This book, Complex PTSD from Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker, was a total eye opener and game changer for me. And I’m so glad that a member of the support group recommended this book for our book club, because I’m not sure I would have picked it up if it hadn’t come so highly recommended.
I guess the reason I wouldn’t have picked it up, is that I had never thought about C-PTSD in terms of traumatic relationships in childhood before, I had always thought of it in terms of traumatic relationships in adulthood–and we’ve been talking a lot lately about different forms of therapy for C-PTSD.
The way that Pete Walker addresses Complex PTSD, and how it forms our personalities is nothing short of fascinating. I really feel like I have a much better understanding of my own behavior (especially understanding the concept of an emotional flashback) as well as the behavior of others.
To join the full discussion on this book, please join us at the book club by clicking here.
Top 5 take aways from Complex PTSD from Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker:
1. C-PTSD can and does happen as a result of a relationship that involves abuse or neglect. These relationships can either be in childhood, or when we are adults (or both).
2. CPTSD-causing parents. If a child experiences abuse or neglect in childhood, then odds are it’s from C-PTSD causing parents. These are parents that continually invalidate and punish their children for their feelings or for them trying to assert themselves. Functional parents respond to a child’s emotions with concern and comfort. Abandoning parents respond to the child’s emotions with anger, disgust, and/or further abandonment, which in turn exacerbate the fear, shame, and despair. Rejecting parents typically make the child believe that his opinions and feelings are dangerous imperfections.
(This can be done in ways that are either overt or covert. Overt ways would be flat-out telling the child that they are somehow worthless or less than. Covert ways would be perhaps more like indifference to the child or things regarding the child, which leads the child to conclude that they are somehow worthless or less than. Some examples might be refusing to pay child support, refusing to get the child adequate clothing, medical, or dental care, refusing to make quality bonding time with the child a priority.) If a child experiences these types of negating behaviors, and voices hurt or complaint, their actions will invariably leads to deeper rejection and trouble.
Chronic emotional abandonment devastates a child. It naturally makes them appear deadened and depressed (or anxious and angry).
3.Complex PTSD. Once we understand how our upbringing created an unhealthy sense of self, then we can work towards fixing the damage.
This is essential, because without a properly functioning ego, you have no center from making healthy choices and decisions. Our unhealthy choices and decisions are based on the fear of getting in trouble of getting abandoned, rather than on the principles of having meaningful and equitable interactions with the world. (Reread that a few times–because it’s really, really important.)
We begin healing right now by inviting your instincts of self-compassion and self-protection to awaken and bloom in our life. (*We’ve had to numb out our connection to our self-protection abilities in order to get our needs met*)
4. Triggers and Emotional Flashbacks. Because the effects of the trauma are unresolved and unprocessed, we can find ourselves being “triggered” which lead to an emotional flashback. A trigger can be an external or internal stimulus that activates us into an emotional flashback. External triggers are people, places, things, events, facial expressions, styles of communication, etc. that remind us of our original trauma in a way that flashes us back into the painful feelings of those times. For example, visiting our parents, seeing someone who resembles a childhood abuser, experiencing the anniversary of an especially traumatic events, hearing someone use a parent’s shaming tone of voice of turn of phrase.
(We might not even be aware that we are having an emotional flashback, we might suddenly feel an intense emotions such as anger/rage, sadness, depression, fear, vulnerability, extreme tension/being on edge and not really know why. For example, I’ve felt this way for decades whenever I walk into a church, am around a therapist, or visit my parents.)
Other common triggers include making a mistake, asking for help, having to speak in front of a group, or simply feeling tired, sick, lonely, or hungry can sometimes trigger a flashback.
Signs of an emotional flashback
One common sign of being flashed-back is that we feel small, helpless, and hopeless. In intense flashbacks this magnifies into feeling so ashamed that we are loath to go out or show our face anywhere. Feeling fragile, on edge, delicate, and easily crushable is another aspect of this. Also feeling intensified self-criticism or judgmental of others. Another clue is that our emotional reactions are out of proportion to what has triggered them. Ex: a minor upset feels like an emergency, a minor unfairness feels like a travesty of justice. Ex: we spill coffee and launch into a self-berating tirade that lingers for hours. In a second instance, another driver’s unsignaled lane change triggers us into road rage and anger that lasts for hours. Another clue is self-medicating with food, using self-distracting activities, or mood-altering substances. An especially strong urge to use more than normal is a powerful clue that you are in a flashback.
5.People react to danger in four different ways: fight, flight, freeze, fawn.
The 4 modes become defense structures that are similar to narcissistic (fight), OCD (flight), dissociative (freeze), codependent (fawn).
These 4 modes of defense are on a continuum of empowering to disempowering/destructive behavior:
fight: assertiveness to bullying
flight: efficiency to driven-ness
freeze: peacefulness to catatonia
fawn: helpfulness to servitude
Healthy relating happens when two people move easily and reciprocally between assertiveness and receptivity. Ex: moving between talking and listening, helping and being helped, leading and following. Normal healthy narcissism and healthy codependence happen at the midpoint of the continuum.
Talking and listening: (unhealthy: monologue and dominate to listening and hiding what I think and feel)
Helping and being helped: (unhealthy ends: over-giving/enabling/disempowering to expecting to be waited on and taken care of or inability to accept help
Leading and following: unhealthy ends: always being dominant always getting wants and needs met and always being submissive/hiding wants and needs.
A healthy relationship with yourself is seen in your ability to move in a balanced way between:
Doing and being
Persistence and letting go
Sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activation
Intense focus and relaxed daydreaming
The 4F’s (The 4 defense responses people have to danger or our perceptions of danger)
Fight Response: (Often narcissistic-like defense.)
Fight types may control others with intimidation, criticism, and sarcasm. Narcissists that are untreatable are the ones who are convinced they are perfect and everyone else has the problem.
The critic as judge, jury, and executioner. The outer critic often interprets things (“psychic” perceptions, imagined facial expressions, misreading tone, etc.) as an attack and then feels justified in a counter attack.
Fight types treat others like captive audiences, giving them unsolicited advice, making unreasonable demands for improvement, controlling their time schedules/social calendars/food and clothing choices. They don’t make friends, they take prisoners/hostages.
Scapegoating is an outer critic process whereby personal frustration is unfairly dumped onto others—generally fueled by anger. (Good example is feeling hangry.)
Continuum of narcissism where sociopathy is at the more extreme end where these behaviors are done consciously.
Easy access to the fight response insures good boundaries, healthy assertiveness and aggressive self-protectiveness if necessary.
Qualities of a healthy fight defense: assertiveness, boundaries, courage, moxie, leadership. Healthy flight instinct is to disengage and retreat when confrontation would exacerbate their danger. Qualities when healthy: disengagement, healthy retreat, industriousness, know-how, perseverance.
Unhealthy qualities of a fight defense: narcissistic, explosive, controlling, entitlement, type-A, bully, autocrat, demands perfection, sociopath, conduct disorder. Push others away by angry and controlling demands, thinks they are perfect and that others need to reach their level. Control to connect. Rage to be safe. Power and control to be safe. Respond to feelings of abandonment with anger. Entitled fight types commonly use others as an audience for their incessant monologing.
They may treat a “captured” freeze or fawn type as a slave in a dominance-submission relationship. The price of admission to a relationship with an extreme narcissist is self-annihilation. Narcissists don’t have relationships; they take prisoners.
Scapegoating is the process by which a bully offloads and externalizes his pain, stress, and frustration by attacking a less powerful person. Typically scapegoating brings the bully some momentary relief, but it does not effectively metabolize or release his pain for long, and scapegoating soon resumes as the bully’s internal discomfort resurfaces.
Severely narcissistic parents are rarely embarrassed by their aggressive behavior. They feel entitled to punish a child for anything that displeases them, no matter how unreasonable it might appear to an impartial observer.
If we aren’t allowed to fight, then in an attempt to be heard we develop alternate communication and coping: Passive-Aggressiveness and the outer critic. Where we can become manipulative and mean.
Outside of the fight types, most traumatized children learn early on that protesting parental unfairness is an unpardonable offense. They are forced to repress their protests and complaints. This then renders their anger silent, but their anger doesn’t disappear.
Examples of passive-aggressive behavior: distancing yourself in hurt withdrawl, pushing others away with backhanded compliments, poor listening, hurtful teasing disguised as joking, withholding of positive feedback and appreciation, chronic lateness, poor follow through on commitments, crappy gift giving, slamming doors, are all unconscious, passive-aggressive ways of expressing anger to others.
Flight Response: Flight response is triggered when a person responds to a perceived threat by fleeing, or launching into hyperactivity. (Obsessive/compulsive-like defense.)
Healthy Flight Response: Disengaging from danger and leaving a situation. Taking a break from stress or worry by watching a movie, TV, etc.
Unhealthy Flight Response: Prolonged escapism which comes in both/either right brained or left brained forms. Right brain Dissociation is a form of distraction such as fantasy, fogginess, TV, tiredness, sleep, talking about dreams/future plans. Verbal self-distraction is the opposite of verbal ventilation.
Left brain dissociation is obsessiveness. Obsessive complaining, obsessive worry. Can also be trivialization. Becoming overly preoccupied with sports stats, the lives of celebrities, etc. Intellectualization such as reasoning and lofty dialogue to prevent themselves from feeling.
Freeze Response: Freeze response is triggered when a person, realizing resistance is futile, gives up, numbs out into dissociation and/or collapses as if accepting the inevitability of being hurt. (Dissociative-like defense.)
Healthy freeze response: is to give up and quit struggling when further activity or resistance is futile or counterproductive. Qualities when healthy: acute awareness, mindfulness, poised readiness, peace, presence. Unhealthy: dissociative, contracting, hiding (camouflaging), isolation, couch potato, space case, hermit, achievement phobic, social anxiety, schizophrenic, ADD. Hide away and avoid in person relationships, and may stay inside and gravitate to online relationships. No way I’ll connect. Hide to be safe. Feels like their starter button is stuck in “off.” Believe people and danger are synonymous. Ways of dissociating: excessive sleep, daydreaming, wishing, TV, surfing the internet, and video games. They have few positive experiences with intimate relationships and are less likely to seek therapy—if they do they tend to spook easily and quickly terminate. And like the flight types, they are not motivated to try to understand the effects of their childhood traumatization. They are unaware that they have a troublesome inner critic or that they are in emotional pain. They project their perfectionist demands onto others than onto themselves, which allows them to justify their isolation. Third, they have a hard time seeing the consequences of their singular adaptation (isolating behaviors). Often numb out with substances.
Unhealthy freeze response: obsessive/compulsive, panicky, rushing or worrying, driven-ness, adrenaline junkie, busyholic, micromangager, compelled by perfectionism, mood disorder (bipolar), ADHD. Stays busy to avoid being triggered by deeper relating. Perfect to connect. Perfect to be safe. Flight types are driven by a motor. They rush to achieve. Achievement and perfection will make them safe and loveable. Thinking is obsessive actions are compulsive. Solution: get centered. “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Ask yourself, what hurt am I running from right now? Can I open my heart to the idea of soothing myself in my pain right now?
Fawn Response: Fawn response is triggered when a person responds to threat by trying to be pleasing or helpful in order to appease and forestall an attacker. (codependent-like defense.)
Healthy fawn response: is to listen, help, and compromise as readily as they assert and express themselves, their needs, rights, and points of view. They do this in a non-groveling, people-pleasing way. Qualities when healthy: love and service, compromise, listening, fairness, peacemaking.
Unhealthy fawn response: codependent, obsequious, servitude, loss of self, people-pleaser, doormat, slave, social perfectionism, DV victim, parentified child (aka made to be the parent and an adult–often done by the narcissistic parent who turns their child into their substitute spouse, coach, confidant, housekeeper, or substitute mother to the younger siblings—and possibly exploited sexually). Or becomes really entertaining and put in charge of keeping the parent happy. Barely show themselves, and instead hide behind their helpful persona and over-give to others thereby not risking real self-exposure and risking rejection. Merge to connect. Grovel to be safe. Fawn type seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others. They act as if they believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.
Codependency is a syndrome of self-abandonment and self-abnegation. It is a fear-based inability to express rights, needs, and boundaries in a relationship. It is a disorder of assertiveness, characterized by a dormant fight response and a susceptibility to being exploited, abused, and/or neglected. Codependents seek safety and acceptance through listening and eliciting. The mindset is that it is safer to listen than to talk, agree than to dissent, to offer care than to ask for help, to elicit the other than to express yourself, and to leave choices to the other rather than to express preferences. Often gets needs met vicariously by helping others.
4F Hybrids. Most people have 1 main and 1 secondary 4H defense. It’s a way for the child to cope with constant danger. All 4F types are commonly ambivalent about real intimacy. They avoid vulnerability because it’s a trigger, and they flashback to childhood.
Fight-Fawn Hybrid: combines two polar opposites: narcissism and codependence. Narcissistic entitlement is typically at the core of the fight-fawn type. Goes between attacking diatribes and fervent declarations of caring in a single interaction. “Care-taking” behavior often feels coercive or manipulative, and is frequently aimed at achieving personal agendas which range from blatant to covert. Rarely takes any real responsibility for interpersonal problems and projects imperfection onto the other. Fawn behavior is typically devoid of real empathy or compassion. Some people are incorrectly diagnosed as borderline if they have some of these behaviors, but they are not, because their kindness and goodwill always returns when the flashback resolves. They also show true remorse and can sincerely apologize and make amends when appropriate. Unlike a true borderline who is narcissistic at the core. Another variant is where a person acts like fight type in one relationship while being a fawn in another, example is the henpecked husband (fawn) who is a tyrant at work, or the monster at home and the lovely lady at the office.
Flight-Freeze Hybrid: the least relationship and most schizoid. Prefers the safety of isolation, may be misdiagnosed as Asperger’s. Avoids potential relationship retraumatization with obsessive-compulsive dissociative behaviors in two steps: step 1: working to complete exhaustion. Step 2 is collapsing into extreme veggin out until energy is replenished to go back to step 1. Seeks intimacy lite type relationships—porn, one night stands, nothing too deep.
Fight-Freeze hybrid: “passive narcissist.” Demands things go his way but doesn’t care much for human interaction. Dominates thru foul moods and very quick to get hostile.
Fawn-Fight Hybrid: Also vacillates during an emotional flashback but typically does so with less venom and entitlement.
Fawn-freeze: the scapegoat. Typically the most codependent. Prone to the most extreme self-denial. Doormats. Prone to DV. Often doesn’t realize they are being abused, and if they do, they blame themselves for it. The mindset is that they need to cling to the crumbs they are given because those crumbs might be better than anything they’ve gotten before (or at home). They often abandon their protective instincts and become trapped in “learned helplessness.” Healing comes from them understanding how their childhood set them up for their current abuse, but this is often difficult, because scapegoated fawn-freezes were often punished extra hard for complaining.
Fawn-flight: Super nurse. Excessive caregiving. Excessive controlling/fixing and perfectionism. Bust taking care of everyone’s needs but their own. Often a misguided Mother Teresa type who escapes the pain of her self-abandonment by seeing herself as the perfect, selfless caregiver. Further distances herself from her own pain by OCD rushing from one person in need to another.
Fawn-fight: smother mother/caretaker. “I love you to death.” Equate helping with changing. Can alienate others by persistently pressuring them to take their advice. In flashback, the fawn-fight can deteriorate into manipulative or even coercive care-taking. Their goal is to smother love the other into conforming to their view of who they should be. May reach critical mass if someone refuses their advice or balks at unwanted caretaking. Fawn-fight wants real intimacy. Susceptible to love addiction. Their type of codependency comes from having been continuously attacked and shamed as selfish for even the most basic level of healthy self-interest.
I have to say that if you only read one book on this topic or on childhood wounds, I think I’d have to recommend this one. I’ll be really curious to hear what aha moments you guys have from this book, and what you big take aways were. You can see my full notes, as well as read more about my take aways by visiting the book club by clicking here.
And again, if you’d like to check out this book on Amazon, here is a link to it: Complex PTSD From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker it is free for Kindle Unlimited members–so that’s always a plus!
My goal is to educate, empower, and inspire other abuse victims in understanding more about what happened to them (and how to prevent it from happening again), as well as how to go on and rebuild an amazing life.
Even though I have had a lot of "in the trenches" experience with highly manipulative people of all kinds, I consider myself to be a student of Narcissism, mindset, motivation, healing, and life in general, and am by no means an expert on any of these topics.
It's for these reasons, that when you are reading my information that I encourage you to hold to what helps, and let the rest go.