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What 'I'm Just Kidding' Sounds Like to Someone With PTSD

Have you known folks throughout your life who like to say outrageous things and wait to get a reaction out of people? Then, they follow it up with a quick, “I’m just kidding!”

These are the self-proclaimed “ballbusters,” or folks who like to joke around. Once in a while, they will come right out and admit they are “testing” you.

I, for one, have never recovered well from those situations. Sometimes it has led to further criticism of me for being “too sensitive” or taking things “too seriously.”

Even so, it never felt quite right. Then, I got my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis.

As someone who developed PTSD, I was also someone who had developed hypervigilance. The reasons behind everyone’s hypervigilance are different, though the overarching themes are similar. We are often on guard for an ever-present threat. Many of us live in a false reality. We can be unsure of what is happening, and often anticipate bad things at all times.

People with PTSD tend to take things very seriously. We often don’t know how else to interpret things to try to keep ourselves safe. When you say something to us, we tend believe you.

When we run into people who are disingenuous, flakey, gaslighters or are otherwise the type of people who try and “test” those around them with outlandish statements, we can get very confused. Many of us (particularly those with complex PTSD) have someone like that in our past, who normalized abusive statements toward us and made it seem as though we should accept them. Then, they would flip back into what is often called “love bombing” to earn our trust back.

We are used to people who flip back and forth between criticizing and praising us. We are used to living in contradictory environments. However, we are also conditioned to be on high-alert for these people at all times. If we see that behavior in a new person — say, someone in our work environment, social circle, a friend’s new partner — our safety can suddenly feel very threatened. Alarm bells start going off in our heads.

People who struggle with PTSD are also known to fall into one (or more) of these categories when confronted with an attacker or someone who intimidates them: fight, flight, fawn or freeze. It is likely you’ve only commonly heard of the first two.

Have you ever seen someone take a joke badly, and then not speak for the rest of the time you were at a social gathering? They froze. Have you witnessed a “class clown” type tease someone a little too hard, to the point where it escalated to a screaming match? They entered a fight response. Has your friend disappeared from a party without saying goodbye, after she was singled out in a group conversation for something that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time? She fled.

If someone is unaware they have PTSD, in the early stages of their trauma healing or is simply out there treading water, they may not take these types of social interactions well. Others may consider them harmless, and may refer to them as “teasing” or “having fun” with you.

If the goal is to “have fun” with someone, check in and make sure they really are having fun. If they are freezing in terror or running off in shame in response to what most think is “harmless and playful banter,” they might not be having as much fun as you think.

You can follow my journey on Medium.

Unsplash image by Christian Fregnan