Updated: Oct 27, 2021
The effects of Complex PTSD, or developmental trauma, are many. I want to focus on one consequence of developmental trauma that will continue to impact our relationships in adulthood. When someone's developmental trauma gets triggered, it can cause the person to unconsciously send out what I'm calling "trauma tendrils." These emotional shoots wrap around the other person and pull them into the traumatic re-enactment. At one extreme, we can see this reaction as narcissism, where the traumatized person's pain becomes centered in the shared experience at the expense of the other person. Milder versions can show up as co-dependence, or other forms of projecting emotional pain onto someone else.
The impact of trauma tendrils
The consequence of trauma tendrils being shot onto our loved ones is secondary trauma. The tendrils wrap around the other person who might not understand where they are coming from. They might be confused about the intensity of the reaction. When this happens repeatedly, the loved ones in the life of the person with developmental trauma can start to feel traumatized themselves. This is obviously something we want to avoid and minimize. No one deserves to become traumatized from the repeated exposure of someone else's triggered states. Nevertheless, some amount of secondary trauma will almost certainly be the result of being in a long-term relationship with someone who has significant developmental trauma.
Responsibility and acceptance
Another painful lesson that people with CPTSD must learn is that even though we might have developmental trauma, we are still responsible for our emotions. The trauma tendrils launch out to try to make someone else responsible for our pain. Sadly, even though we didn't deserve to be treated the way we were as children, as adults we don't have the right to try to make our loved ones responsible for our pain. We have to heal ourselves. Part of that is asking for help and knowing what we need, but we don't have a right to demand that others make our painful emotions the center of their experience.
Acceptance means coming to terms that our developmental trauma will show up in various ways throughout our adult life. Acceptance also means realizing that sometimes the trauma tendrils will shoot out even when we are trying our hardest. This can be incredibly demoralizing. It’s a terrible burden to bear when we feel like we have taken responsibility for our pain and yet we're still confronted with situations where we unconsciously, automatically react in a way that is far different that we’d have wished.
Acceptance isn't resignation. Resignation would be to give up any hope that we can continue working hard to heal. Acceptance means fully realizing how we have been hurt deeply during a critical time in our development and that those scars will remain for life. Acceptance is taking full responsibility for our hurt and opening up to the reality that we have a responsibility to work hard throughout our life dealing with a burden that most others don't have. Just because most others are privileged to not have to carry the burden of CPTSD doesn't mean we get tacit permission to punish them for it.
When we’ve seen our trauma tendrils hurt a loved one, the best we can do is to be aware of it and then try to repair it. This is no easy feat when we’re likely still dysregulated and just trying to keep our head above water. I wish I had some secret to share about how to do this, but the reality is always much different than what might be taught in a DBT skills class. I’m not saying not to try regulating one’s breath, or some other skill, but what is taken for granted is that it requires executive functioning to decide to enact an emotional regulation skill and that is the very thing compromised during a developmental trauma triggered state. What feels more realistic to me is to accept that we will become dysregulated, try to use any skills we’ve learned as soon as we’re aware of being dysregulated, and once we’re in a better place, take responsibility and attempt to repair any damage we’ve done.
When we repair, we don't get to force the other person to forgive us or quickly move on. I find it helpful to invite the person into a conversation that helps them to understand what happened to us and how things played out versus just coercing the other person to accept an apology from us and move on. This sort of empty repair isn't going to be very meaningful for us or the other person. We need to take some time to reflect on what happened and why and then be able to explain to our loved one what happened and what we are taking responsibility for. We can also invite them to be able to assist us in some way in the future. If they are willing to, that's great, but if not, we can't get mad. We can ask for support but not demand it.
Having CPTSD feels like a curse. We can end up feeling abandoned by both man and God. There's a truth to that, but we must create a new truth and claim responsibility for our own salvation. Salvation doesn't come from narcissism or co-dependence. Salvation comes from acceptance and responsibility. If we are lucky, we have people in our lives who care about us enough to walk willingly beside us knowing that they are going to suffer sometimes as a result. Cultivating gratitude toward these people rather than obligation is a tool we can wield to keep our trauma tendrils trimmed and our relationships healthy.