Often people who are experiencing difficult behaviors in the present have experienced tough stuff in the past. It can be extremely difficult to make the connection between past hurts and current behaviors (this is why everyone should take some time for themselves in therapy at some point). When it comes to addiction or compulsive behavior, trauma is often the gateway. Here are some common things that people tell themselves that gets in the way of healing:
“I turned out ok, so it couldn’t have been that bad”
Your experiences are not “not that bad” just because you were able to survive, do well in school, get a job, et cetera. Your ability to make it through is evidence of your strength and resilience, NOT evidence that it wasn’t bad. Likely, the behavior you are hoping to change has actually helped you manage the difficult impact of early trauma, but is no longer working.
“Other people had it way worse than me”
Sure, maybe. But why is that relevant if you are hurting? Are people only allowed to grieve the most serious of traumas? The world would be a far worse place if this were true. People are impacted differently by similar events. For example, two people can be stationed in the same military unit and come home with two entirely different impacts (one reenters civilian life, the other with chronic ptsd). Our individual backgrounds and what was going on during and after the difficult event make a huge difference.
“I don’t even remember what happened”
Many people who have experienced abuse or neglect also experience a sense of “it wasn’t real” or “it couldn’t have been as bad as I remember.” This is a normal part of responding to trauma and our brains’ attempt to try and protect us. It can be scary when we have lost chunks of memory, or uncertainty if we can trust our memories. Additionally, traumatic memories are not stored the same way as non-traumatic ones. They are much more disorganized, non-linear, and often have disjointed sensory elements. This is why certain smells, songs, or touches can bring extremely strong emotions that can be tough to explain. Even as adults in safer situations, people who experienced emotional abuse or neglect as children can experience derealization, depersonalization, and dissociation.
“I’m not sure if it was abuse”
When we hear the words “abuse” or “child abuse” we often think extreme physical harm or sexual abuse. We don’t always thing emotional abuse or neglect. However, emotional abuse and neglect can be just as harmful.
If we grow up...
-not feeling loved
-not feeling seen
-being made fun of
-have our emotions invalidated or ridiculed (“you aren’t sad” or the all-too-common “I’ll give you something to cry about”)
-with impossible standards for perfection
-with conditions on love and acceptance (ex: parent withholds love when child “misbehaves”)
-with fear of our parents’ unpredictable behavior
-with abandonment or repeated threats of abandonment
-with expectations to behave as a little adult, or act as a parent to siblings (or the caregiver)
-with a parent who exhibits narcissistic traits
-with a parent with a substance abuse or mental health issue that prevents consistent attunement & connection
..then there is a good chance we will be traumatized. Just like physical threats to our survival (such as being physically attacked), not having our need for social acceptance/belonging met is a threat to our survival. Humans are social creatures. We depend on others to care for us in order to survive. ESPECIALLY when we are children
We aren’t just traumatized by the bad things that happened, we are traumatized by the good things that didn’t.
This is where new conceptualizations of traumatic responses become helpful. PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is often not a perfect fit for individuals who experienced chronic childhood emotional abuse and neglect. It can be hard to conceptualize because it was not one major event that caused harm in an otherwise “ok” life, it was a series of ongoing events and co-occurring relational trauma in a life that was maybe never fully “ok,” secure, or safe. Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, CPTSD or C-PTSD is a way to understand the impact of the experiences listed above. Since it is a relatively new conceptualization, many healthcare providers might not even be aware of it and its distinction from the traditional understanding of PTSD.
If you think your early experiences are related to a current behavior that feels out of control, consider connecting with a therapist who specializes in treating early childhood emotional abuse and neglect, or who clearly states having experience in treating Complex PTSD.
Stay tuned for more information on the differences between PTSD and CPTSD in a future post & be gentle with yourself.