Complex trauma is what happens when someone experiences multiple incidences of cruelty and abuse in the context of an unequal power relationship. This is most commonly found in people who grew up with abusive or neglectful parents, but also happens to kidnapping victims, prisoners of war, and people in abusive sexual or “romantic” relationships. The result of this complex trauma is C-PTSD (complex PTSD), which has similar effects to the posttraumatic stress (PTSD) experienced by people who have been in car accidents or similar traumatic events but involves deeper disturbances of the personality. Many people diagnosed with bipolar and other personality conditions are, in fact, survivors of complex trauma. This requires delving into the individual’s personal history and life story, rather than only analyzing their present symptoms.
Another way of looking at complex trauma and C-PTSD is the concept of attachment trauma. Attachment—the bonds that exist between one human being and another—sounds like a rather vague or abstract concept. Like all emotional states, however, such as happiness, fear, or anger, it is rooted in our biochemistry and is essential for human flourishing.
While our level of intelligence distinguishes humans from other animals, it is only through working together that we were able to survive and thrive. There is simply no way an individual human could take down a woolly mammoth. Human beings evolved to cooperate and work together in groups. One aspect of this is our unique capacity for language acquisition. For true social cooperation, however, bare communication of information is not enough. In the modern world, one may be able to go about many items of daily business (shopping, for example) without any emotional bond, but the cohesive groups in which humans evolved required a much deeper level of connection.
Even today, we can observe that an office where there is no camaraderie between employees will not function well no matter how highly they are paid. Family life, friendship groups, and romantic relationships are, of course, quite difficult to maintain without attachment. As a result of our evolution, all, or almost all, human beings feel a deep need to be attached to others regardless of whether it is strictly necessary for their survival or material prosperity. People who do not form relationships are often plagued by feelings of depression and sadness, no matter how successful they may be in other areas of life.
Attachment, however, is hard. Forming a relationship with another human being involves both verbal and nonverbal communication, as well as an intricate dance of appropriate behavior. Express too little empathy in a relationship and you may be considered cold or distant. Express too much or too early and you may be considered overbearing. High-functioning people on the autism spectrum (commonly known as Asperger’s, though this has largely fallen out of academic usage) typically lack many of the native instincts for successful relationship formation that other people have, making their lives difficult in ways that those in the general population find hard to appreciate or understand.
However, like all human traits, the ability to form attachment bonds is not purely innate; it is learned behavior. And as with most human learning, attachment is learned by doing. From the moment they exit the womb, babies are learning attachment. This, and not only the need to materially provide for the child, is the basis of the family, a universal component of human society. Even utopian social experiments which aimed to replace the family had to fall back on structures that essentially mirrored mother- and fatherhood, with mixed success.
In treating people with C-PTSD who seek therapy, building up their ability to experience attachment and to feel safe, secure, appreciated, and loved in relationships is a high priority.
It follows, therefore, that when the relationship between parents, or a replacement primary caregiver, and the child is seriously distorted by abuse or neglect, this has far wider implications than the parent-child relationship alone. Survivors of complex trauma typically emerge with gaps in their ability to form attachment bonds with others. This is not to say their desire for attachment is any less—far from it. The unfulfilled desire for connection and pervasive feeling of loneliness in survivors of complex trauma is a major contributing factor to the symptoms they experience, including depression, inability to regulate emotion, and engagement in risky or self-destructive behaviors.
In treating people with C-PTSD who seek therapy, building up their ability to experience attachment and to feel safe, secure, appreciated, and loved in relationships is a high priority. It is also an extremely difficult process. As I have discussed in previous articles, C-PTSD is best conceptualized less as a process of damage than as a learning process in highly unfortunate circumstances. Like all children, people who grow up in an environment of persistent abuse are born with potential, which they develop in their own way under adverse circumstances.
In short, survivors of complex trauma in childhood learn to live in a world turned upside down because that was the only world they ever knew. Therapy for people with C-PTSD is a delicate undertaking, involving revisiting this initial learning process and initiating a new one that allows them to grow and develop in healthier and more fulfilling ways.
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