What is Complex Trauma?

Simple trauma is the result of a single overwhelming event, such as being in a car crash or being assaulted. Complex Trauma arises when: The victimization started in infancy or childhood. The home lacked the consistent nurturing, care, boundaries, and security that help a child develop a sense of who she is and the knowledge that she’s worthy. Such environments can contain:

  • Neglect—Physical and/or emotional needs are not seen, acknowledged, or tended to consistently.
  • Verbal/emotional abuse—Your parents told you you were worthless, wouldn’t amount to anything, weren’t good enough, and denied love and affection.
  • Bullying—Being teased, hurt, and humiliated by other children and having no adult to come to your aid.
  • A parent who is emotionally a child—So s/he needs your care and your reassurance, and your needs to unacknowledged.
  • Physical abuse—Use of physical force and intimidation.

Sexual abuse—molestation or sexualizing of a child.

When you’re hurt as a child or you don’t get what you need, you do what you can inside to make sense of a senseless situation, and you develop Complex PTSD. My favorite most instantly comprehensible description of the experience of CPTSD comes from Pete Walker’s book, “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving”, where he mentions these five common issues folks with complex trauma have:

Emotional Flashbacks – These are feelings in the moment that go back to times in childhood where you felt defective, helpless, abandoned, or despairing. Much of the time that folks have suicidal ideation, they are flashing back to a time in their lives where things felt hopeless. Many times, these flashbacks are characterized by the second characteristic:
Toxic Shame: A sense that you are not okay. Everything about you starts to feel pathetic, or worthless, or simply not good enough. Shame is a sense that there’s something wrong with you, something wrong with who you are. It makes sense that a sense of being so worthless would combine with this third indicator:
A vicious inner critic: This part of you says you’re not worth it, you’re not good enough, that you never should have tried, or that you have no right to your feelings and thoughts. This critic often echoes the contempt people received in childhood. This critic demolishes your sense of self-esteem. This leads to the next symptom
Self-abandonment: You give in to your inner critic, and you give up on yourself. Some folks abandon themselves through “spacing out”, taking care of other people compulsively (without regard for their own needs), getting into destructive or dependent relationships, turning to food or sleep to dull their feelings, or turning to addictions. Giving up on yourself can be accompanied by suicidal ideation, compulsion/addiction, depression, and giving into the wishes of others to the exclusion of your own needs.
Social anxiety: This fear of interaction with other people makes sense when you never developed the sense that you were okay, that people liked you, and that you were worth people’s time and attention.

If these symptoms sound familiar to you, there’s hope for you! In Pete Walker’s words:

First, the good news about CPTSD: It is a learned set of responses, and a failure to complete numerous important developmental tasks. This means that it is environmentally, not genetically, caused. In other words, unlike most of the diagnoses it is confused with, it is neither inborn nor characterlogical. As such, it is learned. It is not inscribed in your DNA. It is a disorder caused by nurture (or rather the lack of it), not nature.

Pete Walker, from “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving” My clients who have been carrying the burden of complex trauma symptoms express great relief once they understand that they’re not bad or crazy, and that their troubled emotions and relationships make sense. Once you know that you’re not crazy or defective, you can start the work of healing. Healing the effects of complex trauma is a process. It’s a deeply rewarding one, because as you learn to let go of toxic shame, to challenge your inner critic, to notice when you’re in an emotional flashback (and find your way out), and to finally come home to yourself, life looks different. Your anxiety diminishes, your energy increases, and you gain a sense of love, belonging, and safety. Healing can begin to occur in a safe relationship, often with a good therapist. Read my article about what to look for in a therapist for complex trauma here. You can also begin to recover faster by recognizing when you’re in an emotional flashback. Read about that here. People recover from complex trauma everyday. To recover, you’ll need to develop self-compassion, challenge your inner critic, and learn to care for the child you once were. When you recover, you begin to develop a sense that you’re okay, that you can be safe, and that you’re worth it. You stop abandoning yourself and learn to embrace who you are. Healing happens one step at a time.

Author: Michaela Lonning

I'm a counselor in Corvallis, Oregon, and I work mostly with intelligent and sensitive people who are struggling with a sense of connection to themselves or in their relationships. Near Corvallis? Come see me. Not near Corvallis? I work with clients around the world via Skype: Come see me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *