Trauma and cPTSD 101

In recent blog posts and podcasts I have been increasingly weaving a trauma-informed perspective into my writing. This post gives an overview of trauma and how it works – drawing largely from Pete Walker’s work on cPTSD. Content Note: Brief mentions of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, bullying, war, and sexual violence, but not details.

The last couple of months I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about trauma, particularly cPTSD (complex post traumatic stress disorder). This post is my attempt to summarise what I’ve learnt so far. First and foremost this is for myself, so that I can bed this knowledge in, and weave it together with my existing understandings of how people and relationships work. But hopefully the summary of what I’ve read so far will be helpful as a starting point for others who see themselves in this idea of cPTSD. 

Largely I’m drawing on Pete Walker’s book cPTSD here, but also on Judith Herman’s classic Trauma and Recovery, where she first came up with the idea of cPTSD. I also find Steve Haines’ graphic guide Trauma is Really Strange, David Treleaven’s Trauma-sensitive Mindfulness, and Sarah Peynton’s Your Resonant Self helpful. I’m very grateful to my co-creator, Alex Iantaffi, for their podcast on cPTSD – and for our conversations over the years – which helped me to find this literature.

Why is this useful to me?

When I was in my twenties I read every book I could find on depression, and went to see the authors speak whenever I had the opportunity. Several times I remember going up, in some desperation, to the speaker at the end of the talk and describing my experience, in the hope that they would say ‘absolutely, that’s a legit kind of depression. Welcome to the club. Here’s how to cure it.’ Actually what they said was that they’d never heard of what I was describing and it certainly wasn’t anything like their experience of depression. I was left feeling confused and ashamed.

The experience I described was something I’d been going through for years: a swift plummet into an utterly hopeless place where I felt panicked and utter hatred towards myself. Sometimes it became so desperate that I self-harmed, which seemed to alleviate it. Sometimes it eventually lifted by itself. It often only lasted for hours, although it could last days, and it happened against the backdrop of a generally highly self-critical way of treating myself.

This is the way I depicted it when I tried to draw it, some years later.

I was confused because ‘depressed’ seemed a good way to describe this horrible place, but the sudden plummet was different to the long periods of dark moods described in depression memoirs. I could get out of bed. In fact I couldn’t allow myself not to, driven as I was by this highly self-critical perfectionism. And although I often longed to eradicate myself for being unacceptable, somehow for me that came out in the form of beating myself – literally and metaphorically – rather than in the form of suicidal ideation.

Between then and now I’ve read a lot about mental health, reflected critically on diagnosis and treatment, and trained in forms of psychotherapy that generally see suffering as a more universally human – or existential – experience. 

However, reading Pete’s book on cPTSD was the first time I read a perfect description of the plummet, tied to a legit mental health label. What I’ve experienced my whole life is called an ‘emotional flashback’, and it’s a sign of having cPTSD.

What is cPTSD?

cPTSD is also called developmental trauma. Steve Haines’s book suggests that one-off traumatic events, developmental trauma, and stress in life which becomes overwhelming all work in similar ways through the body and brain. They have similar impacts on the nervous system, and result in similar somatic experiences, flashbacks, dissociation and the 4Fs.

My understanding from Pete’s book is that cPTSD – or developmental trauma – occurs when we internalise a sense of ourselves as unacceptable as a child due to how we’re responded to by the world around us. He talks of a shift from a child believing ‘I make mistakes’ to ‘I am a mistake’ (behaviour to identity). The shaming we experience from others – whatever form that takes – becomes an inner sense that we are shameful. Such children develop a vicious inner critic voice which they’re always trying to please. Judith suggests that the imagining that we are bad, wholly responsible for our trauma and could learn to do better is preferable to the alternative that we were helpless and weren’t being protected or cared for in the ways we needed by others.

Often emotional expression is punished or shamed, meaning that children don’t learn how to regulate their emotions or to experience them in a positive way. They can also find other people’s emotions overwhelming and frightening too. There is often a sense of not being loved or liked by those around them, and/or of love disappearing suddenly, and/or of it being very contingent on only behaving in some ways and not others. Because it’s too risky for kids to believe that those around them are in any way dangerous they tend to protect those people by taking all the responsibility for what’s happening on themselves.

According to Pete, cPTSD is characterised by the following kinds of experiences:

  • Emotional flashbacks
  • Being highly critical of ourselves and/or others
  • Toxic shame
  • Abandoning ourselves
  • Anxiety and/or struggles around social situations or relationships
  • Loneliness and/or feeling abandoned
  • Dissociation (feeling checked out and/or distracting yourself/numbing with food, drink, worrying, working, social media, TV, etc.)
  • Feeling bad about ourselves from low self-esteem to self-loathing
  • Big mood changes and struggles with feelings
  • Difficulties with relationships 
  • Being easily triggered into the 4Fs

The following kinds of somatic (bodily) experiences are also common: 

  • Hypervigilance, constantly scanning our lives and worlds for any sign of danger, convinced it will happen again, trying to figure out how to avoid it
  • Shallow breathing
  • Feeling adrenaline a lot of the time
  • Feeling physically ‘armoured up’ and braced for trouble: muscle tightening, back pain, etc.
  • Wear and tear from how much we’ve rushed at everything and/or armoured up
  • Struggling to be fully present, relaxed, and grounded in our bodies
  • Sleep problems
  • Startle responses, twitches, etc.
  • Digestive problems
  • Forms of self harm which jolt the body out of the painful panicked desperate out-of-touch with self place that trauma puts us in 

OMG Pete, it’s like you’ve seen into my soul!

Emotional flashbacks

Emotional flashbacks are like standard flashbacks – where people respond as if they’re right back in a traumatic memory – but without the clear memory of what is being replayed: just the emotions and bodily responses.

Emotional flashbacks involve sudden drops into debilitating fear and shame. It’s like we’re right back in the overwhelming feelings that we experienced as a child, and we are: our nervous system has literally been put right back there. We often feel small, fragile, young, desperate and helpless in these moments. We may panic and flail or we may shut down and give up. We generally feel like we’re unacceptable and bad. Everything feels way too hard, being seen feels excruciating, and it feels like a matter of life and death. We go into survival mode and fear we will not survive.

Pete suggests that often retraumatising experiences as adults – such as deaths, losses, or going through something similar again – put us into extended periods of flashback. This is what I’ve been experiencing recently.

Also flashbacks can be triggered by all kinds of things – internal and external – which we may or may not understand at the time. In the past couple of months, for example, I have been triggered into flashback by: a stranger looking away when I smiled at them; a message from someone asking something of me which I didn’t want to do but didn’t feel able to say ‘no’ to; a bad dream; a memory of someone being critical of me; trying and failing to write this blog post; and not being able to decide what to watch next on TV that would be both distracting and soothing enough (the answer was This is Us).

These things seem so small, but the point is that they plunge you back into the place you were in as a child. One of the books I read suggested that evolutionarily the sense that we were being abandoned by the people around us as a child was life and death, because without their care we’d be eaten by woolly mammoths or similar. I’m always a bit suspicious of evo psych explanations, but this makes some sense of why a stranger looking away from me can feel like a life or death scenario. Pete says kids learn to register the looks on the faces of those around them and connect them with being punished or rejected. It’s certainly a powerful one for me in relation to shame: being monitored by others, or others being so disgusted/embarrassed that they don’t want to look me in the eye.

The 4 Fs

The 4 Fs are the four different responses that all animals go into when something traumatic happens: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Fight is when we attack back. Flight is when we try to escape. Freeze is when we go still and frozen. Fawn is when we try to appease our attacker to get out of the situation.

In cPTSD one or more of these generally become our entrenched survival strategies: the ways we learn to relate to ourselves, others, and the world. We use these strategies to try to meet our yearning to experience the kind of love we always wanted, to avoid getting abandoned, and to try not to feel the overwhelming feelings. Needless to say they are not helpful strategies for achieving these aims, but even pretty smart people will continue to employ them regardless…

  • Fight involves learning to control others and to demand things from them, to blame others for any relationship problems rather than ourselves, to try to fix them and/or to criticise or attack them.
  • Flight involves perfecting ourselves, trying to make ourselves worthy of love, and/or working very hard.
  • Freeze involves hiding, retreating, keeping intimacy at a distance, dissociating and distracting.
  • Fawn involves people-pleasing, focusing on others’ needs rather than our own, trying to make ourselves into what we think others want us to be.

All four strategies have something that’s helpful for us, if we can cultivate them all and go into them all appropriately. Fight enables us to be assertive and hold our boundaries. Flight to disengage and to be industrious and endure things. Freeze to retreat and be mindful and present. Fawn to love and serve people, to compromise and listen.

Pete suggests that they can be best seen as spectrums: Fawn to Fight, and Freeze to Flight. If we’re at one end of the spectrum we need to cultivate the capacity to be at the other end. For example as a fawn/flight my tendency is to do whatever it takes to keep people happy with me, and to go into ‘doing’ mode (for example writing long blog posts about cPTSD). I need to work harder on fight (assertively holding my boundaries) and freeze (valuing just being and not always needing to be productive). For other people it would be the opposite. A good balance is to be able to be vulnerable/open and assertive/boundaried; to be able to do and to be.

Repeating patterns

The fucker of cPTSD is that it sets us up to repeat the very kinds of situations which caused the cPTSD in the first place, because our survival strategies fetch us up there time and time again. This can lead to further trauma, which can retraumatise us and tighten those survival strategies even more. Pete calls it ‘the awful gift that keeps on giving’. This can mean – like me – that we end up with cPTSD and the regular garden variety PTSD.

Judith refers to people sometimes driven by desires to return to familiar dangerous dynamics with the hope of putting them ‘right’ this time: perhaps an attempt at healing. She also says that trauma puts people in double binds where they both want to withdraw from relationships and seek them desperately.

For me one example of this is where my ‘flight’ desire to work really hard has put me in situations where whatever I do is not enough to meet the external/internal criteria for success, and I’m further shamed or bullied for not measuring up, which makes me work even harder. Another example is where my ‘fawn’ desire to please others and get their love means that I shape myself to fit others, and end up having to pull away because I’ve given up too much of myself, fueling further shame. It can be that I specifically seem to pick the kinds of people and situations with which these strategies are most likely to fail – because that is so familiar to me.

Why do something about it?

Perhaps this should be a no-brainer, but sadly it’s not. When the thing you struggle with is feeling toxic shame and believing yourself unacceptable then it’s pretty hard to allow yourself to (a) acknowledge that it’s real, and (b) allow yourself to get support around it. 

Also those 4F strategies are often entrenched in ways that get in the way of addressing this. Fighters are going to keep believing that everyone else is at fault and not them, flee-ers are going to be far too busy to make time for healing, freezers are going to struggle to stay present with themselves when distracting and dissociating is more comfortable, and fawners can’t stop hoping that they can find someone who’ll prove to them that they are okay really, if they can just be pleasing enough.

I feel fortunate in a way that my particular combo of flight and fawn has eventually led me here. I’ve become so focused on working hard to figure out how all this stuff works and be better for others that I end up reading all these books on how people and relationships work, and synthesising it for other people in ways that (hopefully) gets through to me too. However knowing this stuff still doesn’t make it easy to do the things I know I need to do, because they go against the grain of these survival strategies so much. 

Here’s some reasons to do something about it if you need them:

  • This stuff is probably getting in the way of you getting good, loving relationships of all kinds even if it feels like the way to get them.
  • It’s also probably making you abandon yourself and treat yourself non-consensually.
  • You’d probably feel a lot better if you could lift out of that toxic shame and inner criticism.
  • It’s not great for the other people in your life. You’re probably hurting others with these strategies, especially if you’re unaware of them (for all my fellow fawners).
  • You’ll get a lot more done and do it better with all the energy you free up (for all my fellow-flee-ers).

What to do?

Pete says you need to work to become an ‘unflinching source of kindness towards yourself’. Sound good? He also warns us to let go of any ‘salvation fantasy’ that we’ll never have another flashback, to focus on progress not perfection, and to recognise that some flashbacks will probably happen as we try to shift our survival strategies and do the things that are less familiar to us (like fighters listening and recognising how they’ve hurt people, flee-ers trying to just be, freezers getting out and about, and fawners asserting their boundaries). He likens this to going to the dentist when we have a sore tooth: we need to go to a bit more of a painful/scary place in order to not be in such a painful/scary place.

Pete talks about education, grieving, and relationships as three key aspects of the process. I would add safety as an important initial one. These things could be seen as linear stages – one following from the other – but probably we all oscillate between them. For example, feeling the feelings might help us to recognise what feels safe-enough – and not – for us, which may lead to us making more changes there. Or addressing our relationships might bring up more information which we then want to go and find out more about.

I think every person will develop their own versions of this work, bringing these ideas and practices into dialogue with other understandings or spiritual practices they already engage in, for example, or the things that they find soothing, or the kinds of relationships which are most supportive for them. It will also depend on what you have available to you, of course, in terms of time, money, resources, and other people. 

Don’t be afraid to develop your own version of safety, education, grieving, and relationships. I’ve said a bit here about how they work for me to give you an example.

Safety

Something that Judith emphasises but Pete doesn’t go into much is the importance of being in a safe-enough place to address this stuff. It’s incredibly hard to do this work if we’re still in dangerous situations where we’re being re-traumatised frequently or playing out our 4Fs on the daily. A good first step would be to ask yourself how you can create a safe-enough home, relationship situation, and work-life to do this process, and what support you might need in order to do it. 

Safe-enough means safe-enough for you to be able to look at some painful stuff, feel some tough feelings, and shift some stuck habits. It is also means safe-enough for others around you. For example you might well be particularly prone to getting triggered in certain kinds of relationships and need to pause or slow down these down while this is going on. You need to be careful that the people you’re asking for support from can offer it consensually, and are held and supported enough themselves in order to be able to give it.

For me this creation of a safe-enough container has involved slowing down work significantly, deciding to live alone for a time, taking time out from any erotic/romantic relationships because my stuff tends to play out in these particularly, accessing a therapist and support group to help hold me through this, avoiding big group socialising, embracing quiet nights in because I realise I often feel overwhelmed at the end of the day, cultivating morning rituals which get me into the day gently, and communicating with close people about what kinds of contact I’m capable of – and not – through this period (however long it lasts). 

To some extent that’s about decreasing the amount of triggers coming in to a manageable level, although the aim isn’t to avoid triggers long term. That just makes our life very small indeed, as I found out in my twenties when I employed this strategy and wound up too scared to leave the house a lot of the time. It’s about retreating a bit and slowing things down sufficiently that you can learn how to navigate triggers and flashbacks when they occur, so you’ll become more capable of doing so, and able to expand out again eventually.

We need what Pema Chödrön calls a ‘cradle of kindness’ to do this work in, which is real fucking hard to develop when you’ve learnt that you’re an unacceptable person and you can barely hear anything through the noise of the inner critic. Anything that you can do to cultivate kindness for yourself will make it more possible for you to do the other parts of this process. Check out the literatures on self/community care and self-compassion for help with this.

Anybody helping us through this also needs to be safe-enough and kind-enough. Judith emphasises that because survivors have been so disempowered then they have to be in control here. Any therapist or other supporter has to be an assistant to the person on the journey they are on, trusting their process, not taking control from them, telling them what to do, or trying to fix them.

Educating ourselves

This part is about learning about cPTSD from the outside-in: reading books, watching vids, listening to podcasts, or whatever works for you. We can then apply what we’re learning to our experience and apply the various approaches to find out what works for us. For me it’s also about bringing this literature into dialogue with the Buddhist teachings I’m already familiar with, and the plural selves literature.

It’s also about learning about ourselves from the inside-out. Mindfulness type practices, journalling, and therapy can help us to notice how flashbacks or the 4Fs tend to work for us. We can slow down and notice what happens when we get triggered, what kinds of things trigger us: the anatomy of a flashback. It’s great if we can eventually start to get curious and take each tough experience as an opportunity to learn from, instead of something to avoid or beat ourselves up for.

Grieving and feeling the feels

Grieving is big here. We need to grieve for the stuff that put these habits in place back in the past, and for the ways it has impacted us and others, and constrained our lives, since then. A major part of that grief for me – and perhaps for all of us – are the ways in which those early traumatic experiences set me up for yet more traumatic experiences in the future. 

The early tough experiences – for me – were mostly emotional rather than physical or sexual, but because they resulted in patterns where I struggled to experience my feelings, felt everything was my fault, and learnt to put myself back in dangerous situations rather than asking for help, they set the scene for the physical and sexual forms of assault that I did experience in later life, and how much I minimised the impact of those later traumatic experiences.

Pete talks about four different kinds of grief: angering, crying, speaking/writing, and feeling. These are all useful and may be available at different times. Sometimes you can feel rage at what’s happened to you and the impact of that. Sometimes you can let out tears and mourn. Sometimes you can speak or write about it to ventilate the emotions that way. Sometimes you can just stay present to whatever your internal feelings are via the sensations in your body without having to let them out, or repress them, or tell any stories about them. Because the origins of cPTSD often involve our feelings being disallowed or punished we often feel afraid or ashamed of them. The process of reconnecting with anger and sadness can help unlock our capacity for the kinds of self-protection and self-compassion that we’ve struggled to give ourselves.

Grief can involve time-travel: another thing I want to blog about separately at some point. We are grieving for ourselves past and present. Present trauma responses can put us in touch with earlier feelings and we can feel for them both simultaneously. Linked to this I’ve found it helpful to feel grief for the intergenerational nature of trauma: the ways in which the traumatic stuff that happened to us was generally the result of patterns put in place by other peoples’ trauma, and the ways in which playing out our own trauma has impacted on others: perhaps tightening their own trauma habits. That can be a lot to face, but for me it can result in a lifting of feeling isolated, a recognition that we’re interconnected through this, and that our attempts to shift this stuff can have a much wider benefit than lifting our own individual suffering.

The main thing to emphasise with all of this is the importance of going slowly. Being such a good flee-er I always want to barrel into this stuff at a hundred miles an hour in order to have it all sorted. This is coupled with being a fawner who wants to sort it out quick so I can go back to being better for others than I’m being while so much of my life is taken up with this process. 

But one of my big lessons is this will not be rushed. In fact rushing it tends to have the opposite effect of re-traumatising you such that it’s even harder to do this work, and may well take even longer to reset some of this stuff. Love Uncommon has a helpful suggestion for navigating this territory. She suggests taking your emotional temperature on a scale of 1-10. Feelings up to 7 or so are ones to move towards and stay with in the ways Pete describes. Feeling from 8-10 are too intense – maybe a sign you’re heading into flashback territory – and it’s better to go into soothing activities to bring them down a notch, or maybe wait till the next day or whenever you feel back in the 1-7 zone.

Steve Haines and many of the major writers on trauma – Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Gabor Maté, Babette Rothschild – emphasise the role of the body in trauma, and the importance of somatic practices for releasing trauma and navigating trauma responses. Steve says that it is all about ‘meeting the body’. I’ll mention a few of these practices in the next section on flashbacks. As with their emotions, people with cPTSD often struggle to be in contact with their bodies very well, so this is both an important and challenging area.

Relating with others

Pete has a great concept in his book that cPTSD work is about simultaneously reparenting ourselves, and getting reparented by committee. We may well have spent our lives using our 4F strategies to try to get the kind of love, protection, and kindness that we so long for, and this may well not have worked out so well. Now it’s about learning to get those things on the inside (developing self-protection and self-compassion as mentioned above), and developing relationships which can help us to feel loved, protected and nurtured on the outside, through being open and real with others rather than employing those old strategies. 

For a lot of people a therapeutic relationship can be a safe-enough container to start that work – if we’ve struggled with relationships in the past. Support groups can also be great, so can relationships with companion animals, although it’s worth getting support around that too of course. 

Also it can be helpful to develop several friendships slowly over time, ideally with others who are up for doing this kind of work, so that we have a network of mutual support rather than one or two intense relationships where we’re likely to find ourselves drawn back into trauma patterns. Basically it’s all about going slow and steady and learning how to relate in sustainable ways which are kind towards ourselves and others.

Coping with flashbacks

As Pete says, we will keep getting flashbacks. At first one of the hard things is that old stuff – like realising we’ve over-ridden our self-consent or letting someone treat us badly – may well trigger flashbacks, but new stuff – like treating ourselves consensually or holding our boundaries – may also trigger them, because this is new territory and we’re going against our survival strategies, which feels scary. Damn this is hard.

What I’m finding is that if I can slow things down a lot then I can notice the flickering of the kinds of feelings involved in a flashback (fear and/or shame usually). It’s a bit like the aura people describe before a migraine happens. The feelings are around but haven’t set in yet. If I can catch it quickly enough then I can do something I call circling. It’s like the water circling a drain rather than going down the plug-hole (which would be plummeting into a flashback). That metaphor works for me anyway.

Here’s a list adapted from Pete of how you might be able to circle rather than sink with a flashback, and how to lift out if you’re in one. 

  • Name that you’re having a flashback/pre-flashback feelings. I find it really helpful to say this out loud. To another person if I’m with a friend, or to myself – in my kindest voice – if not. If it’s pre-flashback I try to stay with those feelings and remember what they are, that they make sense (whether or not I understand what triggered them right now), and that I don’t have to plummet. I can circle for a while until the feelings shift.
  • Remind yourself that you’re not in danger and/or that you can leave any dangerous situation if you are in one. For me this is about getting myself to a safe-enough place. This means getting home if I’m out. It means getting alone – or with a safe-enough support person – if I’m in a dynamic with somebody else where we’re triggering each other. Once there getting as warm and cozy as possible is great. Blankets, hot water bottles, and hot drinks can all be excellent. Remind yourself that you’re in a safe-enough place to get through this.
  • Remind yourself that this will pass. It often feels like this feeling is all there has ever been and all there ever will be: that it is the default that you always return to. This happens because when you were younger it probably felt very permanent. As with the idea that you are safe, it may be hard to believe the impermanence when you’re in a flashback, but you can at least say this to yourself and remember that such feelings have passed before.
  • Practise feeling safe in the environment. People often find it useful to focus outwards, for example saying everything you can see in the room of a certain colour, or going through each sense saying what you can see, hear, smell, touch, etc. I find it can help to look at things in my room and remind myself where they came from or what they mean to me.
  • Practise feeling safe in your body. Returning to feeling grounded in the body is also really helpful. Here people can find it helpful to hold a particular object and really feel it, to feel every part of themselves, to put their face in cool water, to do a minute of vigorous movement/dancing to shake it out.
  • Respond to any critical thoughts with kindness if you can. Over time developing a kind inner-parent voice to talk you through this stuff is really helpful. Reaching out to friends who get it can help to access a voice like that if you’re struggling yourself. However, it’s worth talking in advice about which people in your life you can offer that with and receive it from and how it’ll work, so you feel reassured in the moment that it is okay to ask, and what any limits might be. Generally it’s best to avoid people who you can get caught up in mutual trauma responses with easily.
  • Allow any feelings or grief. See the different ways of experiencing/expressing this mentioned earlier.

Trauma denial

It is hard writing this post. Even though I’ve wanted to write it for some time, there’s been an equal and opposite sense of blockage to writing it. What’s that about? Judith Herman’s book gave me a useful perspective on this. Culturally, and personally, we’re trained to deny and minimise trauma and its impact.

Judith points out that each time psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy have begun to take trauma seriously, it has been shut down by people denying that it’s even a thing, and suggesting that those who are traumatised are making it up or exaggerating its impact. When Freud first published a paper pointing out that most of the people with mental health struggles he was working with had experienced childhood and/or adult sexual abuse and assault, he was ignored and shut down. He went on to shift to a theory that suggested his patients had fantasised those things: they couldn’t possibly actually had happened. This is pretty terrifying now that we know the statistics on the prevalence of abuse and assault.

After the world wars there was a movement to take ‘shell shock’ seriously as a mental health condition. This was shut down with a cultural belief that soldiers who struggled in these ways were just morally inferior, or seeking attention, in some way. Judith writes about how veterans in the US are still treated: how the culture simply can’t face the horror of what they’ve been through – or their role in putting young men through that often for dubious reasons – so it pushes them back into ‘normal life’ and doesn’t allow them to tell their stories or express their feelings. 

Judith also points to the backlash of victim blame and minimisation the follows each movement to take domestic abuse and sexual violence against women seriously. I also think about how common it is for those in positions of privilege to deny or minimise the trauma experienced by those who are marginalised in any way. Judith says that each time psychology has had a wave of researching and theorising about trauma, it has been followed by a wave of silence, as if even the scientists and therapists can’t face the extent of it and it’s ongoing impact. I certainly experienced this myself as I studied psychology and psychotherapy. There was very little about trauma on any of my courses, and I certainly learnt several theories which were skeptical about the whole idea.

The cultural denial of trauma itself could be seen as a form of intergenerational trauma in itself. And it is internalised. One of the key features of cPTSD that Judith and Pete describe is constantly doubting whether you’re really traumatised, whether what happened to you is bad enough, whether you’re really just a bad person. 

This makes it confusing territory to think and write about indeed. It’s possible that the things that happened in your life were actually way worse than you’ve ever given them credit for, because a feature of trauma is downplaying and minimising your trauma. But simultaneously it seems possible that they are not as bad as you’re now thinking they were, because you want to reach some arbitrary standard of ‘bad enough’ to legitimise how hard you’re finding things.

As Pete says, this can be particularly hard for those whose traumatic experiences don’t match the ones that are usually ‘counted’ by wider culture or online checklists. One of the important things about his book is that it includes emotional abuse and neglect as pivotal in cPTSD, whether or not they go along with more physical and sexual forms of trauma. 

I would add that we should include those that happen outside the home as well as within it. School bullying is normalised and there is still the sense that the most vulnerable people – children – should put up with treatment which might well be the subject of workplace dismissal or police investigation if it happened to adults (although of course it is often overlooked in workplaces and relationship settings too). This is true whether that takes the form of ostracisation, shaming and hatred, coercion and control, unwanted touch/physical violence, and/or sexual harassment. 

The trauma literature can also focus too heavily on individually traumatising experiences, leaving out the collective trauma of being in an oppressed or marginalised group and/or forms of historical trauma. I’m now focusing my reading on authors like David Treleaven, Tada Hozumi, and Alex Iantaffi who bring trauma-informed perspectives together more explicitly with social justice thinking.

Here’s some useful counters to denial of trauma in yourself / from others:

  • You don’t have to locate the causes of your cPTSD in order for it to be legit. Some of it may well have occurred before you can remember, or be lost to memory now.
  • If you’re experiencing trauma responses like emotional flashbacks, dissociation, bodily responses, or going into fight, flight, freeze and/or fawn responses, that’s enough evidence that it’s there and it’s worth getting support around it.
  • People respond differently to events. It’s okay for you to be traumatised by something which didn’t traumatise another person who a similar thing happened to. Steve Haines uses the example of an everyday person being punched versus a boxer. Traumatic experiences also land differently in us if they’re taken seriously and supported by those around us when they happen, or if they aren’t.
  • It’s a spectrum, not an either/or. Few of us escape childhood with zero trauma, and pretty much everyone develops survival strategies (like a tendency to fight, flight, freeze or fawn). We mostly have things that particularly trigger us from the past, and become reactive or activated when that happens. The ease with which we are triggered, and the intensity of our reaction, varies between people, and maybe within the same person over time. If we’ve recently been retraumatised we’ll probably be a lot more fragile and prone to trauma responses. Wherever you are on the spectrum, it’s fine to take your trauma seriously, and to work to ease/shift your responses.
  • Working on this stuff will make us better for ourselves, each other, and the wider world, and that requires taking it seriously.
  • There’s a strong urge to deny/minimise trauma in wider culture which gets inside us and inside others (particularly those who might fear they had a role in your cPTSD). Anyone who says they have been hurt or traumatised is usually told that: It wasn’t that bad (or as bad as stuff that’s happened to other people); It shouldn’t have impacted them as profoundly as it has; They are probably making it up or making too much of it; They probably brought it on themselves (these are the basis of rape myths, for example). It’s understandable if you find yourself thinking these things yourself.

cPTSD superpowers

I’ll end on an upbeat note with the list of superpowers which Pete lists as potentially coming from working with cPTSD (and a few of my own):

  • We understand trauma really well, in ourselves and others
  • We’re capable of deep intimacy, emotional intelligence, and really feeling the feels
  • We can live an examined life, make good choices, follow our own path and rewrite the rules
  • We’re not covering over or hiding this stuff any more
  • We can handle pain and suffering
  • We have increased joy and it feels So Good when it’s been so unfamiliar
  • We see complexity
  • We’re badass: we’ve done all that we did in life even though we had cPTSD

This is the quote from Pete which will stay with me the most:

‘Shame and self-hate did not start with me, but with all my heart I deign that they will stop with me.’

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.

Plural tag: This post was written by Tony and Beastie.


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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  1. Izzy

    7 May

    Thank you! There’s so many wonderful theorists and ideas around trauma but I can struggle to link them together. This and your recent article on trauma and the body are very clear and helpful with lots of suggestions for further reading which is always appreciated 🙂 I love Pete Walker’s book, it’s been such a support to me. Best wishes on your path with understanding and moving toward healing x

    • Ah so glad these were helpful to you – it’s helped me a lot to synthesise the key bits in one place like this. Very best wishes on your path too xxx

  2. Shelagh

    18 May

    Thank you. I really appreciate your voice and knowing. Your felt sense and thinking give me solace. Especially now in these strange times where ‘real time’ connection and physical contact puts us all at risk. I choose to spend quite a lot of my time on my own because I get overwhelmed. But I do find the total lack of touch distressing. My dreams, memories and imagination are keeping the felt of touch alive. Keep sharing it is important. My critic is called Big Basher and when I invite them in their voice becomes a creative discovery. I learn a lot. That they just want to keep me safe and are actually deeply concerned about our collective well being whether that be individual, familial, friendships or community. Xxx

    • Thanks so much for the feedback. You’re absolutely right on the impact of lack of touch. I also loved hearing about Big Basher, and how you also experience the way you can learn from their voice when you invite them in. Very much our experience with our critic too, Beastie – something I’ll certainly be writing more about 🙂 xxx

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