People who have experienced complex trauma have lived through repeated physical, psychological and/or emotional violations, often perpetrated by people who they were supposed to be able to trust and rely on. This type of abuse leaves the survivor weary, disoriented, and detached from their own personal power.
When we are stressed, we long to return to what is familiar. For survivors of complex trauma, being treated poorly, criticized, doubted and/or ignored is often what is most familiar. For this reason, survivors learn to engage in activities that may be harmful to them, to criticize and doubt themselves, and/or to ignore their inner wisdom even after the traumatic situations have ended.
Healing from complex trauma involves a fundamental transformation in the survivor’s sense of self in the world. Whether the primary approach to treating the trauma is with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Prolonged Exposure, Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, or the myriad other approaches used to help survivors, successful therapy must recognize that the client is undergoing the painful and life-changing work of creating a new familiar.
As healing progresses, a helpful marker of whether therapy has been effective is if, when the survivor is stressed, they naturally reach for soothing and healthy self-care activities. Although the list of self-care activities a survivor may engage in is endless, some good “starter kit” options include listening to pleasing music, cooking a yummy meal, going for a walk, or even boiling a cinnamon stick on the stove to make their home smell delicious and comforting. Another sign of healing is when survivors start offering themselves words of validation and support when things are hard. An example of validation in response to stress might be, “Wow, this was a really disappointing day I had. It makes sense that I feel really bad because I really wanted that job promotion and I didn’t get it. Anyone would be sad about that, and it’s especially hard for me because I was trained to be mean to myself when things are hard. This might be a good time to do something nice for myself.”
The self-compassion break from Dr. Kristin Neff is a wonderful tool. Often survivors are not open to practicing self-compassion at first because it feels so foreign and unfamiliar. When they are ready for it, I like to direct them to this tool.
At the beginning stages of therapy, the idea of treating oneself with care may feel threatening, in part because it is just so foreign. However, once this new familiar of treating oneself with care and reverence is established, the survivor is well on their way to living a life they previously could never have imagined.