Is it healthy that my friends and I all struggle with trauma?
April 6, 2021 8:17 AM   Subscribe

I have CPTSD and OCD, and recently realized that all of my closest friends struggle with trauma and other mental health issues. We have healthy boundaries, open communication, and plenty of other shared interests beyond our mental health/trauma similarities, but I'm worried that I'm unknowingly perpetuating toxic dynamics. Is it okay to have close, (hopefully) lifelong friendships with others who are also trauma survivors? How do I figure out if it's healthy or not?

I have three friends who I currently consider my closest friends. They all know me, but they don’t know each other—it's not really a friend group, per se, just three of my individual, separate friends. We’re all in our twenties, and I've known each of them for about 5–10 years. We share mutual interests in politics, hobbies, media, and have a wonderful time when we hang out. They're the people I feel most at home with, the ones I have the most fun with, and I'm able to let my guard down around them. They very much feel like chosen family.

However. We all have trauma histories and other mental health diagnoses. I didn't know that when I met them, and I didn’t purposefully seek them out because they were "damaged" or whatever, but as we've gotten older, we've all engaged in plenty of self-discovery and growth, and have realized that we're all struggling with mental illness in one way or another, most of it trauma-related. We’re all in treatment.

I support them, they support me, yet we also fully understand boundaries and that we can't be everything to each other. Just like me, they have their own therapists, partners, and support networks, so we aren't dependent on each other, though we still do play pretty big roles in each other's emotional lives.

The problem I'm running into is that now that I've realized literally all of my closest friends are trauma survivors, I feel... Wrong? Weird? Unhealthy? That all of my closest friends have such similar mental health struggles to mine. I've come across painful stories of codependency, trauma bonding, and retraumatization of trauma survivors when they get into unhealthy relationships or friendships with other survivors, so that's what I'm concerned about.

My relationships feel pretty healthy to me: we know we cannot rescue each other, if there's an issue or something's triggering we talk about it, we're able to spend time alone and it's not a problem, and we don't just always talk about trauma or our problems—we're able to hang out, laugh and have silly, stupid times together, too. It's not perfect, but we're able to work things out.

Still. There's this worry that I'm being codependent or unhealthy in some way, that there’s something wrong with me by not having any close non-traumatized friends, and I worry that I should just ghost all my current friends and find "healthy" (whatever that means) ones. Which seems like it'd do more harm than good and it'd seriously break my heart, but the urge/worry is still there. I really can’t tell if this is something I should be worried about, or if I should let it go.

So, my question is: is it unhealthy to have all my closest friends be trauma survivors? If it is, how should I proceed? I don't want to cut them off or do anything drastic, but I don't want to fall into unhealthy dynamics that could hurt me/them, either. Apologies if this question is vague or hard to answer, but I'd appreciate any input or perspective! Thank you. 
posted by runnerfive to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
As trauma diagnosis becomes more prevalent as part of therapy, you're unlikely to find friends WITHOUT some form of trauma. If you're not making each other unhappy, you're fine.
posted by kingdead at 8:22 AM on April 6 [7 favorites]

People who are similar to each other befriend similar people. And what kingdead said. Everybody has SOMETHING.

I think you're fine.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:25 AM on April 6 [5 favorites]

I think it's more like a LOT of people have been traumatized. That is my takeaway from almost 20 years of reading about peoples problems on this website. You could cut these guys loose & find new friends & eventually find out they were traumatized too. I think your brain spotted a pattern & you don't know what the meaning is & that's making you anxious. The meaning of the pattern is that you & your friends are doing what you're supposed to do: connecting with people you get along with, sharing things about your lives, & doing what it takes to heal. It's really good that you're aware of this pattern now so you can try to avoid any of those bad things you mentioned because you'll see them coming.
posted by bleep at 8:27 AM on April 6 [12 favorites]

I worry that I should just ghost all my current friends and find "healthy" (whatever that means) ones. Which seems like it'd do more harm than good and it'd seriously break my heart, but the urge/worry is still there. I really can’t tell if this is something I should be worried about, or if I should let it go.

This sounds a little more like some kind of intrusive/compulsive thought that is coming up for you. Something has clearly shifted in your perspective or your framework and you're finding yourself drawn to something you know, rationally, is destructive and pointless. Probably worth discussing in your own treatment!
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:28 AM on April 6 [18 favorites]

Yup, most of my friends have trauma and/or mental illness, this is just because a lot of people - and a LOT of women - have trauma and/or mental illness. Partly we get along because everyone has had a lot of therapy and so we all have decent self-knowledge and painstakingly acquired skillsets around communication and boundaries. I'd rather spend time with someone who has their shit to deal with but has learned how than someone who is "healthy" but unreflective and oblivious.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:29 AM on April 6 [11 favorites]

Going to echo that trauma is incredibly common, and disclosure of trauma helps other disclose so it's kind of a feedback loop where the ptsd thoughts end up connecting some people to other people with trauma. It's not that it didn't exsist before hand, it's just that you weren't in relationships where it was disclosed.

I think in all its fine. I find that (now) my life feels more complete with a variety of relationships some of which don't know my trauma, than just a bunch of people who do, but that's kind of a privledge to have and not a sign of a failure in relationship patterns before. I also think that now that I don't think about it as much there are people in my life who have gotten less of my story than they might have if they'd met me at different points. But I don't think that's good or bad, it's just a reflection of what's going on in my life right now.
posted by AlexiaSky at 8:46 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]

I think a lot of people identify/ acknowledge their own traumas when they start to learn more about trauma. So it could also be that you are befriending people who are in social circles that recognize and talk about trauma, and/or people actively interested in thinking about their own psychology.
posted by metasarah at 8:46 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]

I think you're in good shape if the people you've found are already in the category of "generally well-managed boundaries, self-awareness, and support networks". In your 20s, I think you're more likely to cross paths with people still in a poorly-managed/unaware state, and those people do tend to form enablement networks that really can be incredibly toxic and dangerous.

I also have some decades on you and I'm no longer sure many people make it out of childhood/adolescence without trauma (be that a discrete event or ongoing family dynamic or health issue or religion etc etc), and as a society we are recognizing and intervening sooner, the language of mental health and trauma is more widely spoken, and people have more avenues to self-identify and pursue assistance. Obviously it's still poorly-distributed, but I think you're describing the people you're very close to as those who didn't entirely fall through the cracks one way or another.

It's very likely those people you assume are "normal" aren't exceptions, it just doesn't manifest in the ways you recognize.

I think you (everyone) needs to always be mindful of a potential slip into toxicity, because it's always possible, but figure out in the quieter moments what your checklist for that would be so you can use it in more of a crisis or time of uncertainty.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:59 AM on April 6 [4 favorites]

Agree with everyone else that most people have experienced some form of trauma by adulthood. The things to be aware of are the same as those in any relationship: overly codependent behavior, lack of boundaries that make you/them feel unsafe, dynamics where one person is always in crisis or always rescuing, the focus of the friendship being entirely on shared trauma, etc. I think your friendships sound not only normal but quite positive, in that everyone seems to be self-reflective and implementing healthy boundaries! So I say keep rocking those friendships. =)
posted by DTMFA at 9:36 AM on April 6 [5 favorites]

Sounds like your mistrust black/white C-PTSD talking. Tell it to take a hike.

Your friends sound fine. If all you bond about is trauma etc., eventually it will become boring to you and you’ll naturally drift away with out a need to be deliberate about it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:57 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]

I'm a woman in my late 40's and I don't have a history of trauma or mental illness, but the great majority of my friends and chosen family have experienced trauma and abuse and many have mental health issues that need management. I attribute it to the fact that a great many people experience trauma, so it's rare to find friends who haven't. The difference I see with younger generations is that cultural awareness has changed, so more people have ways to recognize and understand their trauma and mental health challenges without having spent years in therapy. In many ways, I think it's sometimes safer for people with a history of trauma or mental illness to have a close circle of others who have experienced the same as ignorance and stigma around these things can be painful to confront in friendships. Some of my friends have been deeply wounded by people in their lives who don't understand the nature of trauma and mental illness. Being told by an ignorant loved one that you should be able to do the equivalent of walking it off or to just get over it already is extremely painful. As long as your boundaries are good, I think you're fine!
posted by quince at 11:27 AM on April 6 [3 favorites]

This is so, so normal and common. It's totally reasonable and good for you to be taking a pause and checking in with yourself to make sure your friendships still feel good and balanced, but in general, having friends in your life who understand some of the things you struggle with can be really affirming and helpful.

One thing that can be a little tricky is that it can be the nature of things that there may be some periods of time where things get unbalanced in a temporary way - like, maybe someone's struggling with a reminder of a traumatic thing or having a weird time with meds and needs more support for a while. But at least for me, I find that as long as it all balances out reasonably well in the long run, such that you know people will be there for you when it's your turn to have a difficult spell, that's still fine.
posted by Stacey at 11:41 AM on April 6 [4 favorites]

I worry that I should just ghost all my current friends and find "healthy" (whatever that means) ones. Which seems like it'd do more harm than good and it'd seriously break my heart, but the urge/worry is still there.

This passage really jumped out of me. Friends are not used cars; there are not "clean," "rebuilt/restored," and "salvage" titles. Nobody comes with a CARFAX report guaranteeing no history of damage or mechanical issues.

Look, a lot of people have mental health diagnoses, are on meds, and/or are survivors of trauma through no fault of their own. Many more will become survivors as their lives go on, because that's life. Many will acquire new diagnoses and treatments, as the science around mental health advances, and as access to care (hopefully) expands.

Like restless_nomad says above, friends who have explored their issues and how to deal with them are safer bets than friends who might brag about being "normal/healthy/undamaged" or having made all the "right choices" to avoid trauma. People who see themselves that way are either lying or drinking heavily from the Fountain of Self-Serving Bias, and they're probably pretty low on empathy.

The only time you don't want to be friends with a trauma survivor is when that person needs to be the only one with scars in the group, and can't make space for anyone else's trauma (past, present, or future). If that's any part of why you're thinking about getting a new group of friends, it's something worth exploring.

But there's really no "clean CARFAX" friend group out there, not really.
posted by armeowda at 12:19 PM on April 6 [9 favorites]

as long as you still like them and like being around them, do not ditch any of them pre-emptively because you think that there is something wrong with them that will amplify something wrong with you. this would be a pretty bad thing to do to them (and yourself). you have every right to withdraw if being around them starts to make you feel worse about yourself. but don't borrow trouble.

however self-conscious it makes you to dwell on the fact that all your friends have trauma histories, I bet you anything it would make you feel worse to be the only person you know who's had experiences of that kind. When you're the only one with a particular background it can be hard to escape feeling like the one who needs to be worried about, the one people have to be sensitive around. there is a lot to be said for feeling -- for really being -- totally normal within your chosen peer group.

and I would also bet that the invisible commonalities that drew you to these people have as much or more to do with a history of treatment as with a history of trauma. From your description it sounds like you all have a common idea of what mental health is, how to talk about it, a shared vocabulary and set of values. This is something to recognize, but not to worry about or feel ashamed of.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:09 PM on April 6 [3 favorites]

The world is a fucked yo traumatic place. Our institutions and traditions are traumatic n'y design. School for example is designed to break your spirit. We are raised like domesticated animals in cages and our wild spirits need to be broken. Everybody is traumatized; absolutely everybody.
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:46 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]

You know all that stuff in you learned in therapy about how to do healthy relationships? Well, you are drawn to people who also know how to do it (or at least you all know what you are aiming for and how to repair when you fall short, as well do).

You don't need therapy to have healthy friendships but for many people, that's how they figure it out. The important thing is not whether they have a trauma history, the important thing is that they know how to give and receive friendship while maintaining healthy boundaries.

Well done!
posted by metahawk at 10:26 PM on April 6 [2 favorites]

I want to re-frame this a bit for you. You have made it safe for your friends to discuss difficult situations with you. Because of your own experiences, good communication skills, and strong boundaries, your friends feel comfortable sharing some of their own challenges and pain. Good on you.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:14 PM on April 8 [1 favorite]

There's this worry that I'm being codependent or unhealthy in some way, that there’s something wrong with me by not having any close non-traumatized friends
I'm also here to offer a reframe of sorts. I think this line of reasoning leading to your fear is the result of how mental health has been unhealthily boxed into the realm of "personal responsibility." If I met someone who I knew was a combat veteran and whose closest friends were all old army buddies or people they met down at the VFW or whatever, I literally would not give it a second thought. It would make total sense to me, and it would not strike me as "toxic" or "unhealthy" or "codependent." Likewise, it makes total sense that your closest friends are people who have in common both the intense experience of trauma and emotional language and practices that help you make sense of it. It doesn't sound like your friends are helping you stay stuck or slowing down your healing or doing anything unhelpful - it's just that you've been in the wars and so have they, and for that reason, you may be able to understand each other's lives on a deeper level than anyone else can. Hope that helps.
posted by All hands bury the dead at 3:03 PM on April 13 [2 favorites]

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