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10 Red Flags I Couldn’t See I Had Until I Had Trauma Therapy

Photo: Dikushin Dmitry / Shutterstock
woman at therapy

For so many of us, red flags only appear in hindsight. Sometimes, we’re so distracted by the spectacle that the parade of red flags just doesn’t grab our attention until we’re crying deep into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s telling our best friend all the signs we should have known were signs. It can sometimes take the school of hard knocks before we begin to heed the warnings in advance.

Even then, it can be so much easier to see the red flags in others than to ever recognize our own.

For me, it took trauma therapy. I spent several months in intensive EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) sessions before I could see the red flags I’d had on display this whole time — the ones healthy people often noted and dodged the ones that unhealthy people ignored until it was too late, and the ones I just couldn’t see at all.

Seeing them gave me a blinding moment of shame until I remembered that every single red flag I had been waving was a maladaptive response to my trauma. It made it so much easier to practice self-compassion to see it that way. It also helped me become so much more compassionate to the red flags I see in others. The old adage is true. Hurting people hurt people.

Here are 10 red flags I couldn't see until I had trauma therapy:

1. Rushing to judgment

I never realized that rushing to judgment was both a red flag and a trauma response. I always thought I was just paying attention to the warning signs I so often missed. Now, I look back at my dating history and see all the times when I was reading the signs — only the signs I was reading were more about my trauma than the reality of the situation.

My past was superimposed over the present, the way it always is if we haven’t healed.

I still do this sometimes. Then, I pause and breathe. I ask if my initial judgment is a good judgment or if it’s being informed by past experiences of trauma. I extend the benefit of the doubt instead of leaping to conclusions.

2. People-pleasing as fear-driven manipulation

I thought people-pleasing was a relatively harmless, often beneficial thing I did. I thought I was being nice. I had no idea I was being manipulative. Every time I tried to please others rather than showing up as my authentic self, I was manipulating their reactions.

It was a manipulation driven by fear — fear of being rejected, fear of being left, fear of never being loved.

My dating history reinforced this. When I was real, I was left. It didn’t occur to me that if I had been real all along the right people would stay and the wrong ones would leave. I was so preoccupied by my hurt that I couldn’t see that people-pleasing is a red flag that may seem nice at first but inevitably hurts.

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3. Hypervigilance in romantic relationships

I am the most sensitive instrument in the world when it comes to sensing changes in relationships. The slightest change in a tone of voice, the tiniest shift in temperature, and I am vibrating with fear. I can only relax when there are no fluctuations — when the water I’m swimming in has no undercurrent at all.

I’m sure my constant hypervigilance has been exhausting for past partners. I was so in tune with potential changes that I didn’t make much room for the natural ups and downs of relationships. I didn’t allow partners to have moments of doubt or struggles that had nothing at all to do with me without assuming that I was going to be discarded at the earliest opportunity.

This is a sure sign of trauma, but for healthy people, it reads as a clear red flag. That’s not to say I couldn’t have worked through this in a safe and secure relationship. In fact, I was absolutely willing to work on it when I realized it, but by that time, I found myself with a partner whose own trauma prevented him from offering the reassurance and safety I needed it to address this tendency.

4. Lack of healthy boundaries

I grew up in a household with boundaries that were both loose and rigid. For instance, I had a strict code of conduct I had to live up to at all times, but I wasn’t allowed to lock a bedroom or bathroom door for privacy. My space was regularly invaded, and to this day, there are no rules for fighting fair. Boundaries were something I had to learn for myself. It took therapy when I was in college to even begin.

I’m proud of the progress I’ve made, and yet sometimes, my boundaries still aren’t as strong as they need to be. My relationships have clearly highlighted this deficiency. I had standards, but I was constantly adjusting them to keep relationships rather than asking partners to step it up or step out. My fear of abandonment went so deep that I could only maintain healthy boundaries in the most ideal circumstances. Life is rarely ideal.

A lack of healthy boundaries is a red flag for relationships. It comes up in relationships where partners don’t allow one another space for individual interests, friendships, or time apart. It happens when relationships are all space but with little connectedness. It happens when privacy is invaded and when secrecy is prevalent. It happens any time when relationships lack balance.

RELATED: 14 Signs You're In Denial About How Your Toxic Relationship Is

5. Feeling unable to leave unhealthy relationships

I didn’t realize that my lack of true self-worth was a glaring red flag in relationships. I found myself unable to leave unhealthy relationships. In fact, the one time I was able to do this, it was because a former partner stole all my money. (Note: do not touch the money of a single mother, especially if that single mother is a Capricorn.)

The last time this happened, I physically could not make myself leave the relationship. I knew that it was no longer working for me. I was deeply in love with someone who wasn’t in love with me at all, and I knew that the healthiest thing I could do was leave. I felt trapped by how much I loved him. I had no idea that this was primarily because of deep abandonment issues and unhealed early trauma. It was time for fight or flight, and all I could do was curl up in a grief-stricken ball and pray that he would decide to love me — or would finally have the decency to leave me if he couldn’t.

I write that and still feel an all-encompassing sadness — that I would put myself through that because my fear was so overwhelming, that I put him in the position of leaving the relationship I could not leave, and that he could not love me when I could not stop loving him. Yet, if my self-worth had been fully intact, I would not have stayed with anyone who couldn’t give me what I need — no matter how much I genuinely loved them.

6. Choosing emotionally unavailable men

Choosing emotionally unavailable partners isn’t a matter of bad taste and poor judgment. It’s a trauma response. I was trying to protect myself from pain by choosing people who would never fully let me in. If they kept me at arm’s length, I could keep them at arm’s length without anyone ever being the wiser.

This worked for a long time, and then I chose someone I was absolutely sure was emotionally available only to find out that he was doing a little people-pleasing of his own. By the time I realized that he wasn’t actually available for a healthy relationship with me, it was too late. I had fallen. But I knew one thing: I had broken my streak of choosing emotionally unavailable men.

Yet, in the aftermath of grief, I began choosing them again. I chose casual relationships with partners I knew could never love me. It was only by working through my trauma that I recognized the pattern. I was trying not to ever be hurt again — an impossible expectation if I ever wanted to love and be loved. So, I reordered my dating criteria. I decided that I needed someone as emotionally available as I had learned to be.

7. The narrative of exes

One of the biggest red flags I showed to others was my narrative of exes. Don’t yet rush to judgment. Most of us have one. It’s the story we tell ourselves — and others — about our relationship history. I could list all the ways I had been rejected, abandoned, and even — in one terrible case — abused, but what I failed to do was completely take responsibility for my choices.

Oh, it sounded like I would. I would say I was responsible for choosing them. I could go that far.

But my narrative of exes didn’t include the unhealed trauma that directed me down those paths, and it sure as hell didn’t include my own red flags that were born of that trauma. It was easier to talk about the high-functioning alcoholic who would make plans with me and forget them, the Marine who left me for his stripper roommate, the emotionally abusive manipulator who stole all my money, and the ex who once looked at the relationship with gratitude before deciding I was everything that had prevented him from living his best life.

It’s easier to see this red flag in others. I listen to stories of exes, and I ask myself if the narrative included any personal responsibility at all. I began to see why some people’s relationships hadn’t worked out — the things they did to me that they likely did to the ones that came before.

The narrative of exes without personal responsibility is always a red flag.

RELATED: 5 Signs You’re Unintentionally Living A Toxic Life

8. Assimilation in relationships

Someone I’m dating suggests we binge-watch a show he likes, and I’m game. I’m always game. At least, I always have been. Sure, I’ll put myself through watching entire seasons of a show I don’t really care about if it means I get to spend time with a person I like. Never mind that they would never do that for me.

But this time, I asked myself, Are you doing it again? By “it”, I mean assimilating. Am I making myself fit into the relationship, or am I checking to see if the relationship fits me? Am I being my most authentic self? I don’t want to watch that show. It holds no interest to me. I want to watch something else instead. So, I learn to say no and make a different choice. It shouldn’t be so hard.

Assimilating into relationships is a trauma response that’s linked to that people-pleasing tendency. We become what’s needed instead of looking for someone who can be what we need. We make it work. If that means taking up new interests or watching shows we couldn’t care less about, we do it. We give over little pieces of ourselves until there’s little left.

We change our future plans to accommodate theirs, and if we don’t get out, we wake up one day living a life that looks nothing like the one we wanted with a person who never wanted, or knew, our real selves at all.

9. Preoccupation with being chosen over choosing

A big red flag I didn’t realize was one is the preoccupation with being chosen. I see this all the time on social media — people loudly proclaiming that they just want to be chosen. I get it. I’ve felt it. Yet, when we focus on being chosen, we often forget to do the choosing. We settle for someone choosing us and forget to ask if we would ever really choose them.

We skip the critical thinking stage of the relationship where we assess if this person is right for us and for the future we’re planning. We’re too focused on seeing their good points and making sure they see our value. After my trauma healing experience, I realized that always wanting to be chosen is the abandoned or neglected child crying out for attention, affection, and belonging. It doesn’t belong in healthy adult relationships.

In healthy relationships, we choose each other, and we’re not so focused on being chosen that we fail to choose well for ourselves.

10. Communication missteps

My biggest red flag of all didn’t seem like a red flag to me for a very long time. So, I’m a writer, and I’ve always written about relationships. Former ones, current ones — it didn’t matter. I write about my life and experiences, so it’s natural that I would write about my thoughts and feelings about relationships. It’s a normal thing for a writer to do.

What wasn’t normal, what absolutely was a red flag, is that I sometimes wrote about things I couldn’t articulate to a partner. Instead of talking it out with him, I would write about it. I found the words so much easier with my hands on the keys typing them to a primarily unknown audience than looking him in the eye and saying, this thing you do hurts me, these are my fears, I love you- why won’t you love me, I am in pain.

The healthy thing would have been to talk these things out before the world ever saw them. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have published them. I’m saying that a healthier me would have had these conversations and talked out these articles long before they ever saw the light of day. I would have worked through them so thoroughly that by the time I released them for public consumption, they would have been non-issues.

But the blocks of my early trauma made it impossible for me to communicate in a healthy way. Writing it out became a necessary coping skill. I needed to say what I could not say otherwise. In the process, I hurt someone I would never have intentionally hurt because I lacked the skill set and the healing needed to communicate otherwise. While I’m deeply sorry for the hurt I caused, I know it doesn’t undo the damage.

While this red flag is specific to writers and other creators, even the non-artists in our lives can manifest this one. We see it in passive-aggressive communication, in talking to our friends about our problems instead of our partners, and in all the ways in which we avoid communicating respectfully and directly to the ones we choose to partner with. It’s a red flag, and in my case, it was linked to issues related to past trauma.

I cannot go back and remove the waving red flags of my past. I can’t change my part in my exes’ narrative of exes. I can only learn from the past and let it inform my present. I can only work to heal my trauma.

I still trip on triggers. As I re-enter the world of dating fresh from the grief of a breakup no matter how long ago it’s been, I see red flags in myself I never saw before. I am constantly realizing how some of my previous reactions were rooted in pain and fear. I’m learning to breathe through them and to choose new responses.

I’m learning to notice red flags in others and to heed them — but to do so kindly and with compassion.

I’m a little in love with the compassion my healing has cultivated in me. Instead of smiting the damaged person on the Internet, I sometimes resort to unconditional kindness. It’s a weird move for me, but it feels like the thing I should be doing to avoid harming others. I can finally admit I am a person who has, at times, harming others. However unintentionally, it still counts.

I don’t beat myself up for my red flags. I use them to inform the next step in my healing. Every day, I am getting better. Healthier. Kinder. I forgive the people whose hurt hurt me. I forgive myself for hurting others. I don’t just think of red flags as something belonging to everyone but me. I see my own, and then I do something about them.

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Crystal Jackson is a former family therapist who writes across genres to encompass blog posts, poetry, short stories, children's books, and literary fiction. 

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.