- Some PTSD sufferers may stay busy to avoid pain and conflict.
- People with complex PTSD may self-soothe through overspending.
- People with PTSD may help others to keep the focus off themselves.
- Journaling can help clarify why you spend to self-soothe, overachieve and stay constantly busy.
One pre-pandemic day, I insisted on paying a friend’s bill at a Japanese restaurant. The spicy crab was wonderful, and the ginger lingered in my mouth. Unfortunately, lunch had gone an hour over schedule, and I was eager to get back to the office, but I felt I couldn’t extract myself from the conversation.
My friend had confided in me that her husband had been sleeping with prostitutes. I couldn't imagine how to end such a vulnerable conversation. While my gift of time and sympathy was generous, she didn’t consider how her story would impact me, given my own history of sexual assault. Not knowing how to take care of myself, I froze as the horrid details were revealed. I picked at my wasabi, listening and thinking about how I could never again trust her husband. I could never trust a liar after my sexual assault. It wasn’t personal. It was just a boundary.
Triggered by the subject and feeling conflicted about my lack of boundaries, I compensated by paying when the bill came.
In hindsight, I see that relationship fed familiar behavior I had developed as a result of complex PTSD. At 17, I delivered the testimony that put my neighborhood pedophile in jail. Since I turned 50, I've been writing to explore how people can overcome the conditioning of trauma.
Here’s how to avoid some trauma traps.
Time: You May Give Away Too Much Time to Avoid PTSD Pain
What is your relationship to time? Do you wait until the last minute to arrive on time? Does the rush make your heart beat faster? Or do you endlessly volunteer for things you have no time to do?
You can begin healing by first journaling about your relationship to time and answering the question, "How does my trauma experience get triggered or soothed as a result of how early or late I am or how much time I give away to others?" Time is your most precious asset because you can never create more.
I once sat on a dysfunctional volunteer board of directors. The “helper” in me was going to help this nonprofit despite yelling and gossip. My husband replied to my complaints with illustrations of what respectful behavior looks like. Two years in, I finally resigned. How are you spending your time—your life?
Money: PTSD May Shape Overspending
My journey from being a six-figure debtor to a six-figure earner is detailed in Alexandra Levit's book New Job, New You. My life lessons are simple: Create partnerships and plans to keep you accountable with money. I check in with my business partner about any expenditure over $500, and in my marriage, I call my husband before and after grocery shopping.
How I shop for food exemplifies how PTSD has shaped my spending. As a child, my family did the grocery shopping at Fort Knox, where we'd load up two or three carts. It was cheaper on the base, and my military father didn't yet have warehouse shopping options. My parents were raised during the Depression, so our pantry was always stocked.
I learned to soothe myself not only by eating but also by shopping. Because my parents showed love by shopping and storing carts and carts of food, I associated grocery shopping with love. After being repeatedly molested by a neighbor and developing complex PTSD, shopping and eating became a self-soothing ritual. As an adult, friends, and family loved being fed by me, which further fueled my pantry hoarding. I dealt with this behavior for years and years in Debtors Anonymous.
Today, before I have groceries delivered to my front porch, I clear the amount with my husband, who helps me check expenditures against a budget that reflects our financial goals for retirement. The partnership continues to ease the PTSD pain of overspending.
Goals: Overachievers May Stay Busy to Avoid PTSD Memories
In high school, my parents forbade me to run for class president, despite friends begging me to run. I was known for funny morning announcements blasting into homerooms. I'd push a whoopee cushion and then say, "Now that I have your attention, the Beta club is having a bake sale this afternoon." My ability to get attention quickly serves me to this day as an international publicist.
Looking back, my parents didn't understand why I signed up for so much: I was trying to stay out of my neighborhood to avoid the pedophile and mental torture my parents knew nothing about. Signing up for every club was a way to stay constantly busy. The busy-ness soothed my pain. I played chess, acted in plays, learned other languages, and visited eldercare homes. I would do anything to stay away from my suburb and the monster who lived there.
The activities conditioned me to stay busy as a way to avoid dealing with difficulty. Decades later, now that I've chosen to self-soothe with stillness and silence, I can clearly see when others struggle with the constant motion our modern society permits. It leaves little room for self-reflection, let alone the deep and intense work of healing from trauma and administering self-care. I became an overachiever to numb myself just as others take drugs to numb the pain of their lives.
Recovery from giving your time to people who don't deserve it, spending money for self-soothing, or engaging in overachieving busyness has much in common with coming to terms with any addiction. It's not a simple road, but it is possible. Journaling about it may be the first step for you.
Keep at it.
Levit, Alexandra, (2009). New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career. NY: Ballantine Books.