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This Is What Complex PTSD Really Feels Like

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Trauma seems to a popular topic of conversation in the mental health world, but how much do we really know when it comes to recognizing it in ourselves — and others?

• What is PTSD?

When we hear the word “trauma” we usually think of a terrible life-threatening event — a car accident, natural disaster or an act of violence that changes us forever. However, the kind of trauma I am talking about isn’t be caused by a single event. It can be — and often is — the result of a cumulative process of traumatic interactions in childhood which can change the brain and leave us with a vulnerability to mental illness.

So what does it feel like to have trauma locked inside you?

For me, the most useful way of describing its impact has been a chronic feeling of shame. Without therapy, I could never have even acknowledged this pain, let alone been able to name it. Only now am I aware of these feelings and understand something of where they have come from. It has taken over eight years of weekly psychotherapy to unravel the complexity of the trauma that has impacted the core of my identity. 

For much of my life I felt unanchored and porous, unable to withstand the most innocent division or criticism. Because of this severe trauma, I lost touch with myself and was unable to differentiate my own needs and desires from those of others.

Often I would dissociate, unaware of what was going on, as I left the present to dwell in the intense pain and nonverbal memories of my past. This would commonly occur if I experienced rejection or criticism, particularly from someone close to me. At times, I would lose my sense of myself and disappear, left only with a feeling of anger and emptiness — and deep shame.

As a therapist, I have worked with clients whose lives have been similarly affected and it is hard for them to acknowledge the amount of pain they are in, let alone understand where it came from. Despite the amount of public discourse around trauma, we remain distinctly unaware of the intensity of the pain suffered by those who have been deeply wounded by their attachment figures — it is often hard to recognize.

We see the behaviors and defenses, not the silent pain underneath.

Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

Originally published: November 26, 2018
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