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Relationship Recovery Process (RRP)

I use the Relationship Recovery Process (RRP) for healing childhood trauma. RRP was created by clinical social worker Amanda Curtin, who has been practicing it for over 35 years and has trained dozens of mental health professionals to use it. Clinical social worker Patrick Teahan, with whom I trained in RRP for over 2 years, has created hundreds of YouTube videos and other social media content that apply the RRP model to ordinary experience in practical and relatable ways.

 

RRP is a healing model designed to help childhood-trauma survivors relate to themselves and others in healthier ways. They achieve this by re-parenting their wounded inner child toward healing and by enhancing their skills for cultivating healthy intimacy in relationships. Clients are empowered to gain freedom from how they were “programmed” as kids who had to adopt unhealthy beliefs and behaviors to survive childhood.

Image by Laurenz Kleinheider

Connecting, rather than identifying, with my wounded inner child 

Survivors can learn to relate as a loving parent to their wounded inner child, even if at first the idea of connecting with their inner child feels awkward. 

At first, it can feel weird to think of relating to my "inner child". One reason for this is that their inner child is not used to receiving kind and empathetic attention. Another is that they’re still identifying with their inner child. The reactions that come from their inner child just feel like “me.” Clients often describe feeling about themselves now in much the same way they felt about themselves when they were kids. Feeling embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, and alone are common. If they see a childhood photo or have a childhood memory, it can bring up those same negative feelings about themselves.

My “inner adult” is not just my inner voice that sounds old. It’s my ability to be present to my inner child in a mindful way that’s validating and empathetic. As childhood-trauma survivors practice being present to themselves in a mindful way, they notice that many of their present reactions originate in a distinct part of themselves that’s stuck in their painful childhood past, their wounded inner child. 

Clients grow an inner capacity to connect with their inner child. Then, in response to the same childhood photo or memory, over time they identify less and less with their inner child’s shame and abandonment. Instead, like a nurturing parent, they’re able to open their heart to that kid with empathy and validation for the pain and overwhelm the child experienced. They begin to connect with their inner child. This fundamental shift opens the way for much positive change to come. 

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Becoming aware of how my wounded inner child runs my adult life 

Doing this work, survivors gradually recognize how they’re stuck in reactions that originate in their painful childhood past. They see how those reactive thoughts, emotions, body states (like shutting down or freezing), often run their adult lives by leading to behaviors and ways of coping with stress that are self-defeating. Calling these reactions “being triggered” reminds us that the reaction is only triggered, not caused, by the present event, like a stick poking an old wound; its energy actually comes from our painful childhood (the wound). Some of the time I just feel like these reactions are “me,” but as I practice mindful presence to my inner child, I recognize them as triggers, my kid’s reactions.

 

Here are a few examples:

  • When I try to tell my partner something important, and I feel like he’s not paying attention or doesn’t care, my wounded inner child may prompt these kinds of reactions:

    • having self-critical thoughts like “I’m so stupid for thinking that was important”

    • shutting down emotionally or just zoning out

    • having a surge of anger or self-righteousness way too big for the situation

    • giving up on talking to him and turning to one of my go-to coping behaviors, like mindless eating, drinking, scrolling, or looking at porn

  • At work, once again my boss ignores me or unfairly favors a coworker over me, and my wounded inner child may prompt these kinds of reactions:

    • feeling super stressed by the thought of standing up for myself, I don’t say anything and act like everything is fine

    • feeling outsized rage about it, I yell expletives at her in front of coworkers

    • downplaying the situation in my mind while engaging in a compulsive behavior, like nail biting, spending, cleaning, or working

    • asking myself what I did wrong to make her act that way

  • In some part of my life, my wounded inner child may be keeping me stuck in a pattern that I don’t feel good about, like:

    • being in a deeply unsatisfying job, but unable to consider switching, either because I don’t want to disappoint my coworkers, or I’m anxious about such a big change

    • being with a romantic partner who treats me disrespectfully but feeling unable to stand up for myself because I’m scared of making her angry and scared of losing them

    • “not having time” for self care (sufficient sleep, exercise, hygiene, relaxation) because I pour myself into excessive productivity, whether at work or at home

    • being unable to see “red flags” in potential situations (romantic partner, business opportunity, friendship) that get me super excited at first

This kind of stuckness is understandable as a result of trauma. The best synonym for “trauma” is “stuck”: the overwhelm of trauma, especially chronic trauma, tends to lock us into beliefs, body states, and behaviors that were necessary to survive overwhelming, threatening situations, but that don’t support our wellbeing after the threat is gone. 

At first, it can feel weird to think of relating to my "inner child.  When children don’t have their basic needs for safety and loving connection to caregivers met, many conclude that they’re not worthy of being cared for. They tell themselves they must be generally bad, not good enough. 

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Recognizing that it really was

“that bad”

Children don’t need “perfect” parents. They need and deserve to be safe, seen, and loved consistently in a good enough way. The love they need consists more of actions than mere words or sentimentality.

 

These actions include:

  • providing physical, emotional, and educational resources and guidance

  • helping them express thoughts, emotions, and desires in a healthy way and responding appropriately

  • not burdening them with having to caretake adults or to behave like an adult 

  • setting limits in a healthy, empathetic way 

  • exposing them to healthy adult behavior (self-care, relating, expressing emotions)

Children are hard-wired to see themselves, not their caregivers, as at fault. If their parents aren’t meeting their needs, kids can’t just pick new ones, so they need to think of their situations as good and normal. If they feel that certain things are wrong, they often feel responsible. If they see caregivers struggling, they may feel responsible for making them feel better. Believing their situation “isn’t that bad” helps kids survive traumatic situations, but they can stay stuck in that belief long into adulthood.

Comparing healthy and unhealthy parenting. So that they can see more clearly how their childhood experiences may have been traumatic, I help adults understand what children need to grow up in a healthy way and compare that with what they experienced. At the same time, I help them see how some of their present problems may involve reactions that stem from those childhood experiences.

Image by Christopher Sardegna
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Re-parenting my wounded inner child 

Re-parenting entails helping my wounded inner child get unstuck from the unhealthy “programming” of reactive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that were needed to survive childhood and that still run me. Getting unstuck is challenging because the intense fear and pain of our dysfunctional situations cemented into us the conviction that those reactive patterns were needed to keep us alive. Since our inner child is stuck believing that holding onto them is a matter of life and death, helping our kid let go of them takes more than just explaining that they aren’t rational. Rather, it requires us to show up for our inner child as the empathetic and strong parental advocate our kid didn’t have. 

 

Dialoguing is a key tool for re-parenting my inner child. In involves writing down a conversation, using our dominant hand to voice the inner adult, and our non-dominant hand to voice the inner child. Because the two hands are linked to different parts of our brain (left and right hemispheres; limbic system and frontal lobes), the interaction between them helps to regulate us when we’re activated (fight/flight/freeze) and to integrate our creative/emotional (inner child) and analytic/logical (inner adult) capacities. Dialoguing is especially useful when we realize that we’re triggered, that our inner child is reacting to something. 

 

By dialoguing, I provide my inner child with safety, validation, a voice, and a healthy compass. I invite them to tell me what just happened that was upsetting and how they feel about it. I ask my inner child to tell me about what the present upset reminds her of from childhood. By my validating, assuring presence, I provide safety that helps her to express her memories and emotions about them. I serve as a compass to reorient my inner child from past confusion, to help him see the truth that what happened was wrong and that he was not bad. I become an advocate naming the maltreatment by the parents and holding them accountable for it. Contrary to what many people think before doing this work, the confrontation of parents is best done symbolically through dialoging or therapy sessions, and not by interacting with actual living parents. Learn about Patrick Teahan’s e-course on dialoguing.

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How group participation fosters healing

group

Our families are the first group that we experience in life. If that experience caused us significant injury, it’s understandable if we feel apprehensive about engaging in group therapy. However, this is precisely why group therapy is so powerful for healing childhood trauma. It’s important to note that I select group members carefully. I need to feel confident that a potential group member will be a good fit for the group, and that includes being a safe and supportive participant.

"No one wants to hear about my messed-up childhood." Many of us assume this, often based on feeling frustrated or embarrassed after we have tried to tell someone. However, being in a group of up to eight fellow survivors whom we get to know over time gives our inner child a sense of safety in which to find solidarity and feel validated. 

 

RRP healing groups are safe for demonstrating that my inner child's stuck beliefs aren't necessary.  For example, if I was regularly judged negatively in my family growing up, my inner child may assume that the group members will judge her negatively because that’s what she experienced. When my inner child experiences the group members not doing that, but rather affirming me, that helps him feel safe enough to let go a little more both of the belief that people will always judge him negatively, and of the shame linked to that belief.

Because so many aspects of relating were dysfunctional in our families, one of the major casualties of childhood trauma is underdeveloped intimacy skills. Group provides members a safe space in which to explore key intimacy skills, including:

  • how to give feedback in a supportive and honest way 

  • how to receive honest feedback with openness

  • how to ask for what we need and what we want

  • how to respond to others’ requests in ways that are kind, while honoring our own boundaries

  • how to share our thoughts and feelings with honesty and sensitivity

  • how to resolve conflict with someone in a way that leaves both of us feeling closer to each other

Image by Cynthia Magana
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Evidence that RRP is effective

For us mental health professionals who use RRP to help adults heal childhood trauma, the main evidence of its effectiveness is the remarkable positive change we observe in our clients again and again. We see clients feeling the weight of shame lift, carrying less rage in their bodies, having greater capacity to regulate their upset, being more empathetic with themselves and the people close to them, protecting their boundaries while being more vulnerable in healthy ways, relying less on unhealthy coping strategies, and the list goes on. 

In 2022, our enthusiasm about this model motivated a team of us to begin conducting research so that we could measure its effectiveness scientifically. We are currently preparing an initial scientific publication demonstrating RRP’s effectiveness, and we plan to continue with research and publication.
 

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