Seeing as most of us are probably coming off a week or two of vacation and ‘family time’, I thought it would be timely to devote a post to ‘family outing flashbacks’.
From my experience, these tend to take two main forms:
1) An urgent need to GET OUT OF THE HOUSE at any price, and to avoid spending time as a family unit in the claustrophobic area called ‘your home’.
And / or
2) A violent dislike of going anywhere with your family, even for short day trips out.
Family outings contain the seeds of so many potentially traumatic triggers because there’s a lot of factors in the mix that can be very challenging for C-PTSD people, especially around the issues of controlling / being in control, and having to be in close proximity to others who may trigger feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, being invisible, and anger and depression (amongst other things).
And that’s just if you’re the kid!
If you’re the parent, there’s also the big risk that you may find yourself controlling, bossing other people around and ‘laying down the law’ in a way that suits you and what you want to do, but that severely curtails the healthy self-expression of other people in your family.
So, how can we traverse the potential minefield of taking a family outing and still avoid all these C-PTSD-inducing triggers? Here’s some suggestions:
1) Accept that flashbacks are going to happen - As soon as you realize you’re going into a meltdown about your family vacations being a mess, and your family life being stressful, and that you’re not a good enough mother or parent, etc, and that everyone is going to grow up so warped and unhappy because you DID or DIDN’T do [fill in the blank] on vacation…. press pause and acknowledge you’ve gone straight back into flashback mode, and aren’t thinking rationally.
Only proceed with your vacation plans once you’ve calmed down, followed these steps and have moved out of flashback mode.
2) Make decisions as a family and be prepared to compromise - Easier said then done, I know, but healthy interactions are based on the art of compromise. No-one can have it all ‘their way’ all of the time unless they’re a dictator, narcissist or psycho, so be prepared to back down on some of your own preferences.
10 common areas that require compromise and that should be discussed and clarified beforehand include:
3) Figure out WHY you want to go on an outing.
This maybe sounds obvious, but so many people do family outing because they think they SHOULD, and not because they really want to. If after discussing all the details it becomes clear that a family outing is just not really workable or doable at the moment, then don’t do it! If a kid really doesn’t want to go, don’t force them!
If there’s something you really hate doing but you’re feeling pressured into it - either find a way to make it acceptable, or don’t do it.
4) Allow yourself to not go on a family outing.
So many of us have C-PTSD issues around family outings as adults precisely because we often experienced some very difficult, horrible situations while we were meant to be ‘enjoying’ the family time.
If it’s not going to build your relationship with your family, or if it’s going to put you and others under tremendous amounts of emotional stress and pressure, skip the outing and do something else less intense and more productive.
I know ‘everyone else’ is still doing it - but you only have to take one look at the long faces, the stressed expressions, and the arguments and tension going on around all these family outings to realize that often, it’s a much nicer idea in theory than it really is in practice.
One of the most fundamental things to understand about C-PTSD – and basically any issue that is causing an individual to have some intense ‘friction’ with other people – is that any person who frequently beats themselves up is almost certainly going to be beating other people up, too.
Pete Walker, in his excellent book: C-PTSD: From surviving to thriving, gives a very insightful explanation for why this occurs:
“The ‘inner critic’ is the part of your mind that views you as flawed and unworthy. The outer critic is the part that views everyone else as flawed and unworthy….The outer critic… uses the same programs of perfectionism and endangerment against others that your inner critic uses against yourself... Via it’s all-or-none programming, the outer critic rejects others because they are never perfect, and cannot be guaranteed to be safe.”
Perfectionism, where we hold ourselves and others to impossibly-high standards is pretty self-explanatory. By ‘endangerment’, Walker means that C-PTSD people are always on the look-out for ‘clues’ that other people are going to ultimately be as toxic and damaging for them as their very difficult relatives were.
Of course, everyone, even nice, relatively sane, kind, generous, patient people will have a ‘off’ day, and occasionally react in a less than optimal way. We’re all humans, remember, and NO ONE is perfectly-mannered or switched-on all the time.
The problem for C-PTSD people is that because their primary caregivers were overwhelmingly ‘negative’ and damaging to be around so much of the time – i.e. genuinely caring, attentive and empathetic behaviour was very much the exception, not the rule – they view every imperfect ‘lapse’ as a sign that really, that otherwise ‘nice’ person is going to end up treating them just as badly as their difficult, abusive or absent parent did / does.
This is such a hard proposition for most C-PTSD to deal with (especially when they haven’t yet figured out that they actually have C-PTSD….) that it makes regular interactions with other people far too scary. It’s much easier to rubbish everyone else, and focus on their faults, in order to keep a ‘safe’ distance, than to let your guard down, and risk getting sucker-punched again.
Which is why so many of the C-PTSD people who are at the very beginning of their healing process frequently find it so very difficult to maintain good relationships with others, for any period of time.
Of course, this can be fixed! So don’t despair, and don’t give up of turning things around and developing much more forgiving, genuine, authentic and healthy relationships with others, but the starting point of the healing journey has to be awareness of what’s really happening because of the C-PTSD, and why.
The take-away point from this post is that for as long as you’re continuing to expect unreasonable perfectionism, and to be very hard on yourself, you will inevitably also be incredibly hard on other people and their ‘normal’ lapses into imperfect behavior – including your kids and spouse.
THE FOUR STRESS TYPES
Another thing to add here is that your main ‘stress’ type – i.e. FIGHT/FLIGHT/FREEZE/FAWN – will also very much affect how the dynamic between inner / outer critic really plays out in your life, in real time. (See the infographic.)
FIGHT types nearly always polarise over to constant ‘outer criticism’, and controlling behaviours of others, and very rarely acknowledge that this is attitude is a corollary of having an enormous inner critic at play. Fight types are very prickly, to prevent people coming too close, but will also expect 100% compliance for their wishes, viewing anything less as complete betrayal and ‘abandonment’.
(Yes, that’s why ‘fight’ stress reactions are typically underneath so many so-called ‘personality disorders’ and anti-social behaviour.)
FLIGHT types tend to flip the most between the two poles of inner and outer critic – and are typically the ones most caught up in ‘comparisons’ with other people and competitions to see who’s doing the best or worse. When they’re ‘winning’ – they’ll be highly judgmental of others. When they’re ‘losing’ – they’ll be highly critical of themselves.
FREEZE types often fall into making blanket statements about the whole of humanity being bad, untrustworthy, rotten and unfixable. Again, this is a defensive move which gives the FREEZE C-PTSD person the justification they need for retreating away from the outside world, and wrapping themselves entirely up in their own misery and imagination. (Again, ‘FREEZE’ types are typically identified as having issues with depression.)
Again, the outer criticism is married to a very harsh ‘inner critic’ that makes the FREEZE person feel completely worthless and pointless.
FAWN types rarely risk making openly critical statements of others, whatever the justification. They tend to be the most self-critical of all four groups. But, that doesn’t mean that FAWN types only ever beat themselves up, because as we’ve learned, if you’re regularly beating yourself up, than it’s GUARANTEED that you will also regularly be beating others up too, especially your kids and spouse.
Because FAWN types hate confrontation, most of their ‘outer critic’ attacks will be conducted via passive-aggressiveness, where other people are ‘silently blamed’ and railed against for causing all the issues.
Passive-aggressiveness can be very tricky to deal with, as it’s often so hidden away. Here’s some of the more common examples of passive-aggressive behaviour identified by Pete Walker:
Again, the main take-away point from today’s post is simply the understanding that ‘inner critics’ always come along with ‘outer critics’ – and that both are unhealthy ‘evil inclination’ behaviors. Being able to evaluate ours, and others, behaviour is clearly a very crucial skill required for good emotional health.
That’s the whole idea between the Jewish concept of making a daily accounting of our thoughts, words and actions, to see which ones may have been a little ‘off’, and require some work, or rectification. But healthy, compassionate self-evaluation is worlds away from beating ourselves up for not being perfect.
One of the most challenging things of coming to terms with C-PTSD is the knowledge that you will almost certainly pass at least some of your issues over to your children.
This happens for a few different reasons, like:
1) You often aren’t aware of all the ‘stuff’ that you’re doing wrong, or not doing right as a result of your own C-PTSD for years and years, which means you pass along a lot of funny ideas, fears, knee-jerk reactions and unhelpful behaviors to your kids before the penny even drops that something is not quite right, here.
When many people start to make the link between their own experiences in childhood and their C-PTSD tendencies as adults, it can hit them like a hammer-blow to realize that they’ve been treated their own children in many of the same unhealthy, C-PTSD-inducing ways.
2) The C-PTSD itself causes us to lose perspective about ‘how bad’ we’re really doing, as parents.
Don’t forget that C-PTSD is often characterized by:
So then on top of dealing with our own C-PTSD, we often then get caught in a double-bind of having to deal with searing guilt, shame and self-loathing about the fact that we may have not treated our children 100% perfectly, and passed many of our C-PTSD tendencies on to them.
SO HOW CAN WE DEAL WITH THIS IN A SANE WAY, AND GET PAST THE OVERWHELMING FEELINGS OF PARENTAL GUILT AND SHAME?
Here’s what’s worked for me:
1) Put God firmly in the picture.
There are no ‘accidents’ going on here. Everything is planned down to the smallest, minute detail, and God has designed the situations that both we and our kids needs, in order to really meet our full spiritual potential.
(Clearly, this doesn’t give you a ‘get out of jail free’ card to abuse your children whenever you feel like it, as part of their ‘spiritual tikkun’. There is a huge difference between trying and wanting to treat our children properly and occasionally falling down (like we all do) and making absolutely no effort to acknowledge and tackle our negative character traits, and how they are impacting our children.)
Just like our C-PTSD issues ultimately brought out the best in us, and helped us to develop some humility and hopefully also a much stronger connection to God, it will do the same thing for our kids, too.
2) Accept the reality of the situation without running away.
This is to counter our ‘extreme perfectionist’, who wants everything to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time, and who gets very upset with us (and our children….) if we can’t deliver that on the parenting front.
Again, perfectionism is a key C-PTSD-induced trait. Real people aren’t perfect. Being ‘imperfect’ is 100% fine, as long as we don’t start blaming ourselves for being awful people and beating ourselves up all the time for ‘ruining’ our kids.
If / when we fall into those tendencies, we’ll start feeling even more frustrated, angry and bad-termpered, which will ironically cause us to lash out a whole bunch more at our kids (and ourselves…).
So accept your imperfection as happily as you can! ‘Perfect’ parents are the ones who are doing the MOST damage to their kids.
As a general rule of thumb, if you can admit your imperfections to your children and regularly apologize to them when you’re out of order, your kids will grow up emotionally healthy, even if you’re not a 100% ‘perfect’ parent.
3) Identify how much of your parental guilt is justified, and how much is a C-PTSD-induced emotional flashback.
When you start blaming yourself for ‘ruining’ your kids, or start feeling toxic shame or guilt for being a ‘bad’ parent, it’s crucially important that you recognize that this reaction is a C-PTSD-induced emotional flashback, and needs to be dealt with accordingly.
You can read more about emotional flashbacks HERE, but the main thing to remember is that the horrible feelings we feel when we flashback are usually NOT related to the situation we’re dealing with in the current moment.
Sure, we FEEL like a monster, like a disgusting human being, like a piece of trash, because we forgot to pick the kid up on time, or had a ‘rage fit’ at them for spilling the juice. But really, we just ‘flashed-back’ to the overwhelming feelings we had from childhood, that are now ‘dressed up’ in the present situation.
The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can move out of the ‘flashback’ space, calm down, apologize, and get on with life in a much more equitable manner.
One of the hardest things for a C-PTSD parent is that we’re often governed by instinctive, and intense knee-jerk reactions to situations that then also traumatize and sensitize our own children in an unhealthy way.
To give a common example of this: C-PTSD people are usually hyper-vigilant and ‘on edge’, fearing danger and disaster around every corner.
A C-PTSD parent can easily freak-out about the danger of broken glass, for example, in a way that then creates a lot of trauma around ‘broken glass’ for the next generation.
And so it can continue….
The key is to separate the REACTION from the SITUATION, and to try to calm things down as quickly as possible. This is definitely work, but it can be done, and even just having the mindfulness that you’re freaking out irrationally can be very helpful to recognize, and also to share with your children.
4) Don’t forget that kids are our mirrors.
And then use that knowledge to have more compassion for yourself. Inside, you still feel like a confused, lost, lonely small kid sometimes, especially when you’re caught in a flashback. Use that knowledge to have compassion on yourself when you’re losing it.
Recognise that when you’re yelling at your kid, or blaming them, or guilting them, or whatever it is - you’re really still just yelling at yourself.
The more compassion you have for yourself, and your human frailties and issues, the more compassion you’ll naturally start to have for your kids, too.
If they’re struggling, that’s a sign that on the inside, you’re also still struggling. And it’s not your fault or their fault, it’s just a ‘message’ from Upstairs that there’s still some work to do to fix the problem.
So the main person to work on and worry about is YOU, not your kids. Once you’re nicer to yourself, you’ll automatically be much nicer, gentler and more accepting of your kids, too.
5) Don’t fall into despair.
Don’t give up! These issues are very difficult, and have been going on literally for generations. But when God is in the picture, EVERYTHING that’s broken can be fixed, albeit with a lot of struggle and prayer.
Again, the rule of thumb is that if you believe YOU broke something, believe YOU can fix it. When it comes to our children, we CAN fix it, but sometimes we have to eat a lot of humble pie, and do a lot of apologizing and a lot of acknowledging our flaws and issues before we get there.
Our children are very forgiving, and they genuinely love and accept us. The problem usually is that WE are not forgiving of ourselves, and we don’t genuinely love and accept ourselves.
That’s the C-PTSD reality.
But don’t despair of having a good relationship with your children. Sure, they will have their problems and struggles as a result of our imperfect parenting - that’s the way God made the world.
We are all down here to work on ourselves and to fix our character flaws.
But don’t let the inner critic tear you down for that, because it’s a normal and natural part of the world that every parent will mess up their kid in some way.
If you can show your kids how to practice acceptance, awareness, humility, and self-compassion, and how to connect back to God when the ‘troubles’ strike, then you are giving them the biggest present of all.
If I was writing these things in a more logical order, I probably should have done this one a little earlier on, because it’s so crucial to understanding the mechanism of how C-PTSD actually operates in real life, and how it can take your ‘emotional legs’ out from under you.
Let’s remind ourselves first about what causes C-PTSD:
It’s when you have an experience, or more usually a number of experiences, where you feel threatened or abandoned by your primary caregivers.
Small kids are very simple creatures, with very simple needs. They are also very vulnerable, and very reliant on the adults on their lives to fulfil those simple, basic - but still absolutely crucial - needs.
When that doesn’t happen, when a small kid experiences their primary caregivers as being ‘absent’ from the picture when they really, really need their help (which happens with emotionally absent parents) AND / OR experiences them as ‘dangerous and threatening’ (which happens with abusive parents) - the small kid experiences some huge emotions of fear, shame, and abandonment.
These are the main overwhelming ‘flashback’ states that this small kid kind of gets stuck in when they grow up as an adult with C-PTSD, and that then automatically triggers their preferred fight-flight-freeze-fawn response (what Pete Walker calls the ‘4Fs’, in his book: C-PTSD: From surviving to thriving).
As we’ve also learned previously, many C-PTSD people feel overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, depression, people-pleasing behaviours and anger a great deal of the time, especially if they haven’t yet figured out what’s really causing the problem.
It’s comes with the territory of C-PTSD that not only is your ‘4F’ response (or responses…) to ‘stress’ more intense than for other people, and also lasts longer, but it’s also much more easily triggered for a C-PTSD person, than for someone who wasn’t traumatised in the same way.
DISSECTING HOW C-PTSD FLASHBACKS WORK
OK, so now we’ve set out the stall again, let’s try to dissect what exactly a C-PTSD flashback is, and what it does to you.
Say, you’re trying to get the lid off the spaghetti sauce jar, and you can’t. Unbeknownst to you, this small problem is enough to trigger a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and powerlessness that immediately segues into a ‘flashback’ feeling of when you were small and felt so abandoned, useless and powerless.
Typically, what now kicks in is your ‘inner critic’ aka evil inclination, who usually starts up with heaping doses of abusive name-calling and degradation, like:
“You’ll always be a failure!”
“You can’t do anything right!”
“What sort of loser can’t even make pasta for supper?!”
Etc. Very often, these will be the same sorts of things you were actually told in childhood, either by other people, or by your own evil inclination, that was going all out to make you feel even worse than you already did.
Now that your ‘inner critic’ has painted the situation in the worst possible colours, and pointed out how terrible it is that you can’t even make pasta (making a ‘mountain’ out of a molehill); and / or made it seem like you are completely incapable of taking care of yourself or others in any useful way, that usually kicks off some more huge feelings of fear and shame.
Fear shows up whenever we feel we aren’t ‘safe’ or that we’re in terrible danger (like, of starving to death or having our kids taken away by the social services, because we can’t even make pasta for them….)
Shame, (and I’m really talking about toxic shame, here), shows up whenever our self-esteem has been given a huge battering, and we lose all confidence in our abilities to do, or even to just be.
As a result of all these overwhelming feelings of fear and / or shame, we launch straight into our 4F response, as follows:
FIGHT TYPES - will get furiously angry at the jar, at themselves, at the people they’re trying to make supper.
FLIGHT TYPES - will suddenly remember they have something else urgent they need to do, and will find a way to duck making the pasta.
FREEZE TYPES - will head to the couch, and do their best to ‘escape’ the problem by zoning out, feeling terribly depressed, going to sleep, turning on the TV, aimlessly surfing the net, downing a whisky, popping a pill.
FAWN TYPES - will leave the pasta sauce to spend the next 2 ½ hours 'self-abandoning' by being a shoulder to cry on for their suffering friend.
Of course, I’m generalising wildly, but you get the idea.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT….
What happens next is that if the C-PTSD person doesn’t work out what’s really going on, they will now add ‘opening lids’ to their long list of subconscious things that should be avoided at all costs, if they don’t want to feel bad again.
And this is the way that more and more very mundane ‘triggers’ accumulate, that can really start to have a huge impact on the daily life of someone who has C-PTSD.
HOW TO STOP A ‘FLASHBACK’ IN ITS TRACKS
1) NAME THE PROBLEM: Say out loud: “This is a flashback, it’s from the past, nothing ‘bad’ is happening now.”
2) REASSURE YOURSELF: Tell yourself that you’re not in danger, and that you haven’t done anything wrong. You aren’t going to get into trouble with your parents.
3) ACKNOWLEDGE THIS IS A PASSING PHASE: While the feelings of fear, shame and overwhelm used to seem as though they would last forever when we were small, as adults we know that these feelings are temporary and won’t last forever.
4) IDENTIFY THE FEELINGS UNDERNEATH THE ‘FLASHBACK’: This is crucial for reconnecting to that small, terrified ‘lost’ part of yourself that you’ve actually just ‘flashback-ed’ to, and for helping him / her to start feeling better. Here’s some common examples of the real feelings that are hiding underneath a flashback: small, overwhelmed, scared, ‘no-choice’, powerless, stuck, petrified, sad, heart-broken, lonely.
5) COUNTER THE ‘INNER CRITIC’: Again, this takes some practise, but as soon as the inner critic / evil inclination starts trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, and paint the situation in the worse possible colours, or make out like you are the most disgusting, awful person in the world - close them down! Tell yourself: “This is my evil inclination talking, and it’s trying to kill me…”
6) GET ANGRY AT YOUR ‘INNER CRITIC’: When you were little, you couldn’t stand up for yourself, or put things in the correct perspective. As an adult, you don’t have to accept the insults and lies that your evil inclination is telling you! Fight back and defend yourself! Insults and abusive comments are completely unacceptable - even when they are coming from yourself!
7) ASK GOD FOR HELP, AND FOR EMUNA TO KNOW THAT EVERYTHING IS COMING FROM HIM, AND IS REALLY OK: While I’ve put this down here at 7, you can do this at every stage of the process. Connecting to God like this can instantly stop a flashback in its tracks all by itself.
8) FOCUS ON YOUR BODY AND YOUR FEELINGS, INSTEAD OF YOUR THOUGHTS: This will bring you back to the ‘present’ and get you out of your flashback mode. Take a few deep breaths, stand still or sit down and stop rushing around, if you feel scared, or ashamed, don’t fight it. Accept that feeling these feelings is part of your healing process, and that they won’t last forever.
9) ASK GOD TO SHOW YOU WHO OR WHAT TRIGGERED YOUR FLASHBACK, AND WHY: This is another crucial part of the healing process. Once you figure out what set it off (in our case, the feelings of powerlessness that came from being unable to open the spaghetti jar), just knowing that means that you’ll be able to do things differently or better next time around.
10) BE ON YOUR OWN SIDE: Reassure yourself that you are really good, and that all those negative feelings you were feeling in flashback mode - like something terrible is about to happen to you; like you’re the most disgusting person in the world; like you are the biggest waste of space on the planet and don’t deserve to be alive, God forbid - aren’t real, or true.
Be on your own, ‘small kid’s’ side, and tell yourself that you are allowed to make mistakes, that you struggled mightily growing up, through no fault of your own, and that with God’s help, it’s all going to turn around for the good very soon.
This is not going to get fixed in five minutes, and you shouldn't expect too much from yourself too soon, or start beating yourself up when you can't deliver on the overly-ambitious timetable you may have set for yourself.
This is long-term work, so please give yourself the time and space it requires, and relate to yourself with as much compassion, caring and love as you can, when you catch yourself reverting to ‘flashback’ mode.
In our superficial world, so many of the people who should know better - like fitness instructors, naturopaths, and other ‘alt-health experts’ - like to make a very big deal about healthy eating. On the one hand, they are absolutely right that the quality and quantity of the food we eat does profoundly affect our feelings of health and well-being.
MSG, for example, is known to strip the myelin sheaths from nerves in the brain, which can literally lead to brain damage. Also, if we aren’t absorbing enough B-vitamins (which is not the same thing as just eating enough B-vitamins), that can also leave us feeling very tired, depressed and overwhelmed.
So yes, eating healthy is definitely a good thing, and should be followed as much as possible without developing any fanatical food tendencies.
But here’s the thing: no part of the body is more responsive to emotional stress, and particularly trauma-induced emotional stress, than the stomach and the alimentary canal. That means that repressed emotions are nearly always at the bottom of eating issues, so ‘willpower’ by itself simply can’t fix the problem at its root.
I’ll set out a little of the science explaining what is going on physiologically in the body and why at the end of the post, but first, let’s take a look at some of the common ways this link between eating habits and C-PTSD can play out.
EMOTIONAL NEGLECT AND OVER-EATING
If someone grows up in a home with emotionally-absent parents, it’s very unlikely that any expression of strong, negative emotion (especially by the child) will be tolerated. This is usually because the parents themselves are disconnected from their own negative emotions, and find themselves being triggered into a very distressing fight-flight-freeze-fawn response when faced with their child’s strong emotions.
Their inner critic (aka the evil inclination) will also waste no time piling on a whole bunch of toxic shame and fear on the triggered parent, causing them to react in a very harsh way to their child’s display of negative emotion.
If the parent is a ‘fight’ type, they’ll lash out with angry words, fists, or both. If ‘flight’, they’ll literally run away from the kid, and remember something ‘urgent’ they have to do. If ‘freeze’, they’ll turn their music / movie up to full volume, or do whatever else they need to do to ‘drown out’ the problem like pouring a whisky or popping a pill. And if they’re ‘fawn’ types, they’ll nip next door to go and baby-sit for their poor, struggling neighbour instead of dealing with their own poor, struggling kid.
Point is, when a kid gets taught that feeling strong emotions, and especially strong negative emotions, is somehow dangerous, bad, ‘wrong’, or will unleash punishment upon them, they quickly learn to stop doing that.
There are many ways that strong negative feelings can be pushed down, or ‘repressed’, but two key habits are holding the breath, and trying to ‘self-soothe’ the negative feeling with food, instead. But because the feeling is being pushed down, instead of being acknowledged and aired-out, it can sometimes take an awful lot of food to try and keep it ‘under the surface’!
When this same ‘negative feeling’ is triggered in someone with C-PTSD as an adult, they will automatically reach for the cake / chocolate / carbs to continue trying to keep it ‘down’. It has nothing whatsoever to do with willpower, and everything to do with a triggered reaction to stress that causes a ‘negative feeling’ to emerge, that the person has learnt must be squashed at all costs.
Once the person with C-PTSD slowly learns how to acknowledge the negative feelings they are repressing, and learns safe ways of expressing those feelings in a way that won’t overwhelm them, the need for the food disappears by itself.
LOSS OF APPETITE AND FEAR
Another very common trauma-based reaction to eating occurs when a traumatised person loses their appetite. This is a physiological reaction to fear, and again, people with C-PTSD are often hair-triggered to over-react to perceived threats in their environment.
While someone who doesn’t have C-PTSD won’t be taken out by their boss’s bad mood, a traumatised person may well take it as a sign that the boss doesn’t like them, and that their job is on the line etc, with all the attendant fear and stress that will then trigger internally.
FOOD IS THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO ‘SELF-SOOTHE’
I’m giving just two of the more common ways C-PTSD can affect our eating habits here, but psychiatrist John Bradshaw really summed things up when he said: “Almost everyone who grows up in a dysfunctional family has an eating disorder.”
The main point of this post is that if you’re having serious issues with food, it’s almost certainly a sign that there were aspects of your childhood and your family dynamics that left you traumatised, and with some form of C-PTSD to deal with.
Food is the first way we were able to try to ‘self-soothe’ when we felt abandoned, bewildered, lost, hurt or terrified as a very small child. As adults, we need to try to unclog all the negative feelings that are hiding underneath our issues with food, and to teach ourselves how to ‘self-soothe’ in healthier ways.
(At the end of this series on C-PTSD, I will do a post, or even a couple of posts, discussing the practical ways to do this, BH.)
FOOD, STRESS AND THE VAGUS NERVE
Ok, so now we’re ready to understand a bit more WHY the digestive system can get so out of whack when we’ve been traumatised. The plain English version is that when we get stressed / fearful / threatened / attacked our bodies tense up as a result, and the first place that ‘tenses’ is the alimentary canal.
That’s why people can get butterflies in the stomach, stomach aches, or diarrhoea when they feel stressed / scared / anxious.
Biologically, there’s a long nerve in the body called the VAGUS NERVE that connects the brain, lungs, heart, stomach and intestines. This vagus nerve governs the body’s viscera, and it reacts very strongly to the cues we’re given from the external environment, such as faces, expressions, body language etc.
Researcher Stephen Porges first coined the term: ‘neuroception’ to describe the physiological process of evaluating the relative danger and safety we feel in our environment that primarily occurs in what’s called THE VENTRAL VAGAL COMPLEX, or VVC.
When we’re socially engaged with others in a positive, healthy way, the Ventral Vagal Complex sends messages to our heart and lungs to slow the heart rate and breathe more deeply, helping us to feel calm, peaceful, happy and relaxed.
But, if we experience some sort of ‘threat’ or danger, the first place that registers is on our faces and in our voices: we start sending out ‘help!’ signals to our environment, to see who is going to respond, step in, and help us to feel safe again.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
If no-one responds to our first cries for help – in whichever way they manifest themselves – then the body’s Fight or Flight response comes online next.
This is regulated by the Limbic System, and is under the jurisdiction of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The heart beats faster, we breathe more shallowly to innervate our body with oxygen, preparing us to run away from the problem or fight it off.
If this next stage doesn’t work to solve our problem and help us escape the ‘danger’ or threat we’ve identified, then the last ‘emergency’ physiological reaction (FREEZE) kicks in, which is governed by the body’s: DORSAL VAGAL COMPLEX. This system of nerves goes down below the diaphragm, to the stomach, kidneys and intestines.
It dramatically reduces the body’s metabolism, leading to a state of FREEZE, dissociation or collapse. To quote Bessel Van der Kolk, writing in The Body Keeps the Score:
“This system is most likely to engage when we are physically immobilized, as when we are pinned down by an attacker or when a child has no escape from a terrifying caregiver…Once this system takes over, other people and even we ourselves, cease to matter.”
THE BIOLOGY of C-PTSD
When someone is being traumatized, or when they are having a ‘flashback’ to an experience of being traumatized, as very commonly happens with adults with C-PTSD, this is how the body responds:
First, the frontal lobes of the brain shut down, which is what’s sometimes called ‘disengaged executive functioning’. At the same time, the body’s pituary gland starts sending out messages to the whole of the body that it has to be primed to defend itself, and protect itself at all costs.
These messages are sent to:
1. The facial muscles – that contort into a threatening, angry expression designed to ‘scare off’ attackers.
2. They thyroid gland.
3. To the heart, lung and larynx, priming these organs to start producing more oxygen (shallow breathing) ready for fight-or-flight.
4. To the stomach and GI tract – effectively stealing the energetic ‘juice’ required for non-essential digestion of food, causing the stomach processes to slow down or stop completely.
5. To the adrenal glands – triggering the release of stress hormones. All of this causes some severe disruption to the body’s healthy functioning, leading to any number of unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even unbearable physical sensations, feelings and issues.
The traumatized person can be so busy trying to ‘manage’ their physiological symptoms and pain – which have often been going on for years and years, so that they often don’t even register their ‘permanent stomachache’ etc consciously – that it leaves very little energy over for anything else, both physically and emotionally.
Again, to quote Bessel van der Kolk: “Attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and other autoimmune diseases….
“Being able to move and do something to protect oneself is a critical factor in determining whether or not a horrible experience will leave long-lasting scars.”
And of course, small children are the least able to move or do something to protect themselves, which is why so many of the people who grow up in dysfunctional families develop C-PTSD, and why so many people with C-PTSD have eating disorders and other digestive and physical issues.
A person who’s been traumatized enough to develop C-PTSD generally behaves and reacts in a very different way from a person who isn’t traumatized.
Again, if we take a look at our 4 main ‘stress’ responses (below), we’ll see that depending on which stress response the person with C-PTSD has got stuck in, they’ll either react to perceived danger, threats and ‘abandonment’ by others by:
The problem comes when we get STUCK polarized in one particular stress response, and when that stress response is repeatedly triggered by very bland, inane and minor things that truly don’t pose any real danger or threat to us.
So now we come to today’s topic: why traumatized people make mountains out of molehills.
Most people with C-PTSD get that way because they grew up with emotionally-absent parents (who may or may not also have regularly mistreated them in some additional, more tangible, way too.)
When a small child doesn’t have an adult in their life they can trust to ‘watch their back’, or help to soothe and calm them when they’re going through their tough times, or when they are left to fend for themselves and to solve their own problems, this creates a lot of anxiety, panic and fear in their internal landscape.
Imagine how scary even something simple like crossing a road is for a small child, if they’d be left to do it all by themselves without age-appropriate instructions, guidance or support. Small children are naturally full of fears, and it’s the job of the parents to help them to navigate through life, and to learn the skills and acquire the knowledge they need to manage new tasks and situations, and then to thrive.
Even from our own lives, we all know how much easier something is to learn when we have someone on hand to show us, and to answer our questions about what’s going ‘wrong’, or not working problem.
For example, a few years’ back, I tried to teach my self to sew some basic stuff on a borrowed sewing machine, using a ‘how to sew’ book for instructions. Dear reader, it was mostly an exercise in mental torture. I felt so anxious about not knowing how to thread the needle propet knowing how to get the zig-zag stitch to work, where to place the foot of the sewing machine, how to leave enough of a hem - and that’s even before getting down to actually making something! After a couple of months, I gave up.
A few weeks’ ago, I decided to try again but this time, I found a sewing teacher to go to - and it’s made all the difference in the world! Why? Because whenever I hit a snag with the cotton, or the material, or the sewing, I can ask for experienced, patient help to resolve it. I’m not on my own trying to figure everything out, so nothing feels like the unmitigated disaster it used to when I was trying to sew alone.
And the same applies to traumatized people with C-PTSD.
When we’re small, if we don’t have a caring adult to reassure us that the cut on our finger really isn’t serious, we panic that it’s going to go green and fall off.
If we go through a ‘down’ and we don’t have someone sharing their experiences of how this is just a normal, temporary (if unpleasant…) stage in life that everyone goes through, we start to believe that we’re always going to feel this depressed, or bad, or lonely.
If there is no-one there to give us the right perspective about our inevitable failures and mistakes in life, and worse, who even punish us, shame us, blame us and criticize us for making normal mistakes and having normal failures, we will be fear-stricken whenever trying something new, or something we could concievably ‘do wrong’.
(Of course, the trouble is this applies to pretty much everything!)
To put this into ‘real world’ terms, these feelings of panic, anxiety, overwhelm and depression can hit you as an adult whenever:
Once again, the world IS objectively a very scary place for a young child to have to fend for themselves in, so those feelings were 100% normal at that point in time.
But now, that fear, panic and anxiety has hardwired itself into your brain, and is being triggered by even the smallest issues you experience as an adult.
Depending on what your main ‘stress response’ is, you’ll find yourself fighting, running away, shutting down, or trying to frantically buy affection as a result.
THIS is why people with C-PTSD so often find themselves reacting to molehills as though they were mountains. They’ve ‘flashed back’ to a young, immature part of themselves who was never taught how to put things into proper perspective, or how to self-soothe in a healthy way and calm themselves down, and they are stuck reacting to the world in that mode even as a grown up.
So how can we overcome this particular aspect of C-PTSD? Stay tuned for the next post, when I’ll set out some practical ideas for you.
I was going to try to list all the different ways we can mess up our kids, but then every time I tried to post that particular article up, my site crashed....
After the eighth time, I finally got the message: focus on SOLUTIONS, not problems. So i'm shifting the focus of these posts from now on, to describe the problems as gently as possible, and to put the emphasis much more on how to solve them.
This post was going to be about 'emotional neglect', but given the above, we now going to talk about 'emotionally-absent' parents instead, and what you can do to make sure you're present, and giving your children the emotional nurturing they need to grow up happy and well-adjusted - even if you didn't receive that yourself.
When a parent is emotionally-absent from their child’s life, then their kid generally experiences very little in the way of parental warmth and love. When a child has an emotionally-absent parent, they often perceive the situation as the parent disliking them, somehow.
That’s because the parent appears to not want to spend time with their child, and acts as though they don’t really enjoy their company, and has very little to say to them. An emotionally-absent parent may still ask perfunctory questions like: ‘How was your day?’ but their heart isn’t really in hearing the answer, or helping their child to deal with any of their other fears, issues or problems.
As with all ‘absences’ of good, it’s easier to describe what’s missing than what is actually happening.
When a parent is EMOTIONALLY AVAILABLE and EMOTIONALLY NURTURING, they do the following sorts of things for their children
I’ll stop there for now, but the single best way to find out if your parent(s) were emotionally-absent or not is to go down this list, and tick the ones that apply. By the end of the exercise, if you’re looking at a lot of ticks - that’s a reasonably-trustworthy indication that you had ‘good enough’ emotional nurturing and support.
If you’re not looking at a lot of ticks, then it’s a fair bet that your parent(s) were emotionally-absent, and that you probably have some ‘inner work’ to do to rectify the fall-out from that. Emotional neglect is often described as being at the ‘core’ of C-PTSD, because it can leave you with very deep feelings of being alone, uncared for and unimportant.
When small children are left to fend for themselves emotionally, it can literally cause them to experience the most excrutiating feelings of gut-wrenching anxiety, panic and emotional overwhelm, instantly pinging them into a very strong ‘stress response’.
If that happens on a regular basis, then the fight-flight-freeze-fawn switch in the developing brain gets flipped ‘on’ permanently, even if no other form of obvious maltreatment occurs.
We’ll return to this topic again in a future post, but that’s hopefully enough of a basic introduction to the topic of emotionally-absent parents for now.
PS: If you went down that list and are now having a ‘parenting meltdown’ about all the things you should be doing and aren’t, take a deep breath, and press ‘pause’ on the self-flagellation. Everything can be fixed! Everything can be rectified! If you didn’t get this stuff yourself as a kid, then you didn’t even know what was missing.
Even just knowing what’s been missing changes everything. Sure, there’s a lot to pray for, but God’s in the picture, and everything can still turn out A-OK.
As with all cults, if you only had the cult-leader themselves to deal with, it theoretically wouldn’t be that hard for a lot of people to eventually shrug off their brainwashing, and return to being a fully productive, alive and emotionally-healthy member of the human race.
What gives cults their power - from the ‘big’ cult players like the Moonies and Scientologists right down to the small mom-and-pop family cults that we’re talking about in these posts - is the other cult members.
Going against one person, however scary, is doable if you have a bunch of like-minded people on your side. There really is strength in numbers. But here is where we hit a huge problem for the people who want to leave the ‘mini cults’ that develop in a narcissist’s family: if you leave the cult and stop seeing your parent as ‘perfect’, then it’s not only your parent who’s going to come after you; it could be your whole brainwashed family.
Remember, the parent is perfect. That’s the main and central tenet, or belief, of the personality-disordered cults that build up around narcissist parents. As soon as you challenge that belief, you become the cult’s Public Enemy One, and your sister, your brother, your dad, your aunty - pretty much everyone you know who is also part of the cult - is going to come after you, to try to get you to admit that you’re completely wrong about the cult leader.
This next bit sounds counter-intuitive, but the easier ‘cult members’ to deal with are the obviously poisonous and nasty ones. They are the ones that write you emails telling you that unlike the cult leader, you’re a bigoted maggot, and an evil and cruel person. They also like to threaten you with all sorts of consequences for disobeying the cult leader, like dying a lonely, miserable death because you’ve isolated yourself from all the people who ‘really love you’ by leaving the cult.
As it’s pretty obvious that you’re dealing with an unhinged, mentally-ill lunatic, it’s much easier to reassure yourself that you’re really not the problem, here (although this still takes some practice, as malignant narcissists excel in identifying your weak spots, and zoning in on them with their eviscerating comments. If you secretly fear you’re a bad mother, for example, that will be the area they zone in on, as they tell you ‘you’re incapable of raising your children’ and other pleasantries like that.)
By far the more difficult characters are the two-faced cult members who pretend to be on your side, while all the time working overtime for the cult leader. These are the ones who keep persuading you to go against your best interests, or keep telling you to get back in touch, or try to guilt you out of leaving the cult by making it clear that ‘mom is about to have a BIG operation!!!’ and other manipulative moves like that.
They’ll ‘explain’ how the cult leader, or other cult member only said those disgustingly awful things because you started it! You made them do it! You suggested the cult leader wasn’t perfect and broke the cult’s sacred commandment! It’s all your fault that things are such a shambles because you have a Jekyll-and-Hyde character, and you’re mentally ill, and everyone else in the cult thinks that mom is THE BEST MOM EVER! So clearly, you are the only one at fault and the only one to blame for the family not being perfect.
Because the more two-faced cult members are great actors, they can make it seem that they really get your complaints, and your pain, and your hurt, while still turning it all around on to you and deflecting the problem away from the cult leader. “You’re just saying things to make it seem like mom is bad,” they’ll explain. “You set dad up and got him to act like a raging animal, when really he’s always so kind hearted,” they’ll tell you. “Unlike you, I know that mom only cut you out of the will because she has your best interests at heart, and if you weren’t so greedy and selfish you would understand that, too.”
The two-faced ones are much, much harder to deal with, because part of you hopes that once you lay everything out for them clearly, they’ll also come around to a more realistic view of what’s going on in the family-cum-cult.
A BROAD RULE OF THUMB FOR DEALING WITH OTHER CULT MEMBERS
Here’s a broad rule of thumb for dealing with other family members who are in the cult:
Any family member who is a narcissist themselves will be 100% committed to preserving and protecting the cult of perfection. They will abuse, cajole, lie, manipulate, threaten, attack and evade the truth at all costs.
When a family member is in the cult, but not a narcissist themselves, they will experience some severe cognitive dissonance around you, and do their best to steer the topic away from your ‘subversive’ views, and troubling heretical statements about the cult leaders not being as perfect as they seem. But they will not attack and abuse you in defence of the cult leaders.
When a family member is not in the cult, and not a narcissist - they’ll be so relieved to finally hear someone else telling the truth about what’s really going on! But it can take years for non-narcissist cult members to get to this stage, if it happens at all.
In the next post, we’ll take a look at how best to deal with abusive family members who are trying to stop you from ‘leaving the cult’.
In the last post, we started exploring how it's possible to validate, acknowledge and give a voice to that traumatized child within, without it completely rupturing our family relations.
Before I answer that question, there’s another crucially important part of the puzzle that you need to have: kids are simply the mirrors of their parents. However the parent is treating their kid is how, fundamentally, they feel about themselves.
The slaps, anger, criticism, disparagement, violence, dislike, hostility and blame they dole out to their children are just ‘mirroring’ their subconscious attitude towards the real them, their own ‘inner child’. (There’s a whole other biological dimension to this involving what’s called ‘mirror neurons’ and empathy, but that’s a post for another time.)
If the adult can be taught to like themselves better, to love themselves more, to see the good in themselves and to treat themselves with a whole lot more self-compassion, they will automatically start treating their own children a whole lot better, too.
It works in reverse too: if the adult can be taught to see the good in their child, and to accept them, and to understand instead of blaming, shaming and criticizing them, then they will automatically start to do that for themselves, too.
You can sum it up like this: the abusive behavior has been going on for generations, passed down like some sort of warped inheritance from parent to child. Children are abused, maltreated and neglected because their parents were abused, maltreated and neglected. If that child isn’t helped to break the cycle, they in turn will go on to abuse, maltreat and neglect their own children – probably against their will!
What this all means is that the people themselves are not the problem and shouldn’t be labelled as such, but the abusive behavior and attitudes have to be identified as the evils they truly are, and challenged – but from a place of compassion, not blame.
Remember, the abusive parent was once a scared, traumatized kid. On some level, they are also stuck in the past, reacting to old hurts and injustices that they never really healed from.
In the next post, I’m going to share a powerful ‘gestalt’ visualization, that builds on the previous ‘inner child’ exercise to help your inner child develop their voice, and express their hurts, in a safe, non-risky environment that will help you to keep your external relationships as intact as you wish them to be.
Probably the single biggest thing that stops people from dealing with the reality of what’s causing their mental and emotional health issues is family loyalty. As Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in his book: The Body Keeps The Score: “I have never met a child below the age of ten who was tortured at home (and who had broken bones and burned skin to show for it) who, if given the option, would not have chosen to stay with his or her family rather than being placed in a foster home.”
If that’s true even in the most destructive situations described by Van Der Kolk above, little wonder that those children grow up into adults who are unwilling to accept that their traumatic childhood experiences are connected in any way to their emotional difficulties. And this goes double when the traumatized child turns into the trauma-inducing parent, and starts mistreating their own offspring.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had people say to me: ‘But if I blame my parents for my problems, that’s exactly what my children are going to do to me, when they grow up…’
I know that’s a scary thought for most of us, and justifiably so, because even the most saintly parent in the world can’t ALWAYS do the right thing and treat their dependents with kindness, patience, acceptance and understanding. Because all parents are human beings, and not angels, and human beings are very flawed creations.
So how do we square this circle?
In the secular world the approach has usually been to either:
The main problem with the first approach (and probably the main explanation why Miller’s work was uniformly sidelined by the establishment) is that very few people actually want to have such an openly hostile, angry relationship with their parents. Call it family loyalty, call it the fear of being shunned by other family members, or anxiety about rocking the boat and calling down more punishment and ‘blame’ down on themselves by exposing the family’s dirty laundry – it all comes down to the same thing: most traumatized children won’t choose to save themselves and their mental health if it’s going to cost them their connection to the parents.
(And if that’s true even when dealing with absolutely horrendous issues of physical and sexual abuse, it’s even more true when the abuse is ‘only’ verbal, emotional or psychological.)
The main problem with the second approach is that it doesn’t actually address the underlying causes of mental illness and turns people into drug addicts and ‘hopeless cases’, while storing up even more problems for the next generation.
When an abused child isn’t enabled and encouraged to tap into their true feelings, and to acknowledge and then release their disgust, anger, fear, shame and helplessness, those feelings don’t just magically ‘disappear’: they back-up in the person’s system, and they become all sorts of strange mental, emotional and even physical issues which tend to only worsen over time, if not properly treated.
Worse, an abused child who doesn’t have their experiences validated, and who isn’t helped to identify the ‘wrong’ that was done to them then becomes an abusing adult when they grow up – and the cycle starts all over again with their children.
So how can we validate, acknowledge and give a voice to that traumatized child within, without it completely rupturing our family relations?
There is an answer (probably, even a lot of them...) and I'll share a couple of my favorite techniques with you this week.
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