As adults, we frequently focus on where we want to be or on what we want to achieve. It’s absolutely normal and there’s nothing wrong with setting our eyes on the goal. However, in doing so, we may fall into the trap of the ‘ I Should Be There By Now’, which immediately turns off any desire to keep going forward and turns on the ‘Why Am I Still Not There, I’m a Worthless Failure’ mechanism loaded with anger, frustration or guilt. And here’s where the trouble starts…
It all started in the first five years of our lives. The paradox and cruelty of this beginning is that – as adults – we find ourselves wanting to come to terms with elements of our psyche that shaped who we are before our memory was fully formed. As a consequence, we may feel like we’re fighting an unknown element of our own self and it feels like a battle we’re bound to lose. But there’s a whole science full of good news we’re usually unaware of. This article describes the coaching path we usually follow when working with CPTSD survivors, outlines its main steps and shows the key areas of focus for this particular type of coaching. As all our CPTSD articles, it draws from the work of Pete Walker and his pivotal book: CPTSD: From Surviving To Thriving.
CPTSD: The Adult Cost of Our Childhood Abandonment
Any individual can end up struggling with CPTSD – Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All it takes for the seed of this crippling mental pattern to be planted is to be born into a family who cannot or will not love us unconditionally or with the intensity we crave and need.
Traumatising abuse and abandonment can occur on verbal, emotional, spiritual, and/or physical levels and if it happens to us early in our childhood, our ego fails to fully evolve and is hijacked by the superego.
Let’s see what each of them is supposed to be responsible for:
Ego is the common sense, an individual’s reaction to her needs and consists of well-organized sections including reasoning, tolerance, memory, understanding, judgment and planning.
Superego becomes the conscience, the inner voice is constantly reminding us to be good. A healthy superego helps a child to become good following their beliefs and norms in life associated with ethics and spiritual values of their community. The superego is our Inner Critic and in a happy, non-traumatised individual it plays the role of a loving teacher, correcting and reminding us of what is right. In a CPTSD Survivor’s head, this voice is the origin of all pain.
Meet Your Inner Critic : The Origin Story
The ego begins to develop during the first three years of a child’s life. Finally, the superego starts to emerge around age five, focused on what the young human needs to do to win love and acceptance of those she loves. If her parents cannot or will not love her, accept her, see her for who she is, the superego will start working over-time, trying to solve the parental love algorithm, unable to accept that her parents might not be able to love her the way she needs it.
Unable to find a pattern of behaviour that will grant her parents’ complete acceptance, the superego gets more and more demanding, harsher and harsher become its demands: Be the best, be the smartest, be the slimmest, be the fastest, be the tidiest, be the… and maybe this way they will finally love you as much as you need. The tragedy is that there is no winning the approval we crave. If our parents could love and accept us the way we need to be loved, they would. What prevents them from doing so is a matter for a different article altogether, but the frequent reasons are: being love-deprived in their own childhood, being or having narcissistic personality traits, old-fashioned and obsolete mental & parenting structures. They may be doing their best, but their love is just not hitting the mark, being limited by conditions, dependant on unwritten and fluctuating rules or subject to mood swings.
Can it get better? The CPTSD Healing Path
As Trauma-Informed Coaches, we designed a path to work with any CPTSD survivors – regardless of the topic or issue they wish to face or solve.
The first step is called Cognitive Healing, the second focuses on managing the emotional flashbacks and becoming aware of the love we still feel deprived of, finally there are techniques we use to start learning to speak to ourselves in a more loving, less cruel way. All three steps intertwine and merge in a coaching project that can take from a couple of
months to years, depending on the severity and duration of the abuse.
What is the Cognitive Healing?
If you are a CPTSD Survivor, you are likely to experience it as you’re reading this article. Cognitive Healing is linked to understanding that the harsh, cruel voice in our head ISN’T US. We become aware of the following truths and make them our own:
- We do not need to take the words of our inner critic as our own,
- Who we are – our Ego and our Id, travelling inside the vessel of our physical body – were given a cruel jailer instead of a loving teacher to guide us in the creation of our Superego. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t safe. It made us believe that the voice of constant criticism and dissatisfaction is our own.
- The reason the cruel, never-content angry critic exists in our heads in the first place is NOT our fault. It was normal for the young us to crave, yearn for, hope and contort our physical and mental being to try to win the approval we needed to survive. This full acceptance was supposed to be given to us for free the moment we were born. Instead, we paid and keep paying the highest price imaginable for… still not having it.
- When we hear the voice of our inner critic with particular strength, we get thrown into an Emotional Flashback – a state of profound despair (Other possible states might be: anger, incapacity to act, incapacity to move, binge-eating, self-hatred, self-abandonment, catastrophising, inability to say no, etc)
- We can shrink the inner critic by a series of coaching exercises and by exercising flashback management and thought correction practices.
As a part of Cognitive Healing, we explore the origins of ego and superego, read parts of Pete Walker’s body of work, speak about self-parenting, our go-to trauma responses (Fight Flight Foam or Freeze) and discuss the most effective way to shrink the inner critic.
As we become more aware of the origin of our Inner Critic and the beginning of our Toxic Shame, we move towards Flashback Management and the Grieving Process.
If you want to read more about Flashback Management, Here is an article you may find useful: What are the Emotional Flashbacks in CPTSD Recovery and How to Manage Them
Grieving – Its role, function and importance in the process of recovery
The role of grief in CPTSD recovery is huge and it needs to be faced with the awareness of how delicate and fragile being vulnerable may make us feel. This is why the main focus on grieving should come once we’ve digested – at least in part – the cognitive awareness that the hate we feel for our own imperfections isn’t what we really feel towards ourselves. We need to understand the tragedy of our young selves, trapped in the hamster wheel of trying to discover the answer to the question: How to Make My Parents Love Me and Accept Me for Who I Am and failing – again and again and again. If you still cannot grief for your young self, here is a parabole we want you to read:
A Tale Of A Cursed Heart
Once upon a time, there was a lovely little child. She was the most beautiful, chubby, talk-smelling little human and her emotions were as strong as a mountain river – powerful and capable of carving stones with its power.
Unfortunately, a curse had been put on the child’s parents many years before the little one was born – their hearts were unable to see the beauty of their child. Even though they could love and accept other people, their eyes were cold and distant when they looked at the pink cheeks of their own kid and they would turn away from the soft velvety arms extended towards them. They punished and corrected the child often, hugged her very little and never, ever accepted or encouraged the child’s exploration of the mountain river of her emotions.
The child’s despair grew with every passing month – she tried everything: studying, cleaning, fighting, disappearing, arguing, yelling, helping, being really tidy, being really messy, being really smart, not being at all – nothing worked. For the cursed hearts of her parents wouldn’t allow them to see what a beautiful, unique and splendid person their little one really was. But the little one had no idea that nothing she would ever do could make the parents’ hearts love her the way she needed to be loved.
With every failed attempt at winning their parents’ love, the child would become more and more critical of her own capacity to ever succeed. She would start yelling at herself, silently, in the privacy of her own head. ‘You useless, failed, horrible monster!’ the nasty voice would hiss after yet another failed bid for her parents’ attention and approval. ‘You aren’t good enough, pretty enough, fast enough! If you were, they would love you – see, they love others! It’s only you who are broken, unlovable, insufficient!’
Spring turned into summer. Summer into winter. And just like that – one year slipped by, then another. And one day the child could no longer separate the voice in her head from who she was. She believed that the fault was hers and hers alone. And she grew into a worried, anxious adult, too scared of her own imperfections to fully love or to trust others. Until one day, a Coach crossed her path…
If our story moved you even a little bit – it’s more than enough. Can you grief and cry for a child who believes they don’t deserve to be loved by their own parents? Can you feel compassion and pain for them? If so, you are looking at the door to your own recovery. It takes a bit more effort to transfer this compassion and grief at your young self, but seeing that the story is – OBJECTIVELY – unfair and heartbreaking is the best start we can be hoping for.
It’s All In Your Head, Which Doesn’t Make It Less Real: Thought-related strategies
In the process of CPTSD Coaching, we work on different ways to redirect the voice in our head. We voice anger for the cards stacked against us from the very start of our conscious being. We find kinder words, more positive learnings, less cruel demands, fairer judgement. We become the parents our poor, abandoned inner child needed and wanted from the day they were born.
Progressively, the flashbacks become milder and shorter and with the care and attention of our adult selves, our inner child can laugh, explore, voice their emotions and attentively but calmly watch us live our adult lives. It is a process and it doesn’t have a one-fit-all timeline.
But we know, we are sure and convinced – it works. It soothes the pain and brings the happiness a CPTSD survivor was helplessly trying to find in work, drugs, food, diets or perfectionism. Because, differently from what we all tried to do as young adults, we operate now with the correct mental and cognitive tools to actually succeed.
If you need to speak with a coach or if you have any question about Coaching or CPTS Recovery, we are here for you.
Bibliography: Pete Walker From Surviving to Thriving: A GUIDE AND MAP FOR RECOVERING FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA ISBN-10 : 1492871842 ISBN-13 : 978-1492871842