Childhood PTSD is, in its essence, an injury to our ability to connect with other people. You may have sensed the injury, but you likely considered it a personal failing. You saw other people easily connecting, and you thought your difficulties were because you were doing something wrong.
We now know that abuse and neglect in childhood can literally change your brain and restrict the normal cognitive processes that enable you to seek out and connect with good, appropriate people to bring into your life. What’s often lost is discernment – the intuition to interact with them successfully, and to detect red flags that tell you *not* to let them into your life. This can be compounded when your parents were unable or unavailable to teach social skills.
If childhood trauma wounded you in these ways, you may have been robbed of your birthright to easily enjoy the love and belonging that are essential to happiness. What’s simple for other people — things like being in a group, having a friend, feeling “a part of,” or recovering from a conflict with a coworker — can be fraught for us.
The loss of connection is the most tragic part of Childhood PTSD. To be capable of love, but not to be able to sustain a normal loving relationship, is a devastating price to pay for what happened. But there is good news.
Thankfully, no matter where you begin, you are capable of increasing your capacity to love and connect with others, even later in life. You can absolutely make progress in this area if you are intentional about it.
It turns out that our connection with other people is not just the fruit of healing, but a powerful factor that is essential to healing. There’s a large body of research emerging that shows loving relationships actually help us heal — not just our bodies and not just our emotions, but even our telomeres (the little caps on the strands of DNA in all of our cells). Telomeres protect us from disease and slow down aging. This is one concrete example of a notion that most of us know instinctively: Connection is vital to life.
Some feelings of loneliness and disconnection are universal experiences for everyone, at least a little. But for people with CPTSD, it can sometimes take over our lives and drain us of anything good.
This has everything to do with brain and emotional dysregulation — something very common for people who grew up with trauma that can make connection very difficult. It also has to do with re-regulation, which makes change in this part of ourselves possible.
Dysregulation is a tendency that’s common in traumatized people (and in everyone to some degree) –when they’re under stress. So you might feel panicked or overreactive or discombobulated or numb.
When you are prone to slip into a dysregulated state every time you’re anxious (which is very common for traumatized people), it can seriously challenge your ability to connect. It’s hard to read nonverbal cues, for example, and it’s hard to express emotions in a way that doesn’t push people away. It’s also hard to handle hurts when your brain and emotions aren’t quite aligned with what’s happening right in front of you. These are some of the ways dysregulation prevents connection – it pressurizes connections, and breaks connections. When you can learn to re-regulate (I can show you how to do that in the links beneath this article) it enables you to learn to grow and repair connections.
If you’ve never learned to intentionally get reregulated, then getting the skills to do it is going to be life-changing. For me, it’s been a long process. I was born to loving parents whose alcoholism and addiction set the stage for abuse and neglect for my siblings and me. The violence in our house eventually stopped, and there were definitely good things about my family. But the neglect never ended, and I grew up feeling a grinding sense of loneliness, shame and isolation.
I used to think maybe it was because we were poor, or maybe because our house was so messy, or maybe because I was some kind of unlikeable kid. (Trauma can make kids kind of edgy, but I think I was a pretty good kid. I was stressed out a lot of the time though, by the chaos, arguing and tension that tended to dominate our home.
By middle school, I had to fend for myself to scrounge up lunch or clothes or even money for the laundromat. I spent a lot of energy hiding our home situation from other people and hiding all the creepy encounters with potential abusers outside the family (the kind of person who tends to “shadow” kids who aren’t supervised and who don’t have clear boundaries).
But despite all this I did okay. In my young adulthood, I was fairly accomplished as a student and I was creative. I was responsible and I made friends with interesting and exciting people. I had my first long-term relationship, scraped my way through college, and eventually got my first real job. Still, I struggled to feel happy, or to sustain the good things in my life. By the time I was 30 I left the boyfriend, quit the job, and began to fall apart. That core loneliness was getting louder and louder.
The loneliness made me selfish; it made me mean I thought the emptiness inside was caused by some failing in the people around me, and I took it out on them. So of course, people didn’t want to deal my anger and unreasonableness and blame, and they left.
I tried to change. I was in therapy for years and eventually I was in therapy multiple times every week, but the more I talked about it, the worse I got and then more scared and then more desperate.
There was no name back then for what was going on, but there is now. It’s Complex PTSD from childhood trauma.
This is the kind of post-traumatic stress that comes from chronic, ongoing stress. It can be triggered at any stage of life, but CPTSD develops most commonly in kids who are abused and. So you’ll hear me say “Childhood PTSD” and “Complex PTSD” almost interchangeably (which drives some of my readers crazy). Though they are the same thing in my case, Childhood PTSD is a colloquial term for the subset of people with Complex PTSD, who developed it in childhood.
The crucial turning point for me was when I learned to heal the core symptom caused by my trauma – and this is another thing for which there was no word for back then: And that’s dysregulation. If you’ve taken any of my other courses, you’ve probably heard the story of how, in 1994, I learned the writing and meditation techniques I call the Daily Practice. To my incredible surprise, the techniques calmed my stressed and hurting mind way, way down and brought my thoughts and emotions into order. Very quickly, I became calm and clear and I could finally see what was going wrong in my life, as well as what was genuinely good about me underneath all the problems. So the guilt and self-attack that I used to direct it myself back then were lifted – not because I consciously told myself to stop thinking that way, but because the techniques I was using seemed to dislodge them, and set them free to evaporate. My healing has been a bumpy road but it’s continued to this day, and my life’s work is to share with people everywhere the techniques and strategies that saved my life.
Maybe you feel anxious around people. Maybe past hurts have made it hard to trust. Maybe the shame and invalidation you’re carrying from your childhood make it impossible to just be yourself with other people, and you’re in fear all the time that you’ll say the wrong thing or that they don’t like you, or that you simply don’t belong. You think everyone else belongs, but not you.
I know that feeling. I spent so much of my life feeling that way, drowning in fear and consumed with resentment, talking about it, trying to get other people to understand how wronged I was, how terrible were the things that happened to me, how unjustly excluded and overlooked I was. And all these things were true at one time. And it felt like talking about it should deliver some kind of healing breakthrough. We all have to talk about painful things sometime, but as you probably found too – by itself, it doesn’t heal the disconnection.
Connection involves building what I call “connection muscles,” emotionally, mentally, and neurologically. And rather than trying to run away from people or change them or hate them or cling to them for dear life, I learned to shift my focus onto noticing and calming my triggers.
If you don’t get triggered, all the other things you do when you’re triggered become optional. You can choose to do something different.
It’s amazing how life opens up to you when you can be at ease with yourself and confident that whatever happens, you’ll know how to deal with it.
You don’t have to be all better before you start working on connecting. In fact, you need connection to get better, right where you are. If that’s at the very beginning of your recovery from early, you need it because all the other work that you’re going to do to heal the brain — healing, learning your triggers, how they cut you off from people –none of this can be accomplished in isolation.
You were born to be connected. CPTSD can block you from finding any connection. It can block you from experiencing the connections that are right in front of you.
But you can heal. Your healing gets a huge boost when you’re making happy progress in your ability to connect with other people, whether it’s with a spouse or children or friends or family, or just strangers, you meet on the street. You can learn this in small, brave steps. It’s not always easy, but as you work at it, you get better at it. It gets easier to enjoy people and be at ease with them. You get better at choosing who you want in your life and who you don’t.
The change begins when you believe that you can do it. You can heal, you can change your life. You. Can. Heal.
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