"Facing our past is often an arduous and lonely journey. It is an act of self-love and courage. However, it is not something we can just 'mindset' our way through or ignore."
Maritxu Arlegui-Prieto (MA, MSc, MNCS) is an Edinburgh-based psychotherapist. She has been counseling for six years in various settings, from community mental health centers, intimate-partner violence to sexual abuse support centers, supporting both young and older adults from ages 16+. Maritxu has completed specialist training to support survivors of sexual abuse, group facilitation training specific to supporting survivors of domestic abuse, and the Safe and Together training to work as an advocate for children who are witness to/experiencing domestic violence. She has been in private practice for over a year, starting during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her private practice is trauma-informed, intersectional, feminist, and LGBTQ+ affirmative. She supports individuals from all walks of life within a collaborative relationship to make sense of and find meaning in their life experiences, strengthen and improve their relationships, and witness their healing process, drawing from a range of therapeutic understandings founded in humanistic values.
SWY: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the way you came into this work?
MAP: Hi! I’m Maritxu. I was born in Valparaíso, Chile, and have spent more than half my life living in Scotland. I am still finding my way in the world as a bilingual third culture individual, carrying both Latin American and Scottish heritage.
I am a trauma survivor and have lived through adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) growing up. I remember how frightened and alienated I felt as a child growing up in Scotland – I didn’t know what to do with my feelings or how to be with them. In addition, I perceived myself as different from others around me as I was one of the few ‘foreign’ people in the town where I lived.
I knew I wanted to become a therapist when I was still in high school. So I set out to study Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, where I got my bachelor's and master’s degrees. Before applying to university, I didn’t know that psychotherapy is a separate field from psychology in the UK, so I completed three more years of postgraduate education and training to become a therapist.
I didn’t go to personal therapy until I was well into my 20s. When you think about it, that’s a lot of big feelings and difficult experiences built up inside one person! And, like many survivors, I focused on getting through whatever challenge I was facing. I kept going until my body decided to give me a push to seek help. I began to experience daily panic attacks, sleeping difficulties, depression, anxiety, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, and gastrointestinal issues (IBS).
Later down the line, my own therapy experiences affirmed that I had chosen the right path. As a therapist, I can draw from my own lived experiences as a survivor and therapist in therapy. I will often share these aspects of myself within the therapeutic space when working with my clients. I think clients connect with us when we bring our humanity into the relationship with them. I feel honored to walk alongside them in their journey of healing and growth.
SWY: You are trained in Pluralistic Counselling, what does this mean and how is it different from other types of therapy?
MAP: Pluralistic practice puts the individual client at the core of a collaborative therapeutic relationship. The therapist considers the client to be resourceful and full of agency within their own right.
In pluralistic therapy, the client is very much an active partner in the process of change.
As a pluralistic therapist, I work collaboratively with my clients to understand their views on their unique circumstances and to help them identify their therapeutic needs (e.g. what they hope to get out of therapy). Then, together, we jointly explore the ways to move forward. Finally, we agree on tasks that will help them achieve these goals, drawing from a range of therapeutic methods and understandings that align with their needs and preferences. In my practice, I draw from trauma-informed, humanistic, feminist, and somatic theories.
Another critical feature of pluralistic practice is facilitating the identification of the client’s strengths and personal resources.
Progress is reviewed regularly in an open, honest, and joint discussion between equals. The therapist is not an ‘expert’ who holds all the answers but rather an equal partner who can support the exploration of the inner and outer world of the client.
As a pluralistic therapist, I hold a ‘both/and' as opposed to an ‘either/or' perspective – that is the belief that there is more than one way to look at problems in living, more than one way to solve them, and each individual will benefit from different things during different points of the therapeutic process. Thus, there is no one size fits all.
SWY: You have a keen interest in attachment style, can you go into more detail about what attachment theory is and its relation to childhood trauma?
MAP: Our attachment style influences everything we do in life, especially our relationships with others.
During our first years of life, we need to feel safe and secure in our relationships with our primary caregivers as our survival depends upon it. A secure bond with our caregivers will help us develop a healthy sense of self, which lays the foundation for establishing and maintaining meaningful and secure relationships as adults.
However, when we have experienced childhood trauma, these early relationships were most likely inconsistent, frightening, neglectful, or even abusive. As a result, our ability to form healthy and secure attachments is interrupted.
Attachment theory proposes that as children, we respond to our earliest experiences of relationships by developing the following types of attachment styles:
When we are securely attached, we likely grew up receiving plenty of love and support from our caregivers. Our caregivers were consistent and attuned to our needs, providing us with a secure base to explore and develop a healthy sense of self. As adults, we can connect with others in healthy and mutually beneficial ways. We can think flexibly and see a range of possibilities, be considerate and comfortable with relational differences and boundaries, and deal with conflict without falling into endless cycles of drama. We can thrive alone and in relationships.
When we have an ambivalent attachment style, we often feel exacerbated anxiety about getting our needs met in relationships. We may think that we are hard to love or unlovable and anticipate rejection and abandonment from others. Our caregivers may have shown us love, but we never knew when their behaviour could change as children. Their care was unpredictable and inconsistent. Insecurely attached individuals will constantly be on alert for any signs of conflict or hint of abandonment, which will activate the attachment system into a protective mode. It is common to feel fearful about being abandoned and feel a strong dependency towards others while struggling to retain a sense of who you are, your needs, and set boundaries.
This attachment style develops when a primary caregiver was disengaged, distant, and unavailable. Your needs to be loved, accepted, seen and understood were dismissed or ignored. As a result, you learned to take care of your own needs by becoming hyper-independent and self-reliant. In addition, you will likely dismiss or minimize the importance of your own emotional needs and adopt a similar approach to the needs of others in relationships. You may also struggle with intimacy and vulnerability, mainly when your partner(s) express a need for a deeper emotional connection as it could feel threatening and invasive.
This attachment style develops as a result of chaotic and abusive care from primary caregivers. Instead of being a source of consistency, reliability, love, and care, caregivers were a source of inconsistency, fear, and harm. As our need for attachment is biological and essential to keep us alive, children still attach to their caregivers even if they are abusive and cruel. Over time, this tension between the need for safety and escaping danger leads to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. As a result, you may struggle with intense feelings of fear, irritability, rage, and depression.
It's important to know that whatever attachment style we live with evolved to keep us safe. Even insecure attachment styles arise to help us survive dangerous situations. Our attachment is flexible and can shift depending on the relationships we have in our lives.
You can develop secure attachment by learning to feel securely attached as an adult. An essential part of this work involves recognizing the impact of your childhood experiences on your sense of self. By becoming aware of how the past has shaped you, you can start reaching out for support from others and creating healthier connections.
SWY: You work with individuals who have experienced relational trauma - Can you explain what this kind of trauma looks like?
MAP: Relational trauma (sometimes interchanged with complex, developmental, and interpersonal trauma) is likely to happen within our primary relationships with caregivers and relationships with someone we know, trust, or rely on.
Relational trauma happens repeatedly and over a period of time and can result from any event that has undermined, demeaned, or eroded your sense of safety, dignity, and wellbeing. It can happen to children and adults.
Children may develop relational trauma due to having neglectful, emotionally unavailable caregivers, being left alone for extended periods, or being abandoned. Also, being raised by caregivers who struggle with addictions, mental ill-health, or narcissistic behaviours can contribute to the experience of relational trauma. In addition, relational trauma can occur due to relentless bullying over the formative years with no one to protect the developing child, witnessing or experiencing domestic violence in the family home, or being in abusive relationships as adults.
When children experience trauma and stress, it is not necessarily the trauma itself that becomes the problem. Suppose a child has safe, attuned, and consistent caregivers who support them in navigating, making sense of, and managing stressful situations. In that case, the child will most likely move through the stressful event or trauma without developing enduring difficulties.
However, if the trauma happens within the attachment relationship with a caregiver, the child cannot rely on the adult to help them make sense of and process the stress. Similarly, if the trauma happens outside of the attachment relationship but the caregiving adult still fails to support the child in recovering, the child will likely develop compensatory responses to make sense of their experience because, as children, they do not have the skills or resources to do much more.
These compensatory responses vary from person to person. However, when left unattended, they can lead the child to become an adult with impaired beliefs about themselves, others, and their place in the world.
SWY: How does relational trauma affect someone in the long term?
MAP: Relational trauma tends to shift how we perceive and interact with ourselves, others, and the world around us. Consequently, the impacts of relational trauma will be varied and unique to the individual who experiences it.
Individuals who have experienced relational trauma will often identify with the following (this is not an exhaustive list):
Difficulties with emotional regulation
Low self-worth and confidence
Difficulties in maintaining relationships with others (trust issues, insecurity, isolating, avoiding, fear, guilt, and shame)
Pervasive feelings of danger
Debilitating feelings of hopelessness
A harsh and unrelenting inner critic (e.g. perfectionism)
Feeling responsible for others
Struggling to set and respect boundaries in self and others
As you can see, relational trauma can impair nearly every major area of our lives. As a result, survivors of relational trauma will often describe themselves as 'fragmented' and 'broken', struggling across many areas of their lives.
SWY: What are some methods one can use to heal from their relational trauma experience?
MAP: Recovery from relational trauma is possible and multidimensional.
As relational trauma happens within relationships, healing also occurs within the context of safe, supportive and reparative relationships with a trained professional (such as a trauma trained therapist), safe friends, or a securely attached romantic partner.
Recovery also involves somatic work (i.e. working with your body and nervous system). Survivors are often affected by somatic dysregulation, so it is essential to retrain the nervous system to experience the world and relationships as safe and learn how to return to a state of regulation when the nervous system engages its automatic protection states. In addition, there is an emotional aspect to somatic work in learning emotional regulation skills, identifying emotions in the body, and expressing these emotions.
A cognitive aspect of recovery involves making sense and meaning of trauma memories and working to develop and internalize more constructive beliefs about the self, others, and the world.
In my professional opinion, a safe place to begin recovering from relational trauma is to seek out professional support, ideally with a trauma-informed therapist.
As therapy can sometimes be difficult to access for many folks who have lived experiences of relational trauma, I believe psychological education can also be a fantastic resource in the recovery process.
Facing our past is often an arduous and lonely journey. It is an act of self-love and courage. However, it is not something we can just 'mindset' our way through or ignore.
Dear survivor, in case nobody has told you, let me tell you this: You matter. Reach out for support, turn toward yourself with the help of safe others, and begin the healing journey to a life that fulfills your needs and desires.
Recovery happens in connection.
We want to thank Maritxu for sharing her story with us and providing a greater understanding of the effects of attachment and relational trauma later in life. Make sure to check out her Instagram or Website for more information about her practice.
Check out some of Maritxu's suggestions for readers: