First, the bad news: You can’t MAKE a person with complex PTSD change..
You can’t make them heal. You can’t make them learn about the adult effects of abuse and neglect in childhood, and you can’t even make them admit there’s a problem.
But the good news is there are things you can do to help a loved one accomplish all these things themselves — without being controlling or judgmental (those tend to produce resistance in people with CPTSD, which you’ve probably noticed!).
I’m going to give you five tips for how you can genuinely help another person’s healing, and at the same time help yourself to enjoy more kindness, less chaos, and more closeness with this person you love, who’s still struggling with trauma symptoms.
If you ARE the person with CPTSD, this is for you too, to give you words to ask for what you need, and to share when you need to give the people who care about you a roadmap for what actually helps you to continue the healing you are undertaking.
If you’re the person who wants their loved one to change, here’s the thing: What actually helps them is probably not what you’re doing now, even though that’s counter-intuitive. If you are pressuring them, it could even be delaying their healing. I’ll explain why below.
I get at least one letter or comment every day from someone who is hurting because of a loved one’s CPTSD behavior — things like being shut down and cold, or flying into rages and saying cruel things that are out of character.
Witnessing this and getting hurt by a person’s CPTSD behavior becomes its own kind of trauma. In these letters a lot of people ask me “What can I do to get this person I love to SEE that this is CPTSD, and that they NEED to change!?”
First, they’re probably right. It probably is CPTSD and their loved one needs to change.
But I’m going to tell you what I tell them.
I’m talking about those of you who are doing all the research; you’re the one watching my videos and writing me letters, and you’re knocking yourself out trying to construct this better reality where your oved one “gets it” — gets help, gets better.
When you’re in that situation (and I’ve been there) it feels like you can see, right there, what the problem is. It seems like you know exactly what they should do. It’s like hope — only it makes you suffer (have you noticed that)? It’s a vision of how someone could be, if only you could just make them do…” (insert your plan for them here).
Maybe you’ve already learned this the hard way, like I did. It doesn’t help people when we push a vision like that. In fact it can make things harder for them; it can get in the way of a natural process where they feel the need to change, and their next step appears for them, in their own vision of their lives.
The fact is we DONT know, really, what another person needs to do. It’s easy to be wrong about some vision we have of another person’s possibilities. Despite our good intentions, this is really an attempt to control an out-of-control situation. It’s totally understandable because the situation really is out of control.
If you’re a parent, it’s appropriate to step in and take control (but even then it doesn’t always work).
If you’re not a parent but rather, a spouse or a friend — unless we think a person is in imminent danger to themselves or other people — it’s actually not appropriate to control them.
If you’ve ever had someone trying to control you, you know that it’s not only insulting and hurtful, but it does what I call “jamming your radar.” It fills up your awareness with noise, when really what is needed for trauma healing is calm awareness — space to notice what’s happening in one’s body and emotions, and then for next steps to become clearer in one’s own mind — to ask some questions, or maybe ask for help.
That’s the key for getting help — asking for it. Asking signals readiness, openness. A person who is asking for help CAN be helped.
This is not like performing CPR. Helping a person who also needs to help themselves requires an invitation. You’re invited to give your opinion and help.
So until your loved one with CPTSD invites you to help, what can you do?
Be safe. The vast majority of people with CPTSD aren’t dangerous. In a few cases though, abusive behavior is part of trauma. You should never tolerate violent or abusive behavior from anyone– from physical hitting, or making threats, or (for example) driving recklessly while in a rage, with family in the car. That’s not OK!
It’s your job to remove yourself and any children from dangerous situations. Could a person’s behavior improve later? Yes, but in the moment where there’s danger, talking it out or trying to help is not what’s needed.
You also don’t need to excuse their behavior just because they had a hard childhood. It could be a factor, but it’s never an excuse. No violence. No abuse. Period.
Most of the time, the thing that makes a loved one’s CPTSD symptoms hurtful is not abuse per se — it’s more like unreasonableness, emotional chaos, sadness, being unreliable, being very reactive or argumentative, creating tension around the house. This is all stuff that feels terrible when it’s happening, but usually isn’t happening all the time. (If it’s more than you can take, you have a right to remove yourself or leave). Sometimes leaving is the right thing to do. But the rest of these tips are for those of you who are safe, you want to be in this relationship to continue, and you have a desire to be helpful.
Be encouraging. You’ve heard me say it before: Discouragement is poison, encouragement is medicine. Encouragement is so much more sustainable and effective than trying to control someone. It’s giving them space and support and love to get their own clarity and their own strength together to make the changes they long to make in their lives. It’s much better for you, the “encourager,” and much better for the person who needs encouragement.
So what does that look like? When you love someone with CPTSD, you’re going to come face to face with some deeply discouraged thinking, that comes up out of their past trauma. They’re going to get dysregulated sometimes; that’s a brain state where thinking and emotions can get discombobulated — it’s happening at the level of the nervous system and can be difficult for the dysregulated person to notice or control.
If your loved one seems dysregulated or says they’re dysregulated, and they’re getting overwhelmed, or intensely frustrated, or flaking out or overly criticizing themselves for mistakes and shortcomings, knwo that this is really common. You can remind them when they feel broken or like a failure, that dysregulation could be part of the problem; it’s a normal symptom of CPTSD and not their fault. You can remind them of all their good qualities, and all their progress. You can encourage them to accept that CPTSD often involves a neurological injury; it’s a temporary malfunction that’s also not their fault. It’s something that happens to people who weren’t kept safe and loved as kids, and the symptoms be healed.
When you help them accept that this happened, you can accept it too. You don’t have to accept hurtful behavior, but you can accept that CPTSD symptoms are normal, and it can take time to change them, even for people who do their best to heal.
Importantly, you can encourage them to practice re-regulation. It takes persistence but it’s easy, it usually feels pleasant, and it makes a huge difference in moving healing forward quickly.
Be aware. Sometimes you’re going to be the first one who notices symptoms of trauma kicking in, and you can help turn that around without making a big thing of it.
How do you know it’s happening? You might start hearing your loved one say some negative phrase that’s become familiar to you, that you know tends to lead to an upset. These are sometimes signs of what’s known as an “emotional flashback.” You’ll hear them say things like “You obviously don’t care,” or “You never do this (loving thing I wan)t” or “You only want me because (whatever their fearful bad dream perception is in that moment).”
An emotional flashback is not the same as a standard flashback — the kind we associate with combat veterans with PTSD. An emotional flashback doesn’t interfere with a person’s awareness of their surroundings, but rather, it brings forth an emotional state from the past, usually without a conscious memory associated with it, and can cause them to feel helpless, hopeless, angry and sad for no reason that’s apparent to you.
So it’s hard to reason with someone who’s having an emotional flashback. It’s not a good time to ask big deep important questions. It’s better if you can offer a little help with the symptom. You can say “You seem like maybe you’re getting a bit overwhelmed,” can I help?” And if you’re loved one knows abbut dysregulation and agrees that it’s a thing, you can use that word: “You seem like you’re getting a little dysregulated, should we take a little pause here?”
I would encourage you not to use trauma jargon, even the word dysregulation, if that’s not the language they use. Psychologizing and use of jargon can feel like judgment and pressure. It’s better to use the language they use, not to diagnose, but to reassure them.
You can say, “If you need a break I’ll wait for you. It’s not a problem. I’ll be right here.” This is really good, in fact, when the fear of abandonment has a grip on them.
Sometimes people say hurtful things in this fear state, such as “I don’t need you,” or “You should just leave” — things they don’t mean. In this case It’s sometimes just the abandonment wound talking; it’s a very crude defense mechanism. It’s a terrible thing to say when you don’t really mean it, and it can border on emotional abuse but if you’re in a situation where you know they don’t mean it and you just want to help them through this bad moment, you can say, “Nah, I’m not going to leave. I’m staying with you. I’m not going anywhere.” It can be like you’re reaching out and connecting with the person inside that defense mechanism.
Now, again, I’m not recommending you just turn into a numb person or get traumatized yourself. You’re going to have to use your judgment about when you want to stick around and give reassurance, and when it’s better to just step back and protect your own feelings.
Be gentle. If your loved one asks you a loaded question, like “Do you think I’m actually crazy?” or “Your mom told me I ruined Christmas: Do you think I ruined Christmas?” proceed very carefully!
While this person is in a CPTSD state, it’s a terrible time to discuss criticisms you actually have. This is a good time to be extremely gentle. The slightest criticism is going to sound HUGE to them right now. So if there’s anything you need them to know, you can make it very gentle and very contained comment and get through to them at a very high intensity. Say the least amount of hard stuff necessary, and then later, when everything is calmer and stakes are lower, you can talk more about what happened and what bothered you about it.
Recover yourself. You wouldn’t be with this person if you didn’t have a little bit of this stuff yourself. And if you didn’t have it when you met them, you have it now! (Am I right?)
Remember that YOU can take my courses, and YOU can use the techniques I teach for calming dysregulation and gaining more clarity, more freedom to be yourself. Not only will this help you deal with a loved one who stresses you out, but you just might attract them to sit down and try the techniques too.
Register now for my online course HEALING CHILDHOOD PTSD.
Another course relevant to this post is my DYSREGULATION BOOTCAMP.
You can access ALL my courses when you become an ANNUAL MEMBER. Register here.
You can learn the calming techniques I describe in my free course THE DAILY PRACTICE.
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