Other People’s Trauma Is Way Worse Than Mine—or Is It?

What exactly is complex trauma?

Posted Dec 02, 2019

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Until recently, I never identified as someone who went through childhood trauma. Dysfunctional family dynamics—oh yeah. But trauma? No. Until I started learning about it and talking to my counselor, Andi. 

She knows my psychiatric diagnoses, but also all the juicy details of my childhood to adult history. “What you experienced is called complex or relational trauma,” she told me. 

“But trauma,” I piped in, “is physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or neglect, right? Like I need to be the recipient of it to ‘qualify.’” 

“Not exactly. What you described are examples of trauma, but trauma encompasses more than those.” Huh? This was news to me. 

What Is Complex Trauma?

Andrea Schneider MSW, LCSW quotes Dr. Ron Doctor, psychologist: “Complex or relational trauma can arise from prolonged periods of aversive stress, usually involving entrapment (psychological or physical), repeated violations of boundaries, betrayal, rejection, and confusion marked by a lack of control and helplessness.”1

Oooh-kay… maybe I’ve been wrong. 

Still, I tend to dismiss what I experienced. Sure, as a child, I witnessed daily rage and emotional abuse between my parents. But I wasn’t the target of it. 

Both had mental illnesses, but my dad was "only" depressed and anxious. Yes, my mom had bipolar disorder and talked to me about wanting to die. But she never attempted suicide

My parents lived in a pretty much loveless marriage, but I felt loved in a precarious kind of way. I felt scared most days but loved at the same time. 

OK, that does sound pretty uncomfortable and confusing, even to me.

But it’s been years since all this happened. I’ve done lots of therapy. It can’t be running my life still? 

Others had real abuse. You know, like getting hit, sexually molested, living in poverty. Others had it way worse.

Ron Doctor’s definition describes trauma in a new light. One that makes sense to me. One that validates why I still feel haunted by the basement cobwebs of my past. 

It’s true: Others suffered abuse I can’t even imagine, but that doesn’t mean what I underwent was any less significant or painful to me.

I’m cautious, though. There’s a danger of overidentifying with being a victim of trauma. It can unintentionally perpetuate the learned helplessness I want to escape. 

Regardless, to create a calmer, healthier life and more positive relationships, I’ve discovered I need to face the pain without clinging to it and find new behavior patterns.

Attachment and Healing

As a result of trauma, wounding to secure attachment can occur. PsychAlive explains that attachment is “the particular way in which (we) relate to other people. (It’s) formed at the very beginning of life, during the first two years.”2

Though I felt loved, and I was taken care of in a haphazard manner, this didn’t protect me from developing what is called an insecure attachment style. Oh, gawd. I know, more labels. But it has actually helped me create a coherent narrative.

As an adult, at times, I feel overwhelmed, swallowed up by my feelings (no wonder I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder). I disassociate easily. Terror comes up when I face anger or even disagreement. 

It can trigger me and render myself and my needs invisible. In order to find some semblance of internal safety and relief from the tsunami of fear, I’ll capitulate to others' needs and wants (whether they are asking me to or not). 

But this is changing. And the good news is it can be changed. 

I’ve healed some of the toxic behaviors and continue to transform the ones still hanging around. It doesn’t serve me or those around me to stay stuck in patterns of unresolved trauma and unhealthy coping tools. Is it messy, hard, and painful work? Yup. But it also feels essential to free myself from what has unconsciously been driving me. 

I get impatient, though. Do you? I’ve been doing this thing called "talk therapy" for years now. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do it. Shouldn’t I be further ahead? Shouldn’t these patterns have dissolved already? But I know the answer. 

Clichéd but accurate: It’s like a snake shedding its skin or peeling layers of an onion. Though I’d rather have less slithery, stinky metaphors. How about… a rose bush? Stay with me. 

Healing trauma, or recovering from mental illness, or both is like caring for a rose bush year after year. Each season, buds bloom. Then the plant is pruned (parts no longer needed are removed), so that next year’s flowers are even more lush. 

In the tending of the roses, the thorns may still prick, but over time, both the flowers and the plant get healthier and more lovely. That’s what I hope, anyway. That’s what I’ve been told. That’s what I’m beginning to experience. So I keep the faith and continue gardening.  

© Victoria Maxwell

References

Schneider, Andrea  (2018, January 22) “What Is Relational Trauma?: An Overview” retrieved November 29, 2019 from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/savvy-shrink/2018/01/what-is-relational-trauma-an-overview/

PsychAlive “What’s Your Attachment Style?” retrieved November 29, 2019 from https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/