complex-ptsd and emotional sensitivity
— The wound of being ‘too intense’
Developmental trauma, or Complex PTSD, results from a series of repeated, often ‘invisible’ childhood experiences of maltreatment, abuse, neglect, and situations in which the child has little or no control or any perceived hope to escape. Growing up in an environment full of unpredictability, danger, parental inconsistencies or emotional abandonment, these individuals are left with ’hidden traumas’ that disrupts not only their psychological but also neurological and emotional development.
When it comes to emotionally intense, sensitive and gifted individuals, we ought to be cautious of the confines of categories and diagnoses. Far too often, the most creative, forward and independent thinking people are being misunderstood, mislabelled and misdiagnosed.
Being sensitive does not equals vulnerability. Sensitive people are innately porous and receptivity to their environment, making them painfully aware of not just physical sensations, sounds and touch, but also relational experiences such as warmth or indifference. In critical, undermining setting, they may devolve into despair, but— and this is important to note— in a supportive and nurturing environment, they thrive like no others.
It is true that because of their unique ways of perceiving the world, they are acutely aware of and have more intense internal responses towards existing problems in their early lives, which may exacerbate the impact of any developmental deficits and trauma. However, sensitive children respond to not just the negative but also the positive. They may be more prone to upsets and physical sensitivities , but they also possess the most capacity to be unusually vital, creative, and successful.
In other words, the intense and sensitive ones are not born ‘vulnerable’, they are simply more responsive to their environments. And with the right kind of knowledge, support and nurture— even if this means replenishing what one did not get in childhood in adulthood— they can thrive like no others.
THE INVISIBLE TRAUMA ( C-PTSD )
In the past, psychologists have typically focused more on the impact of ‘shock trauma’ from extreme events such as accidents, wars and natural disasters. However, there is a second type of trauma that is very real and pervasive, yet not captured by the traditional diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The term Complex PTSD describes chronic childhood trauma such as emotional neglect or parentifications, that are invisible in nature.
It is easy to recognise when a child is explicitly, physically or sexually abused, but the impact of having inadequate or deficient parents can be elusive and escape our collective awareness. Sometimes the trauma could even be about what your caregivers did not do (omission) rather than what they did (commission).
Unfortunately, unlike shock trauma or physical abuse, the psychological injuries caused by emotional abandonment or alienation are often invisible and unacknowledged. This may leave these children feeling confused; assuming that their traumatic experience are not justified, and many turn to blaming and shaming themselves. Even as adults, they may suppress or deny these painful memories as they dismissively compare their trauma to those who were more ‘noticeably’ abused.
Growing research has found that a wide array of psychological difficulties finds their roots in these chronic childhood relational and attachment injuries. Children who experience this type of trauma show a disrupted ability to regulate their emotions, behaviours and attention, and these symptoms often extend into adulthood, leading to clinical presentations including Bipolar Disorder, ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder and even chronic physical pains (APA, 2007).
signs and symptoms
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE BURY UNSPEAKABLE TRUTHS
WE BECOME DISSOCIATED AND FEEL DEAD INSIDE
Cumulative trauma has the power to force our childhood into foreclosure. Our true self is the part of us that is free, spontaneous, and fully alive. But having been emotionally abandoned by our caretakers, we have also learned to bury our true self. Such disconnection comes not from one single traumatic experience, but an accumulation of painful emotional memories— when our enthusiasm was met with coldness, our passion misunderstood, our feelings silenced or our actions punished. The innocent, most alive part of us- our Soul, our True Self, or our Inner Child- is forced into hiding.
Because the repeated emotional abuse or neglect was so painful, we had no choice but to dissociate. Our numbing may involve disconnection from the body, our emotions, and other people. we can continue to function in the outside world, but don’t feel connected. We hide ourselves from our passion, spontaneous aliveness, and the ability to be vulnerable. we observe everything with intellectual curiosity but remains distanced. The result is an emptiness that derails our sense of being. Deep down, we feel guilty for having forsaken our truths.
WE FEEL DEFECTIVE
Children naturally blame themselves for what happens to them.
When they are bullied, they believe it is because they are not good enough.
If they seek attention from their parents but are neglected, they believe they are too needy.
If they are burdened with demands that they cannot fulfil, they believe it is their failure— Failing to be a perfect child, failing to take good care of their siblings, failing to sooth their parents’ anger.
If, as an intense child, we are scapegoated as the ‘problematic one’- the one who is ’too much’, ’too sensitive’, the origin of all woes in the household- we would believe we are at fault, and internalise a sense defectiveness. We then believe that we are disgusting, ugly, stupid, or flawed. Our toxic shame binds us with beliefs such as ‘nothing I do is good enough’, ‘there is something wrong with me’, ‘I am bad and toxic’.
Toxic shame makes us think we deserve little and need to settle for less. It stops us from fulfilling our potential as we hold ourselves back.
WE BECOME HIGHLY ANXIOUS
If our parents are emotionally unstable, or if due to their vulnerabilities we felt the need to take care of them, we become the ‘little adult’ at home. We are hyper-vigilant, always watching out for the earliest smallest clues of our parents’ emotional fluctuations so that we could protect ourselves and our siblings. This hyper empathic tendency doesn’t go away, and we carry it into our adulthood.
Our nervous system remains in a continual state of high arousal. We may feel we cannot relax and have to always look out for danger. We may be irritable and jumpy, suffer from insomnia, and other anxiety-related disorders and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
Our bodies store traumatic memories more than our mind does. As a result of childhood trauma, we feel ungrounded and uncentered. We are like frightened children living in adult bodies; when the unexpected things happen, we are overwhelmed and feel close to breaking down.
WE RESORT TO ADDICTION AND COMPULSIONS TO COPE
Our brain is designed to protect us; when we come across a particularly difficult or traumatic situation, it will be stored in a way that is ‘frozen in time’. We may not even remember it. We are not sure what triggers us, but our suppressed memories come out in the ways of uncontrollable mood swings, persistent sadness and depression, and explosive anger.
Through addictive behaviours of any form, from drinking, spending, eating to compulsive sex, we try to either A) Numb away the pain that we try so hard not to feel, or B) Fill the inner void. However, this can escalate into a compulsive cycle, for the numbing/filling effect from these external agents never last long, and the moment their effect cease, we reach for more. It is a dead-end escape route that never leads anywhere.
WE ARE FEARFUL OF CLOSENESS
Trust, interdependence, acceptance all requires a degree of vulnerability our wounded skin finds too hard to bear.
If we had not felt welcomed into the world, we would always feel like an outcast, someone with no hope of finding belongingness in the world. All our life, we are caught between the intense need for kinship and an extreme fear of contact.
After having been betrayed by those who were supposed to love and support us, we decide that we would no longer take any pain and disappointment. We thought if we stop hoping or believing in anything or anyone, we could avoid the potential let down. instilled in our subconscious is the belief that it is risky to have hope and expectations, so we don’t attach to anyone or anything to avoid disappointment. Suppressing painful memories consume a tremendous amount of energy. if we bury our betrayal trauma without processing it, we relate to the world through the lens of grudge and suspicions, and push people away.
On the other hand, if we had grown up in a chaotic household, or that our parents are overprotective or overbearing, we fear being smothered, losing control or losing a sense of individuality. We fear being asked for too much, and thus distance ourselves and withhold.
Retreating from closeness does not necessarily mean isolating entirely, but we may feel the need to conceal parts of our authentic self. on the surface, we are social but we don’t get close to anyone. Or maybe we settle for false- closeness in sex but never commit to knowing anyone in depth. We hide our passionate, loving self, and become cold, cynical, and sarcastic. Withdrawing into our shell whenever we feel vulnerable also means not able to take in support and love from others.
Eventually, we lose hope in finding anyone who can understand us.
WE DAMAGE THE LOVE THAT WE DO HAVE
Neuroscientists have found that parents’ responses to our attachment-seeking behaviours, especially during the first two years of our lives, encode our view of the world. If as infants, we have consistent attachment interactions with an attuned, available, and nurturing caregiver, we will be able to develop a sense of safety and trust. In contrast, when our parents are emotionally unavailable to us, we would internalise the message that the world is a frightening place; when we are in need, no one will be there.
This results in a deep fear of abandonment. As adults, any kind of distance, even brief and benign ones, may trigger us to re-experience the original pain of being left alone, dismissed, or disdain. Our fear could trigger coping survival modes such as denial, clinging, avoidance and dismissing others, lashing out in relationships, or the pattern of sabotaging relationships to avoid potential rejection.
Fear of rejection or abandonment may also bring us to put up with a damaging relationship or stay in an abusive one. The message that we received from our unhealed wounds tells us that being mistreated, degraded is still better than being on our own.
WE SABOTAGE OUR SUCCESS
Our experience might have led to believe our success and happiness would threaten our siblings, attract envy, and that we were somehow ‘arrogant’ if we were achieving high . Perhaps our parents were too limited in their worldview to comprehend our gifts, and deep down we carry a ‘survivor guilt’ that says if we achieve more than others or outgrow our family, we are betraying them. Even only subconsciously, we become frightened of our power.
Expecting little of ourselves and others may make sense when we were little people who live under the mercy of unpredictable and explosive caregivers, but no longer serve us if we wish to step into a more prominent place and to live fully.
Specific Healing Goals
The bouncing back process for developmental trauma is different to the therapy for simple PTSD, general depression or anxiety.
Because of the complicated issues around a personal sense of safety and stability, being exposed to traumatic materials before you are ready can lead to re-traumatization, and reinforce the cycle of hopelessness. Themes such as safety, mourning, and reconnection are some of the key themes specific to this process. The following are some of the healing goals that are essential:
Locating or developing an internal sense of safety
Building connection with self, the body, and emotions- through mindfulness and other mind-body techniques
Expanding the ‘window of tolerance’ for various emotions, so you are not constantly in either state of hyper-arousal (acute stress, rage, tension, and panic) or under-arousal (dissociating, disconnecting, feeling empty and depressed)
Finding ways to cope when feeling overwhelmed, without resorting to avoidance or compensatory behaviours (overeating, over spending, and other impulsive habits)
Learning to experience connection with others as enriching rather than tiring or threatening
Becoming aware of and finding ways to preserve your energetic boundaries
Neurologically regulating the nervous system in order to cope with day-to-day stressors and triggers
Lessening the impact of your internalised shame, and the voice of the inner critic.