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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Echoes of Survival From Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Childhood strategies for managing CPTSD may show up in our adult relationships.

Key points

  • Recognizing our childhood strategies used for managing CPTSD is a first step in healing.
  • Many of us continue using those early strategies until we work to make them more conscious.
  • With more awareness comes the possibility of more choices, including choosing healthier relationships in adulthood.

Adults with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) learned very well as children what it meant to “not need” anything—to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. These children also learned to be extremely “other-focused” in order to scrape together any semblance of support or belonging. Sometimes referred to as being characteristics of “people-pleasers,” or “co-dependents,” they were originally brilliant child strategies for survival in a hostile environment.

 Austin Kehmeier/Unsplash
Support, comfort, and connection.
Source: Austin Kehmeier/Unsplash

Moving into adulthood, these strategies become more complex and nuanced in our relationships. They generally travel together with huge uncertainty around boundaries. In shorthand, healthy boundaries tell us, “This is where I begin, and you end.” Healthy boundaries support the individual integrity of each human to have separate thoughts, feelings, wants, needs and preferences. In children with CPTSD, this integrity is trampled with utter disregard by important others in their world.

Consequently, the childhood strategies of learning to not need anything, of scrambling to be supported, and never knowing healthy boundaries, can echo now in our adult relationships. It's a first step in healing from CPTSD to become conscious of how those strategies are manifest today. If you are managing CPTSD you may:

  • Mute your feelings, particularly anger, which is the emotion that serves to set clear and appropriate boundaries.
  • Avoid “conflict” by absorbing the normal emotions in you—like anger and disgust—that scream “this is not OK” in order to keep a tenuous relationship connection.
  • Perhaps not even register that you have feelings in the first place. Not just anger, but all of your emotions may be blunted or shut down.
  • Feel responsible for the other person’s feelings and for making everything OK for them, even if you pay the price. Paying the price includes giving your energy away, and feeling resentful for it in the end.
  • Feel small and make your needs, wants, and preferences unimportant; or forfeit yours to serve another person’s interests foremost or all of the time.
  • Remain in an unsafe relationship or situation because you feel desperate for the connection, or you feel it’s all you deserve.
  • Not recognize your own basic needs for food rest, support, and recovery.
  • Hold on to the hope that if “I just give enough, I’ll finally get something back.”
  • Have difficulty receiving from others, including compliments, because you don’t believe you can ever do enough to deserve them.
  • Feel highly vulnerable to being “seen” for your vulnerabilities; or known for what you secretly do need—love, care, belonging, and acceptance.
  • Hold a child belief of, “If I’m responsible for everything, then maybe I have the ability to fix everything."
  • Finally, because you’re so good at not needing, you may often be in relationship with people who don’t/won’t/can’t give to you. This reinforces your certainty that you cannot, indeed, expect anything, and so you must continue not needing anything from others.

While understanding better how you might be repeating childhood strategies above, another key to healing from CPTSD includes beginning to grasp what you need and want in relationships today. What do you have a basic right to expect? It might include the right to expect:

  • Mutual consideration and respect for your needs, wants, and preferences.
  • Support, comfort, and connection through the events of life—good and bad.
  • Acceptance of differences in thoughts, feelings, and perspectives, and space for that in the relationship.
  • A safe process to discuss and repair the ruptures and misunderstandings that will inevitably occur in close relationships.
  • The right to choose your boundaries, and say “no” when it’s appropriate for you.

Trying to find these kinds of relationships may feel like you’re alone in the howling wilderness. In my next post, we’ll be exploring how to begin choosing safe and healthy relationships when you've never had a map for them. One answer lies in looking for maps you were given along the way. They might have come from compassionate witnesses—the teachers, coaches, group leaders, neighbors, or other parents—who helped you through to today.