A few years ago, I was listening to a podcast, and someone mentioned they had C-PTSD. I’d never heard of this before (PTSD, yes. But C-PTSD? Nope.)
I looked it up, and when I saw the definition and symptoms, I immediately realized, “Oh FFS — that’s me. I have this.”
C-PTSD stands for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and although it shares similar characteristics with PTSD, there are some marked differences. While PTSD happens as a result of a one-time or shorter duration traumatic event, like serving on active duty in a war zone or surviving a physical attack, C-PTSD occurs when people experience trauma from on-going experiences such as childhood neglect or abuse, domestic abuse, human trafficking, or living in a war-torn or extremely impoverished region for more than a year.
Some of the symptoms experienced by people with C-PTSD include:
Avoiding situations that remind them of the trauma
Dizziness or nausea when remembering the trauma
A negative self-view: Complex PTSD can cause a person to view themselves negatively and feel helpless, guilty, or ashamed. They often consider themselves to be different from other people and don’t know where they fit in.
Changes in beliefs and worldview: People with C-PTSD may hold a negative view of the world and the people in it, feel a loss of trust in themselves or others, or feel that the world is a dangerous place.
Emotional regulation difficulties: These conditions can cause people to have extreme emotional reactions to some situations. They may experience intense anger, fear or sadness that seems highly disproportionate for the given situation.
Hyperarousal or hypervigilance: they are in a continuous state of high alert or feel like they are constantly “walking on eggshells” or “waiting for the other shoe to drop” much of the time.
Relationship issues. Relationships may suffer due to difficulties with trusting and interacting, and because of a negative self-view. A person may develop unhealthy relationships because they don’t know or never had models for a healthy relationship.
Difficulty sleeping or concentrating. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or being able to nap. Difficulty concentrating or increased procrastination. In some cases, ADHD can in fact be caused by C-PTSD.
Detachment from the trauma: A person may dissociate, which means feeling detached from emotions or physical sensations. Some people completely forget the trauma.
Preoccupation with an abuser: It is not uncommon to fixate on the abuser, the relationship with the abuser, or getting revenge for the abuse.
Reliving the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares.
As I looked over this list of symptoms, I realized that I have (or had) all of these. I grew up in a home with some pretty gnarly emotional, medical, and physical abuse– and it had left its mark.
When we spend a long time in traumatic situations, especially as we’re growing and developing, our very smart body-minds adapt for survival. Entire systems change and adapt in order to be able to survive and keep us safe: our nervous system, vagal system, immune system, digestive system and the microbiome, emotional regulation and response, cognitive processing–as well as all of our energetic systems like meridians, the heart torus field, chakras and more–shift and adapt to what “normal” is in this traumatic world. When we are finally free of the traumatic situation, we now have a whole body-mind that needs to be retuned to be able to thrive in a non-traumatic world.
So, how do we heal this?
While there’s no “one-size-fits-all” fix for embodied trauma and C-PTSD, I can tell you what’s worked best for me.
Therapy. Find yourself a good trauma-informed therapist and talk this shit out. I’ve been in therapy off and on for most of my adult life because the sneaky nature of trauma is that it can rear its ugly head in new situations all the time.
Meditation. I first learned to meditate through a study at UCSF on “Cultivating Emotional Balance.” It took YEARS AND YEARS of practice before mediation became something that was easy for me but, damn, it was worth it. I can switch my mood from anxious to joyous in 20 minutes and can stay present and grounded in even the most triggering of situations now. One of the benefits that isn’t talked about enough is the changes that happen when we’re *not* meditating. Somehow that daily practice of 20 minutes of meditation has ripple effects outside of that time, too. I can now get into that meditative headspace immediately at almost any time of the day and feel the same effects of calm, peaceful joy that come from being in the present moment (aka mindfulness.)
Books. I read self-help books all the time. I’ve found that there are two types that help me the most. There are books that give advice and teach you tools for a certain issue, like hypervigilance or perfectionism. These are helpful for when my symptoms arise and I need a tool or strategy to deal with them in the moment. And then there are autobiographical books that are written by people who went through something similar to me. These are sooooo validating and helpful and make me realize that what I went through was wrong and horrible (I tend to normalize things and underreact to trauma). They remind me that I am not as much of a freak or weirdo as I may imagine, and that other people have gone through the same thing and have had similar feelings and responses. (I mean, I am a freak and a weirdo, but in a totally awesome way, not in a social pariah kind of way.)
Energy healing. Oh boy. This was so profound for me that I totally switched my life path and career so I could dive head first into learning all about this. Energy healing is so magical because unlike therapy or medication, it helps the body heal on the physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual levels all at once and in parallel. I originally started going to an energy healer to mitigate and heal side effects from chemo. One day about 3 months in, my practitioner said “Oh, you’re ready to transcend anxiety.” I looked at her and laughed right in her face. I’d been anxious since I was 3-years-old, and that’s probably just because I couldn’t remember back any earlier than that. But she did her thing and you know what? I left that office PROFOUNDLY less anxious. It felt like I’d had a 50-ton boulder lifted off me. My hypervigilance decreased markedly, my mood was more joyous and I had far fewer anxious, looping thoughts on a day-to-day basis. It was like 10 years of therapy in 3 months. So, I decided to figure out how that all worked. I’ve have spent the last 15 years studying different modalities and learning all that I can about the beautiful intersection of body, mind and spirit so that I can help others with their healing process, as well.
If you see some of yourself in what I wrote here, please know that you are not alone, that there are people and groups and tools to help you heal. And please know that I see you, I know it’s been so hard, and I think you are an amazing triumph of nature to have survived and thrived the way you have. It’s no small feat, my friend, and I am so very unabashedly proud of you, wherever you are in your healing process.
Lately, I’ve been working on unhooking from praise and criticism in how I evaluate myself and my work. I’ve been examining my own unhealthy relationship to praise and how I’ve chased “gold star stickers” as validation for most of my life.
This started in elementary school when I would get praise for doing well academically. There’s a meme that made the rounds a few years ago that was so spot on for me, it made me cringe in recognition.
Oh yes, all of the above. 100%
The challenges that “gifted and talented” kids face later in life can be explained by Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset vs fixed mindset. A growth mindset is where you believe intelligence is malleable and can develop and grow over time. A fixed mindset is one where you believe intelligence is fixed and static. It turns out that when we praise kids for specific abilities or achievements (“That was a great essay!”, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re such a good athlete!”) as opposed to attributes or intrinsic qualities (“Wow! I’m impressed at how hard you worked on that!” or “That was tough but I’m proud of how you stuck with it.”) we inadvertently stunt their growth mindset and drive them towards a fixed mindset.
Ability-based praise leads kids to believe that labels like “you’re so smart” are true for them and these attributes quickly become part of their self-identity. While this doesn’t seem bad at first glance, when we attach too strongly to something as part of our identity/ego, we then become terrified of it being stripped away. This causes us to default to a fixed mindset in order to preserve our precious identity and we learn to fear the inevitable failures that come as part and parcel of a healthy growth mindset. If trying something and failing becomes something that threatens who we think we are, then failure becomes a painful ego distortion rather than a normal part of learning and growing. The result is that the kids who were praised for abilities are much less likely to want to try challenging tasks than the kids who are praised for attributes, and are more often up for a new challenge.
As one of the “gifted and talented kids” my parents praised me up, down and sideways for my academic achievements. They bragged about it to friends. They told me I had such a bright future ahead of me as a result. They pulled me out of one school and put me into another to better match my intellectual prowess. It quickly became part of my identity and a great source of my self-esteem.
However, the problem with self-esteem is this — what happens when we can no longer do esteemable things? What happens when for some reason or another, we can’t perform at the level that we’ve come to expect?
Let me tell you, it feels like crap.
It feels like shame.
It feels like existential failure.
This became suddenly and abundantly clear to me when I lost a good deal of my cognitive function due to “chemo brain” almost overnight. My memory, information processing abilities, recall, vocabulary, and other markers of intelligence were all severely impacted by chemotherapy and I found myself unable to be the “smart kid” anymore. How could I be the smart kid when I couldn’t even process what someone was saying to me, let alone remember any information that would help me craft a response?
Common words eluded me. Facts and figures and ideas that I’d known by heart were murky at best. And my auditory processing was shot — if someone said something to me verbally rather than writing it down, I had no memory of it. Which made me feel like an idiot when I couldn’t remember something they’d said to me mere hours before. “Don’t you remember? We JUST talked about this, Megan.”
It was a huge slap in the face. And while I’ve recovered a good deal of my cognitive abilities, they’re still not what they used to be. But that sudden loss allowed me to look at my core identity as “the smart one” and how deeply it had been ingrained in my sense of self and ego. Only then could I look at whether that served me or not, and make some conscious decisions about what I wanted my self-concept to be.
So, what’s the antidote to this relentless quest for the gold star fix? And what does it have to do with British reality TV?
I realized after chemo brain hit me hard that I needed to shift my identity to be about attributes rather than abilities. For example, I have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning rather than “I’m smart.” Or, I am compassionate, curious and open-minded about those in my life rather than “I’m a nice person.” Can I love reading and not be smart? Sure can! Can I be compassionate with someone’s suffering and still have good boundaries and say no? You betcha.
During the pandemic, I’ve been binge watching two British reality TV competitions: “The Great British Bake Off” and “The Great Pottery Throwdown.” These shows touch me in a way that I couldn’t quite name until one recent episode of “Pottery Throwdown.” One of the contestants, Roz, was asked to do a task that was way out of her wheelhouse. She finished the task but came in last in the judging. As she’s speaking to the judges about coming in last she says she’s embarrassed. Keith, one of the judges, looks at her with tears in his eyes and says, “Never feel embarrassed, Roz.”
What he’s saying to Roz here is that she should be proud of herself, she should be proud of her attributes of persistence, resilience and grit rather than be embarrassed about her abilities (or lack thereof) at this specific task. You can see the interaction here:
My love of these British reality competitions comes from the culture on these shows of being proud of trying your best, going out of your comfort zone, and being resilient and gritty. These are valued more on these shows than whether you came first or last. It’s not about the gold star or the winner’s ribbon, that’s just icing on the cake. (Yes, I made a baking pun, just for you my fellow GBBO fans.) The core values of these shows are about how extraordinary it is for people to show up with uncertainty, put in the effort, and try something new without knowing how it will turn out.
No wonder I love these shows, they’re models of growth mindset that I desperately need. They feed the part of me that wants to see this in action, the part of me that wants to soak up all of these examples of how to value attributes rather than abilities like a sponge so I can turn around and do the same for myself and others.
Here’s my challenge for you this week — try to think of a time when someone praised you for your attributes rather than your abilities. What did they say? How did it feel?
If you can think of one, please comment on this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about it. Like I said, I need more models and ideas for how I can do this more for myself.