Complex PTSD occurs as a result of repeated or ongoing traumatic events. While complex trauma can happen at any time in life, this post focuses on attachment trauma related to childhood abuse or neglect. Most often there is a combined wound, in which you experience deficient nurturance from loving caregivers coupled with inadequate protection from dangerous situations or people. Growing up within an environment of fear, chaos, or rejection, and abandonment has significant and long-lasting repercussions on physical and emotional health.
As a result of attachment trauma, you might carry beliefs that you are damaged, not lovable, or that you cannot trust anyone. You might have feelings of shame, unworthiness, or helplessness. Perhaps, you feel plagued by anxiety or believe that you don’t belong in this world.
“Attachment trauma can lead you to withdraw from relationships in order to avoid further rejection or hurt. Or, you might feel overly dependent upon others and fearful of rejection. If you relate to these symptoms, it is important to know that you are not alone. These painful emotions are remnants of your past.” ~Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Complex PTSD and Childhood Trauma
Growing up with childhood trauma inhibits creativity and replaces curiosity with fear. Your ability to feel confident in your friendships or successful in school becomes hindered. Over time, feelings of insecurity and inadequacy inform your sense of self—they become your identity.
Often complex trauma begins in infancy. The nervous system of an infant is completely dependent upon caregivers to help them feel safe, connected, and calm. Growing up with parents who were dysregulated, abusive, or neglectful shapes a child’s vulnerable nervous system. This can lead to long-lasting patterns of emotional and physiological distress that get carried into adulthood.
Sometimes, memories of physical or sexual abuse can lead to strong emotions and body sensations without a well-developed ability to explain your experience with words. These feelings can be difficult to understand. There may be parts of your memories that are unclear or forgotten. These experiences can evoke feelings self-doubt. Moreover, your ability to care for yourself as an adult is often a reflection of how you were cared for as a child.
Understanding Attachment Trauma
The first three years of life is referred to as the attachment phase of development. During this time, we need to feel safe and secure in our relationships with our mother, father, and other primary caregivers. This allows us to develop a healthy sense of self that forms the foundation for our ability to develop meaningful, healthy relationships as adults. If you have experienced C-PTSD in childhood, then these early relationships were most likely frightening, unpredictable, threatening, or unavailable. Your ability to form a “secure attachment” was likely disrupted.
Children respond to these earliest relationships by developing attachment styles which have been categorized into secure, insecure ambivalent, insecureavoidant, and disorganized attachment. Let’s take a closer look:
This attachment style forms when a primary caregiver was predictable, consistent, and trustworthy. Your parents did not have to be perfect. In fact, times of disconnection or misunderstanding are inevitable. However, a “good enough” parent provides opportunities to repair these moments of disconnection which builds your capacity to handle stress. A child who feels securely attached typically views a parent as a source of comfort and feels comfortable exploring, learning, and playing. As an adult, this security translates into the ability to develop meaningful connections with others while handling inevitable conflicts skillfully.
This attachment style arises when a primary caregiver was inconsistent and unpredictable. There may have been times in which you felt cared for; but these were interspersed with experiences of being yelled at or rejected for expressing your needs. These mixed messages typically lead to feelings of uncertainty because you could not trust that a loving and caring parent would be there when you needed them. In adulthood, it is common to feel fearful about being abandoned accompanied by strong dependency needs toward others.
This attachment style arises when a primary caregiver was disengaged, distant, and unavailable. Typically, your needs to be loved, accepted, seen, and understood were dismissed or ignored. As a result, you learned to take care of your own needs by becoming independent and self-reliant. In adulthood, it is common to maintain a dismissive attitude toward your own emotions and extend this same position in your relationships with others. As a result, you might struggle with intimacy; especially when your partner desires a deeper connection.
This attachment style arises when a primary caregiver was chaotic and abusive. Instead of being a source of love and care, the parent was a source of terror. Because we have an innate, biological drive toward attachment, children still attach to parents, even if they are aggressive and cruel perpetrators of abuse. There is an inherent double bind between our inborn need for closeness and the equally strong need to escape danger. Over time, this unsolvable dilemma leads to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. In adulthood, it is common to alternate between feeling high arousal emotions of fear, irritability, or anger and low arousal emotions of defeat, despair, or depression. It is also common to repeat the relational patterns learned in childhood either by choosing partners who are abusive or behaving in abusive manner yourself.
Of note, most of us develop a combination of different attachment strategies. In part, because we have more than one parent who may have treated us differently. Therefore, you might notice that you have a mixture of secure, insecure, and disorganized strategies.
Earned Secure Attachment
Most importantly, you have the capacity to develop “earned secure attachment” in which you learn how to feel securely attached in adulthood. An essential component of earned secure attachment is to recognize the impact of childhood events on your sense of self. In other words, you take responsibility for how your past has shaped you. The ability to coherently and accurately talk about your past is sign of earned security. Knowledge of your attachment deficits allows you to practice reaching out for support from others and tolerating increasing amounts of authentic connection. Furthermore, such self-awareness also helps you to successfully create repair when you have misunderstood or hurt a loved one.
Healing Strategy: Anchor your Adult Self
Unresolved attachment trauma is often held by a young part of self. This is commonly referred to as your inner child. At times, you might feel identified with this young part of you that feels small or insecure. Other times, you might feel more connected to your adult self, helping you to feel confident and strong.
This healing strategy helps you to connect your adult self so that you can reconnect to your resources. Remember, as an adult, you have a range of choices that weren’t available to you as a child. You can recognize that your painful feelings are connected to memories from your past. Most importantly, you can recognize that the events of past are over now. As an adult, you can compassionately attend to the vulnerable feelings and emotions of held by a younger part of yourself. The following list of suggestions can be used to help anchor your adult self.
- Say to yourself, “I know that I am an adult now and that I am safe.”
- Visualize an image of yourself as a child. Can you imagine looking into the eyes of your young self in a loving and compassionate manner?
- Notice if you find it difficult to feel warmth or compassion toward your young self. If so, can you imagine another person who could be a loving ally for this young part of you? Can you imagine that person turning toward that part of you with kindness and love?
- Imagine your adult self or loving ally to speak lovingly to your young self. Speak in a way that offers comfort, unconditional acceptance, protection, or reassurance to your young self.
If you find that you are having difficulty with this practice, remember that you do not need to heal alone. Often, the work of healing a young part of self is best accomplished in the compassionate care of a therapist.
In time, it is possible to reclaim a secure sense of self. With practice, you develop greater faith in your capacity to sustain a positive mindset and hopeful outlook toward your future. Remember, your hard-earned insights and experiences of empowerment cannot be taken away from you. Eventually, you can reach a tipping point of growth in which you no longer identify with the shame and burdens of your childhood wounds.
Want to learn more about healing PTSD?
Connect to this post? The EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology book, is available on Amazon! Click here to increase your toolbox for healing. An integrative and effective approach to healing from trauma.
The Complex PTSD Workbook is available on Amazon! Click here to check it out.
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 (Althea press, 2016) and co-author of EMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology: Interventions to Enhance Embodiment in Trauma Treatment (Norton, 2018). 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.