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This Metaphor Is the Perfect Way to Explain Relationship Struggles With Complex PTSD

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

If — like me — you have complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), I’m willing to hazard a guess that when it comes to relationships you experience feelings of “stuckness.” I’m willing to place that bet because I know that I sure do.

• What is PTSD?

In this place, I find that I have conflicting feelings and thoughts around connecting with others. This causes frustration that is paired with becoming immobilized. Ultimately this makes connecting a big struggle, yet I have a deep longing to do so. Back and forth, back and forth, I go.

The metaphor is: I am stuck between a rock and a hard place.

If this is all sounding familiar, just know that these can be common feelings and experiences for those of us with C-PTSD. I often find myself here and so I’ve thought about it a lot. I’d like to share with you some thoughts behind the “why,” as well as what we can do about it.

The first part of the equation is:

The Rock

For those of us who have experienced complex trauma, an important aspect to figure out is the flawed messages we’ve taken on because of it. This may have been something explicitly said during or after by those involved or otherwise in your circle. It can also be something we pick up from society in general or a way of thinking we use ourselves in an attempt to cope.

I suggest that therapy is a good place to dig around for these messages. It’s also possible to do this on your own, with a self-help book, a support group or even by reading what you’re looking at right now.

Here are some messages I’m very familiar with:

”You can’t tell anyone. If you do, everyone will know you are bad. Then you will be all alone, forever.”

“You are responsible for what happened.”

“You are a broken person. The shame is yours to carry. No one likes you.”

I’m yet again willing to hazard a guess that these may sound familiar to you. That’s because they are common things folks who have experienced abuse and trauma hear, either explicitly or implicitly. You may have some different messages in mind as well.

In my opinion, the “rock” is the nearly universal theme of abuse: “For ‘X reason,’ you mustn’t tell anyone.” This message unfortunately tends to take on deep roots, it can almost become our guiding philosophy for surviving and it is not an easy thought process to shake. We also can’t undervalue that not speaking may have been a key part to survival, and was indeed a useful tool in that place.

Adaptive as silence may have been, it eventually becomes maladaptive and it then it turns to stone. At some point not talking about ourselves starts to feel pretty awful, even if we don’t know exactly why. It’s in this place I think we eventually come up against:

The Hard Place

The hard place, simply put, is the desire to connect with others. But as you and I both know, there is nothing simple about this. We likely learned long ago that many people aren’t safe and that choosing to be vulnerable with others can be dangerous.

It’s important to note that there is an entire section of C-PTSD symptoms dedicated to this problem. I’ve done some writing on this before and I think this excerpt explains it well:

… the symptoms are: feeling you are markedly different than other people (usually in the negative), thinking you are permanently damaged or broken, and believing no one can possibly understand. Here’s the very short version of why this may be. Someone being persistently abused, especially in childhood, is commonly going to feel as though the world doesn’t see them…”

We may deeply long to connect with others but doing so is not an easy or even natural task. On top of this, we think of ourselves as being so badly damaged that no one would bother to want to know us. And yet even if by some miracle we do make a connection we feel that at some point we will have to tell our story, and when we do this will lead to abandonment. Dang, that’s heavy.

For me — when I’m stuck between this rock and a hard place — it feels like no matter which direction I turn, I’m faced with an obstacle that can only be solved by dealing with the other. This creates an unsolvable loop, and I eventually just decide to sit down by myself in the dirt of my lonely desert. OK, that might be a little melodramatic.

I have learned that there is a:

Hidden Path

This is the part of the writing where I’m supposed to tell you my tips and tricks for getting out of this stuck place. I’m not sure it’s quite that easy. I wish it was. However, I do have things that I’ve tried with success.

For me, support groups, online forums, The Mighty and social media have all been great places to meet and learn from like-minded individuals. Part of what makes these options so helpful is I know that the folks I’m interacting with have been through similar things, and they are unlikely to judge. Sometimes, the anonymous or far-away aspect of some of these options is helpful too, but it can also be part of the problem. Either way, I do think it can be a good option.

Therapy and other forms of professional support have also been key for me in becoming unstuck. Therapy is a safe and supportive place where I get to experience what it’s like to trust someone. It can also be a place where I can practice being vulnerable. Sometimes you can incorporate other helping professionals into this as an option for getting even more practice. This could be someone like a massage therapist, chiropractor, or even a hairdresser who is a great listener. Even entering into these types of relationships can be a very new experience for a lot of us, so it can take time and effort. I’m living proof it can be done.

Once I learned about this in the safety of the therapy room, it was time to take the show on the road. Or, in other words, test out these skills with real live humans.

In my case, I often do have good friends and folks in my life, but my disordered thinking causes me to believe we aren’t actually that close. In that case, I’ve been able to slowly change my thinking patterns and better realize that I’m well-liked and supported.

There have been times though where I genuinely didn’t have many people in my circle, which is where you may be right now, as well. My advice for those folks at this juncture is to be patient and to go slow.

Amazing friendships aren’t created overnight, and in my experience, I’ve found the older we get, the harder it becomes to meet folks of a similar age who are also looking for friendship. They are out there, though; it just may take some creativity and digging.

My other piece of advice is to let you know that you actually don’t need to tell people your life story unless, of course, you want to. And if you do want to, it’s a good practice to go about doing so slowly and carefully. There is nothing wrong or shameful about you and the things of your past. Rather, this is about being sure you truly know and trust this person with your story.

In a similar but different vein, it’s a good idea to remember that there are different levels of friendship. You can always share as much as feels right, so in some cases, you may decide not to share at all. This doesn’t mean this isn’t a good connection; it just means our relationships vary. It’s the same as other friendships and private topics. You may have a friend you can talk to about the color of your poop, and another friend where you’d never ever have that conversation. This is normal.

Being between a rock and a hard place that can present as part of having C-PTSD is a very real thing. Not only is it real, but it can be a painful problem to have. If you are here right now or have been in the past, I truly empathize as I’m very aware of what this space feels like.

Based on my own experience and the experience of others, I also know it is possible to make improvements. I know we are a creative group of people and we can find unique ways of getting our needs met. I also know there is lots of great folks out there willing to help us.

The Rock is real and so is The Hard Place. The part that isn’t true is that there is no way out. There is, even if it sometimes gets hidden.

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 Alex Iby on Unsplash

Originally published: June 1, 2021
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