Complex Trauma (CPTSD) and the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)

A Split In Your Being

—Understanding Complex Trauma (CPTSD)

 

Highly sensitive people(HSP) respond to Complex Trauma/ CPTSD more intensely. It may create a split in your psyche, causing a myriad of confusing symptoms.

 

Trauma affects sensitive people more intensely.

Like any other of your reactions to stimuli, as a highly sensitive person (HSP) your trauma reactions are also more intense than most.

Because of your receptivity, you see, hear and know what others don’t.

Your empathy means you take in more and feel more. You cannot help but be affected by toxic family dynamics, overt or covert abuse and manipulation.

Being different by default, as a child you needed extra love and support to counteract isolation, alienation and despair.

Your perceptivity and intolerance of injustice mean you are susceptible to existential depression.

Your need for emotional attunement means you are wounded by emotional neglect if your parents were cold and dismissive.

Things that do not affect your siblings or peers traumatise you.

In other words, your sensitivity and overexcitabilities make you susceptible to stronger and more lasting trauma responses.

Unfortunately, few mental health professionals understand emotional intensity and chronic childhood trauma, also known as Complex Trauma/ CPTSD. You are more likely to be over-diagnosed and medicated for mood disorders or personality disorders than to get the understanding you need.

Here, we will discuss the mechanism of dissociation, which is a common reaction to complex trauma.

 

 

 

Structural Dissociation – A Split in Your Psyche

The usual reaction to pain is to withdraw. But, as children, you had few options, even when your parents were abusive, you could not leave. So instead of physically exiting, you psychologically withdrew. This is called dissociation. Like the circuit breaker in an electrical system, dissociation is hardwired into us to protect us.

Unfortunately, when you dissociate, you not only withdraw from external psychic injuries but also from yourself.

When Complex Trauma/ CPTSD afflicts your highly sensitive psyche, you may suffer from a form of dissociation known as ‘structural dissociation’. This is also a core part of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

Structural dissociation is a split in your personality. It does not mean you have psychosis or suffer from schizophrenia. In structural dissociation, you are conscious of who you are, but you feel completely different from moment to moment on the inside.

This split started as a coping strategy for overwhelming experiences. When stressful events such as parents’ arguments, physical violence, verbal abuse or prolonged neglect happened, you had no choice but to cut off. Because you are highly sensitive, you may not have externalised your pain but instead, withdrawn and internaliseed your anger. You may even direct your anger towards yourself, turning it into self- blame and shame.

Complex Trauma/ CPTSD is different from PTSD that results from a single incident. Under normal circumstances, you would want to avoid your abuser and to never go back to them. When they are family members or parents, however, you have no choice but to stay. You could not deal with the trauma in a healthy way, so instead, you created a ‘separate self’ in your mind to survive the invasion.

Taking this split into adulthood, you feel an internal conflict almost daily. For instance, a part of you may be like a child that is easily hurt and acts impulsively, while another part of you manages to be a strong, competent adult. One part may dominate your home life, another your career life. When triggered, you flip from one mode of being to another, confusing both yourself and others.

To a degree, having different personas is normal. For instance, it is considered healthy to be different at work and at home. When your sensitive psyche is traumatised, however, ‘taking over’ various parts can become automatic and unmanageable. You do not know why you are triggered, but before you know it, you have reacted in ways that you later regret.

 

 


Come, said my soul,
Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after return

Dedication, Walt Whitman

THE APPARENTLY NORMAL PART AND THE TRAUMATISED PART

Sensitive people who suffer from Complex Trauma/ CPTSD carry an unspeakable burden. Despite carrying a painful past, you have to maintain a facade to go on with your normal daily life. If your life now involves people who have hurt or abused you, you want to protect them. You do not want to open the pandora’s box and cannot afford to let the memories, pain and anger surge up. You carry heavy, unopened baggage wherever you go.

Trauma experts Van der Hart and colleagues (2004) labelled the parts of the personality driven by daily life’s priorities the Apparently Normal Parts, and the parts driven by your trauma the Emotional Parts. Janina Fisher calls them ‘Going on with Normal Life Parts’ and the ‘Trauma-Related Parts’.

Usually, there are more than two subpersonalities. The more severe the trauma, the more complex the split becomes, and the more ‘separate’ these parts feel. But for this article, we will simplify the picture and discuss these two parts.

The Apparently Normal Part navigates daily life with little or no emotions. You might feel empty and numb. In this mode, you might not recall your painful past at all, or you remember but feel as though it happened to someone else.

While the Apparently Normal Part gets on with life, the Traumatised Part holds the traumatic memories. It sometimes bursts through and catches you off guard.

Your traumatised part reacts to situations with fight, flight, or freeze.

Your traumatised part reacts disproportionately to situations, and sees danger, criticisms and abandonment everywhere.

Your traumatised part is frozen in the time of the trauma- likely when you were a child. While in an adult body, you are reliving our childhood loneliness, fear and despair over and over again.

Your traumatised part is always on guard. When people come close to you, you immediately assume you will be harmed or betrayed.

When your traumatised part is running the show, you are filled with tension, paranoia, and avoidance.

Sometimes the Traumatised Part will intrude on the Apparently Normal Part, where you suddenly experience sensations or hear critical voices that seem to come from inside you but feel alien.

Your Apparently Normal Part dominates your mind; it is numb and appears to be in control. The Traumatised Part controls your body and emotions in ways you are not always conscious of. For instance, when you grind our teeth at night, or when you burst into an uncontrollable rage.

 

“Dissociation is adaptive: it allows relatively normal functioning for the duration of the traumatic event and then leaves a large part of the personality unaffected by the trauma.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk

 

A PHOBIA YOU CARRY

 

In structural dissociation, you live a life designed to avoid your traumatic memories.

Your symptoms get worse as you mentally pair more and more ‘cues’- sound, people, certain things others say, places— with the trauma. Your already highly sensitive system becomes more prone to being overwhelmed. For instance, someone not looking into your eyes reminds you of the years of being neglected by your mother. Or, crowded places remind you of the time you were left alone in public, feeling helpless. Or, any sudden and loud noise reminds you of the door slamming at home when you were little.

You had shut out the past as a way to survive, but occasionally the trauma will break through, and you suddenly become flooded with fear and pain.

To maintain your normal facade, your sensitive soul might have taken on various avoidant strategies:

You fear potential rejection or betrayal, so you avoid relationships.

You fear criticism, so you stop expressing yourself spontaneously.

You fear disappointment, so you would rather say no to hope and sabotage opportunities.

One of the most common avoidances is that of intimacy. Because you have been hurt in the past, either by your parents, siblings, or bullies, you experience any attachment to be threatening, and the fearful part of you wants to avoid becoming attached at all cost. Of course, the healthy part of you yearns for love and connection and seeks out touch and relationships. These two parts then evoke each other in a vicious cycle, resulting in what on the surface looks like confusing push-pull behaviour. One moment you are loving and giving, another moment you are fearful and numb.

In dissociation you even avoid your body- and then you lose touch with your internal signals of hunger, tiredness, and stress. You even lose your passion and sex drive.

As you craft your life desperately trying to avoid your past, your life becomes increasingly restricted.  In the end, you build a wall against both the outer and your inner emotional life and end up feeling empty, numb, with your life left barren.

Blocking is, unfortunately, not a long term solution. Your traumatised part has a strong need to be seen and heard and sooner or later it will come back in full swing, and you will not be able to neglect it any longer.

 

 

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou

SYMPTOMS OF Complex Trauma or CPTSD

Here are some of the dissociative symptoms that interrupt your day-to-day life. These symptoms might not always be present, and only appear when certain parts of your personality take over.

– Selective memory loss

You are unable to recall parts of a memory, or may know what happened intellectually but do notfeel that it happened to you.

– Emotional numbness

You feel empty and numb, unable to connect with yourself or anyone close to you. You have learned how to move outside of your body so you watch life events pass by in front of you without being in them. You might ‘know’ what is happening in your life, but feel as though it belongs to others. Being a detached observer comes with a cost. While you feel little pain, you also feel little joy, love, and vitality. you might also become fully identified with your intellect, distancing from your instincts, spontaneity and creativity.

– Disembodiment

You might be dissociated from your physical body. As a result, you have difficulty knowing when you are tired, hungry, thirsty, lonely or sad. You may lose the ability to self-care. You burn out as you are not able to receive signals from your body.  You lose touch with your motivation, needs, desires, interests, passions and even sex drive.

– Lack of motivation and stamina

Perhaps you are motivated and positive when you set a goal, but when the traumatised parts take over, you lose the mental ability to take action. Because your various parts have different motives, psychology and mental capacities, you may have trouble starting or completing actions. you may find yourself endlessly procrastinating even for something you want to do. On the other hand, you might suffer from chronic fatigue. This is because energy is expended to suppress your memories and emotions.

– Counter-dependency and Isolation

You develop a self-sufficient armour and feel unable to trust or depend on anyone. You put up a wall to avoid being known by others. You avoid exposing yourself because you are fearful of rejection, abandonment and betrayal.

– Inner Critic

You develop a self-persecutory inner voice. This voice started out as a protective mechanism: ‘It’ believes that by criticising harshly, you will not venture out for love, career opportunity or abundance, so you will never be disappointed again. Not being able to feel fulfilled in your life, you resort to addictions or mind-altering drugs for stimulation or comfort. This perpetuates a cycle of shame.

 

 

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou

CHANGE

Even though the wise healthy part of you knows this splitting or dissociation is no longer serving you, you might feel ambivalent about change. You are afraid of losing stability. Even if dissociation takes you to a barren, lonely place, it is what you know.

With your Apparently Normal Part, you get to shut down hunger, tiredness, and any need for anyone else. For a short while, you feel as though you are invincible. This might have led to some degree of career success and convenience, but your soul is crying for help.

You are, after all a human, not a robot or machine. Your needs and vulnerabilities, though denied, do not disappear.

The longer you stay disintegrated, the less able you are to appropriately take care of yourself in a realistic way.

The longer you stay numb and empty, the more time you spend watching your life go by without being in it.

The longer you avoid intimacy and opportunities, the longer you are delaying a full, rich life.

 

 

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
― Neil Gaiman, Coraline

THE WISE PART

 

Apart from the Apparently Normal Part and the Traumatised Part discussed by the trauma experts, you must also acknowledge something in the matrix of your Complex Trauma/ CPTSD psyche: Your inner wise part, or your healthy part. No matter how traumatised you are, how hidden this part is, it is there. It is your innate driving force towards wholeness and health, and it has been with you since day one.

This wise part absorbs love from the people who have supported you; it tells you we are worthy.

It downloads knowledge and wisdom from books, resources and teachers, and acts as the guiding light within you.

Though the cloud of trauma and chaos very often shields your wise part, it is there, pulling you back up from setbacks and nudging you to take the next step.

It is the part of you that pushes you to go to therapy, to look online and to seek out support.

It is the part of you that reads poetry, makes a painting and sings a song to express your unspeakable pain.

It is the part of you that loves the truth, seeks justice, and searches for insights.

In our work towards integration, you must find and reinforce this part of you.

Healing is to integrate, to have all your parts talk to each other, and to respect and to harness the strengths of all of them.

Healing is to bring all the elements of yourself together, rather than living a disintegrated life with little control.

Resilience is being able to tell the past from the present, rather than emotionally reliving the past again and again.

It is frightening when you first begin to drop dissociation as a protective shield.

However, there is nothing to fear- you are merely going home.

As you take small risks, as you gently open, you become extra delicate, sensitised to both pain and beauty.

The breaking down of your armour comes with force and pain- but that pain is an honourable one.

Your Complex Trauma/ CPTSD, when given an opportunity, becomes your door to a sense of belonging- one so sincere that it connects you to not only your intimate partner and neighbour, but the rest of humanity, nature, and the universe. This growing pain is a small price to pay, as compared to the deadliness of being an empty shell.

Beyond trauma, it is in your power to take the next step.

Step by step, you can re-open as a human and re-emerge as a soul.

Your life is waiting for you. 

 

 

“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.”
William W. Purkey