Learning to Accept Love After Experiencing Trauma

Young Asian couple standing on a garden wall near a river. She is in front of him with her arms spread as if to fly. He has his hands on her hips to balance her.Love is one of the most elemental of emotions. It is a building block of some of our deepest relationships and a component in many of our happiest days. Yet the ability to freely give and receive love is a fragile skill, which traumatic experiences can all too easily dent or damage.

Learning how to be loved is a vital part of your healing. Here are a few things to think about as you regain your ability to accept someone’s care, concern, and nurturing.

Part of learning how to be loved again is learning how to interact with people who express kindness, care, concern, nurture, and attention. Because you have experienced a traumatic experience, you have learned that people are capable of great cruelty. To avoid experiencing cruelty again, a part of your mind may have decided to ensure that you will never be hurt again. One of the ways that your mind tries to protect you from future cruelty is to assume that people are dangerous. This assumption in turn results in you leaning towards mistrust, avoiding vulnerability, and shying away from emotional intimacy.

One way to practice opening yourself up to love is to practice opening yourself up to trust, vulnerability, and intimacy. But you have to make sure that you are practicing this with a safe person: someone who will not be cruel, let alone abusive, to you.

First, assess the level of vulnerability you open yourself up to if you take in the token of love.

  • A compliment from a coworker is a token of kindness that carries with it a low level of vulnerability.
  • Accepting a birthday present from a friend is an expression of care that has a bit more risk.
  • Taking in a statement of love from a nonabusive romantic partner is a higher level of vulnerability.
  • Accepting a dinner invitation from a friend who has been cruel may be a much higher level of vulnerability than taking in a statement of love from a partner who has been trustworthy.

Once you assess the level of vulnerability, take a moment and decide if this is a level of vulnerability you are safe with. If the vulnerability exceeds your level of healing, claim your right to do what is wisest for you, and back off or decline the token of love.

Consider the giver’s genuineness and accuracy. Is this someone with whom you have enough history to know their usual level of genuineness and accuracy? If you’re not sure, consider only accepting an expression of love that is low on your level of vulnerability. If you do have enough history with this person, then let their history of genuineness and accuracy help you decide whether to take in the expression of care, concern, or love. Someone who has proven to be genuine, truthful, and accurate is most likely extending an expression of love that is worthy of trust.

Consider whether there could be an ulterior motive. How would the giver of this token of love benefit from you accepting it? Could this benefit be damaging to you? When accepting an expression of love that makes you beholden or indebted to someone, think long and hard whether there could be an ulterior motive on the behalf of the giver.

If the expression of care is within your range of vulnerability, and is from a genuine and accurate person who does not have a damaging ulterior motive, then take in the love. Practice taking a deep breath while reminding yourself that you are actively healing one of the most fundamental of skills. Recognize that this is a moment in which you are being cared for, loved, and nurtured. Try not to miss these moments of kindness and care.

If you can believe the giver’s statements of friendship, respect, or love, then rejoice in the fact that someone believes these positive things about you. If believing these messages of love is out of your reach right now, then simply practice listening. Avoid disagreeing and don’t rebut the person’s opinions of you. Give voice to your gratitude, and express your thankfulness for this token of love.

If you are working on your healing with a therapist, try using that relationship to practice accepting care. I hope you have experienced your therapist to be the kind of genuine, accurate person with whom it will be safe to practice accepting love. Those questions about how you are, how your week was, and so on, are not just the standard questions of therapy: they are also tiny moments when therapeutic care and concern are being expressed. If nothing else, practice listening to these statements of care without disagreeing. I encourage you to take in the warmth of your therapist.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Susanne M. Dillmann, PsyD, therapist in Escondido, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Donna Bixby

    January 31st, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    I am sad to say that I have never been in love. Maybe I have but it has been hard for me treading that road because I have never felt worthy of getting love back. I recently lost a whole bunch of weight (130 pounds woohoo!) but it is still hard to think about getting into a relationship now. I don’t guess I want to hide who I am from a potential suitor but I also don’t really want someone to know that much about my former weight because I am afraid that he will think in the back of his mind that I would go back there. So I keep this part of myself closed off but I know that by doing that I am closing myself off to a future of potential and happiness. I thought everything would be so easy once the weight was gone, but the physical weight has only been replaced by heavier emotions that I equally don’t know how to deal with.

  • Susanna

    January 31st, 2012 at 10:34 PM

    Im 24 and whenever I h e had a breakup , my friends took extremely good care of me. They provided the ‘it’s alright we are here for you’ support to me that I’m not sure even family members would. And yes the levels of vulnerability you have spoken of is a good way to move ahead for those who have recently been hurt.

  • Bella

    February 1st, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    But if you have been burned by letting love in before it is a whole lot harder to let it in again.

  • R.Mascarenhas

    February 1st, 2012 at 11:40 PM

    Never easy to believe someone after having been hurt once. But it’s not impossible either. Love n relationship is somewhere where we have let our guard down. Yes it does make us vulnerable but it doesn’t mean we then become do hardened that there is no place for love to flow…!

  • Emma

    July 18th, 2014 at 11:08 AM

    I recently lost the only man I have ever loved from alcoholism. He died because he did not feel worthwhile and I feel like a part of me died too. I can’t imagine falling in love again. I don’t want anybody else. He helped break down my walls of protection I had built up due to past relationship issues and he then pushed me away in the end. I don’t want to hurt like that ever again.

  • Deb

    January 13th, 2015 at 9:19 AM

    Donna , I have been 300 pounds 4 times in my life . I also felt strange about my issues with food and dating . My sister , who is also heavy but never had an issue with it said … Someone will look at me and see ME not my body or my food issues . As soon as I believed it I met someone . I know it sounds funny but it really starts with accepting who you are and loving yourself . During my marriage I gained weight and it never affected his love or our intimacy . Why not work on that instead of worrying about some guy that may or may not accept your past weight issues ? I bet you are an amazing woman ! Believe it !

  • Kristel A

    January 13th, 2015 at 9:49 AM

    My heart has been broken and trust severed- and so I am moved by the struggles named here. I have found that the work of Diana Foscha and therapy called AEDP helps to resolve the difficulties after being hurt or when trust has been deeply violated. For those looking for more resources in healing, this may be a good path to take, especially with a seasoned therapist in the field. She teaches that in the broken places is where our strongest light shines from once we have transformed it–and from my experience, learning who to share that with becomes a very powerful journey of discernment and knowing how to deeply trust myself, and possibly another again.

  • MeLissa

    September 17th, 2015 at 7:22 PM

    I suffered a very abusive childhood was married for 14 1/2 years…it was abusive as well I don’t think I ever fell in love with him although I did have caring feelings for him…we divorced and I fell deeply madly in love with an alcoholic…Needless to say it was a toxic relationship… We were on and off for 6 years…he was sick and I couldn’t rescue him or fix him…I lost him last year…we remained friends and he was my “Go To Man” although I was in a relationship with someone else at his time of passing and so was he…we always loved each other we just couldn’t stay together because of his alcoholism… I got Married December 27th…I also had problems with Marijuana and had a substance abuse problem… I quit cold turkey for my then fiance(now husband)… He is and has always been totally drug-free…I’ve never dealt with my childhood and I feel I was cheated out of my grieving process due to my husbands jealousy…due to my past & my childhood I have a terrible time accepting love I hurt myself before someone hurts me I self sabotage…I also used to be a cutter…in the past year I have only done it twice…all I want to be is normal I want to think normal and I want to be able to accept love I need someone to talk to someone to reach out to and help me get there…I don’t know how to be normal I need help

  • Anesh

    March 17th, 2016 at 12:46 PM

    Yhoo gyz i have also recieve a broken heart that person is my child’s father he cheated no me twice then i left him but he want a love back and i don’t know what to do because i still love him very much

  • unknown

    March 29th, 2016 at 9:05 PM

    I’ve been looking for an article that actually could help me and still haven’t came across one. I know that this is an old article but I wonder if I can accept love. I was sexually physically use since I was 3 years old by every important adult man in my life. But I still can’t understand that it’s wrong for a man to treat me that way. Every man I’ve choose to be in a relationship has to use me as a sexually obeject or a punching bag in order for me to truly feel like im love. I have been in relationship with my childhood best friend for a while now and I know he loves me how any woman wants to be loved. But I don’t see that as love i want him to hit me and use me to show me that he loves me I even ask him to. And he won’t he holds and tells me that’s not love thats asbuse and nobody should ever have to endure that kind of pain. And he wish he could take all that and erase it from my mind. He opens doors tells me I’m beautiful tells me he loves to see me happy tells me that he will never hurt me. But I’m my mind he is hurting me because he is not giving me the love I deserve ( in his words abuse). Abuse is love in my eyes. Will I ever be able to accept his love because I really try it just doesn’t feel normal to me.

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