Quotes from 'Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving', by Pete Walker
Article Table of Contents
- Chapter 5: What if I was Never Hit?
- Denial and Minimization
- Verbal and Emotional Abuse
- Theoretical Neurobiology of the Critic
- Emotional Neglect: The Core Wound in Complex PTSD
- The Failure to Thrive Syndrome
- Emotional Hunger and Addiction
- The Evolutionary Basis of Attachment Needs
- Abandonment Stultifies Emotional and Relational Intelligence
- De-Minimizing Emotional Abandonment
- Practicing Vulnerability
- The Power of Narrative
- Interlude from Josh
- Chapter 1 The Journey of Recovering from CPTSD
I’ve found Pete Walker’s Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving to be deeply helpful.
Some of you, many of you, have blessed me and cared for me in kind ways, sometimes with very little knowledge of what was going on, or why I was the way that I was. Thank you. I’ve been invited into homes and hearts, and write these words from a place in Seattle that has come to represent respite, friendship, and brotherhood. No one is an island, and any time I have been able to lean into good-enough friendships1, I feel viscerally restored and repaired, as Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language understands repair to exist.
I chanced across this book in a very serendipitous way. A dear friend happened to have just gotten it from Amazon, hadn’t even read it yet, but had it on hand, so I did what I often do, especially with books with such an interesting title. (I’d never heard the combination of phrases ‘complex’ and ‘ptsd’)
I flipped open the index, skimmed it, and started paging around the whole book2.
Anyway, the section that first jumped out at me was chapter 5. I read it ravenously, threads connecting in my head at a quite rapid clip.3
I will re-print chapter 5 below. I eventually quickly skimmed around other portions of the book, under the hearty endorsement of the author, hop-scotching around a well-organized and well-internally-linked book. I use my phone to take photos of pages, and fairly easily turn those pictures into text that I can quote below. These words have brought me tremendous relief and peace and help.
The purpose of printing these words below is to possibly prick your own curiosity, in the same way mine was. I had ordered a copy of this book for myself within an hour, and have now read the book, and listened to the audiobook.
Enjoy these long quotes, from Pete Walker himself:
Chapter 5: What if I was Never Hit? #
Physical and sexual abuse are the most obvious traumas that a child can experience, especially when they are ongoing. However, much that is also traumatic goes unnoticed in Cptsd-engendering families. This often occurs because parental acts of physical abuse are more blatant than acts of verbal and emotional abuse and neglect. It appears to me that just as many children acquire Cptsd from emotionally traumatizing families as from physically traumatizing ones.
Denial about the traumatic effects of childhood abandonment can seriously hamper your ability to recover. In childhood, ongoing emotional neglect typically creates overwhelming feelings of fear, shame and emptiness. As an adult survivor, you may continuously flashback into this abandonment mélange. Recovering depends on realizing that fear, shame and depression are the lingering effects of a loveless childhood. Without such understanding, your crucial, unmet needs for comforting human connection can strand you in a great deal of unnecessary suffering.
Denial and Minimization #
Confronting denial is no small task. Children so need to believe that their parents love and care for them, that they will deny and minimize away evidence of the most egregious neglect and abuse.
De-minimization is a crucial aspect of confronting denial. It is the process by which a person deconstructs the defense of “making light” of his childhood trauma. The lifelong process of de-minimizing the impact of childhood trauma is like peeling a very slippery and caustic onion. The outer layer for some is the stark physical evidence of abuse, e.g., sexual abuse or excessive corporal punishment. Subsequent layers involve verbal, spiritual and emotional abuse. Core layers have to do with verbal, spiritual and emotional neglect.
In a perversely ironic way, my parents’ physical abuse of me was a blessing, for it was so blatant that my attempts to suppress, rationalize, make light of and laugh it off lost their power in adolescence, and I was able to see my father for the bully that he was. [Seeing my idealized mother’s abusiveness came much later].
Identifying my father’s behavior as abusive eventually helped me become aware of less blatant aspects of my parents’ oppression, and I subsequently discovered the verbal and emotional abuse layer of the onion of my childhood abandonment.
Verbal and Emotional Abuse #
The fact that verbal and emotional abuse can be traumatic is lost on many childhood trauma victims, though it is rarely lost on recovering victims of cult brainwashing.
Many survivors of verbal and emotional abuse never learn to validate its soul-damaging effects. They never accurately assign current time suffering to it. Attempts to acknowledge it are typically blindsided with thoughts that it was nothing compared to kids who were repeatedly beaten - who “had it so much worse.” As a child, I minimized my father’s frequent face-slapping by comparing who were it to my friend’s father who used to punch him.
Much later, however, I finally realized that for me, and many of my clients, verbal and emotional abuse damaged us much more than our physical abuse.4
Ongoing assault with critical words systematically destroys our self-esteem and replaces it with a toxic inner critic that incessantly judges us as defective. Even worse, words that are emotionally poisoned with contempt infuse the child with fear and toxic shame. Fear and shame condition him to refrain from asking for attention, from expressing himself in ways that draw attention. Before long, he learns to refrain from seeking any kind of help or connection at all.
Theoretical Neurobiology of the Critic #
Unrelenting criticism, especially when it is ground in with parental rage and scorn, is so injurious that it changes the structure of the child’s brain.
Repeated messages of disdain are internalized and adopted by the child, who eventually repeats them over and over to himself. Incessant repetitions result in the construction of thick neural pathways of self hate and self-disgust. Over time a self-hate response attaches to more and more of the child’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Eventually, any inclination toward authentic or vulnerable self expression activates internal neural networks of self-loathing. The child is forced to exist in a crippling state of self-attack, which eventually becomes the equivalent of full-fledged self-abandonment. The ability to support himself or take his own side in any way is decimated.
With ongoing parental reinforcement, these neural pathways expand into a large complex network that becomes an Inner Critic that dominates mental activity. The inner critic’s negative perspective creates many programs of self-rejecting perfectionism. At the same time, it obsesses about danger and catastrophizes incessantly. Chapters 9 and 10 expand on shrinking and deconstructing these life-ruining programs. Until this is accomplished, the survivor typically lives in varying degrees of emotional flashback much of the time.
The verbal and emotional layer of the abuse onion has sub-layers of minimization. I have heard clients jokingly repeat numerous versions of this over and over: “I know I’m hard on myself, but if I don’t constantly kick my own ass, I’ll be more of a loser than I already am. In fact, I really need you to come down on me if I try to get away with anything!” A childhood rife with verbal and emotional abuse forces the child to so thoroughly identify with the critic, that it is as if the critic is his whole identity.
Disidentification from the critic is the fight of a lifetime. To liberate your identity from the toxic critic, you will have to repetitively confront it for a long time. You will have greater success if you are prepared to forgive yourself for repeatedly collapsing back into the old habit of self-blame. Progress is always a gradual back and forth process. Ironically, a pernicious type of self-hate can constellate around the self-judgment that one is especially defective because she cannot simply banish the critic. This is the typical toxic, all-or none thinking of the critic.
Sadly, many survivors give up on fighting the critic before recognizing the myriad subtle ways it tortures them. Yet, there is no more noble recovery battle than that which gradually frees the psyche from critic dominance. Until this happens to a significant degree, there is minimal development of the healthy, user-friendly ego. Let us look now at how emotional neglect alone can create a psyche-dominating critic.
Emotional Neglect: The Core Wound in Complex PTSD #
Minimization about the damage caused by extensive emotional neglect is at the core of the Cptsd denial onion. Our journey of recovery takes a quantum leap when we really feel and understand how devastating it was to be emotionally abandoned. An absence of parental loving interest and engagement, especially in the first few years, creates an overwhelming emptiness. Life feels harrowingly frightening to the infant or toddler who is left for long periods without comfort and care. Children are helpless and powerless for a long time, and when they sense that no one has their back, they feel scared, miserable and disheartened. Much of the constant anxiety that adult survivors live in is this still aching fear that comes from having been so frighteningly abandoned.
Many survivors never discover and work through the wounds that correlate with this level. This happens because they over assign their suffering to overt abuse and never get to the core issue of their emotional abandonment. As stated above, this is especially likely to occur with survivors who dismissively compare their trauma to those who were abused more noticeably and more dramatically. I find this painfully ironic because some people suffer significant active abuse without developing Cptsd. Typically, they are “spared” because there is one caretaker who does not emotionally neglect them.5
Traumatic emotional neglect occurs when a child does not have a single caretaker to whom she can turn in times of need or danger. Cptsd then sets in to the degree that there is no alternative adult [relative, older sibling, neighbor, or teacher] to turn to for comfort and protection. This is especially true when the abandonment occurs 24/7, 365 days a year for the first few years.
Growing up emotionally neglected is like nearly dying of thirst outside the fenced off fountain of a parent’s warmth and interest. Emotional neglect makes children feel worthless, unlovable and excruciatingly empty. It leaves them with a hunger that deeply at the center of their being. They starve for human and comfort.
The Failure to Thrive Syndrome #
When a child is continuously deprived of a nurturing caretaker, love-starvation steadily increases and sometimes devolves into the Failure to Thrive Syndrome.
Failure to thrive is a term coined in the mid twentieth century to describe the epidemic of baby deaths that occurred when new germ phobic practices were introduced into hospitals. The new standard was that nurses were prohibited from holding babies for fear of contaminating them. Infant mortality immediately began to climb.
Modern medical practice has abandoned this heartless approach because of the Failure to thrive research. This research has since been corroborated by data from Eastern European orphanages where there are insufficient staff to meet the contact-comfort needs of babies. Modern medicine now accepts as scientific fact the principle that babies need a great deal of physical touch and nurturing in order to thrive.
In my experience, failure to thrive is not an all-or-none phenomenon, but rather a continuum that stretches from the abandonment depression to death. Many Cptsd survivors never thrived as babies. I believe that many suffered painful bouts of lingering the end of the continuum that feels death-like. Several of my clients commonly have quipped that they “feel like death warmed over” when they are in a flashback.
Moreover, I suspect that some traumatized children do die from their abandonment. Perhaps, their immune systems weaken and make them more susceptible to diseases. Perhaps, as David Kalshed hints, they unconsciously gravitate toward lethal “accidents” to terminate their misery.
One of my clients reported this painful memory when we were processing a flashback that she was trapped in. She was ten, in a daze, and walked out between two parked cars into traffic. She was hit by a truck and it took months of hospitalization to save her leg. Her most tearful re-experiencing of this event was remembering how she woke up in the hospital and felt tremendous disappointment that she was still alive.
Emotional Hunger and Addiction #
The emotional hunger that comes from parental abandonment often morphs over time into an insatiable appetite for substances and/ or addictive processes. Minimization of early abandonment often transforms later in life into the minimizing that some survivors use to rationalize their substance and process addictions. Fortunately, many survivors eventually come to see their substance or process addictions as problematic. But many also minimize the deleterious effects of their addiction and jokingly dismiss their need to end or reduce their reliance on them.
When the survivor has no understanding of the effects of trauma or no memory of being traumatized, addictions are often understandable, misplaced attempts to regulate painful emotional flashbacks. However many survivors are now in a position to see how self-destructive their addictions are. They are now old enough to learn healthier ways of self-soothing
Accordingly, substance and process addictions can be seen as misguided attempts to distract from inner pain. The desire to reduce such habits can therefore be used as motivation to learn the more sophisticated forms of self-soothing that Cptsd recovery work has to offer.
As we will see in chapter 11, grieving work offers us irreplaceable tools for working through inner pain. This then helps obviate the need to harmfully distract ourselves from our pain.
The Evolutionary Basis of Attachment Needs #
The human brain evolved during the Hunter-Gatherer era that represents 99.8% of our time on this planet. For a child, safety from predators during these times depended on being in very close proximity to an adult. Even the briefest loss of contact with a parental figure could trigger panicky feelings as beasts of prey only needed seconds to snatch away an unprotected child.
Fear hard-wired in the child as a healthy response to separation from a protective adult. Fear also linked automatically with the fight response so that the infant and toddler would automatically cry angrily for attention, help, and cessation of abandonment.
Cptsd-inducing families however loathe angry crying, and many can find professionals to back them up for routinely leaving babies and very young children to “cry it out” on their own.
In most dysfunctional families, parents disdain children for needing any kind of help or attention at all. Moreover, even the most well-intentioned parent can seriously neglect their children by subscribing to the egregious 20th century “wisdom” that “Kids need quality time - quantity does not matter.”
When children experience long periods of being powerless to obtain needed connection with a parent, they become increasingly anxious, upset and depressed. In Cptsd-engendering families, the absence of care and concern is extreme. A caretaker is rarely or never available for support, comfort or protection.
If this is what you suffered, you then grew up feeling that no one likes you. No one ever listened to you or seemed to want you. No one had empathy for you, showed you warmth, or invited closeness. No one cared about what you thought, felt, did, wanted of dreamed of. You learned early that, no matter how hurt, alienated, or terrified you were, turning to a parent would do nothing than exacerbate your experience of rejection.
When caretakers turn their backs on a child’s need for help and support, her inner world becomes an increasingly nightmarish amalgam of fear, shame and depression. The child who is abandoned in this way experiences the world as a terrifying place.
Over time the child’s dominant experience of herself is so replete with emotional pain and so unmanageable that that she has to dissociate, self-medicate, act out [aggression against others] or act in [aggression against the self] to distract from it.
The situation of the abandoned child further deteriorates as an extended absence of warmth and protection gives rise to the cancerous growth of the inner critic as described above. The child projects his hope for being accepted onto self-perfection. By the time the child is becoming self-reflective, cognitions start to arise that sound like this: “I’m so despicable, worthless, unlovable, and ugly; maybe my parents would love me if I could make myself like those perfect kids I see on TV.”
In this way, the child becomes hyperaware of imperfections and strives to become flawless. Eventually she roots out the ultimate flaw - the mortal sin of wanting or asking for her parents’ time or energy. Intrinsic to this process is noticing - more and more hyper vigilantly - how her parents turn their back or become angry or disgusted whenever she needs anything, whether it be attention, listening, interest, or affection.
Emotional neglect, alone, causes children to abandon them selves, and to give up on the formation of a self. They do so to preserve an illusion of connection with the parent and to protect themselves from the danger of losing that tenuous connection. This typically requires a great deal of self-abdication, e.g., the forfeiture of self-esteem, self-confidence, self-care, self-interest, and self-protection.
Moreover, endangerment programs proliferate in the critic as the child learns that he cannot ask his parent to protect him from dangers and injustices in the outside world, never mind in the home.
His only recourse is to become hypervigilant about things that can go wrong. His critic compiles lists of possible calamities, especially those that are graphically portrayed in the media.
The media gives the critic of the abandoned child much fodder to play with. She may be exposed daily to hours of that glorify sarcasm, backbiting and bullying. Moreover news programs, with a ninety percent content of bad news, fill her head with impressions that the world is predominantly hostile and dangerous, Even worse, emotionally neglectful parents commonly abandon their children to their favorite babysitter - the TV. 6
Through such neglect the child’s consciousness eventually becomes overwhelmed with the processes of drasticizing and catastrophizing. Drasticizing and catastrophizing are critic processes that lead the child to constantly rehearse fearful scenarios in a vain attempt to prepare himself for the worst. This is the process by which Cptsd with its overdeveloped stress and toxic shame programs sets in and becomes triggerable by a plethora of normally innocuous stimuli.
Most notable of these stimuli are other people, especially unknown people or people even vaguely reminiscent of the parents. Over time, the critic comes to assume that all other people are dangerous and automatically triggers the fight, flight, freeze or fawn response whenever a stranger or unproven other comes into view.7
Unfortunately, there’s a difference of opinion. The onus has been on me to prove that anyone can be safe, repeatedly, daily, and I cannot. Firstly, it’s not true, but secondly, acting like everyone is dangerous makes your world more dangerous, so the ‘perception’ is, in fact, a reality that cannot be unwillingly experientially altered. in good ways and bad, we can ‘get what we give’, for many very basic and reasonable reasons. (example: smiling is a public statement of peace. Sneering is a public statement of contempt. If you habitually chose one over the other, your lived experience will differ than if you choose the other.)
This people-are-dangerous process typically devolves into the social anxiety that is frequently a symptom of Cptsd. In worst case scenarios it manifests as social phobia and agoraphobia. In my opinion, agoraphobia is rarely the fear of open spaces. It is instead a disguised form of social phobia. It is the fear of going out lest you run into someone or anyone.
Abandonment Stultifies Emotional and Relational Intelligence #
As stated above, emotionally abandoned children often devolve into experiencing all people as dangerous, no matter how benign or generous they may in fact be. Even love, coming their way, reverberates threateningly on a subliminal level. Unconsciously, they fear that if they momentarily “trick” someone into liking them, the forbidden prize will vanish once their social perfectionism inevitably fails and exposes their unworthiness. Moreover, when this occurs, they will be triggered even more deeply into the abandonment mélange.
Emotional intelligence and its cohort, relational intelligence, are forced into developmental arrest by abandoning parents. Children never learn that a relationship with a healthy person can be com forting and enriching. The ability to open to and benefit from love and caring from others often lays dormant and undeveloped.
Moreover, the appropriate management of the normal emotions that recurrently arise in significant relationships is never modeled for them. Emotional intelligence about the healthy and functional aspects of anger, sadness, and fear lies fallow.
De-Minimizing Emotional Abandonment #
As with physical abuse, effective work on the wounds of verbal and emotional abuse can sometimes open the door to de-minimizing the awful impact of emotional neglect. I sometimes feel the most for my clients who were “only” neglected, because it is so difficult to see neglect as hard core evidence. Most people remember little before they were four years old. And by that time, much of this kind of damage is done. It typically takes some very deep introspective work, to realize that current time flashback pain is a re-creation of how bad it felt to be emotionally abandoned.
The remembering and de-minimizing of the impact of emotional neglect can take a long time. It is typically an intuitive piecing together of a lot of clues. The puzzle is often solved when a critical mass of childhood reconstruction is reached. Sometimes this fosters an epiphany that neglect is indeed at the core of present time suffering. Sometimes this epiphany brings a great relieving certainty that fragile self-esteem, frequent flashbacks, and recurring reenactments of unsupportive relationships were caused by the closed hearts of your parents.
I sometimes regret that I did not know what I now know about this kind of neglect when I wrote my first book. I wish I had not over-focused on the role of abuse in my childhood trauma. It is so hard to convey this to a client whose critic minimizes and shames them for their plight by comparing them unfavorably to me: “I didn’t have it anywhere near as bad as you. My mother never hit me!”
How ironic that this typically invokes a feeling-sense in me that the worst thing that happened to me, by far, was growing up so emotionally abandoned. In fact, it was not until I learned to assign the pain of numerous current time emotional flashbacks to the abject loneliness of my childhood, that I was able to work effectively on the repetition compulsion that lead me into so many neglectful relationships. And once again this is not to deny or minimize the C-ptsd inducing traumatization that does come from each and every type of abuse; physical, sexual, verbal and emotional.
Practicing Vulnerability #
Emotional abandonment is healed by the type of real intimacy that we have been discussing. And once again real intimacy depends on us showing up in times of vulnerability. Deep-level recovering occurs when we successfully connect with a safe-enough other during the flashbacked-times of feeling trapped in the fear, shame and depression of the abandonment mélange.
In this vein, I had to painstakingly practice showing up in my pain for years. At first I could only do this infrequently. I was too habituated to my childhood default positions of hiding or camouflaging with substances whenever I was in the grip of the abandonment mélange. Yet I drew strength to increase my practice from a growing distaste for the social perfectionism of my people-pleasing codependence. I somehow knew my loneliness would never decrease unless I took the risk to see if certain well chosen others would accept me in all aspects of my experience, not just the shiny ones.
And of course, like most survivors, I was ignorant at first that I was even experiencing the emotional pain of the abandonment mélange. How could I help but conceal it?
Moreover, even after considerable de-minimization of my child hood abuse/neglect picture, I was still convinced that everyone but my therapist would find me abhorrent if I shared about my flashback feelings. Furthermore, my trust of my therapist also wavered quite a bit at first, especially during my deepest flashbacks.
Gratefully, sufficient positive experiences with my therapist eventually emboldened me to bring my authentic vulnerability to other select and gradually proven relationships, where I found the acceptance, safety and support that, previously, I would not have known to wish for.
There are limitations of the analogy of the onion. Later recovery does typically involve working at various levels at the same time. De-minimization is a lifetime process. Revisiting a central issue of our abandonment picture sometimes impacts us even more deeply than it did at first.
One such occasion left me reeling with the certain knowledge that getting hit felt preferable to being abandoned for long hours outside my depressed mother’s locked bedroom door. I would pound on the door even though I knew she would explode because I just could not bear the isolation. I have known about the latter for quite some time now and yet writing about it brings up some new bitter-sweet tears.
Bitter-sweet tears are not uncommon in the ongoing work of peeling the layers of the denial onion. The tears are bitter because we realize the abandonment was even more devastating than we previously realized. And then the tears are sweet because they validate the truth of the recollection and put the blame where it truly belongs. And then they may be bitter again because the horrible abandonments happened over and over again when we were so young and legitimately needed so much help. And then they can turn sweet again, as in tears of gratitude, because a person often comes through this kind of depth work with an enhanced compassion for what she suffered and a healthy pride about having survived.
In my latest experience of this type of grieving my sweet tears came from realizing that I do regularly experience good enough love and safety in relationship. And then my tears were bitter again because I can still emotionally flashback to that bereft state of feeling stranded from the comfort of others, even occasionally from my wife and son. And then my tears were sweet again because my flashbacks are so much easier to handle these days, especially as I increasingly master the use of the tools I describe in chapter 8.
The Power of Narrative #
There is also growing evidence that recovery from Complex PTSD is reflected in the narrative a person tells about her life.8
The degree of recovery matches the degree to which a survivor’s story is complete, coherent, and emotionally congruent and told from a self sympathetic perspective.
In my experience, deep level recovery is often reflected in a narrative that highlights the role of emotional neglect in describing what one has suffered and what one continues to deal with.
My client, Matt, peeled a large layer off his onion of denial and minimization two days before Mother’s Day. He came into his session in a terrible flashback. “Life sucks and I suck even more. I couldn’t even do something as simple as pick out a Mother’s Day card.”
Fortunately, Matt had achieved a great deal of de-minimization since the previous Mother’s Day when he thought his mother was a good mother because she had never hit him. Now however, he was heavily triggered by spending an hour in a card shop unable to find a card that he could send to his mother. As we explored this further, we discovered that the sentiments written in every card made him feel like he would be betraying his inner child if he sent it.
“I tell you, Pete, not one of those cards describes something that I could be grateful for. I don’t have one memory of anything nice she ever said or did for me!” Before long, he was deep into grieving about how little mothering he had received from his mother.
He cried and angered about the scornful look and the sarcastic tone of voice that so characterized his interactions with her. “Why did I have to get such a bad deal from the mothering deck?!”
Towards the end of the session, as often happens with healthy grieving, he felt his flashback resolve and was restored to feeling like he was once again on his own side. The relief of being out of the flashback also allowed his healthy sense of humor to return.
He started riffing: “I’m going to start a greeting card business for people like me. I’m going to make a line of cards for people with dysfunctional mothers. How about this? Thanks Mom for never knowing what grade I was in’; or “Thanks Mom for all the memories of you walking away whenever I was hurting’; or “Thanks Mom for teaching me how to only notice what was wrong me’; or “Thanks Mom for teaching me how to frown at myself in self-disgust.””
Understanding how profoundly derelict your parents were in their duty to nurture and protect you is a master key to your recovery. You will benefit greatly from seeing emotional flashbacks as direct messages from your child-self about how much your parents rejected you. When denial is significantly deconstructed, you will typically feel genuine compassion for the child that you were. This self-compassion assuages emotional neglect by providing you with the missed childhood experience of receiving empathy in painful emotional states instead of contempt or abandonment. This, then, helps you to reverse the childhood-survival habit of automatic self abandonment. In turn, this can further motivate you to identify and address the many ways you were abused and/or neglected. Chapter 8 of my book, The Tao of Fully Feeling, provides detailed guidelines for assessing and remediating your abuse/neglect picture.
Finally, it is an empowering accomplishment to really get the profound significance of childhood emotional neglect. It is often flashback-resolving to realize in the moment that a flashback into bewilderment and hopelessness is an emotional reliving of your childhood trauma. Like nothing else, this can generate a self-protective impulse toward your child-self and your present-time self, kick-starting the process of resolving any given flashback.
Interlude from Josh #
So, I skimmed the above chapter. That’s all of chapter 5. I found lots of interesting ideas. It was more than enough to justify skipping around to a few other sections, which I did. I don’t remember the exact order I moved, but here’s a bit of a skatter-shot smattering of portions of the book that have been interesting to me. Again, I’d encourage you to simply pick up your own copy: Amazon, Audible
Chapter 1 The Journey of Recovering from CPTSD #
What You may have been Misdiagnosed with #
I once heard renowned traumatologist, John Briere, quip that if Cptsd were ever given its due, the DSM [The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] used by all mental health professionals would shrink from its dictionary like size to the size of a thin pamphlet. In other words, the role of traumatized child hoods in most adult psychological disorders is enormous.
I have witnessed many clients with Cptsd misdiagnosed with various anxiety and depressive disorders. Moreover, many are also unfairly and inaccurately labeled with bipolar, narcissistic, codependent, autistic spectrum and borderline disorders. [This is not to say that Cptsd does not sometimes co-occur with these disorders.]
Further confusion also arises in the case of ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder], as well as obsessive/compulsive disorder, both of which are sometimes more accurately described as fixated flight responses to trauma [see the 4F’s below]. This is also true of ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] and some depressive and dissociative disorders which similarly can more accurately be described as fixated freeze responses to trauma.
Furthermore, this is not to say that those so misdiagnosed do not have issues that are similar and correlative with the disorders above. The key point is that these labels are incomplete and unnecessarily shaming descriptions of what the survivor is actually afflicted with.
Reducing Cptsd to “panic disorder” is like calling food allergies chronically itchy eyes. Over-focusing treatment on the symptoms of panic in the former case and eye health in the latter does little to get at root causes. Feelings of panic or itchiness in the eyes can be masked with medication, but all the associated problems that cause these symptoms will remain untreated.
Moreover, most of the diagnoses mentioned above are typically treated as innate characterological defects rather than as learned maladaptations to stress - adaptations that survivors were forced to learn as traumatized children. And, most importantly, because these adaptations were learned, they can often be extinguished or significantly diminished, and replaced with more functional adaptations to stress.
In this vein, I believe that many substance and process addictions also begin as misguided, maladaptations to parental abuse and abandonment. They are early adaptations that are attempts to soothe and distract from the mental, emotional and physical pain of Cptsd.
Origins of Cptsd #
How do traumatically abused and/or abandoned children develop Cptsd? While the origin of Cptsd is most often associated with extended periods of physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood, my observations convince me that ongoing verbal and emotional abuse also causes it.
[Many dysfunctional parents react contemptuously to a baby or toddler’s plaintive call for connection and attachment. Contempt is extremely traumatizing to a child, and at best, extremely noxious to an adult.]
Contempt is a toxic cocktail of verbal and emotional abuse, deadly amalgam of denigration, rage and disgust. Rage creates fear, and disgust creates shame in the child in a way that soon teaches her to refrain from crying out, from ever asking for attention. Before long, the child gives up on seeking any kind of help or connection at all. The child’s bid for bonding and acceptance is thwarted, and she is left to suffer in the frightened despair of abandonment.
Particularly abusive parents deepen the abandonment trauma by linking corporal punishment with contempt. Slaveholders typically use contempt and scorn to destroy their victims’ self esteem. Slaves and children who are made to feel worthless and powerless devolve into learned helplessness and can be controlled with far less energy and attention. Cult leaders also use contempt to shrink their followers into absolute submission after luring them in with brief phases of fake unconditional love.
Furthermore, Cptsd can also be caused by emotional neglect alone. This key theme is explored at length in chapter 5. If you notice that you are berating yourself because your trauma seems insignificant compared to others, please skip ahead to this chapter and resume reading here upon completion.
Emotional neglect also typically underlies most traumatizations that are more glaringly evident. Parents who routinely ignore or turn their backs on a child’s calls for attention, connection or help, abandon their child to unmanageable amounts of fear, and the child eventually gives up and succumbs to depressed, death-like feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
These types of rejection simultaneously magnify the child’s fear, and eventually add a coating of shame to it. Over time this fear and shame begets a toxic inner critic that holds the child, and later the adult, totally responsible for his parents’ abandonment, until he becomes his own worst enemy and descends into the bowels of Cptsd.
More about Trauma #
Trauma occurs when attack or abandonment triggers a fight/ flight response so intensely that the person cannot turn it off once the threat is over. He becomes stuck in an adrenalized state. His sympathetic nervous system is locked “on” and he cannot toggle into the relaxation function of the parasympathetic ner vous system.
One common instance of this occurs when a child is attacked and hurt by a bully after school. He may remain in a hypervigilant, fearful state until someone takes action to insure him that he will not be revictimized, and until someone helps him release the hyperactivation in his nervous system.
If the child has learned through experience that he can come to at least one of his parents when he is hurting, frightened or need ing help, he will tell mom or dad about it. With them, he will grieve the temporary death of his sense of safety in the world by verbally ventilating, crying and angering about it [chapter 11 expands these processes of grieving]. Moreover, his parent will report the bully and take steps to assure that it will not happen again, and the child will typically be released from the trauma. He will naturally relax back into the safety of parasympathetic nervous system functioning.
“Simple”, one incident traumas can often be resolved relatively easily if Cptsd is not already present.
If however the bullying happens on numerous occasions and the child does not seek help, or if the child lives in an environment so dangerous that the parent is powerless to ensure a modicum of safety, it may take more than parental comforting to release the trauma. If the trauma is not too continuous over too long a time, a short course of therapy may be all that is needed to resolve the trauma, provided of course the danger in the environment can effectively be remediated.
When the trauma however is repetitive and ongoing and no help is available, the child may become so frozen in trauma that the symptoms of “simple” ptsd begin to set in. This can also occur during the prolonged trauma of combat or entrapment in a cult or domestic violence situation.
If however, a person is also afflicted by ongoing family abuse or profound emotional abandonment, the trauma will manifest as a particularly severe emotional flashback because he already has Cptsd. This is particularly true when his parent is also a bully.
The Four F’s: Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn #
Earlier, I mentioned the fight/flight response that is an innate automatic response to danger in all human beings. A more complete and accurate description of this instinct is the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response. The complex nervous system wiring of this response allows a person in danger to react in four different ways.
A fight response is triggered when a person suddenly responds aggressively to something threatening. A flight response is triggered when a person responds to a perceived threat by fleeing, or symbolically, by launching into hyperactivity. A freeze response is triggered when a person, realizing resistance is futile, gives up, numbs out into dissociation and/or collapses as if accepting the inevitability of being hurt. A fawn response is triggered when a person responds to threat by try ing to be pleasing or helpful in order to appease and forestall an attacker. This fourfold response potential will heretofore be referred to as the 4Fs.
Traumatized children often over-gravitate to one of these response patterns to survive, and as time passes these four modes become elaborated into entrenched defensive structures that are similar to narcissistic [fight], obsessive/compulsive [flight], dissociative [freeze] or codependent [fawn] defenses.
These structures help children survive their horrific childhoods, but leave them very limited and narrow in how they respond to life. Even worse, they remain locked in these patterns in adult hood when they no longer need to rely so heavily on one primary response pattern.
It is important to understand that variances in the childhood abuse/neglect patterns, birth order, and genetic predispositions result in people polarizing to their particular 4F type.
In the next section we will explore examples of how children are driven into these defenses by traumatizing parents. The four children in the vignette below match the four basic types of trauma survivors:
- Bob = Fight - Narcissistic
- Carol = Flight - Obsessive/Compulsive
- Maude = Freeze - Dissociative
- Sean = Fawn - Codependent
This is a bar of exceptional quality, despite how it might first read, and is explained in detail on chapter 13 of this book I’m talking about. The chapter is titled
A Relational Approach to Healing Abandonment↩
I’ve read How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, after all, and when I perceive a book to possibly have value to me, I interrogate the book for it’s secrets and value. I have a fairly specific process. (Index, skim beginning/end of first/last chapter, skip around a bit, dig into a single chapter, skim the chapter, then read beginning/end of chapter, then read the whole chapter in depth, skip around some more, etc.) ↩
I freely give in to curiosity and interestingness. Many others that I’ve spoken to about this book have intuitively grokked some of the learnings I’ve shared, and I wanted an easy-to-share-and-reference spot for more references for this book. ↩
I was spanked extensively; for a long time I didn’t consider this “hitting”, though it was a form of physical abuse. That is no longer my view. To clarify, though, I have long labelled spanking as ‘simple punitive/retalitory violence’, despicable, unfit behavior for one who claims to love another or him/herself. As it is with any act of violence, it’s nothing I would ever do to someone I loved, at least not without apologizing and repairing the damage my violence would do to the relationship. I now do label spanking as hitting, though the emotional impact still isn’t the same for me as what I imagine it might be if the violence looked like my parent(s) hitting me in the face. ↩
in the book “The Verbally Abusive Relationship”, perhaps in an appendix, the author proposes an explanation for why similar mistreatment of two people might lead to one of them later engaging compulsively in emotionally abusive behaviors, and the other engaging in the world from a position of kindness, compassion, and care. The answer boils down to
The presence of a person who plays the role of witness; who reflects back to the mistreated person the message ‘this is mistreatment, what is being done to you is wrong, and you are right to feel deeply disturbed and upset, because it is deeply disturbing and upsetting.’ That “witness” is a kind-hearted third-party observer. Another parent, a sibling, adult friend, etc.
This phenomena and assessment tracks well to some key conversations I’ve had over the years. ↩
This combination of ‘celebration/modeling of toxic behavior’ and ‘overwhelming despair of the news on TV’ has been a threat to me and my family for a long time, I long ago (like, before I got married in 2012) intuited the danger, but couldn’t actually successfully defend against it and prevent great damage from being done. ↩
Kristi and I have repeatedly had conflict over her demonstrated perceived fear of strangers. I believe(d) that a generalized attitude of fear and/or contempt was so obviously contrary to the gospel and Jesus’s words and actions and wisdom that the onus to ‘fix ones approach’ was obviously on the person experiencing said contempt, though my gosh I was/am down to gameplan how to kindly, compassionately, and gently find experiences that allow the psyche to accept an alternative way of being. ↩
I believe so strongly in the theme of this section. A therapist who’s services I once retained, as I was reflecting before our first session on how to talk about “what brought me in”, and what I needed, dropped the ball in this way. I mentioned repeatedly that I was seeking “coherence in narrative” and needed help understanding “the story” of the last few years of my life, so I could tell myself a coherent narrative of what I’d experienced, what I was responsible for, proper responses to challenging situations, lessons learned, etc. (let alone be able to explain my life coherently to others). This never happened, I eventually lost trust too many times in the relationship, especially when I felt that I was being pushed into SSRIs in premature, inappropriate, de-dignifiying ways. ↩
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