Emotional Neglect - A Primary Cause Of Complex PTSD?
~ Pete Walker
Early on in working with this model, I was surprised that a number of clients with moderate and sometimes minimal sexual or physical childhood abuse were plagued by emotional flashbacks. Over time, however, I realized that these individuals had suffered extreme emotional neglect: the kind of neglect where no caretaker was ever available for support, comfort or protection. No one liked them, welcomed them, or listened to them. No one had empathy for them, showed them warmth, or invited closeness. No one cared about what they thought, felt, did, wanted, or dreamed of.
Such trauma victims learned early in life that no matter how hurt, alienated, or terrified they were, turning to a parent would actually exacerbate their experience of rejection.The child who is abandoned in this way experiences the world as a terrifying place. I think about how humans were hunter-gatherers for most of our time on this planet—the child's survival and safety from predators during the first six years of life during these times depended on being in very close proximity to an adult. Children are wired to feel scared when left alone, and to cry and protest to alert their caretakers when they are. But when the caretakers turn their backs on such cries for help, the child is left to cope with a nightmarish inner world—the stuff of which emotional flashbacks are made.
Because of this, emotional flashbacks can best be understood as the key symptom of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a syndrome afflicting many adults who experienced ongoing abuse or neglect in childhood.
Emotional flashbacks can best be understood as the key symptom of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a syndrome afflicting many adults who experienced ongoing abuse or neglect in childhood. As described by leading trauma theorist Judith Herman (Trauma and Recovery) and renowned PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk,
Complex PTSD is caused by "prolonged, repeated trauma" and
"a history of subjection to totalitarian control"
such as happens in extremely dysfunctional families.
It is distinguished from the more familiar type of PTSD in which the trauma is specific and defined; because of the prolonged nature of the trauma, Complex PTSD can be even more virulent and pervasively damaging in its effects. (Complex PTSD has not yet been included in the DSM.)
Ongoing experience convinces me that some children respond to pervasive emotional neglect and abandonment by over-identifying or even merging their identity with the inner critic and adopting an intense form of perfectionism that triggers them into painful abandonment flashbacks every time they are less than perfect or perfectly pleasing. When I encourage such clients to free-associate during their emotional flashbacks, I frequently hear a version of this toxic shame spiral: "If only I were perfect. If only I were an ‘A' student . . . a baseball hero . . . a beauty queen . . . a saint. If only I weren't so stupid and selfish, then maybe they'd love me. But who am I kidding? I'll never be anywhere near that, because I'm just a piece of shit.
Who in the world could ever care about someone so pathetic?"