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This Complex PTSD Symptom Makes Trusting New People Hard

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No matter who you are or what your situation is, making the choice to trust someone new can be a tricky part of life. It’s worth noting that trust does come easier for some, and for others it can be much harder. I personally fall into the second category and I certainly have my reasons as to why trust is difficult for me.

I experience complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) as well as major depressive disorder (MDD). I have C-PTSD due to long-standing trauma that occurred in the past. I’ve written numerous pieces here on The Mighty on my experience with both disorders, and if you are unfamiliar with what C-PTSD is, a good place to start may be this piece I wrote here.

Recently it just so happens I’ve been trying to let some new people into my life. Some as friends and some as helping professionals. From my side of the room, I feel it’s going pretty well — but it is no easy feat for me. It’s a slow process that takes up a significant amount of my energy. I’m used to keeping a lot of people at arm’s length. As I said though, for some reason, lately the stars have aligned and my circle is widening just a bit.

The people I let in closer to me don’t have to know every last detail of my story. In fact I have a wide variety of people in my life who I consider to be very important to me, and I’ve not shared lots of aspects of myself with them. What I’m trying to say is that this isn’t about having to be an open book when that’s not what you want to do. Folks do though tend to need some glances into who people really are.

Over the last 10 or so years I’ve begun to notice a predictable pattern that I go through when I do indeed decide to trust a new person, and while I caught glimpses of it in the past, I’m now just recently seeing it much more clearly. What I’m recognizing in myself has to do with a common trauma response.

Fight, flight, freeze and fawn are concepts that are connected to trauma. For those not aware, the basic theory is that we have an automatic internal system that often utilizes one or a combination of the “four Fs” in order to survive life-threatening situations. It is observed in both humans and animals, but where humans tend to differ is that if they do experience trauma and their system uses one of these options, something seems to happen causing some folks to get stuck.

The gist of it is that once the body and mind gets a hold of something that it decides is a great survival response, and it seemingly works, it figures it should keep that up even if later it becomes unhelpful. Which, when you look at it that way, it can be a bit easier to show oneself more compassion. I will add that research has shown that through therapy and other means, we can rewire this response over time.

While any and all of those trauma responses have occurred for me, the one I commonly get stuck in is “freeze.” What I didn’t’ fully understand until recently is that this aspect of me also works its way into when I’m trying to form new relationships. In my case, my body decided on the freeze response way back when, and it taught me to not do or say anything that could potentially make things worse. Since I’m writing today, at least on a certain level, it must have worked. And as we already discussed, my internal system has seemingly decided to keep this response in its repertoire.

I want folks to know that I find “freezing” to be extremely emotionally painful as well as very aggravating. It happens without my permission, what I mean by this is, it is not a choice on my part. Once I’m in a freeze, the “me” part of me that feels trapped can be all but screaming at all the other “parts” to, well… melt, yet it’s to no avail. In my case this some times also goes into a form of dissociation, which makes it even more difficult for my whole self to reappear. I think a great illustration of how this can feel is in the movie “Get Out,” with the whole brain-body switch and the original consciousness floating in the background, trying to take back control.

So how is freeze related to learning to trust? I’m so glad you asked. Getting to know someone new, whether that’s personally or professionally, by its very nature requires some vulnerability. Sometimes, depending on the type of relationship or the setting it’s occurring in, it can require a high level of vulnerability within a quick timeframe.

I’ve learned that my nervous system is hardwired to not like vulnerability, which is often highly contradictory with my needs for human connection and support. As a matter of fact, I’m quite certain my nervous system actually has a doctorate in recognizing when I’ve entered into a what it deems is a vulnerable situation. Now this doctorate seems to be highly specialized because it doesn’t always pick up on everything, including when I write, so I’m glad that it did not receive a top-level education. I’m also thankful that while my nervous system is highly sensitive to new or different vulnerabilities, I am eventually able to get it to correctly see who and what is safe. But this takes time and a lot of effort. As an additional fun surprise, my well-worn defense system will every now and then come back online for a person or situation we have long ago agreed upon is safe. I guess it just needs to double-check now and then.

Here are some examples of what a freeze on my end may look like in the context of trying to trust a new person:

  • Not being very talkative, or in the extreme becoming completely silent. I almost certainly want to be communicating, but I can’t.
  • Appearing like I was just about to share something important or I have actually said that I have something I want to talk about, and then suddenly choosing not to. Again, I likely want to, but I’m stuck.
  • Disappearing acts that go on for days, weeks or months as I try to reboot my system back online. Similarly, it can look like me not initiating contact.
  • Me cancelling our hangout or appointment, even though you felt pretty sure things have been going well. I probably very much want to spend that time with you, but again am struggling to convince all parts of me. This is rare because I really hate canceling.
  • Presenting with high anxiety or complaining of having troubles with sleeping, eating and panic attacks. These type of symptoms happen in my life for a variety of reasons but in the case of freeze, they are the probably the result of me trying my utmost to fight my way through it. Spoiler alert: my system fights back (with a vengeance).
  • Irrational negative beliefs or self-judgments, which in an exciting turn of events, I often then project onto the person I’m trying to connect to, which brings the result of me fearing they are judging me. This is related to a variety of the symptoms common with C-PTSD, and can be part of freeze especially when I’m feeling very frustrated with myself.

So what’s a Heidi (or someone like me) to do? Another great question, and since you’ve read this far, I’ll offer up a few solutions I’ve slowly been crafting over the years.

  • Write things out, especially when it comes to important information you want to share with professionals. Basically learn to expect that, at least in the beginning, you’re going to do some freezing which will make your mind go blank. Having important points written down helps with this. Also, these days a lot of professionals are fine with emails. Ask about it or take them up on the offer if it’s going to help you to communicate.
  • Be patient with yourself. Remember that you are not like everyone else and that’s OK, and it’s not your fault. Easier said than done, but it’s important.
  • Drop small breadcrumbs until you become comfortable to share more of yourself. It’s OK to see how folks respond to small pieces and then to decide later if they are worthy of more.
  • Remind yourself that the negative things you are thinking about yourself are untrue, and are not in fact the thoughts the other person is having about you.
  • Talk with your therapist, especially when you find yourself feeling overly confused or having emotions that are way out of proportion.
  • Be as honest as possible about the things you feel the need to share but without removing your defenses too soon.  You won’t always get it right.
  • People are on a regular basis, a lot more understanding, kind and caring than you give them credit for. A lot of folks have the same troubles as you.
  • On the rare occasion that the connection doesn’t work, yes it could be because of your needs, but it’s not because you are a bad person. It just wasn’t the right fit and that’s OK.
  • Remember that people find you genuinely interesting, funny, smart, creative and more. You have something to offer even when you think you don’t.
  • Even though it feels like it will never end, the freeze will indeed eventually thaw.

C-PTSD can be a lonely and confusing disorder, and there are times where I feel like all of it’s various symptoms come at me in a way that are designed to be ironically cruel. I worry that I can’t trust others, but I long for human connection. I convince myself I’m the worst human on the planet, and then I can’t believe it when others are being kind to me. I rehearse talking about important things, and then I freeze. Yep, that’s all as exasperating as it sounds.

I won’t sugarcoat it: regularly wading my way through all that (and more) is draining. But here’s the thing: I will continue to show up and do the work I need to do anyways. And yes, there will still be days I don’t get out of bed or I dissociate for hours laying on the floor staring up at the ceiling, but I will try again the next day.

I deserve to have the best life that I can, and it absolutely has gotten way easier over time. I have moved forward in so many ways that even five years ago, I never would have believed I could accomplish. In five more years, who knows what additional healing and strengths will arrive. In 10 years I may even have gotten my own doctorate in learning how to trust, or if nothing else, my jokes will have gotten even better.

If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram as @mentalhealthyxe.

Photo by Szőcs Viola on Unsplash

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