Healing Complex PTSD
Healing from complex PTSD takes time and requires commitment. This is because exposure to neglect or abuse during childhood leaves a profound and persistent mark on your body and mind. Within psychotherapy, clients who do not get better are called “resistant.” Unfortunately, resistance is too often misattributed to a lack of willpower, laziness, or stubbornness. As a result, clients who are most in need of support are left feeling misunderstood or risk losing faith in therapy.
“If you have been told you are a resistant client, it is important to understand what dynamics might be at play. I invite you to think of resistance as a normal process of self-protection. Moreover, become curious—resistance is information and your job is to understand the message. This process requires compassion for yourself and from your therapist.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Reasons for Resistance
It is common and natural to want to push away from the healing process. Getting close to traumatic material can feel threatening. Therapeutic resistance is one form of avoidance that you might try in order to protect yourself from pain. Despite your longing to heal, you may start running the other way. The good news is that if you are encountering resistance in therapy, you may just be on the right track and as you face what you have been avoiding, you will eventually feel better.
Let’s take a closer look at what resistance might be telling you:
- Resistance can indicate good therapy: Resistance can arise because therapy is going well. You are getting closer to painful memories and difficult feelings. You may backpedal as an attempt to slow down the therapy.
- Resistance is a sign of ambivalence: It is normal to have mixed feelings about change. Part of you may want to change, while another part may feel threatened or frightened.
- Resistance is a remnant of untrustworthy care: If you have a history of misdiagnosis or feeling criticized by health care providers, you might feel reticent to talk openly or honestly about your internal struggles. If you have had a poor therapy experience in the past, it is understandable that you would feel tentative as you return or feel the need to test out the approach of your new therapist.
- Resistance can be a sign of bad therapy: Until you feel safe, you will not let go of your avoidance strategies. If you feel that your therapist lacks empathy, if you feel blamed, or if you are locked in a power struggle, it is impossible to feel safe.
All resistance and defenses are learned behaviors. You only develop psychological defenses because they were once necessary for self-protection. In order to heal, it is important to become curious about your behaviors and their origins. The practice of being curious helps you to cultivate insight, a deeper understanding that leads to compassion and acceptance…ultimately allowing you to let go of your self-protection.
Here are some additional tools to overcome resistance in therapy:
- Find the right therapist: Resistance may be a sign that you need a therapist who takes a different approach. Complex PTSD is relationally based trauma; therefore, it is integral to treatment that you work with a therapist you can trust. It can be helpful to seek a referral from a friend, health care provider, or other trusted source, or investigate therapy resource websites to find a therapist whose philosophy resonates with you.
- Discuss your Fears: Once you have a therapist you relate to explore any misgivings you have about facing difficult memories or letting go of your defenses.
- Focus on Resources: Check in about the pacing of therapy to ensure that you are not getting flooded or overwhelmed. If you feel overwhelmed in treatment, you can focus on strengthening your resources for trauma recovery to create greater safety.
- Get Messy: Therapy is messy and often uncomfortable. In order to heal, it is necessary to let go of any need you might have to manage how other people see you. If you are like most people, you prefer to be seen as strong, capable, intelligent, and in control. However, it is important to recognize that nobody feels like this all of the time. Bringing the true you—even the messy, hidden parts of yourself—into the therapy room is an important step toward healing.
- Cultivate Compassion: Explore your experience of resistance within a context of mindfulness and body awareness as a means to cultivate self-compassion. A mind-body approach to healing can strengthen your self-acceptance. Just as the alchemist turns lead into gold, your suffering can serve as a foundation of personal transformation. When you overcome obstacles to your healing you will have the opportunity to integrate new positive feelings and beliefs about yourself into your life.
Want to learn more about healing complex PTSD?
Connect to this post? This was an excerpt from my book, The Complex PTSD Workbook, now available on Amazon! Click here to check it out and increase your toolbox for healing. Whether you are a client or a therapist this book will offer a guided approach to trauma recovery.
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.