A History of Childhood Trauma Makes Us Feel Different. Are We?

You hear this a lot among people who experienced childhood trauma. They have trouble shaking the feeling that they’re somehow different, as if everyone else seems to know something — how to act, what to say, how to be connected — and that somehow we never got the memo. 

Do you ever feel like that?

I know we’re not the only ones. But it seems to be a big part of living with the adult symptoms that follow abuse and neglect in childhood.

Is this feeling of being different just in our minds?  The answer is somewhat

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Feeling “apart from” is (sometimes) just human nature. From time to time, almost everyone feels like they’re different from “most people.” Some people grew up feeling different because they were in fact different from the majority of other kids. Maybe that’s you too.

Maybe your family came from another country, or you knew you were gay, or your family was poor compared to most other families you knew, or your parents were unusually strict. These are real differences.

And then if there was trauma happening at home, that’s a difference. Like maybe you didn’t feel like you could bring other kids to your home (I often felt that way). Maybe it was really dirty or run down, or you never knew what kind of drama might be going on when you walked in the door. That’ll make you feel different!

People with Childhood PTSD are just people, and we have more or less the same needs and feelings and dreams as anyone. But what we went through as kids… maybe did change us. Maybe it did make us a little bit different. Maybe that feeling we are so prone to —  that other people seem to be on some wavelength we can’t hear — is, to some degree, real.

What’s made me think about this is a book I read called The Interbrain by Digby Tantem. He’s a Professor of Psychotherapy at the University of Sheffield in the UK, and he’s one of the world’s leading experts on autism. He postulates that there is a kind of nonverbal communication between people that functions something like Wifi — something we tap into when we’re with other people or in a group that lets us connect with them in a natural, unspoken way.

This is what he calls the the Interbrain, and it’s the thing that people on the autistic spectrum may not be able to access easily.  They tend to have a hard time reading other people or perceiving non-verbal signals about when it’s OK to talk, how close to stand, or what facial expressions mean. I’m just speculating here, but it seems like early trauma might disrupt our access to the Interbrain as well. It definitely feels that way for a lot of us, as if other people all got instructions for how to hang out together and those of us with Childhood PTSD have to figure it out by trial and error — usually a lot of error!

So the ability to be connected with people seems to be part nature and part nurture, and like everything else, we may never know exactly the mix of genetic factors and environmental factors that have made connecting with people challenging. But we do know that neglect or abuse in early childhood can cause brain changes. A lot of us didn’t get the same one-on-one closeness and interaction that is so important for young children, not just for our emotional development but for our neural development.

This is a real disadvantage. Maybe you’ve felt different for as long as you remember, or maybe it was an awareness that developed in your teens. But a lot of us really only started noticing that we were different after we’d used exhausted lot of other theories about why we feel different — like we thought it was all about a particular school or a particularly mean kid.

Or maybe if you had a social difference from other kids like strict parents or being from another country you thought for a really long time that must be why you felt different. But after enough time you noticed that it couldn’t be just that, and there was a pattern. And that no matter how nice you were, or how eagerly you tried to fit in and make friends, you just weren’t connecting. It wasn’t just in your mind. And maybe you noticed that other people WERE connecting. They just weren’t connecting with you (or not for long, anyway, and not with everyone you’d like to be connected with).

Honestly, it hurts to think about it!

It’s kind of like other things with Childhood PTSD, where even professionals misunderstand why we act the way we do. They think we’re avoiding connection on purpose — and eventually we might. But initially we’re just innocent kids who want to hang out with other kids, like everybody, and somehow we were screwing it up. It must’ve looked intentional to people who don’t have what we have. 

It reminds me of having bad relationships, and being told by therapists who had tremendous confidence in their theory, that “you’re just trying to recreate your childhood because it’s familiar to you, or you’re trying to resolve it” or some theory or other. But that’s crazy. All I ever wanted was a good relationship. My parents’ relationship when I was small was horrible and there is not a cell in my body that ever wanted that — not consciously or unconsciously.

So what if the problem is just… brain changes from neglect? Wouldn’t that be enough to make it hard to read people’s intentions, or whether they’re suitable as partners or not? Wouldn’t that, all by itself, be enough to make attachment happen in kind of a jerky fashion, rushing in, running away, then rushing in again? 

It’s a brain thing. 

So when you’re feeling left out and other people are telling you it’s all in your mind, maybe that’s not really quite it. Maybe it’s mostly in your brain, and the connection is actually a bit compromised, for now anyway.

In my own experience and learning from other people with Childhood PTSD, I’ve observed that it can be hard sometimes  to connect with us. And without disliking us or consciously avoiding us, people might just naturally drift toward friends where the connection happens more easily.  And that’s just how it is.

So the question is, can we get better at connecting? The answer is definitely yes!

We can work on healing our brains as much as possible, and at the same time work on social skills we maybe didn’t learn at home. And if we can get to a level of connection that makes us happy and allows us to care for people who depend on us, then we can even graduate to acceptance of our own nature as custom-made — part of being ourselves. We don’t actually have to fit in with everybody and we don’t have to be connected just because that’s what you’re supposed to do. 

And while some people are (I believe) called to solitude and are happiest there, most of us, deep down, crave closeness and connection, with friends and maybe a partner. It may not be something you want right now in your life, but even so, it’s good to be developing the capacity for it!

In all my online courses I invite people to write down and name what it is they really want — their honest heart’s desire. Too many of us have shrunk that down to some small version of life, where we think the things we really want are too much to ask.

But with healing, the normal things like love, connection and stability — they come into reach. It’s a matter of learning and healing and if you want to find out how to do it, you can click the link to my courses in the section below. 

Because the good news is, Healing really is possible. I don’t expect that any of us will ever be restored to mint condition in terms of connection and attachment. We might always be a little sensitive, a little quick to withdraw, a little overreactive. And that’s OK! 

Imagine a road, and where you are right now (in terms of your capacity for connection is is a ways away from where you want to be. You could go partway along the road with a little effort. And somewhere further down the road might be your “stretch goal” — somewhere in the range that allows you to have good friends, maybe a loving spouse, and enough connection to be a good parent and a good friend. 

So if you’re near the beginning of the road, do you feel like you could move closer toward your destination — toward connection?  Even if if’s just some small steps today, and you need to spend tomorrow recovering from that intense feeling (you know what I’m talking about?)  This is really the only way change happens, one small step at a time, in a consistent, positive direction. Every now and then there might be a dramatic step toward change — for example, leaving an abusive relationship, or getting sober one day. But even then, really growing into that change is going to come about in small steps, one after another.

God knows, consistency is not something that comes easily to people with Chidlhood PTSD! Our progress just as often comes in fits and starts. A period of accomplishment followed by a period of giving up. So smaller steps and good routines help us keep moving forward more of the time. When we fall, we no longer fall so low, or we don’t stay down for long. We’re moving forward all the time toward healing.

And specifically with connection with others, this works in small steps too. If you’ve been isolating, and it’s time to step out of that cocoon a little, maybe try doing that twice a day. Start small. If you’re hanging out with people but it feels superficial, like it never goes anywhere — try two things — listening more, and opening up more. Just a little. There’s no need to share all our trauma stories with people we just met. But just a little. You’ll find that having boundaries — and that takes practice — sets you free to connect more. You won’t have to fear over-committing yourself, or getting stuck in the company of someone you don’t like. With boundaries, you can say no and leave these situations. 

I summarize these techniques in my  Healing Childhood PTSD course, so that could be a good positive way to start breaking your isolation and learning how to connect in a happier, safer, more satisfying way with the people in your life (and it can help you get some new people into your life as well!).

So yes, I think our heart’s desire is the same as everyone’s, and yes, I think we’re a little different than most people. But you know what? The best thing we can be is our real self, and whatever we’ve experienced, good and bad, is part of that.

As we heal from Childhood PTSD, all of our experiences becomes wisdom. And the hard experiences in particular become compassion. From time to time you’ll meet someone who is in the middle of suffering. And they are going to find hope, because why? Because you understand them. Because you went through it too. 

So embrace who you are, and how you are. We get to keep working on ourselves and we get to enjoy where we are now — which is:  We’re not saints! Not yet anyway. So keep trying. Keep working with what you have. It’s enough to walk this path, just doing our best! One foot in front of the other…


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