Healing from Complex PTSD is Good Parenting
Having CPTSD is like being at a dance and not knowing what the steps are. It feels like two steps forward, one step back, three steps to the right, ten to the left, and then we start all over again without knowing what the pattern is or if there is a final goal. No rhyme or reason. Other people seem to be doing the dance well and I just want to rebel against the tempo, get out of this dance, or pretend that I’m doing it like the rest of the people on the dance floor.
Parenting is like juggling, but people, some random some close friends and family, keep throwing more things at me expecting me to keep it all in the air. They don’t tell me when they will stop throwing things at me. As if that’s not bad enough, there are many judgmental faces, flashing score cards towards me and I have no idea what the rating scheme is.
Put that together and I end up with a royal mess and a frozen me in the middle of the dance floor thinking “Yikes, I can’t make this work!” When I start moving, I trip over myself and fall down.
CPTSD + Parenting + Midlife = OMG I’m falling apart!
Overwhelmed by the Pressure
This dance is no fun, too stressful, and, if it goes on long enough, soul destroying.
For many parents, the juggling comes first, because one of those things in the air is the future well-being of our child and another is the present relationship. We focus on keeping those things while we bump into other people and twist our ankles in this chaotic dance. In a weird way, we choose the juggling because it’s the urgent thing to do. It’s easier to turn our attention to what feels urgent and neglect what is actually important and key to successfully achieving our goals.
The judgment of our parenting, real or in our heads cause us to second guess everything or feel defensive and spend headspace devising protective shields from the criticism. Of course… the stumbling about from the CPTSD can make the juggling impossible to maintain.
So… what to do when we hit that point of OMG, I can’t make my life work?
Listen to the Message
Well, first, listen to that voice. Hear it, don’t fight it, don’t judge it. What’s the message?
Yes, listen to it. Hear it. What are you feeling? What is it telling you? More importantly, why is it telling you that?
There’s often one part of our brain that tells us it’s all our own fault for not being enough, that other people can do it, and we should be able to do it. The Tough Love Coach is telling us Get up and get going, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This voice points to Facebook and Instagram photos of perfect vacations and family gatherings that couldn’t be further from the picture of what is going on in our own lives at the moment.
There’s another part of our brain that is yelling No, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. [Insert various name calling that we do to ourselves.] This voice can sound incredibly critical, but like all the voices in our head, it’s surprisingly just trying to protect us in the only way it knows how. It’s trying to get us to stop what we are doing and figure it out. But it sounds like it’s attacking us for not being able to do what we are supposed to do. It creates a huge burden of blame, shame, and guilt.
What do these voices have in common? They are trying to shame us into action. But… if we are not careful or if we have not developed skills to translate that into something more productive through no fault of our own, this turns toxic.
Pete Walker in his ground-breaking book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving reminds us that ‘toxic shame can obliterate your self-esteem in the blink of an eye.” What does that mean? It means that it only takes a split second for a shameful thought to trigger a take over and completely shut down our self-esteem. A split second!
When these two voices, among the many others, start going at each other and at us, the shame can become incredibly overwhelmingly toxic and our self-esteem voice gets frozen.
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But the Problem Was...
The biggest problem was that I had to behave like a parent while I was dealing with my CPTSD.
Example: One day I was so tired, frustrated, and fearful that my children would never help around the house, I lost it. I yelled at them and even grabbed the broom out of my younger son’s hand and slammed it against the pantry door. The broom broke and left a mark on the door (still there) and my boys and I looked at each other with our mouths open.
I had my Tiger Mom hat on and was not considering anything else. Not their situation, not our relationship, not anything other than WHY AREN’T THEY DOING THEIR CHORES!? I had an over-reaction to a moment in time when they didn’t do exactly what I wanted, how I wanted, when I wanted. And… I got triggered. I threw a temper tantrum.
So, while my issue was legitimate (I still think I’m right in wanting them to help with housework), the state of mind I was in was causing me to behave in a way that would be counter-productive for their learning, our relationship, and for my own healing. The fact was I needed to heal when I didn’t even know I needed to heal.
I didn’t know I was responding from a place of fear and past trauma. I just thought that I was getting angry about something that was legitimate. Even the kids agreed that my issue was legitimate. They were prepared to internalize my behaviour as reasonable.
That was where I had to draw the line.
So, after taking a few deep breaths, I told them, Hey, I’m angry. I’m super angry. But the anger has nothing to do with you. No one deserves to be yelled at like that. You did not deserve that. I lost it, and that’s on me. I still think the reason why I got mad is actually still a legitimate issue and I’d like you to keep that in mind, but no one, not a single person, deserves to be yelled at like that. You should never let anyone yell at you like that, not me, not anyone. I am so sorry for yelling at you and even breaking that broom.
The Good News Is...
The good news is once I started realizing that I wanted to change and committed to the idea that I did not want to pass on my traumas to my children, I could get the kind of help I needed. The not-so-great-news is that it’s a lot of hard work and there’s a lot of taking steps forward and backward. I’d like to say that magically I no longer yelled at them, but it took a few more triggers before I was able to stop the yelling from coming out of my mouth.
The even-better-news is that now we can laugh about that night now. They remember that day clearly, oh yes they do. We even occasionally (casually) notice the mark the broom left on the pantry door. And once upon a time, that would have brought out a lot of shame in me. But now I can look back and say, that was the best I could do at that moment. They saw me learn and change. They can tease me about it now. They have pointed out that I am not a yelly mommy anymore.
It helped that my hyper-vigilant kids would sometimes pause and say, Hey Mommy, are you getting stressed? Are you mad? You look like you’re mad. They were saying this at times when I was just sitting there with a furrow in my brow, thinking about what else to put on my grocery list. I knew that I did not want them walking on eggshells around me or being constantly worried that I was going to blow my top.
Reading parenting books telling me to be better was triggering, only I didn’t realize it. I just kept beating myself up for being a bad parent. Now, I’m not a bad parent, I tell you, I’m pretty good. But, as a human being, I had some bad moments. As someone with CPTSD, those moments would trigger spirals of self-loathing ending with I can’t make my life work. Work triggers did the same. If I only had to deal with one or two triggers a day, I could manage for a while. But dealing with a few at work and then a few at home on the same day was turning into a full-blown breakdown.
It's Never Too Late
Parenting is difficult. Suffering from CPTSD can be debilitating. Trying to be a great parent whilst dealing with CPTSD is overwhelming. As parents, we can’t stop taking care of things and as CPTSD survivors we need to take care of ourselves.
Working on the CPTSD will make a difference in how we parent and how we interaction with people in general. It’s especially important to do this work for the people we love most.
Know that you’re not alone and that there are people who want and can help.