One of the biggest reasons why people who grew up with trauma struggle to maintain good relationships, is because of our own behaviors that push people away.
I teach a lot about triggers — the way people and experiences can dysregulate us and throw us off — neurologically, physically, emotionally.
Triggers are key, but what’s also important are the ways we act when we’re feeling triggered — or when we’re triggered and don’t even realize it — and we end up hurting or alienating other people.
It’s so sad. This is why so many of us have suffered so much loss, and often go through our lives longing for connection and not finding it — or alone, and scared to even try anymore.
The wounds that trigger CPTSD-releated behavior happened long ago; the wounds are not your fault, but the behaviors are something you can heal. If you want to change any negative pattern, everything depends on your ability to see and change — to find the little spots where you have some power to change how your life turns out. This can happen when you lovingly, courageously, shift your focus from what happened to you, to how you’re handling your life right now. Now is when you have a choice in the question of what happens next.
The Three Behaviors That Push People Away
Our loneliness gets “leaky.”
Loneliness is the core symptom of early trauma, and sometimes, it spills out into the way we relate to other people and makes us seem (i hate this word) “needy.” This can show up as dominating interactions with our own stories and feelings. When we’re doing all the talking it’s like we’re not there — no real connection happens.
For a friendship to blossom there’s got to be some give and take, talking and listening, caring about the other person and being genuinely interested in them.
Here’s another thing our loneliness makes us do: We sometimes confuse being “open” with other people, with merely talking about our pain. If you’re just getting to know someone and you’re bringing out all your trauma stories (and let’s face it, we do have a lot of trauma stories) you might want to catch yourself, and decide to set aside the sad stuff, and then to measure it out in little increments over time.
It’s important to share this part of ourselves with other people, but unless it’s an established relationship with someone who cares about the totality of you, you run the risk of overwhelming people and freaking them out! And then they close their hearts to you.
Now one exception to this is when you’re talking to people who are very traumatized themselves, or who are in an altered state from drugs or alcohol, or who don’t care what state you’re in because they are trying to GET something from you. Pouring your heart out might lead to a connection of sorts, but this is exactly how we so often end up entangled with inappropriate or destructive people. So be measured. Little bits of your story, shared over a slow time frame.
You might also be leaking your loneliness when you do too much of the initiating of get togethers. You call them, you text them, you’ve got fun ideas they might enjoy but it’s always you doing the asking.
If you know someone who’s been depressed and wants a little encouragement there’s no problem with this but in an equal relationship, where no one is trying to HELP the other person, it’s better to allow for reciprocity. You invite them to get together, then wait for them to invite you! Maybe they’ll happily surprise you and be right there with an invitation, very soon after the last time you got together. Or maybe you won’t hear from them for a while. When people don’t make an effort to get together? That’s good information for you about what kind of friendship you can expect — like not much of a friendship, and definitely not a romantic relationship! When one person doesn’t pan out into a reciprocal friendship, it’s time to meet NEW people, not keep pushing invitations.
We Get Overly “Other-Focused”
With CPTSD, we can easily get wrapped up in what other people are thinking and feeling, at the expense of what WE are thinking and feeling. This is one of those things where it always feels like no one should be able to tell you’re doing it — because… you’re only trying to be a good friend, right? But think about when people have done this to you — asking you how you’re doing all the time, trying to read your mind and then trying to fix problems that aren’t even there. It feels yucky, right?
This is classic fawning behavior that’s one of the major expressions of CPTSD defined by Pete Walker -0 fight, flight, freeze or fawn. It’s like our whole beings get taken over by trying to “read” another person. And yes, this was a survival tool for a lot of us when we were little and trying to gauge our own safety in unsafe situations. But now, this mode of behavior completely kills genuine connection. It’s a form of being in our own heads, of not being present, of giving all our power to someone who has not even asked for it!
The relationships you want never require that you shut down or mentally flee the situation. And this is similar to another thing some of us do — when we feel rejected and hurt, but aggressively cover it up by being cheerful, helpful and agreeable. This is what people who were abused as kids get WAY too good at — going right into people pleasing when they’re attacked. If someone’s not treating you well, you can say something, be silent, or leave. But if some old hurt part of you responds to mistreatment by jumping in and doing a song and dance to show that you’re NOT hurt (You’re fine! Is there anything you can do for them? etc.) this is not connection. This is you playing a role.
If this is familiar to you, Ask yourself if that’s something you’re doing with any people in your life now. Real friendships never require taking crap, abandoning yourself as a means to cope with it, or checking out from reality. Real friendships are made of your actual presence. YOU are present. And when you’re actively working to heal Childhood PTSD, that presence is one of the most remarkable things that begins to show up. So many positive changes flow from there.
You have a lack of clarity about when it’s “just you.”
This means that you have trouble accurately seeing your own role in problems, either blaming yourself too much, or denying responsibility. Either way, black and white thinking here is a way of checking out of reality, and people who are not in reality are very hard to connect with.
One sign you may be doing this include apologizing too much. Have you ever had someone apologize profusely to you, but for something they only imagine had offended you? And you’re saying, “Please, you don’t need to apologize” but they can’t get out of the loop of being sorry and feeling ashamed?
If you’re like me, you’ve been on both sides of that dynamic plenty of times, and it’s not a good feeling for either person.
So if you’re profusely apologizing all the time and — key indicator here — the other person insists you don’t need to, or seems uncomfortable? Let it go!
The same goes for putting yourself down. Saying “Oh my gosh I’m such an idiot! I look awful! I don’t even belong here!” You don’t mean it this way, but it can come off like begging. What’s really going on is you’re drowning in fear, of course, and healing this is what I teach in all my courses. Telling everyone the contents of the “trash can” in your mind can be off-putting. It’s placing a demand on people that they make you feel better for something that is a) probably not true and b) nothing they could help you with anyway, even if they reassure you.
Now sometimes people who already have some trust built up might confess to each other the doubts they have about themselves. But blurting your fears out every time you make a mistake is, consciously or unconsciously, an attempt to get other people to make you feel less fearful. They probably would if they could but they can’t, so it just makes things awkward.
On the other side of the “is it just me” syndrome are behaviors where we’re oblivious to the fact when something really IS our fault. Which happens (ahem)…
And this shows up when someone says they’re bothered by something we did, and we skip over hearing it or caring how they feel, and go right into defensiveness or even blaming them.
Everybody knows what this feels like and absolutely no one likes it. It’s true that sometimes people are going to blame you unfairly for a problem, but the thing about having CPTSD is, our judgment can be a bit slow, or off.
It may need to be said: I’m not talking about abuse here. That’s a whole different thing when someone gaslights you or attacks you for imagined offenses and cannot be reasoned with. Those are not friends. I’m talking about how to build closeness with the good people you want in your live. And sometimes, if you’ve been abused or just invalidated and ignored too much in the past, you might get fuzzy when you try to determine whether a person’s criticism, right now, is something you need to hear and take seriously.
And my answer is, as a rule, yes. Not with abusers of course. But If you like and respect someone it’s only fair to hear what they have to say. Healing our Childhood PTSD involves a balancing act between being open to hear things like criticism, but not instantly taking it inside our innermost heart and making it our truth.
There’s what I call a “front porch” in our emotional world, where we can listen and CONSIDER what we’re hearing, and take a moment to decide if we’re going to let that inside our emotional home, our place of truth.
Listening on the porch allows us to respond, and responding is not the same as reacting, which is how we end up lashing out or running away.
Responding means considering another person’s feelings, showing courtesy even when you don’t see truth in what they’re saying (not yet anyway) and making an effort to understand the spirit of what they’re saying, and responding to that.
You don’t have to fawn and grovel, and you don’t have to annihilate them. You can say “Wow, I didn’t realize you felt that way. Let me think about that and see if I can improve on that.”
All you said was that you’d think about it, that you’d see if you could improve. You didn’t invalidate them and you didn’t collapse emotionally.
Sometimes during consideration, the right words might just come to you, so you can be real and tell the truth, and still be a caring friend. Those two things — truth and caring — they are what allows friendships to deepen.
That’s how healing works, little changes, made over time. So don’t give up. With small steps in your overall healing, you can learn to connect better, and better connecting is like jet fuel for your overall healing. It’s a positive cycle. One thing leads to another. Sounds GOOD doesn’t it?
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