Close your eyes and try to remember the top three most shocking situations of your life. Maybe it was a car accident, maybe you got robbed, even a devastating public appearance can be a good example. Try to relive the experience in your head and focus on your thoughts, feelings and changes in your body that you experienced back then. I know, it’s not a pleasant thing to re-experience.
All the fear and anxiety, overwhelming adrenaline rush over your veins, your entire body gets into one big cramp and stifling tension, not to mention the dark cloud of negative thoughts above your head. It depends how shocking the situation was, but it probably took you from a few hours to a few days to calm down and get on normally with your life.
Now imagine being in such a severely irritated state almost every day, even if there is no big shocking event going on; there are only dozens of small triggers that completely kick you off-center.
Normal situations, for example a stranger approaching you, seeing a homeless dog, someone being late or hearing loud noises (or hundreds of other examples), lead you into an emotionally shocked state and you feel like it’s the end of the world; or close to it. Your emotional responses to normal every day situations are being constantly disproportionate.
This psychological phenomenon is called an emotional flashback and it can last from a few seconds to a few days if not even weeks. If you are emotionally healthy person, your emotional state stabilizes quickly after a shocking situation is over; and you have a rather high threshold for what a shocking situation is.
If you have Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), you spend the majority of time in the adrenalized shocked mode, instead of the normal one experiencing emotional flashbacks – one after another, day by day.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) happens when you can't get rid of disturbing thoughts about one shocking event that happened to you. Complex PTSD is on the other hand caused by long-term emotional trauma in interpersonal relationships, and is most often the result of stressful upbringing.
Complex PTSD is caused by a traumatic childhood – if you felt abandoned as a child, if you were bullied by your parents in any way (physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually) or your basic needs weren’t somehow met (later in this article you'll find a list of a child’s needs). It can be caused by too critical, cold, distant, or absent parents.
When that happens, your brains and emotional responses get wired wrong, and consequently you perceive many different subjects, objects and situations in your adulthood environment as threats.
The main reason for the disproportional emotional responses on pretty normal everyday situations is the underlying fact that emotional neglect makes a person feel worthless, unlovable, helpless and completely empty. It leaves a big void and consequently hunger, anxiety and fear in the center of a human being.
That leads to merely emotionally surviving, far away from living a thriving and fulfilling life, and being constantly caught in an extremely stressful and fearful state. Compex PTSD often leads a person into greed, gluttony, isolation, depression, anxiety, being a martyr and many other negative personality traits, emotions and behaviors, depending on which 4F you are (as we will see later).
The book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving written by Pete Walker is the number one book to go to if you suffer from such a disorder. Besides that, it’s also an excellent resource if you are interested in psychology and taking better care of your body, mind and emotions. It’s one of my favorite psychology books, so I decided to write a summary with emphases on all the things I find most interesting.
Traumatic emotional neglect occurs when a child doesn’t have a single caretaker to whom s/he can turn in the times of need or danger. P. Walker
The main reason you have Complex PTSD
The source of the Complex PTSD is being raised in a toxic environment. Usually one or both parents neglect or pay little attention to a child’s needs (it can even be unintentional because they’re facing their own problems), don’t offer enough emotional support, are overly critical or are in some cases even pure verbal or physical bullies.
Children always have to see their parents as perfect (protectors and providers), thus they consequently blame themselves for all the toxic situations, and feel worthless and powerless at the same time.
In toxic families, a child gets the feeling that nobody likes him/her. They feel like nobody really listens or pays attention to them, that nobody shows them empathy, warmth, kindness and pure love, they feel like nobody cares about their thoughts, feelings, actions, needs and dreams.
They may even get bullied and tyrannized. When they’re hurt, alienated or terrified, instead of love and understanding they encounter coldness and rejection from their parents.
These things can happen very subtly in small details (like a parent being overly critical or too cold) in families that otherwise seem completely healthy. Or these things can start happening when parents are getting a divorce or when one of them is depressed or facing any other type of hard life challenges and consequently gets emotionally dis-invested from a child.
If you’re wondering at this point whether all these things are really happening in families, they are. No family is perfect, but there is a limit where a family environment becomes a toxic one. It happens in around 1/3 of the families. As I mentioned, there are many ways how the environment can become a toxic one.
Complex PTSD can be caused by overly critical parents (who only want to do good), emotionally distant parents (who just lost their job, for example) and all the way to cruel verbal and physical abuse (parents breaking their children to feel better). You can find many depressed parents, aggressive parents, workaholic parents, and that all leads to them destroying their children’s lives.
Consequently, being in such a toxic environment, a child never learns that relationships in life can be comforting and enriching. They never learn that relationships can be a safe thing. The biggest damage is usually done up to the 4th year of a child’s development. In the end, all that doesn’t only lead to the development of the Complex PTSD, but also to constant troubles in adult relationships.
What is the most common reason for parents to do such things? It can be either that they were raised in the same toxic way, that the social norms were weird (in a specific time or place when a child is raised), they might be suffering from Complex PTSD themselves (most often) or have any other kind of psychological issues, it can be alcoholism or workaholism or any other addiction. There are plenty of reasons.
Many times it also happens to lower the investment needed to control and raise a child. A person who gets trampled over and over again becomes a helpless creature that can be easily controlled with small intimidation acts using up less energy and attention.
But the bruises, be they physical, cognitive, emotional, spiritual or relational, stay forever. Physical bruises, as terrifying as they are, are usually the only ones that are seen and can be healed in a very visible way. Other traumas are much more hidden and might never get discovered, let alone healed.
Emotional neglect, alone, causes children to abandon themselves, and to give up on the formation of a self. They do so to preserve an illusion of connection with the parent and to protect themselves from the danger of losing that tenuous connection. P. Walker
The child’s basic needs
Since the whole book talks about abandoning and neglecting a child’s needs and how that leads to the development of Complex PTSD, it is important to know which needs need to be meet with parenting. It’s definitely the best way to start this summary.
Here they are, described in the book very well:
- Physical nurturance – Offering affection and protection, healthy diet and sleep schedule, teaching grooming, discipline and responsibility. Helping a child to develop hobbies, interest and personal style. Teaching them how to balance rest, play and work.
- Emotional nurturance – Huge amount of love, warmth, compassion and tenderness. Paying attention to the child’s emotions and welcoming their full emotional expression. Teaching them how to express negative feelings in a healthy way. Offering emotional protection. Also humor.
- Verbal nurturance – Having intellectual conversations with a child, giving positive feedback, praise, mentoring and encouragement. Also providing teaching lessons, reading them stories and answering all the thousand questions.
- Spiritual nurturance – Showing a child that life is a gift, frequent exposure to nature, nurturing the child’s creative self-expression, offering spiritual guidance to help the child deal with painful aspects of life, developing strong self-worth, and we can also add help in developing basic goodness and a loving nature to the list.
A child must know that somebody is emotionally invested in him/her. There must be a stable and predictive environment, encouraging the development of physical, emotional, verbal and spiritual aspects of a child’s personality.
I know that’s a lot, but raising a child doesn’t need to be perfect and overwhelming. Mistakes in upbringing are normal and needed, because they lead to a little bit of friction that pushes a person into personal growth. But there is a limit where an environment becomes a toxic one.
Emotional flashbacks are the center of Complex PTSD and the most important part of the book. An emotional flashback happens when a trigger in your environment provokes your childhood traumas that lie deeply in your subconscious mind.
In a second, you get into prolonged regression denoted with severe overwhelming negative feelings of being neglected or abused as a child. It all comes back to life, and you usually aren’t even aware of it.
Emotional flashbacks are kind of direct messages of pain from your past. They are a cry for help from your inner child, your traumatic emotional past. From the psychological point of view, emotional flashbacks are appropriate, but very delayed reactions to childhood abuse and neglect.
A prime example of an emotional flashback is a startle response. The startle response is a sudden body flinch that happens at loud noises or at anticipated physical contact. P. Walker
Overwhelming negative feelings are usually a combination of fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief and depression. When you get into an emotional flashback, your body simultaneously gets into the flight, fight, freeze or fawn response. Emotional flashbacks can range from very mild that get you a little bit upset for a few minutes to horrific ones that last for days and kick you into depression.
The biological source of emotional flashbacks is the amygdala (part of your brain), which hijacks the rational part of the brain with an intense reaction in the memory part of brain. Even small events can trigger the amygdala to a severe emotional response, which completely blocks rational thinking, even if there is no real danger. That means emotional flashbacks are happening on the physical and mental level.
Typical signs that you’re in an emotional flashback (you experience at least one of the symptoms):
- Intensified self-criticism (the inner critic)
- Intensified judgment of others (the outer critic)
- Severe negative thinking
- Emotional reactions that are out of proportion
- A minor upset seems like an emergency
- A minor unfairness seems like a travesty of justice
- You feel small, helpless or hopeless
- You feel ashamed
- You feel fragile or on the edge
- Evaporation of self-esteem
- Increased drasticising and catastrophizing
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Other similar emotional responses
It’s not easy to deal with emotional flashbacks, especially if you have no idea what they are and what’s happening to you. Thus common consequences include psychological issues, such as tyrannical self-criticism and constant judgment of other people, social anxiety, low self-esteem, relationship problems, oversensitivity, suicidal thoughts, and so on.
People suffering from Complex PTSD usually also suffer from emotional eating disorders and have problems with feelings of belonging to different social groups. We can also add problems with greed to the list. Complex PTSD and emotional flashbacks bring many problems, issues and challenges.
How do emotional flashbacks feel and what is triggering them?
When an emotional flashback happens, you get stuck in the adrenalin rush and you can’t stop the response to a threat even when it’s over (actually there usually is no real threat, only a trigger). You get stuck in hyper-arousal, which causes constant shallow breathing, hypervigilance, chronic muscle tension and an inability to be present in the moment and relax.
After experiencing all that for years, you usually also develop a sleep disorder, run into different addictions and sooner or later encounter different health problems, especially the ones related to nerves, stomach and digestive tract.
Emotional flashback triggers can be external or internal. They are most often places, people, events, things, facial expressions, specific styles of communication, and so on. It’s something that reminds you of a childhood trauma and pushes you back into the unbearable feelings of those times.
Most common external triggers of emotional flashbacks are:
- Visiting your parents or the person who was abusing you
- Anniversaries of traumatic events
- Hearing a specific shaming tone that your parents used
- Somebody saying a specific phrase to you
- Dealing with authority figures (boss, police etc.)
- Making a mistake
- Asking for help
- Public speaking
- Feeling tired, sick, lonely or hungry
- Physical pain
- A specific type of “look”
Examples of internal triggers of emotional flashbacks:
- Imagining how dangerous an unknown person must be
- Thinking a task isn’t executed perfectly or messing up an upcoming task
- Getting lost in fantasies of being abandoned and becoming a homeless person, or fantasies about public humiliation, lethal illness, lonely death, breakups and unexpected physical attacks
- Nightmares and bad dreams
- Expecting that things will definitely go wrong at the next turn
Analyzing triggers is really important, because flashbacks often start very subtly and then they progress to higher intensity. If you recognize the trigger and are mindful enough to perceive the start of your internal toxic processes, you can dam up the escalation of an emotional flashback and manage it more properly. Later in the summary, we will look at how to deal with emotional flashbacks.
4F – The four ways to respond to danger (that get out of proportion)
The fight/flight/freeze/fawn response is a normal human response to any danger. They are the tools at your disposal when you encounter a threat and you need to protect yourself. The flight response insures setting boundaries, healthy assertiveness and self-protection. The freeze response enables a healthy person to give up and quit struggling when there is no progress or when resistance is futile.
Flight instincts lead to disengage and safely retreat when confronting life-threatening danger. And the fawn response helps untraumatized people to develop healthy relationships, so they are able to actively listen, help others in trouble and make healthy compromises, all that while expressing themselves as well as their own rights, needs and beliefs.
Here is the table from the book showing how a healthy person uses the 4F response:
|Assertiveness||Disengagement||Acute awareness||Love & Service|
Source: Complex PTSD, page 106
The problem that leads to the development of Complex PTSD is an excessive reliance on the fight, flight, freeze or fawn response, because of the unconscious attempt to cope with constant danger (toxic parents). It also helps to strengthen the illusion of perfect parents who care about the child.
Nobody suffering from Complex PTSD is purely one type of F, but usually a hybrid of all 4Fs, where one or two dominate. When one mechanism doesn’t work, a person goes to the second one, and then to the third until the last one.
But there is an order, and there is a dominating response or dominating hybrid response. For example, the fawn-freeze type is a typical scapegoat, the fawn-flgiht a martyr and the fawn-fight a smothering mother. Now let’s dive a bit deeper into the four unhealthy responses when they are used in an excess and serve as mechanisms to cope with childhood traumas.
Fight – Narcissistic unhealthy response
Children who are spoiled and are given insufficient limits usually become fight types and develop the narcissistic disorder. They falsely believe that power and control create safety and can protect them from being abandoned again.
Since narcissists take other people as extensions of themselves (they basically take people as prisoners), they drive adult relationships straight to abandonment.
Bullies and rageaholics are typical fight type people suffering from Complex PTSD. This type of a traumatized person is usually the hardest to heal (if not untreatable), because narcissists and sociopaths see everyone else but themselves as a problem.
Flight – Obsessive and compulsive unhealthy response
Flight types strongly believe that perfectionism will make them lovable. They are like robots constantly working hard and improving themselves towards perfection (going through this blog will give you an idea of which type I am).
They do that to run away from the pain with constant business. The flight type has no idea how to just be, they have to constantly work, do things and, if not that, at least plan or worry about the future.
The harmful behavior of constant hurrying is to be one step ahead of pain and the harmful process of constant worrying is to be one level above the real underlying deep hurt. As a flight type, you can distract yourself with addictions, obsessiveness, trivialization or intellectualization. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is also very often present among flight types.
Freeze – Dissociative unhealthy response
Freeze types perceive most people and unknown places as dangerous and thus they prefer to isolate themselves and take refuge in solitude. They can isolate themselves in different ways, from prolonged oversleeping, daydreaming, losing themselves in TV or games, or browsing the Internet. They often suffer from the Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
Fawn – Codependent unhealthy response
Fawn types create a false feeling of safety by serving others. They merge their own needs, wishes and demands with those of other people. They do that because early in their childhood, they learned to survive best by being a helpful servant to their explosive and controlling parents. Usually the fawn child had at least one narcissistic parent.
Which 4F type are you – fight, flight, freeze or fawn?
This table from the book nicely summarizes the unhealthy use of 4F responses in people who suffer from Complex PTSD:
|Controlling / Enslaving||Rushing or worrying||Hiding||Servitude|
|Entitlement||Drive-ness||Isolation||Loss of self|
|Type-A||Adrenaline junky||Couch potato||People-pleaser|
|Demand perfection||Perfectionist||Achievement-phobic||Social perfectionist|
|Sociopath||Mood disorder-Bipolar||Schizophrenic||D.V. Victim|
|Conduct disorder||ADHD||ADD||Parentified child|
Source: Complex PTSD, Page 107
How the 4F response damages your present relationships
Here’s the trickiest part of everything, the negative spiral. You were deprived once as a child, but consequently you also get deprived in your present adult relationships. Because any real closeness usually triggers an emotional flashback. You get scared of being abandoned again like you were when you were a child. Thus you constantly overuse the 4F response in relationships to create distance.
- Fight types create distance with anger and controlling demands and seeing themselves as perfect, while all others are flawed.
- Flight types create distance by being busy and industrious and trying to become perfect, while running away from relationships.
- Freeze types create distance with isolation and platonic online relationships.
- Fawn types create distance by over-focusing on other people’s needs and hiding themselves; they have their center on other people, which makes a relationship extremely unhealthy.
Healing Complex PTSD
Healing Complex PTSD leads to the development of healthy self-esteem, with great capabilities for self-acceptance, a clear sense of identity, and the ability to relax and enjoy relationships.
We can also add self-compassion, self-protection, assertive self-expression, strong willpower and high self-confidence to the list. You have to start believing that life is a gift and nurture yourself accordingly. The final goal you want to achieve is to make your brain user-friendly.
There is one essential thing to start the healing – bravery. You have to take the right action, even if you are afraid. You have to do things that seem scary. Usually the scariest thing is to get out of denial; you have to confront self-denial and self-deception.
The first step in bravery is thus to become aware of the damage your parents did to you and admitting that you might have a Complex PTSD problem. When you gather the courage to make the first step, you start peeling off the layers of the childhood trauma onion.
Healing complex PTSD starts with de-minimization. It's the process of bravely confronting denial.
An extremely important step is analyzing and admitting to yourself what your parents did right, and what they did wrong.
Every child needs to see their parents as loving and caring beings who will protect him/her, so consequently even in the adult age a person tends to deny or minimize any evidence of abuse (physical, emotional, spiritual or mental). De-minimization is the process of bravely confronting denial. That’s your first step and then you have many tools that can help you at your disposal.
Healing Complex PTSD has a few main areas of work (main exercises you have to do) and a few additional supporting exercises. The main and most important exercises are:
- Emotional flashback management (13 steps)
- Dealing with your inner and outer critic
- Grieving – angering, verbal ventilation, crying, feeling
- Thought-stopping (emotional accounting)
- The good enough concept
- Self-mothering and self-fathering
- Forgiveness (when the time is ripe, if ever)
Other additional exercises that often help a lot:
- Other 20+ different self-help techniques (you can find the list at the end)
Let's start exploring all the different tools how to deal with the Complex PTSD.
13 Steps to Managing Emotional Flashbacks
Since emotional flashbacks are the center of the book, there is of course also a recommendation for how to deal with them. There are 13 steps in the process of managing emotional flashbacks, which goes like this:
- Say to yourself that you’re having an emotional flashback.
- Remind yourself that you’re only afraid, but you aren’t really in danger.
- Become aware of your right to have boundaries and that you don’t have to allow anyone to mistreat you in any way.
- Tell your inner child that you love him/her unconditionally and undisputedly.
- Remember that the flashback will pass and that it’s not eternal.
- Remind yourself that you are in an adult body with skills and allies.
- Ease back into your body, relax, breathe deeply and slowly, find a safe place, and feel fear without reacting to it.
- Resist the inner critic with thought-stopping, thought-substitution and thought-correction.
- Allow yourself to grieve.
- Seek support and cultivate safe relationships.
- Identify the trigger that caused the emotional flashback (people, places, activities, events, facial expressions etc.) and practice preventive maintenance.
- Try to figure out what you’re flashbacking back to, see it as an opportunity to heal your wounds.
- Be patient with the slow recovery process.
You can find more details about each part of the emotional healing process on Pete Walker’s personal website.
Shame is blame turned against the self. Parents were too big and powerful to blame, so we had to blame ourselves instead. – Erik Eriksen
Mindfulness is a process of developing a greater awareness of what’s happening with your thoughts and feelings. By practicing mindfulness, you develop an ability to pay closer attention to your inner processes (that includes inner thoughts, images, feelings, and sensations), with the goal of better understanding yourself and what’s going on with you. Consequently, you have more proactive power of how you will respond.
If we go a step further, mindfulness is about developing a greater capacity for self-observation in a combination of greater self-love and self-compassion. Mindfulness is nurturing curiosity about your inner experience, what’s happening to you and how you perceive the world.
The first step towards faster recovery is to become more mindful and develop a desire for regular self-reflections. Mindfulness is also the tool that helps you to even notice the inner and outer critics.
People are nicer to strangers than they are to themselves.
Understanding and managing the inner critic and the outer critic
The inner and outer critics are the ones destroying your life and have the central role in Complex PTSD besides emotional flashbacks. The inner and outer critics are nothing but a part of you desperately wanting to somehow win your parents’ approval.
When even striving for perfection in the childhood never wins parents’ attention, love or care, the violent and virulent inner voice is born that promotes self-hate, self-disgust and self-abandonment; as well as hate towards others.
Together with the inner and outer critics, hypervigilance develops in a person, which leads to them constantly paying attention to potential danger and causes them to be on guard at all times, scanning people in the environment. In other words, traumatized children never let their guard down. That leads to severe anxiety, tension, stress and criticism.
As if that isn’t enough, to avoid any experience of closeness (and potential abandonment) the inner critic turns criticism additionally towards all other people so that a safe distance is created. Consequently, nothing is ever good enough, nobody is ever good enough, there is danger everywhere, and you don’t deserve anything. That becomes a very real world for people suffering from Complex PTSD.
The inner and the outer critic are basically they the same toxic internal voice, just directed differently.
The inner critic is not capable of foreseeing that it’s not the child’s shortcomings that caused their parents’ rejections, it’s the parents’ shortcomings.
The inner critic
The inner critic is an internalized voice of your parents that tyrannizes your life. It does that years after your parents have stopped doing it (if you’re an independent adult now). The inner critic becomes too strong when abusive and ignorant upbringing forces a child to merge his superego with ego.
Unhealthy developed superego drives a child to submissively obey their parents and try to predict their behavior to act accordingly, wishing to avoid unjust punishment or to be at least a bit accepted. But with overly critical parents, acceptance is an impossible task to achieve. That’s why superego works overtime and gets overdeveloped. Then superego drives a child into perfectionism with the goal of making parents less dangerous and more interested.
With time, there is no room for healthy ego to develop. Ego merges with superego. The strong inner critic overtakes the central role of a person and starts dominating their lives.
After that, nothing is good enough, there is no room for even the slightest mistakes, self-compassion is forbidden and any self-care is seen as a weakness and catastrophe. Being dependent in relationships becomes unbearable.
Without a healthy developed ego, you have no idea how to stand up for yourself, how to protect yourself against unfairness, and you lack the ability to make healthy choices and smart decisions. Your decision making gets more based on “not getting in trouble” or “not experiencing abandonment” than on your real needs.
Behind the scenes, fear is the one driving the inner critic.
The outer critic
On the other hand, the outer critic is a way you alienate yourself in a relationship by criticizing others and focusing exclusively on their faults and flaws instead of on their positives and strong character traits. The outer critic sees everybody as flawed and unworthy. The goal of the outer critic is to create a distance in relationships in order to not get emotionally hurt or abandoned again.
The outer critic sees other people as dangerous, imperfect, unworthy, treacherous, and can thus elegantly avoid any emotional investments in relationships. The development of the outer critic is a direct result of being raised by parents who were too dangerous to trust.
The outer critic leads a person to many toxic relationship behaviors. They vary from passive-aggressive behavior like punishing a person with silence and creating distance, poor listening, hurtful teasing or being unreliable, all the way to open criticism, constant arguing and making other people be afraid of you. The inner and outer critics are the most active in an emotional flashback.
Others are too flawed to be loved and we are too defective to be lovable. P. Walker
The two best tools to deal with the inner and outer critics are thought-stopping and the concept of good enough.
Thought-stopping is a process of interrupting and stopping your inner critic with pure willpower. You can simply say to your inner critic or outer critic “No!”, “Stop!” or “Shut up!” when cognitive distortions get condensed and the mental process is directed towards drasticising, dramatizing and looking for perfection.
Thought-stopping is about setting boundaries against any anti-self process. It’s about stopping the mental war against yourself. Successfully stopping the internal and external critics demands practicing thought-stopping thousands upon thousands of times. Anytime the critic gets too loud, you simply have to stop them.
Thought stopping is so effective because saying “No!” is the backbone of the human instinct of self-protection. Additional types of thought-stopping are also thought-substitution and thought-correction. In cognitive psychology, these types of exercises are called emotional accounting.
Set strict boundaries against any kind of anti-self doing.
The good enough concept and accepting negative feelings
The second very efficient way to deal with the inner and outer critics is to accept the good enough concept as the basic standard of how you live your life. Additionally, you have to accept negative feelings and flaws as a normal part of life. You can’t love yourself only when you do everything perfectly and when you feel happy and good.
Anger, depression, sadness, envy, etc. are all normal parts of life. They are actually essential for healthy development. Experiencing only good moods comes with substantial risks – from sapping your drive and dimming your attention to detail to making you simultaneously gullible and selfish. Positivity is also known to encourage binge drinking, overeating and unsafe sex. Negative feelings have a very important role in your life and you can use them to your advantage. But first you have to learn to accept them.
Without access to negative feelings, you also don’t have a compass for when something abusive, neglectful or unfair happens in your environment. Negative feelings are as important as positive ones. You have to accept that, especially when it comes to your own feelings.
An emotionally healthy person is a person who has no problem accepting themselves and showing self-love and self-respect even in times of emotional hurt and imperfections like being lonely, confused or making a mistake.
Say to yourself “it’s good enough” and relax.
Self-mothering and self-fathering
By taming the inner critic, a bigger capacity for self-love, assertiveness and self-identity develops. In other words, when you learn to manage the inner and outer critics, you can start taking good care of yourself. You finally become aware that self-punishment is counterproductive. Taking good care of yourself consists of self-mothering and self-fathering.
Self-mothering represents self-compassion, unconditional love and empathy. With self-mothering you have to develop a deep sense that you are lovable and that you deserve to be loved. With that, you fully embrace your inner child and make him/her feel welcome.
By developing self-mothering capabilities, you also develop a more realistic image about relationships in life. Childhood wounds often lead to seeking unconditional love from lovers and friends that doesn’t exist in reality. So it’s essential to learn to accept the limits of adult love as part of self-mothering. Because you can also love yourself unconditionally independent of others.
Self-fathering, on the other hand, represents self-protection, healthy assertiveness, encouragement and mentoring. It’s about feeling safe in the world in general and going after your own goals in a healthy and respectful manner. It’s about standing up for yourself and for all the human rights you and all other living beings deserve.
In severe emotional flashbacks, a time machine rescue operation can be helpful for performing self-fathering and self-mothering. You tell your inner child that if time travel ever becomes possible, you will travel back and put a stop to your parent’s abusiveness by calling the police or child protection services. You will stop them if they get violent and do everything to protect the child version of yourself.
There is no healing without grieving. You have to grieve for the lost childhood, for all the unjust things that happened to you, and you have to grieve for the fact that you were born to parents who neglected your needs.
Grief is what helps you work through all the emotional pain and devastating loses. Grieving is the emotional process that unlocks healthy anger and leads a person towards the first steps of developing a healthy fight response (and other 4F responses) and starting to fight for themselves and the quality life they deserve.
Active grieving can be done only once the inner critic is controlled and tamed, otherwise the inner critic might make the person feel even worse (the inner critic might repeat over and over again that grieving is nothing but a weakness).
Grieving can be done by verbal ventilation, which means speaking from your feelings in a way that releases emotional tension. An honest cry is also a way to grieve and let the sorrow out. If you have a problem crying, the inner critic is definitely yet too strong. There are a few other different types of grief, but here are the main four:
- Angering – It’s a type of grieving where you verbally complain about your current and past losses. As a childhood trauma survivor, you need to rage about all the intimidation, humiliation and neglect in the past. The key place to direct your anger is towards the internalized parents, the parents of the past.
- Verbal ventilation – It’s a process of speaking or writing in a way that releases any painful feelings. Pain can be released through what we say, think or write. You can do that by writing a journal or speaking in an uncensored manner about whatever comes into your mind (free associations). You only have to be careful not to confuse verbal ventilation with fantasies or excessive worrying. You don’t want to distract yourself, you want to be actively grieving.
- Crying – Crying is the counterpart of angering. When we are hurt, we feel sad and mad. Crying is thus sometimes the only way to resolve an emotional flashback. The tears also stimulate the relaxation of the parasympathetic nervous system. If you are unable to cry, focusing on your breath usually helps you be better connected with your emotions.
- Feeling – Feeling, a passive process of emoting, means staying present in the internal emotional experience without any reacting. Feeling means surrendering to internal painful experiences without judging, resisting or emoting. It’s a kinesthetic, not a cognitive experience and it’s about getting out of your head and getting into your body. It’s about surrendering to the experience without resistance, and that can bring emotional release.
You can actively grieve in any of the four described ways by following the next process:
- Go to a safe place where you won’t be heard
- Remember a time when you felt compassion towards somebody
- Invoke self-compassion with a memory of somebody being nice to you
- Verbally ventilate what’s bothering you
- Imagine yourself being comforted by a higher power
- Remember a time when you felt better after angering or crying
- Remember a time when being angry saved you from harm
- Imagine your anger as a protective shield around you
- Imagine your tears and anger carrying negative feelings out of you
- Imagine holding your inner child compassionately and calm him/her down
- Tell the child that you will protect him/her from being criticized or any other danger
- Breathe deeply, fully and slowly
- Watch a movie or listen to music that is poignant, evocative or portrays a courageous release of negative emotions
Complex PTSD causes constant body tension and consequently that usually leads to big physical inflexibility. It’s like the body wants to get as small as possible. Regularly stretching the main muscle groups usually helps a lot in releasing some of the tension and helps the body get back into the normal state.
There are several practices that can help with stretching a body and making it more flexible. You can do standard fitness flexibility exercises, Yoga, Pilates, relaxation trainings, different kinds of guided meditations, and even get regular massages.
Bibliotheraphy means influencing your psyche by what you read. Reading the right books can help with feelings of alienation, isolation and it can also help you to better understand your situation, heal and relate. Reading non-fictional psychological and self-help books, doing different mental exercises and writing a journal are all extremely useful tools in overcoming Complex PTSD.
If you want to heal Complex PTSD faster, you have to mind your INFOstructure.
Co-counseling means that you find a safe person (somebody whom you greatly trust) to develop a mutual co-counseling relationship. You might, for example, have weekly 30 – 60 minute sessions with a co-counseling buddy where you do a light version of therapy.
In your co-counselor, you should be looking for an ability to meet the following personal characteristics, abilities and relationship patterns (you should look for the same in a therapist if you ever decide for one):
- Active listening – Unconditional positive regard by being fully present and attuned. Usually these sessions are about establishing a safe environment by not giving any advice, criticism or any other kind of feedback except active listening (if not asked for). Read this point again please, it’s not about giving advice.
- Great capability for empathy – Being able to re-experience the other person’s internal state, understand and relate.
- Authentic vulnerability – Emotionally reverberating with the other person’s feelings and balanced self-disclosure (when needed, if needed).
- Dialogicality – The conversation moving fluidly between speaking, a healthy balance of speaking and listening.
- Collaborative rapport repair – It’s a process in which a relationship grows closer and recovers after a conflict with successful conflict resolution. It’s the most intimacy building process in relationships. Because at the end of the day, tensions arise in every relationship sooner or later.
In many cases it’s hard to treat Complex PTSD without therapy. That’s because the deepest level of recovery occurs when a person successfully connects with somebody who can show unconditional love and encouragement, especially during flashbacks.
And good therapists are trained to offer such support and develop a shiny example of a healthy parent-child relationship. You can find many good resources online for how to start with therapy.
Forgiveness can be tricky
You may often hear advice to simply forgive and forget. For individuals suffering from Complex PTSD, that can be very tricky. Premature forgiveness can lead straight to further denial and repression. It keeps the unprocessed negative feeling about childhood trauma under the surface.
Real forgiveness is very different from premature forgiveness. It’s always based on active grieving and huge emotional work on yourself, and it’s grounded in compassion for yourself (not your parents).
Last but not least, real forgiveness is like a feeling and that means it’s never completed. It’s a dynamic human experience that’s constantly changing. Real forgiveness is only temporarily yours, but if you learn to manage Complex PTSD it can be more easily accessible to you when you need it.
Real forgiveness is often rooted in the realization that parents were toxic because they were raised by toxic parents or because of the weird social norms of that time. They didn’t know how to do better. Nevertheless, even that realization mustn’t lead towards premature forgiveness. You need to go through the process of anger, grief, self-expression and self-protection. There are no shortcuts.
The more self-supportive you become, the more supportive people you attract in your life.
Other ideas that can help with overcoming Complex PTSD
There are many other ideas, tools and exercises that can help you overcome Complex PTSD. Maybe overcoming is a too ambitious word, since dealing with Complex PTSD is a life-long process. But it can definitely be managed and greatly improved.
If you want to get better, you have to do the main exercises described in this summary, but there are many other tools at your disposal. Here is a list of more than 20 of them, some of them are described in the book and others are only mentioned:
- Assertiveness trainings
- Anger management workshops
- Self-defense course
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – EMDR
- Somatic Experiencing
- Rosen work
- Reichian work
- Getting a pet (dog or cat)
- Different types of arts and music
- Connecting with nature
- Time machine rescue operation
- Perspective substitution or cognitive reframing
- Positive visualization
- List of self-gratitude (list the following things: past accomplishments, positive personality traits, good deeds, peak experiences, life enjoyments, good intentions, good habits, past jobs successfully done, subjects studied, obstacles removed, grace received, nurturing memories)
- Gratitude list (a list of all the following: good friends, inspiring people, inspiring authors, different social circles, teachers, mentors, childhood and school friends, kindness of strangers, pets and animals, work friends, different nurturing memories)
By learning how to manage complex PTSD you learn how to disarm the inner and outer critics, the emotional flashbacks and 4F responses aren’t so intense and frequent anymore, and you know how to manage them properly when they do happen. You feel a lot more mindful and good about yourself and you can be satisfied with good enough.
Consequently, you also stop with self-abuse, addictions and exploiting self-medication. Life in general becomes much happier, fulfilling and normal. Your brain becomes more user friendly and you go from surviving to thriving.
Nevertheless, as mentioned a few times, the work with recovery is never complete. Things get better, but unfortunately (or not) managing Complex PTSD is a lifetime project. The flashbacks may become only an infrequent inconvenience, but the emotional work on yourself never ends. But let’s now end with good news.
The byproduct of investing so much into yourself and dealing with Complex PTSD is usually a development of incredibly high emotional intelligence and empathy. You develop abilities that many people don’t have and thus you might live a richer life experience.
That’s when you make a lemonade out of the lemons thrown at you. If you found yourself in any section of this summary, I strongly encourage you to read the whole book. It’s definitely one of my favorite books that changed my life. Not only did I learn about emotional flashbacks and how to manage them, I also became a better person – more empathic towards myself and others.