Through no fault of their own, people with Childhood PTSD sometimes have overly strong emotional reactions: Something hurts your feelings, and you overreact. If you were abused or neglected as a kid, this might sound familiar. In fact, your emotional response can get so overblown that you live in fear that you’ll create problems if you express these feelings to the people around you.
One response is to pretend that the situation just didn’t happen. You either try to shut down your feelings, or you run away. If only you could get through life this way – putting up a facade to pretend you’re not overreacting, running away whenever things get awkward, or maybe getting a new group of friends every week or two.
All of these are attempts to change yourself at will to fit whatever situation is happening – essentially, to not to be you. At least you’re avoiding conflict! Your Childhood PTSD is trying just to stop the consequences of your emotions at any cost.
However, life requires something smarter than that. Sometimes, even when we have an emotional reaction, we have to endure it long enough to separate what is real and appropriate, from what is trauma coloring the way we see things.
Granted, in some situations, you may want to push people out of your life (something I cover in LOTS of my videos). But with people you like and want in your life, there are things you can say or do to handle those situations more elegantly.
Look out for these five emotional reactions that could be pushing your friends away.
1. You disappear when disappointed
When we’re hurt or disappointed, we get the urge to flee the relationship. One way we do this is by pretending we’re fine when we’re not and then later we quietly cut off contact. Here’s an example:
Let’s say your friend and you have been talking about a trip to Mexico for years. You’ve never taken any concrete steps, but you’ve been looking forward to it. So you assumed you would go through with it. Now, you’re eating lunch with her – just like every Thursday – and she tells you about some exciting news: She and her boyfriend are going to go to (you guessed it) Mexico! And she doesn’t seem to remember you two talking about it before.
Has this ever happened to you?
Now, you have a choice: You can tell her at that moment how you feel. But if you have Childhood PTSD, there’s a risk that your strong emotions will be too much, and push your friend away. Because you want to prevent that from happening, you stuff your feelings. Unfortunately, that also pushes them away.
What does that feel like? You’re boiling inside. You can’t believe your friend would do this to you, pretending she didn’t discuss those loose plans with her.
You’re fighting tears; your heart is pounding. Somewhere inside, you know your plans weren’t set in stone, and she’s innocent. Still, you feel like you’re about to slide from sad and sucker-punched, to mad and mean!
Based on past experiences, you know what happens when your anger shows, so you just stay silent. You fill the time with banal chit-chat. But you’re not truly present. You’re far, far away.
You escape the restaurant as soon as you can find an excuse. When Thursday rolls around, you tell her you’re busy. When she texts you the next week to see if you still want to meet, you ignore her.
All this time, you’re thinking, “I should respond and just go. I should quit making such a big deal. I should tell her how I feel.”
But the longer you put off responding, the more you fear your response will feel weird once you send it. And that’s why, in the end, you give up.
You might both recover, but your friend feels hurt. Even worse, when she calls you the next day to find out what happened, you don’t take her call. And when you do eventually speak to your friend, you follow the second emotional pattern that pushes people away…
2. You release a whole boatload of anger on your friend
You start out with “I-statements” and sharing your feelings but then it all blows up into accusations, yelling, and talking on top of each other. You say hurtful things, unfair things, things you know are only going to damage the relationship. But you think it will relieve you to speak them out, if only you can convince her how much she hurt you. She might have been trying in good faith to work this out but now she just wants to get away. And he definitely doesn’t want to take a trip with you anymore.
If you have a solid friendship, the two of you will come together at some point to talk things through. This is good! But you’re still in your emotional reaction. So when you get together for lunch again – even if you start out taking responsibility with kind words – you end up doing the third thing that pushes friends away…
3. You put huge demands on other people to take care of your feelings
First, let me remind you that these reactions, and the expectation that others will take care of you, are not your fault. If your parents emotionally neglected you, it’s typical to have outsized expectations from friends and partners later in life. Inside of you, there’s a big, neglected hole. So when something hurts you – when people make you feel overlooked or excluded – you hit them with expectations you rightfully had as a child, even though it’s not appropriate for you to expect them from your friends.
As a child, you needed to feel important, treasured, and central to your parents’ lives. But adult friends are free to have other friends and make other plans, which aren’t always going to be with you. Now, if you had to suppress those feelings of abandonment as a child and just soldier on, it can make you squirrelly around plans and inclusion. So even though it may be reasonable for your friend to take the trip with someone else, given that you didn’t have dates set or tickets, it can still trigger a lifetime of pain in you.
The old emotions come roaring back in your nervous system, and it’s overwhelming in the moment. It’s sad. You were supposed to be cared for. It’s so understandable why feeling left out now is intense. But for your friends, these expectations are unreasonable, and you know it too, even while your emotions are spilling out, sabotaging everything. To your friends, it feels like bullying… or like you’re crazy.
This is the moment when temptation morphs into the fourth CPTSD pattern…
4. You vilify your friend
After struggling to keep your feelings appropriate and right-sized, something snaps, and you go into destruction mode, writing your friend off as a bad person. You accuse them: “You’re arrogant!” “You have no idea what other people go through!” “You’re a narcissist!” “Your boyfriend sucks,” and so on.
You externalize the hurt by blaming them, rather than working on it internally.
And that’s how we arrive at the fifth pattern.
5. You are unable to see people
If you’re going to have a good friendship, half of that is you being a good friend. And one key characteristic of a good friend is the capacity to celebrate when something good happens for the other person. You can’t be in some mental mathematical model where any happiness they have with someone else is an insult to you – as if they’ve stolen your happiness.
But friends don’t owe us the care a parent owes to a child. They can’t “cheat on us” because there is no such promise like there would be in a romantic relationship.
A friend is someone you support, who you want the best for, and for whom you give a little forbearance for mistakes or misunderstandings. You would never want to strong-arm anyone into taking a trip. It wouldn’t be friendship. It wouldn’t even be fun.
The solution in this example would be to have several friends, to take responsibility for your dream of taking a trip, to find a way to take it, and to not put responsibility for your happiness on a friend. Was she disappointing? Yes. But when she told me she was going to Mexico with her boyfriend, here’s what you might have said instead:
“Oh my gosh, that’s so great! You must be so excited!” (You’re expressing that you want the best for her, even if you’re not feeling it right now.)
Then you can say: “I have to admit, I’m having a bit of an emotional reaction about it. I’m happy for you but I’m also crushed. I don’t know if you remember, but you and I had talked about a trip to Mexico a few months ago.”
At that point, she might say, “Oh, well, I didn’t think we had an actual plan.” Ouch. This may hurt, but you did not, in fact, have a concrete plan.
If you have Childhood PTSD, it’s OK that you have strong emotions. The social skill here lies in NOT blurting out your emotions at full strength in the moment (you’ll have time to think those feelings through and say more, if necessary). In the moment, it’s sometimes best to contain the emotions, and instead, speak from your highest values — to be kind, polite, patient, fair. You know your feelings will come back to earth later, and you can communicate more fully, at that time, if you still feel it’s necessary.
So assuming you care about this friend, and you want her in your life, you might say, “I’m hurt, but I get it. It makes me see I really need a vacation and I’m going to take some time to figure out how I can do that. I hope we can take a trip together in the future, and this time we’ll make a better plan.
And there it is.
Maybe it will become clear that you don’t want to be friends with this person, but if your pattern has been to push people away, it’s worth trying to live through your values, wanting the best for your friends and yourself. You come together not out of resentful obligation but freely, because you want the best for each other.
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