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How These Labels Help Me as Someone With Complex PTSD

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Usually I find labels to be fairly inaccurate — pathologizing even — particularly ones that are proliferated by under-researched and overly generalized personality trait quizzes. But… sometimes they do have kernels of truth in them if taken with a grain of salt and viewed through the lens of skepticism. That being said — as an INFJ, Enneagram 3, Aries whose love language is “Words of Affirmation,” has a disorganized attachment style and is diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) — there are some predictable ways in which periods of intense overwhelm will affect me.

• What is PTSD?

I know it sounds wonky, but each one of these labels comes with certain characteristics that perfectly encapsulate how I behave when I’m triggered and the anecdote to that exact behavior is pretty straightforward if you understand the label. I’m not particularly adept at asking to get my needs met or even knowing what I need in the heat of the moment, so maybe sharing my unique combination of labels with my loved ones can provide them with a roadmap of how to help me help myself in times of crisis.

1. Meyers-Briggs Types-INFJ/T: The Turbulent Advocate

Having taken the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) numerous times and always getting the same result, the INFJ/T personality type resonates with me more than almost any other label. The proof is in the pudding when I read memes posted on the INFJ Refuge Facebook page and start nodding furiously. Ironically, this type is purportedly the rarest, representing only one to three percent of the population, and yet, most of my friends also identify as INFJ’s which begs the question, “how rare is it really?” Maybe all of us INFJ’s are subconsciously drawn to one another because of how challenging it is for us to feel understood.

Primary traits of this type include hyper-empathy, an intense desire to help others, the need to have others not only validate them but recognize their accomplishments and acute sensitivity to any perceived mistake or failure. When their sense of failure is triggered, they develop an intense harsh inner critic who is deeply affected by any rejection. This is where I tend to struggle the most when I get overwhelmed. My inner critic is so cruel that I can make myself feel like I’m a complete waste of a human being on this planet who doesn’t deserve to exist.

How can others help? This is where I need help with my positive self-talk. If I’m mired in self-criticism, help me to reel that in. Remind me that I’m none of those awful things my mind is telling me and that I’m not a failure… I’m human.

2. Enneagram 3: The Achiever

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, my Enneagram is The Achiever. My greatest asset is also potentially my greatest weakness. I’m hyper-driven to succeed, which makes me a super hard worker and someone who will bend over backward to accomplish my goals. But… if I sense that I in any way failed, my entire sense of identity is derailed. My worth comes from achievement and when that is taken away, I feel untethered and like I don’t exist. While this can sound arrogant in my need to feel like I’m good at something, it’s actually more sinister than that. Success isn’t seen as making me superior to others — it makes me feel as though I’m just barely good enough to deserve to be on the planet. That’s an almost impossible standard to maintain.

When something doesn’t work out, like losing my job or not getting cast in something, I go into a complete shame storm. This triggers my very sensitive inner child who becomes super over reactive to everything and doesn’t tolerate her feelings very well.

How can others help? Understand that my over response to you isn’t directed at you. It’s a product of feeling ashamed for not being good enough. Help me to emotionally regulate by saying the unspoken out loud. “I know you feel really disappointed that this didn’t work out and your feelings are valid. Remember, you didn’t do anything wrong and it doesn’t make you less of a human being.”

3. Aries with a Pisces cusp

Being on the cusp between a water sign and a fire sign can mean sometimes appearing to be a conundrum of duality. On the one hand I can be strong, motivated and determined. And yet I tend to overthink everything and be very emotional. My creativity and drive tend to yield good results, but I agonize over it in the process, which frankly can drive those around me a little batty. My husband often tells me he wishes I’d see how capable I am rather than constantly questioning my abilities. The end result for me is generally the most intense imposter syndrome you have ever experienced. And even if I do succeed, I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. In a sense I overwhelm myself with my own impossible standards.

How can others help? You won’t like this answer, but I need a lot of reassurance. Remind me of how talented I am or how capable I am. I know that sounds ridiculous, or I’m telling myself it sounds ridiculous because I feel embarrassed that I need so much positive reinforcement, but there it is. I do. I often forget my previous track record of accomplishments like they never happened. An occasional dose of reality is helpful to bring me back down to earth.

4. Love Language: Words of Affirmation

Again, I feel like based on my previous three labels, this isn’t a shock. My love language is “Words of Affirmation.” I need a lot of reassurance that the people around me actually love me and care about me. Whether this is a love language thing or a trauma response is up for debate, but the truth is I don’t always trust that people actually care about me. So I tend to thrive when people regularly communicate their affection to me either verbally or via a text, email, or even a meme. It doesn’t have to be effusive or flowery. It just has to feel genuine. Nothing makes me happier than getting a message out of the blue from someone saying “hey, just thinking about you and sending a virtual hug or love.” The idea that I matter to someone helps me feel less alone in this world that tends to be too much all the time.

How can others help? I know we all live crazy busy lives, but once in a blue moon, shoot me a message just to say you are still on my proverbial team. Especially when times are tough, just knowing you are there helps me navigate the fear and uncertainty with more fortitude.

5. Disorganized Attachment Style

I’ve written before about my disorganized attachment style and how it can make me unpredictable in relationships. I vacillate between wanting you around to isolating from you because I’m afraid you’ll abandon me. Blame this one squarely on childhood trauma and emotional neglect. My sensitivity to perceived danger or being hurt or abandoned tends to make periods of stress feel even more overwhelming. When I want or need others, I shut down and self-isolate, which just makes me even more insecure and emotionally dysregulated. It is a vicious cycle that I know I do and yet in the heat of the moment I just can’t seem to allow myself to reach out.

How can others help? If you know I’m going through a tough time and am not communicating with you, chances are I’m afraid that I’ll be too much of a burden on you or too needy and will push you away if I lean on you. Just remind me that I don’t have to go through things alone. I don’t expect you to fix anything, just listening to me and validating my feelings is the greatest thing. And, yes, tell me I’m not a burden or too needy. Are you exhausted by me yet? Because I am.


My final label or diagnosis, if you will, is complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), which is a result of extensive and prolonged childhood trauma and neglect. Aside from experiencing things like flashbacks and persistent nightmares, one of the greatest hallmarks of C-PTSD is attachment anxiety and fear of abandonment, which is why it is often either accompanied by or mixed up with borderline personality disorder (BPD). The place where I think I notice my triggers the most is in my hyper-vigilance. I’m constantly aware of potential danger and lack of control makes me feel like my entire nervous system is actively experiencing a five alarm fire. This is why periods of high stress tend to make me super sensitive and I tend to develop somatic issues like persistent stomach aches and panic attacks.

How can others help? Engage in an activity with me that you know will help calm my central nervous system. Watch a TV show or movie I love with me or take me out for a nice meal where I can forget things for a while. Distraction is key for me, and if we can distract together it also helps me stay grounded in the present moment.

All of these labels are unique to me and frankly, no list like this is going to be a one size fits all prescription for your loved ones to be able to show up for you. But it might be helpful for you to identify your unique labels and how they show up for you when you are feeling triggered. And then, more importantly, communicate this to those you love and who love you.

Relationships involve being vulnerable with one another, establishing boundaries and being able to communicate your needs. Ask yourself if you’d be willing to do these things for those you love and if the answer is “yes,” the likelihood is that they’d be willing to do them for you too.

Getty image by Oliver Rossi

Originally published: September 15, 2022
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