One of the the most common, painful adult manifestations of Childhood PTSD is difficulty perceiving reality accurately, especially around the meaning of interactions we have with other people. We have trouble sometimes predicting that a choice is risky, or that a person we meet is unreliable, or whether our own sense of discomfort is an appropriate response.
This is the sixth article and video in my resilience series, focusing on eight obstacles to healing from childhood trauma, and the strengths we need to overcome them. The topic today is confusion.
Part of the problem lies in difficulties processing what’s happening around us, which can be caused by trauma, and which hinders our capacity to respond in a commonsense way. Our confusion also arises from conditioning we learned as kids to second guess what was clearly happening in front of us — or to us.
Maybe we were being abused, or one of our parents was drunk a lot and not coming home at night, or adults were doing things that were illegal… It’s sad, but kids will play along very easily with hiding this stuff from the world. From a very early age, we instinctively know we could be taken away from our parents. We could be judged or ostracized by our friends because of what’s happening at home and we have this strong drive not to let any of this happen.
That drive to preserve the status quo is strong that we can forget what’s the lie, and what’s actually true. This is a great survival strategy when you’re in a chaotic home and you’re small. But then it carries into adulthood and we find ourselves with these giant holes in our clarity about what’s really going on around us. We’ll return over and over to thoughts like “Is my jealousy about my partner hanging out with an ex appropriate, or crazy?” Or “Is this conflict with my coworkers just me being difficult, or are they actually picking on me?”
When you have Childhood PTSD, this stuff is confusing! We didn’t get taught this at home, plus, many of us have extra-strong emotions that cloud the picture, and, we’re in the habit of second-guessing our reasoning processes. We get stuck on doubts, thinking “It seems like something isn’t right here but… it’s probably just me.”
So we live in confusion, and sadly, this leads to the kind of problems that caused us so much trouble in the first place. We feel ashamed and guilty, and even though we’re not always sure WHY, we get back into hiding what’s going on from other people and sometimes even from ourselves.
And that is coping mechanism. It can get us through a hard time but in the long run it gives us a very high tolerance for “crap” — for unhappiness, for bad behavior in ourselves and others. We get vague. We create cover stories to explain problems. We compartmentalize it.
And the longer we do these things, the deeper the confusion works its way into our consciousness.
This is how we seemingly “attract” people who mistreat us. They treat us a LITTLE bit badly and if we stick around and assume responsibility for the weirdness (it’s just me), they know they’re free to ratchet it up, to mistreat us more!
It’s the same thing with people who don’t really mistreat us, but who let us down, who neglect us. They just act like themselves, giving very little. If we’re still around the next day (telling ourselves we’re just being oversensitive), they get the signal it’s OK to neglect us and dump their responsibilities on us even MORE!
This is important: We don’t “attract” them per se. We put up with them and don’t leave because we are never sure if the hurt and disappointment we feel is legitimate.
Or sometimes we know they’re mistreating us, and we latch on to this idea that they should change. That may be so, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to change. And what do we do when they don’t change, not even a little bit?
We go back to “maybe it’s just me.”
But here’s the really hard part about confusion. Sometimes when we’re feeling mistreated, it is just us. It is!
Childhood PTSD can make us really sensitive. We get triggered by some ordinary thing and our emotions go way out of the park. Sometimes we are unreasonable. Sometimes we’re the ones who are neglectful, or even hurtful or abusive, or in denial that something we did was wrong.
If we’re ever going to be functional and happy, we’re going to have to develop the strength of discernment. Discernment means good judgment. It means being able to tell good from bad, right from wrong, when is it just me, or when should I get the heck away from someone?
And there are two things we have to do to develop our discernment. One is to tell the truth. You’ve got to be honest with yourself. And when you’re confused by something, you’ve got to say what’s confusing you, and ask questions.
Have you ever been out with someone and you thought maybe it was a date but you didn’t know? Or you were invited to a restaurant but you were nervous the whole time because you didn’t know if your friend meant to pay for you or not? Has this kind of ambiguous situation shown up for you over and over again?
Or, have you ever were flirting with someone and you knew it was inappropriate — yet you were afraid if you said something, it would ruin the moment?
You know what you do? You just say out loud what’s going on. Or you ask. You say, “This is weird, it feels like things are getting a bit flirty here.” Or you ask “Hey, when you invited me out, were you planning to treat me, or should I plan to pay for myself?” Or you say, “I’d love to go to dinner : I hope you won’t mind my asking… is this a date?”
It feels so embarrassing to ask the question or state the obvious but you know why it’s worth it? No more confusion! Whatever the situation IS can be made clear, and you can proceed accordingly.
How many times have you hidden your feelings, avoided asking the question, or put up with crap and assumed it was “just you?”
Think about this: If you were ever in a relationship that disappointed you deeply, would it have changed things if you blurted out the truth of what you were noticing, when you first noticed it?
Saying the truth really kills the romance sometimes, but that’s what you want! Because if truth ruins everything, something was already seriously not right! Speaking up early is also how you can clear up those “piney” relationships — where you’re pining away for someone who is very happy to be just friends. It’s embarrassing to get rejected but so much better to have it happen early and get it over with, than to build your life around some unavailable person who just basks in your unconfessed devotion year after year.
OK so that is what I mean when I say you have to be honest.
The second thing you’ll need in order to develop discernment is a process of self-reflection. I teach this in my Healing Childhood PTSD course, and in my Dating Course, and if you like you can check those out with the links down below. It really helps if you’ve got at least one person to whom we can pour out your heart, and whom you can trust to be both kind and real with you about what they see from the outside. Ideally they support you taking steps toward doing things in a better way. This isn’t always something we can get from friends, because they’re either too hard on us or too easy on us, and either way that’s not helpful.
No matter what other people did to cause confusion, the best thing to do is to focus on the part we can change. Where was our discernment not so good? How could we build a workaround to alert us when that starts happening in the future? That’s a lot of what I do with my coaching clients. I help them get out of the blame game and just see what can be changed and healed right now, going forward.
Sometimes, to get out of confusion, we need a reality check. We do that by speaking up, asking questions, or getting input from someone we trust. That’s how we develop discernment, and discernment, is how we come to have clarity.
You can register for my online course, Healing Childhood PTSD here. This is a good place to start.
You can register for my course Dating and Relationships for People with Childhood PTSD here.
Not sure if you have Childhood PTSD? Take the Quiz.
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