What It’s Like to Be a Complex Trauma Survivor of Narcissistic Abuse

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“Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom. But the personality formed in the environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life. The survivor is left with fundamental problems in basic trust, autonomy, and initiative. She approaches the task of early adulthood――establishing independence and intimacy――burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and in memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships.

She is still a prisoner of her childhood; attempting to create a new life, she reencounters the trauma.”
― Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

Complex trauma is compounded trauma and can result in symptoms of Complex PTSD. Survivors of complex trauma endure trauma not only in childhood, but often in adulthood as well. Imagine, if you will, multiple chains of traumas, all of which are connected in some way to each other. The most recent traumas build on earlier ones, reinforcing ancient wounds, maladaptive belief systems and fear-based physiological responses. These childhood wounds create the foundation of deep-seated toxic shame and self-sabotage for the survivor; each “tiny terror” or larger trauma in adulthood builds upon it, brick by brick, creating an ingrained framework for self-destruction. Even when one wound is excavated, addressed and healed, another trauma that wound was connected to will inevitably unravel in the process.

The complex trauma survivor’s life history is layered with chronic trauma as a result of ongoing stressors such as long-term domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse and physical abuse – situations where the individual is held “captive” whether emotionally or physically, feels under the complete control of a perpetrator or multiple perpetrators and a perceived inability to escape the threatening situation.

Yet complex trauma isn’t just caused by physical abuse; traumas such as severe verbal and emotional abuse in childhood has the potential to wreak havoc on one’s sense of self and navigation in the world, even going so far as to rewiring the brain (Van der Kolk, 2015). According to trauma therapist Pete Walker, “The genesis of complex PTSD is most often associated with extended periods of ongoing physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood. My observations, however, convince me that ongoing extremes of verbal and/or emotional abuse also cause it.”

Complex Trauma and Complex PTSD

The National Center for PTSD notes that those who suffer from Complex Trauma can experience disruptions in the following areas in addition to the regular symptoms of PTSD.

  • Emotional Regulation. Complex trauma survivors can struggle with  feelings of depression, suicidal ideation as well as extreme rage.
  • Consciousness. Those who have endured complex trauma may relive traumatic events, feel disassociated from the trauma, their bodies, the world and/or have problems with accessing their memories of the trauma. This is not surprising, considering that trauma interferes with parts of the brain that deal with learning, decision-making and memory. What’s interesting is that complex trauma survivors can endure not only visual flashbacks of the trauma but also “emotional flashbacks” that cause them to regress back to the emotional states of hopelessness where they first encountered the original wounds (Walker, 2013).
  • Self-Perception. Survivors carry a sense of toxic shame, helplessness and a feeling of “separateness” from others, of being different and defective due to the trauma. They also bear the burden of guilt and negative self-talk that does not belong to them; Pete Walker (2013) calls this the “inner critic,” an ongoing inner dialogue of self-blame, self-hatred and a need for perfectionism that evolved from being punished and conditioned to believe that their needs did not matter.  As he writes, “In extremely rejecting families, the child eventually comes to believe that even her normal needs, preferences, feelings and boundaries are dangerous imperfections – justifiable reasons for punishment and/or abandonment.” Children who experience abuse in early childhood have a difficult time distinguishing between the abuser’s actions and words and reality. A child who is told that the abuse is their fault repeatedly will come to believe in and internalize their lack of worth without question.

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