“Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom. But the personality formed in the environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life. The survivor is left with fundamental problems in basic trust, autonomy, and initiative. She approaches the task of early adulthood――establishing independence and intimacy――burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and in memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships.
She is still a prisoner of her childhood; attempting to create a new life, she reencounters the trauma.”
― Judith Lewis Herman,
Complex trauma is compounded trauma and can result in symptoms of Complex PTSD. Survivors of complex trauma endure trauma not only in childhood, but often in adulthood as well. Imagine, if you will, multiple chains of traumas, all of which are connected in some way to each other. The most recent traumas build on earlier ones, reinforcing ancient wounds, maladaptive belief systems and fear-based physiological responses. These childhood wounds create the foundation of deep-seated toxic shame and self-sabotage for the survivor; each “tiny terror” or larger trauma in adulthood builds upon it, brick by brick, creating an ingrained framework for self-destruction. Even when one wound is excavated, addressed and healed, another trauma that wound was connected to will inevitably unravel in the process.
The complex trauma survivor’s life history is layered with chronic trauma as a result of ongoing stressors such as long-term domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse and physical abuse – situations where the individual is held “captive” whether emotionally or physically, feels under the complete control of a perpetrator or multiple perpetrators and a perceived inability to escape the threatening situation.
Yet complex trauma isn’t just caused by physical abuse; traumas such as severe verbal and emotional abuse in childhood has the potential to wreak havoc on one’s sense of self and navigation in the world, even going so far as to rewiring the brain (Van der Kolk, 2015). According to trauma therapist Pete Walker, “The genesis of complex PTSD is most often associated with extended periods of ongoing physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood. My observations, however, convince me that ongoing extremes of verbal and/or emotional abuse also cause it.”
Complex Trauma and Complex PTSD
The National Center for PTSD notes that those who suffer from Complex Trauma can experience disruptions in the following areas in addition to the regular symptoms of PTSD.
- Emotional Regulation. Complex trauma survivors can struggle with feelings of depression, suicidal ideation as well as extreme rage.
- Consciousness. Those who have endured complex trauma may relive traumatic events, feel disassociated from the trauma, their bodies, the world and/or have problems with accessing their memories of the trauma. This is not surprising, considering that trauma interferes with parts of the brain that deal with learning, decision-making and memory. What’s interesting is that complex trauma survivors can endure not only visual flashbacks of the trauma but also “emotional flashbacks” that cause them to regress back to the emotional states of hopelessness where they first encountered the original wounds (Walker, 2013).
- Self-Perception. Survivors carry a sense of toxic shame, helplessness and a feeling of “separateness” from others, of being different and defective due to the trauma. They also bear the burden of guilt and negative self-talk that does not belong to them; Pete Walker (2013) calls this the “inner critic,” an ongoing inner dialogue of self-blame, self-hatred and a need for perfectionism that evolved from being punished and conditioned to believe that their needs did not matter. As he writes, “In extremely rejecting families, the child eventually comes to believe that even her normal needs, preferences, feelings and boundaries are dangerous imperfections – justifiable reasons for punishment and/or abandonment.” Children who experience abuse in early childhood have a difficult time distinguishing between the abuser’s actions and words and reality. A child who is told that the abuse is their fault repeatedly will come to believe in and internalize their lack of worth without question.
- Distorted Perceptions of the Perpetrator. Understandably, complex trauma survivors have an ambivalent relationship to their perpetrators. The ‘trauma bond,’ a bond created by intense emotional experiences and a threat to the victim’s life (whether a physical or psychological threat) has been forged so that that victim could survive the circumstances of the abuse. As a result, they might protect their abusers due to being trauma bonded to them, minimize or rationalize the abuse, or they may become preoccupied with their abusers to the extent of seeking revenge. They may also assign the abuser complete power and control over their lives.
- Relations with Others. Complex trauma survivors can become socially withdrawn and self-isolate due to the abuse. Since they never develop a sense of safety, they distrust others while simultaneously searching for a “rescuer” who can finally give them the unconditional positive regard they were robbed of in childhood.
- One’s System of Meanings. It is disturbingly easy to lose hope as a complex trauma survivor. When you’ve been re-violated time and time again, it is difficult not to lose faith and develop a sense of hopelessness that can interfere with a sense of meaning or belief in a bigger picture. Life may feel meaningless to a survivor who has never been shown proper care, affection or authentic connection.
Narcissistic Abuse and Complex Trauma
Survivors of narcissistic abuse in childhood, who are later retraumatized by narcissistic or sociopathic predators in adulthood, can also show symptoms of complex trauma.
Imagine the daughter of a narcissistic father as an example. She grows up chronically violated and abused at home, perhaps bullied by her peers as well. Her burgeoning low self-esteem, disruptions in identity and problems with emotional regulation causes her to live a life filled with terror. This is a terror that is stored in the body and literally shapes her brain. It is also what makes her brain extra vulnerable and susceptible to the effects of trauma in adulthood. According to Dr. Van der Kolk:
“The human brain is a social organ that is shaped by experience, and that is shaped in order to respond to the experience that you’re having. So particularly earlier in life, if you’re in a constant state of terror; your brain is shaped to be on alert for danger, and to try to make those terrible feelings go away. The brain gets very confused. And that leads to problems with excessive anger, excessive shutting down, and doing things like taking drugs to make yourself feel better. These things are almost always the result of having a brain that is set to feel in danger and fear. As you grow up an get a more stable brain, these early traumatic events can still cause changes that make you hyper-alert to danger, and hypo-alert to the pleasures of everyday life…
If you’re an adult and life’s been good to you, and then something bad happens, that sort of injures a little piece of the whole structure. But toxic stress in childhood from abandonment or chronic violence has pervasive effects on the capacity to pay attention, to learn, to see where other people are coming from, and it really creates havoc with the whole social environment.
And it leads to criminality, and drug addiction, and chronic illness, and people going to prison, and repetition of the trauma on the next generation.”
-Dr. Van der Kolk, Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear
Being verbally, emotionally and sometimes even physically beaten down, the child of a narcissistic parent learns that there is no safe place for her in the world. The symptoms of trauma emerge: disassociation to survive and escape her day-to-day existence, addictions that cause her to self-sabotage, maybe even self-harm to cope with the pain of being unloved, neglected and mistreated.
Her pervasive sense of worthlessness and toxic shame, as well as subconscious programming, then causes her to become more easily attached to emotional predators in adulthood.
In her repeated search for a rescuer, she instead finds those who chronically diminish her just like her earliest abusers. Of course, her resilience, adept skill set in adapting to chaotic environments and ability to “bounce back” was also birthed in early childhood. This is also seen as an “asset” to toxic partners because it means she will be more likely to stay within the abuse cycle in order to attempt to make things “work.”
She then suffers not just from early childhood trauma, but from multiple re-victimizations in adulthood until, with the right support, she addresses her core wounds and begins to break the cycle step by step. Before she can break the cycle, she must first give herself the space and time to recover. A break from establishing new relationships is often essential during this time; No Contact (or Low Contact from her abusers in more complicated situations such as co-parenting) is also vital to the healing journey, to prevent compounding any existing traumas.
The Journey to Healing as a Complex Trauma Survivor
As the complex trauma survivor gives herself time to disrupt dysfunctional patterns, she begins to develop a healthier sense of boundaries, a more grounded sense of self, and severs ties with toxic people. She receives counseling to address her triggers, symptoms of complex trauma and begins processing some of the original traumas. She grieves for the childhood she never had; she grieves the traumatic losses that reenacted her childhood wounds. She starts to recognize that the abuse was not her fault. She takes care of the inner child that needed nurturing all along. She begins to ‘reprogram’ the beliefs that underlie her sense of unworthiness. Once she understands why her life has been one emotional roller coaster after the other, the path to recovery becomes that much more clear.
This is just one example out of many of what being a complex trauma survivor can look like, but it is a powerful one that illustrates just how damaging early childhood abuse and complex trauma can be on the mind, body and psyche. Recovery from complex trauma is intense, challenging and frightening – but it is also liberating and empowering.
Complex trauma survivors carry with them a lifetime’s worth of bullying regardless of how old they may be. Survivors of chronic narcissistic abuse especially can face the challenge of attempting to address wounds that may be primarily psychological rather than physical, but just as damaging.
The life experiences of complex trauma survivors have given them a great deal of resilience as well as opportunities to obtain more coping mechanisms than most. Yet their struggles are undeniable, pervasive and require intervention by professional support. A network consisting of a trauma-informed professional who understands complex trauma, a survivor community to supplement the professional support and diverse healing modalities that target both the mind and the body can be absolute life-savers for the survivor of complex trauma.
For a survivor who feels his or her voice was continually silenced and discounted, there is potential for immense healing and growth when one finally speaks and is validated.
Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: the Aftermath of Abuse – from Domestic Violence to Political Terror. Basic Books, 1997.
National Center for PTSD. Complex PTSD. 1 Jan. 2007, www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/ptsd-overview/complex-ptsd.asp. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.
Staggs, Sara. Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. 17 July 2016, psychcentral.com/lib/complex-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.
Stines, Sharie. What Is Trauma Bonding? 23 Oct. 2015, pro.psychcentral.com/recovery-expert/2015/10/what-is-trauma-bonding/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.
Van der Kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, Penguin Books, 2015.
Van der Kolk, Bessel. Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear. 3 Feb. 2015, sideeffectspublicmedia.org/post/childhood-trauma-leads-brains-wired-fear. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017
Walker, Pete. Complex PTSD: from Surviving to Thriving. Lafayette, CA, Azure Coyote, 2013.
Walker, Pete. Frequently Asked Questions About Complex PTSD. Dec. 2013, pete-walker.com/fAQsComplexPTSD.html. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.
Walker, Pete. Shrinking the Inner Critic in Complex PTSD. Dec. 2013, www.pete-walker.com/shrinkingInnerCritic.htm. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017.
Photo by Alena Root. License via Shutterstock.