I have clients who, even though they chose to work with me specifically because of my focus on childhood trauma, question if their childhood experiences were really that “traumatic.”
Heck, I spent decades of my life thinking I was totally fine, completely unaware that the experiences of my childhood were affecting every single area of my life. I carried my experiences like a badge of honor. “I made it through the chaos and I’m fine,” said the girl who spent two decades avoiding her pain with alcohol, drama, and unhealthy relationships – a direct mirror of the adults from my childhood.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “my childhood wasn’t that bad” or “at least my parents put a roof over my head, fed me, sent me to school, and never hit me.” As if this is all we should expect from those who are supposed to love and care for us deeply and unconditionally. Others find it challenging to admit to the pain, neglect, or abuse caused by their caretaker(s), seeing what their caretaker experienced as “worse.”
We understandably have a lot to learn about childhood trauma. While big “T” trauma is widely understood and accepted, little “t” trauma carries a significant amount of stigma and shame. Sufferers of PTSD are seen as having a legitimate condition, as listed in the DSM – Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This ability to be diagnosed comes with support as they navigate to heal. While survivors of childhood trauma get labeled “resilient” and expected to carry on with their lives. Because this type of trauma is interpersonal, survivors are often silenced for many reasons, including to protect the abuser, avoid shaming the family, denial of addiction, and lack of family awareness, to name a few.
I share this with you to help you see as a culture we have not made it safe for survivors to openly, without judgement, get curious about what really happened to them. So, it’s no wonder that neglected and abused adult trauma survivors feel confused about their own reality.
Childhood trauma survivors are indeed some of the most resilient humans I have ever met. But we are not this way because we want to be, we are this way because we had to, and now society expects us to be.
One of the most important foundational pieces of healing from trauma is AWARENESS. Family dysfunction and societal stigma can cause us to live with the effects of trauma for months, years, and even decades. As a result, we suffer in silence, unaware of the root of our pain (emotional and physical). A willingness to look deeper and gain an understanding of trauma is the first step towards awareness. While I truly understand why it may be hard to see how the experiences of your childhood could have that much of an impact on your life now, I challenge you to keep an open mind and heart if you’re still here with me. I’ve been where you are right now and I know it’s hard to connect the dots.
Let’s diver deeper so we can understand how trauma might show up in our lives.
These are single-incident traumas that are unexpected and may come out of the blue. This category is also called “Big T,” acute, or shock trauma. A common outcome of this type of trauma is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Examples of Type 1 Trauma could include:
Life-threatening illness or diagnosis
Violent or sexual assault
Witnessing an attack or violence
Complex Trauma (this is what I focus on in my coaching practice) describes a person’s exposure to multiple traumatic events, which are often invasive and wide ranging – as well as the effects of such trauma. These events can be severe and pervasive, such as abuse or profound neglect. They usually occur early in life and can disrupt many aspects of a child’s development and the formation of a sense of self.
“Since these events often occur with a caregiver, they interfere with the child’s ability to form a secure attachment. Many aspects of a child’s healthy physical and mental development rely on this primary source of safety and stability.”~The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Examples of Type 2 Trauma could include:
Emotional abuse and neglect
Bullying (home, school, or work)
Chronic neglect and abandonment
Physical abuse and neglect
Religious abuse and neglect
Enmeshment or engulfment
Parentification (when the roles between the caretaker and child are reversed)
Family substance abuse or addiction
Incarceration of a caretaker
Because many of these mistreatments are emotionally covert, it can be difficult for caregivers, children, and outsiders to recognize the neglect. The effects of abandonment, enmeshment, parent-child reversal, verbal abuse, and intentional love withdrawal can leave deep, lasting effects on children, yet as a society, we have a “such is life” attitude towards adults who have experienced such neglect and abuse, keeping the covert cycle going. It’s no wonder so many childhood trauma survivors step into their adult lives feeling alone and confused by what they have been through. A common outcome of this type of trauma is Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD).
We typically associate PTSD with war veterans, originally giving the diagnosis to returning World War II soldiers who were left emotion-less after traumatic war-time experiences. Many of these veterans experienced severe symptoms, such as impaired eyesight, body tremors, sensory numbness, and stammering. After diving deeper into the effects of combat stress, the term was created to describe a mental health condition that’s typically triggered in adulthood by experiencing or witnessing a singular or terrifying event. We now know that anyone experiencing or witnessing such an event can suffer from PTSD, not just veterans. As stated earlier, PTSD is considered a legitimate condition listed in the DSM.
Symptoms of PTSD can include, but not limited to:
Emotional numbness, nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, substance abuse, depression, and hopelessness.
cPTSD is a mental and emotional health condition that results from traumatic events that take place consistently over a long period. These events are interpersonal and often occur in childhood. Unlike PTSD, the symptoms of cPTSD become entrenched in the child’s personality during the most formative years. During this time, brain development and attachment styles are extremely fragile and still developing, resulting in severe and often invisible symptoms. These symptoms can feel debilitating and can affect a survivor’s quality of life, especially if they are unaware of the connection. While the concept of cPTSD is longstanding, it is not in the 5th edition of the DSM, therefore isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Symptoms of cPTSD can include, but not limited to:
Intimacy and trust issues, prolonged feelings of terror and hyper-vigilance, chronic self-isolating, dissociation, co-dependent behavior, mental health challenges, low self-esteem, guilt and toxic shame, conflict avoidant, lack of boundaries, interception and cognitive function, emotional and somatic flashbacks, black and white thinking, doomsday mindset, self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, sex, work, video games/tv, sports, chronic challenges in creating and maintaining healthy relationships, struggling to take care of self, lack of self love and worthiness.
The U.N. reports, “75% of trauma doesn’t come from a battlefield, refugee camp, or an earthquake, it’s interpersonal, inflicted by one person on another, often purposefully.”
After surviving a toxic, dysfunctional, neglectful, and abusive childhood, I spent the next two decades of my life struggling to survive my adult life with very few tools. It wasn’t until I was in my late 30s when I reached a rock bottom, got curious, and began connecting the dots between what happened and how much I struggled as an adult. For decades, I believed there was something innately wrong with me. Making it about me, I never traced it back to the root. I’m not smart enough, I’m not good enough, I’m not motivated enough. Little did I know, the experiences of my childhood wired my brain to keep me in this loop. This re-wiring makes functioning as adults feel much harder than for those who didn’t experience trauma during their developmental years.
In addition, the dysfunction of my family life was never acknowledged or talked about. Nobody ever sat me down and explained to me what was going on, that it was not my fault, that I was still loved, that they were sorry. Instead, life simply went on each day as traumas continued to pile up in my young body like a multiple-car-pile-up on a highway. As a young child who was still emotionally and mentally developing, this left wounds and scars that eventually made it nearly impossible to feel whole, complete, and normal.
Connecting the dots, bringing truth to my experiences, and holding people responsible for their actions makes me no less resilient. The same goes for you. It also doesn’t make us bad, ungrateful, or disrespectful. What it does is allow us to heal. It helps us to make sense of what happened and why we struggle the way we do. And the best part – it gives us the tools to course correct so that we can feel empowered enough to take our mental health and lives back.
“I sometimes feel the most for my clients who were “only” neglected, because it is so difficult to see neglect as hard core evidence. Most people remember little before they were four years old. And by that time, much of this kind of damage is done. It typically takes some very deep introspective work, to realize that current time flashback pain is a re-creation of how bad it felt to be emotionally abandoned.”~ Pete Walker
If you think you are struggling as an adult survivor of childhood trauma, please know that it’s ok to reach out for support. In fact, depending on how deeply your trauma is effecting your life, it could be critical. While your story is unique, you are not alone in your experiences and you don’t have to face your healing alone.
Are you ready to start connecting the dots between what happened to you and how it’s impacting your adult life?? Do you want to gain new tools to harness the power you already have inside of you? Feeling stuck and alone on the journey? I would love to support you. My 1:1 coaching container creates a compassionate, non-judgmental, and safe space that meets you right where you are today. From there we move at a pace that supports your life, goals, and visions for your unique and beautiful future, a future that can look anyway you CHOOSE.
Click here to book your free 1-hour discovery call.
You never know how one conversation could shift the direction of your life.
Lots of love ~ Morgan