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 feature of what it’s like to go through life, after being exposed to abuse and neglect and other traumas in childhood. Is this feeling of being different just in our minds?
The answer is somewhat. To think about this, let’s break it down.
Part of feeling “apart from” is human nature. From time to time almost everyone feels like they’re different from “most people.” And 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. 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 will 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 it did change us. Maybe it did make us a little bit different. And that feeling we are so prone to — that other people seem to be on some wavelength where they understand each other and how to act and what to say and how to connect? Many of us can’t seem to find that wavelength. I think that might, to some degree, be 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, and 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 way.
This is what he calls the the Interbrain, and it’s the thing that may be inaccessible to people on the autistic spectrum. 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 (a little bit at least) trauma might disrupt our access to the Interbrain as well. It definitely feels that way for a lot of us, like 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. A lot of error.
The ability to be connected with people seems to be part nature and part nurture, and like everything else, we may never know exactly what the mix of genetic factors and environmental factors are that may 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 kids, not just for emotional development but 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 up a 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. Or not everyone you’d like to be connected with.
Oh, 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 that may be the case, occasionally. But initially we’re just innocent kids who want to hang out with other kids, just like everybody, but somehow we were screwing it up. And 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 honestly? 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 every 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.
I repeat: 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 all 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 any other negative reason, people might just naturally drift toward friends where the connection happens more easily. And that’s real too.
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. 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 move on accepting our own nature as custom-made, part of being just 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 actually 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, right?
In all my online courses I invite people to write down and name what it is they really want, their real 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 of 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 at the end of the article, below.
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 okay!
We can keep inching from where we are now, a little closer to the ideal. We can inch a little further with focused effort. For a stretch goal, we can aim at the ability to connect well enough that we can have good friends, maybe a loving spouse, and then enough to be a good parent and be a good friend.
Even if if’s just some small steps today, and you need spend tomorrow recovering from that intense feeling, (you know what I’m talking about), do you feel like you could move a little closer today toward connection? 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 dramatic step toward change like (let’s say) leaving an abusive relationship, or finally getting sober. But even then, really growing into that change is going to come about in small steps, one after another.
And God knows, consistency is not something that comes easily to people with Childhood 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, good routines — these help us keep moving forward more of the time. And when we fall, we don’t fall so low, or we don’t stay down for long. We’re moving forward all the time toward healing.
Connection with others works in small steps too. If you’ve been isolating, and it’s time to step out of that cocoon a little, maybe try 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. Or it could help you get some people in your life 😉
So yes, I think our hearts 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 selves, and whatever we’ve experienced, good and bad, is part of that.
As we heal from Childhood PTSD, the bitterness can soften, and all of our experience is slowly transformed into wisdom. The hard experiences in particular have the possibility of becoming 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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