Building Trust When My Own Sense of Reality is Distorted by Alcoholic Family

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Reader’s Question

I haven’t had a close personal relationship since I was around 25. I stopped because I kept seeing a pattern in my relationships I did not like — specifically me and my actions. The issue was that I was not consistent and I could see the hurt this was causing. I ‘blew hot and cold’ but this was, or seemed to be, beyond my control. Sometimes I felt positive about the relationship and sometimes I did trust, but I could never fully trust. I grew up in a severely alcoholic environment where ‘norms’ were distorted. My parenting was also erratic. As a result I do not really trust anyone fully. Anyway, the help I am asking is how do I break the chain? It is so hard to get a ‘sense of reality’ when your family environment is all you know and later find out to be acting quite dysfunctionally.

More specifically, how do I trust anyone fully who comes into my life? When someone gets too close I push them away and cannot ‘buy into’ the idea that this will work or will be forever. I always think there must be something wrong or about to go wrong, and I end up pushing them away. I knew the hurt this caused, so I stopped relationships altogether because it hurt me too when they were hurting: I never wanted to hurt people again like that. This, I think, was a wise decision. But I am truly lonely on my own, so I don’t want this to go on forever. I am in a quandary. How do I address my problems in such a way that I can then think about and successfully manage a decent close relationship without running away and finding reasons to walk away?

Psychologist’s Reply

I agree with you that trust is the foundation of any relationship. I also agree that it is impossible to trust someone else when you do not trust that your own perception of reality is not distorted. How do you find a corrective experience that will address these primary concerns? By practicing relationships in a safe and controlled environment.

A therapeutic relationship is a sacred thing. In individual therapy, the therapist dedicates his time to you. He consciously suspends his own self-interest in order to focus on yours. This is not something we can find in a ‘real’ relationship, where we are involved with someone because we receive something in return for our efforts to give to the other. In individual therapy, the therapist can give you feedback when you react to him. For example, if he said X but you heard Y, you would respond to Y. If that response was inappropriate to what he actually said, then you could talk about that together. In a ‘real’ relationship, your response might be a deal-breaker for the relationship. In therapy, it would be all about you and what gave rise to your response. That is something that could be valuable to you.

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However, I don’t recommend individual therapy for you. Instead, I recommend that you find a process group and work through these issues in long-term group therapy. In group therapy, you will have the opportunity to hear other people’s perception of reality. You can decide for yourself if their perception is distorted, and you can hear other member’s opinion about that. You’ll be able to watch other people react to each other and give feedback on that. You’ll be able to have honest relationships with group members while others witness it. Most importantly, whatever the conversation is like, you’ll be able to come back the next week and follow up on it. Relationship problems in group therapy are not deal breakers. You keep coming back. It’s the therapist’s job to keep things safe. It’s the group member’s job to be honest and keep coming back.

In group therapy, you would not be on the hot seat every minute of every session. This lets you off the hook; you could observe as much as you participate. You could learn from watching others just as they learn by watching you. In the process, you develop a sacred relationship with the group and each member that can last for years.

Since what happens in group stays in group, it would not directly affect your private relationships. At first, you may wish to limit your relationships to the group. If you are able to develop a sense of trust there, however, you may feel like you could risk a ‘real’ relationship again, a relationship without the rules and safety of the therapeutic setting. Still, you could remain in the group and talk about things in group that come up in your outside relationship.

A good working therapy group takes a very long time to develop because it takes time to develop trust. For you, it sounds like there couldn’t be a better use of your time. If you decide to try this type of therapy, take some time to interview a few therapists. Find one with whom you feel comfortable, someone who could keep you safe when you are at your worst. Find out if you would be joining an existing group (which has pros and cons) or if you would be starting a new group. Then, make a commitment to stay with it for the long term (read a few years). Remember, you didn’t develop a distortion of reality overnight, it will not be fully addressed overnight.

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