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Complex PTSD: How to Share with Those Who Don’t Have It or Don’t Get It

Complex PTSD: How to Share with Those Who Don’t Have It or Don’t Get It

Home/Trauma/Complex PTSD: How to Share with Those Who Don’t Have It or Don’t Get It

A lot of psychology-related terms have worked their way into everyday usage lately. One common example is “trauma.” Of course, there are some true benefits to this growing awareness. But, in addition, it’s easy to have misinterpretations. From movies or even social media posts, many people have a very skewed perception of what “trauma” means.

This misunderstanding can inadvertently invalidate many trauma sufferers. We expect a trauma survivor to have endured a particular kind of event. In reality, trauma is in the eye of the beholder and it can occur slowly over time. This is precisely how Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder happens.

How is Complex PTSD Different From PTSD?

There is a simple — but rarely useful — description. PTSD is from one thing. C-PTSD is from a bunch of things to varying degrees. As you can see, this explanation can downplay C-PTSD and invite others to do so, too. After all, PTSD is what they make movies about. We read about it in articles about returning war veterans. Yet, how often do you hear anyone talking about C-PTSD?

To adequately share information, clarity is key. To share your own experience well, try to impart some of the key aspects of trauma, such as the following:

What is Trauma?

Trauma describes a reaction to a horrific experience. The event is traumatic and thus, leaves people traumatized. Such events commonly involve:

  • Abandonment
  • Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse
  • Being victimized by a crime or act of terrorism
  • Living in a war zone
  • Natural disaster
  • Illness or injury

Any of the above can result in trauma. But, just as often, the cause of PTSD or C-PTSD is not as obviously traumatic. Once again, trauma is in the eye of the beholder. You might need to share with others that it can occur slowly, over time. For example, for a child, a slow build-up of neglect or bullying can be shattering and leave a long-term emotional scar. There might not be a single “big” moment. But the accumulation was devastating.

What Might Cause C-PTSD?

Some painful possibilities include:

  • Getting kidnapped or held against your will for a long period of time
  • Being forced to work in prostitution
  • Being kept in slavery
  • Ongoing domestic violence
  • Long-term disability

Perhaps the most common cause of C-PTSD is chronic childhood trauma. Rather than one terrible experience, we’re talking here about continuous events. A child might be sexually abused by a family member over and over — but in an unpredictable pattern.  Or, he or she might live with an adult to is unpredictable and explosive. These types situation leaves such a child with no control. They never feel safe and cannot see any possible escape route.

Some Common C-PTSD Causing Backgrounds

In my clinical practice, I’ve treated a large number of clients with with complex trauma inducing histories. Some examples are:

  • Being raised by a mentally ill parent
  • Having a mother or father who had rage or anger issues
  • Being reared by someone with a personality disorder (ex. raised by a narcissist)
  • Addiction in the home
  • Sexual abuse, emotional abuse and physical abuse
  • Having a mother or father who was severely anxious or depressed

But, yet again, the trauma can be just as easily triggered by a school bully experience. It may never have seemed significant enough for you to report or share. Yet, over time, the impact built its own momentum until you never felt safe and could not see any possible escape route.

How to Share with Those Who Don’t Have It or Don’t Get It

As you can see, you won’t necessarily have the kind of climactic “story” that will satisfy someone who learned about trauma from the media or internet memes. Sharing about C-PTSD requires nuance and context and patience. If you find yourself in this scenario, perhaps the most important step for you is to safeguard your mental health before educating others. Consider carefully whether or not the person you want to talk with is a psychologically safe person to confide in. Some questions you might consider are:

  • Will they minimize or discount your experience?
  • Are they the type of person who will invalidate you or support you?
  • Does the person you want to disclose to have the emotional maturity to hear what you have to say?
  • Do you want their advice? If not, what will you say if they start giving it to you?

Prepare yourself for invalidating questions and statements. Even those who mean well may still wonder why you’re “so upset.” Some of their reactions might trigger shame, fear or anger in you. So it’s good to plan out as much of conversation in advance. Think about what you want to say, and what you would prefer to keep private. It can also be helpful to think about what you are hoping to achieve by disclosing. Loving, supportive friends and family members will often want to know how they can support you. Let them know.

If this task feels like more than you can handle, you are not alone. People with C-PTSD often seek out guidance from mental health professionals on such issues. You want to recover, you want to be taken seriously, and you want to thrive in your everyday life.

A qualified trauma therapist can help you find this attainable balance. Start the process by reading more about trauma therapy and contacting me soon for a consultation.

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Kim P. Frey, PhD, LCSW

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