One of the most complex things about Complex Trauma is how often survivors can be exposed to or even feel pressured to interact with major trauma triggers, leaving them vulnerable to endless possibilities for retraumatization. As we come in to the holiday season, often this can look like:
interacting with family members or caretakers who may have been directly responsible for abuse, neglect, or trauma
interacting with family members who never intervened to help, actively denied or minimized the abuse
interacting with family members who actively invalidate in the present (ex: “you should be over this by now”)
Additionally, family gatherings can create a sort of “gravitational pull” in which family members who have been less hurtful or with whom you may have had some repair, can get “sucked in” to old family dynamics. This is most common when there is an abuser with a big personality in the room and can include hurtful behaviors like:
Scapegoating or “ganging up” in conversations
Aligning with the abuser (often to avoid becoming a target themselves)
Presenting themselves as better, trying to shine by putting others down
Judgement, making disparaging comments about the ways you’ve coped
Making jokes at the expense of your younger self
You may even feel yourself get “sucked in” to these old dynamics as a response. For example, if you have made a lot of growth in asserting yourself, being in a room full of familiar faces acting in familiar and hurtful ways can make it feel impossible to assert yourself. Often these situations can leave survivors feeling small and powerless all over again. They can also lead to self-abandonment or violating our own boundaries to try and survive the situation. For example, laughing when someone makes a joke at your expense or a harmful comment.
All of this can be amplified when larger systems of oppression are brought into the mix. It is common for larger family gatherings to become tense when topics such as racism, misogyny, homophobia and fatphobia arise. Things can quickly turn from tense to overwhelming. Families that develop Complex Trauma are often full of boundary violations, entitlement, and unsolicited advice, while lacking skills for empathy & compassion. This can lead survivors to experience intrusive comments about body, life choices, or relationship status.
The holidays are tough for people who have experienced all sorts of family related trauma. So in order to help you prepare and take good care of future you, here is a free Safety Plan worksheet for you to download and share:
Some considerations & suggestions for your Safety Plan:
My Prep Plan: This is the stuff you can do before you leave your house to help you start the event as safe and regulated as you possibly can. Here are some suggestions:
Take a long shower or bath
Stretch and move the body in a pleasurable way
Find something playful or creative to do
Select clothes for comfort rather than looks, you deserve to be as cozy and safe as possible!
Spend time with a pet
Eat & hydrate
Listen to uplifting or light content such as music, podcasts, affirmations, comedy, or spiritual resources
Check in with your body. Make sure you are getting enough breath and stretch or move any way your body feels like it needs to.
Don’t put yourself on the road until your body is as safe as it can be. Check in with yourself again before you walk through the door.
My First Aid Kit: These are the resources you can actually bring with you to the event. There is no limit on what you bring, you are allowed to have anything you need to stay safe. Here are some suggestions:
Cozy sweater or sweatshirt to bundle up in or to use for grounding.
Water bottle, take a sip to give yourself a long pause before responding
Fidget or grounding objects for your pockets (fuzzies, stress balls, stone, clay)
Something with a relaxing smell (hand sanitizer, lotion, dried lavender, hard candy)
Photographs or printed images of cues for safety (pictures of a special place, a pet, affirmations)
A book or something to do with your hands (ex: knitting)
Consider leaving some of these things in your car or in a quiet room so you have a built in reason to give yourself a time out.
My Technology Toolkit: for tough family gatherings, technology can be a great tool for grounding and distraction. Here are some things you can pre-load onto your phone for support:
A folder of photos that make you smile
Music or guided meditations to give yourself a break
A playlist of videos that make you laugh or help you feel calm
Apps or Games that can give you a brief dopamine boost
A note or memo in which you write an encouraging letter to future you
A note or memo with scripts for setting boundaries or exiting conversations
Always remember that your phone can be a great exit strategy. Plan to leave it on silent mode so you can “feel a vibrate” and excuse your self to answer a call.
My Escape Strategies: think ahead about some ways and places you can exit an uncomfortable situation such as:
The bathroom (no one needs to know what you are doing in there!)
Outside for some fresh air
Out to your car
To a quiet room where you left your bag
For a quick walk around the block to release some of that flight energy!
My Hard Boundaries: Think about some clear limits for yourself that will let you know you want to exit the interaction or the gathering. These will likely be highly personal, but some examples could include:
Abuse in the present
Minimizing my abuse in the past
Someone makes a comment about my body
Someone makes a joke about my childhood self
Someone violates a boundary you just set
Someone criticizes a way I have coped or survived
My Trusted Supports: These are the people you can text or call to vent as the gathering progresses, or the people you make plans to spend time with as a way to decompress after the gathering. Think about connection with this one. It can also include non-human connections such as pets, nature, and a higher power.
It's important to remember that adult you has the choice about whether or not to attend family gatherings. If you feel that spending time with extended family will be too triggering or overwhelming, you are allowed to opt out. If you decide to attend, planning ahead can keep you as safe as possible.
Take good care of yourselves everyone!
If you find this information to be relevant to you, you are encouraged to connect with a licensed mental health care professional who specializes in treating PTSD or C-PTSD. If you are interested in Online Therapy in Pennsylvania for PTSD or C-PTSD, or becoming a client of Embodied Expressions Therapy, please connect with me by visiting: https://www.embodiedexpressionstherapy.com/lets-connect