Childhood PTSD is, in its essence, an injury to our ability to connect with other people. Abuse and neglect early in our lives literally changes our brains. Neglect in particular can physically restrict the normal processes that enable us to identify good, appropriate people to bring into our lives and to gradually open ourselves up to them, developing close and trusting relationships. This, to me, is the most tragic part of Childhood PTSD: To be capable of love, but not to be able to sustain a normal loving relationship, is a devastating price to pay for what happened.
The great news is, we can make progress in this area if we are intentional about it. If we just leave it to chance and hope we’ll figure out love later in our lives — or maybe when “the right person” comes along — we’re not likely to improve. In fact, if you look around among the people you know, you’ll see a lot of older people who have lost much of their capacity to be close to others. If we don’t work on this, we risk getting increasingly cranky and isolated and hard on other people. That’s the tragedy. To me the goal of life is to learn — to really learn to love others.
It turns out that having and growing our connections with others is one of the most powerful ways we can heal our own PTSD. There’s a large body of research emerging that shows that loving relationships actually help us heal our telomeres — the little caps on strands of DNA that protect us from disease and slow down our aging. Love and connection are important for everyone, especially for those of us who have so much catching up to do. As people whose ability to connect may be a bit wonky we can take steps to gradually heal this. It doesn’t always come naturally — sometimes we have to be very intentional about it and work on it and take actions that are the opposite of the first impulse that comes to mind when we find ourselves struggling.
Loneliness and feeling disconnection are universal experiences for everyone, at least a little, but for us it can kind of take over our lives. This has everything to do with dysregulation, which makes connection very difficult, and with re-regulation, which makes change in this part of ourselves POSSIBLE. We want to strike a healthy balance between solitude, which is the ability to tolerate and even enjoy our alone time, and connection with others.
Balancing solitude and connection is often a struggle for people with Childhood PTSD. We isolate or live in deathly fear that people will leave us. We cling, or we run away. We might go one way with friends and the other way with significant others, but these extremes rob us of much of the good we are meant to have through our relationships with the people in our lives.
Obviously, this is a huge topic and I may make a whole course on it later this year, but for right now, here are some important things to remember, in order to (at the very least) grow more regulated.
- Don’t let yourself get too lonely. Every problem of your character will grow worse when you are in isolation. People who have cut everyone out of their lives seldom realize how (forgive me) weird they’ve become. They’re rationale for avoiding everyone sounds plausible to them, but to the rest of us, it’s just sad! Virtually everyone wishes, as they’re reaching the end of their lives, that they’d given even more of their time and attention to loving relationships.
- Make yourself connect with people face to face every day. Get out of the house, leave your normal space and find a way to walk down the street and interact with the world.
- Become a great listener. When you are with someone, you actually don’t have to talk about yourself half the time, or even at all! If you can learn to give your full attention to the person who is with you, and to really listen to them without jumping in with your own story, or debating the legitimacy of what they’re saying, or any digressions at all, the connection between the two of you will get stronger, Right in that moment, you will begin to feel closer.
Real closeness will soften any impulses you have to cling to the other person or escape from them or try to control who they are.
Some people go to the opposite extreme, and they pour their whole identity into another person, as if this is an extension of themselves. Not living in the center of your being carries huge risks because your own strengths are not being revealed, and your own problems are not being exposed, which would cause you and your circumstances to evolve. Some people cling to relationships, or they get obsessed with one person or grasp at relationships with many people. And this is every bit as deadening to their souls as having no one — in fact it’s probably worse.
Nothing can derail your life so dramatically as sexual relationships with people who don’t care about you. For women in particular, sex bonds us to others, whether we love them or even like them. I know there are exceptions to this rule, but I would not really hold up sex-with-no-strings as anything you would want to try in order to become happier and better regulated.
Romantic and sexual drama can dysregulate you as surely as violence can. Other people may be able to have casual sex but for those struggling to regulate, I don’t recommend it. Trusting, intimate relationships take time. So if you’re hooking up with people or getting together with them in a rush, or impulsively, in the name of having fun, or just to fill your weekend nights until the right person comes along — you are in for a world of struggle.
So, if you are single and you experience a lot of loneliness, one good and re-regulating thing you can do is to participate. Participate in your neighborhood, in your work life, in 12-step groups, in family get togethers where you can be supportive of others. Practice love by being loving to others in little ways.
If you’re having trouble getting that started, here’s a first step: Each day, find two people you can talk to — in the line at the store, out on the sidewalk, or on the phone, and contact them just to express something positive and supportive for them. Don’t talk about yourself in this conversation. Just show up for another person. I guarantee you, if you do this twice a day, things will shift. You will grow in your capacity to love, which can’t help but lead to more connection, and in time, you will find that love is shining right back at you.
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