving to another neighborhood and asking your partner each night to double check that the door is locked. Perhaps this means getting yourself a dog – a furry companion to be with you through it all. Perhaps this means moving to the heart of a vibrant city after a childhood spent in rural isolation. Perhaps this is asking around to find a kind, trauma-informed doctor and setting up regular appointments with them. Write down a list, purely as a brainstorm for now.
And then further ask yourself, in giving myself these unmet needs, in trying to give myself reparative experiences, how can I better involve the ingredients of safety and security, empathy and understanding, unconditional positive regard, consistency and reliability, positive new experiences, and connection and relationships?
What do I mean by this kind of ingredient consideration? Are there kind, loving people you could invite into your reparative experiences? How can you add more consistency to your plans and experiences? How do you make this reparative experience more habitual? How can you think of yourself and speak to yourself more kindly through these experiences to support your own self-talk and self-perceptions?
The combination of being aware of our unmet needs from childhood and then being willing to think through creative reparative experiences and work to consciously create them, considering those essential ingredients, can be a powerful accelerant to the work of someone on a relational trauma recovery journey.
Especially when this happens in tandem with high quality trauma therapy happening inside the therapy room.
Now, If you live in California or Florida, either myself or my talented team of EMDR trauma clinicians at my boutique, trauma-informed therapy center – Evergreen Counseling – can be of support to you creating these moments in the therapy room and outside of it.
Please just book a complimentary 20-minute consult call with our center’s clinical intake director and she can match you to a trauma therapist on our team who is the best fit for you clinically, relationally, and logistically (and it very well may be me who is the best fit for you as a therapist!).
And if you live outside of California or Florida, please consider exploring my online course specifically designed for relational trauma recovery (aka: childhood trauma recovery).
Finally, if you’re still not sure if this content applies to you, if you’re still not sure if your childhood was really “that bad” I would invite you to take my signature quiz – “Do I come from a relational trauma background?” It’s a 5-minute, 25-question quiz I created that can be incredibly illuminating and will point you in the direction of a wide variety of resources that can be of further help to you.
Plus, when you take the quiz, you’ll be added to my mailing list where you’ll receive twice-a-month letters from me sharing original, high-quality essays (with accompanying YouTube videos and audios you can stream) devoted to the topic of relational trauma recovery and where I share more about me as a person, my life, and how I’m journeying through my own relational trauma recovery journey and general adulthood.
My newsletters are the only place where I share intimate glimpses into my life (including photos), the resources that are supporting me, the things I’ve discovered that delight me, words that are uplifting me, the practices that nourish me, etc.
So please be sure to sign up for my mailing list whether or not you want to take the quiz as it’s the best way to be in touch with me and hear all the things I only share with my newsletter subscribers.
And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:
What are some reparative moments you have given to yourself as an adult on a relational trauma recovery journey?
If you feel so included, please leave a message in the comments below so our community of 30,000 blog readers can benefit from your wisdom. You never know when you leave a comment below what stranger on the other side of the globe you might be helping.
So thank you. And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
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- Siegel, D. J. (2012). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are (2nd ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. https://wwnorton.com/books/9780393704068
- Brakemeier, E.-L., Wirkner, J., Knaevelsrud, C., Wurm, S., Christiansen, H., Lueken, U., . . . Asselmann, E. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and psychological well-being of young adults: A qualitative interview study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(4), e21392. https://doi.org/10.2196/21392
- Herman, J. L. (2015). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books. https://www.amazon.com/Trauma-Recovery-Aftermath-Violence-Political/dp/0465087302
- Feeney, B. C., & Collins, N. L. (2015). A new look at social support: A theoretical perspective on thriving through relationships. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 19(2), 113–147. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868314544222
- Gladis, M. F. (2016). Tales of a Wounded Healer. Woodland Publishing. https://www.amazon.com/Wounded-Healer-Mariah-Fenton-Gladis/dp/0980210704