Complex Trauma— A Loss of Self

Trauma Brain word cloud on a white background.

As experts are examining and revising some of the descriptions of trauma and its impact, those of us who are Students of Trauma are sometimes given the opportunity to gain new clarity and insights about the its nature and how it can rob a person of the potential to be safe with themselves. I gained new insight when reading about complex trauma and PTSD in the excellent book, When Ancestors Weep: Healing the Soul from Inter-Generational Trauma by James Houck.

Here is what the author says about the nature of complex PTSD:

“Over time, as the recent descriptions of PTSD failed to capture some of the more emerging human experiences, there was a need to widen the net even further to include personal captivity, psychological fragmentation, loss of the sense of safety, trust, and self-worth, as well as the tendency of people to be re-victimized. All in all, a distinct complexity was emerging in the field of trauma studies which included a person’s loss of a clear sense of self. This unique type of loss as a result of a traumatic event goes much deeper than simply how we and/or others view ourselves. It also includes how traumatic loss contributes to a sense of feeling disconnected from all relationships resulting in a loss of our core beliefs about who we are. Furthermore, when we lose our sense of who we are, we are perhaps more willing to seek out a sense of self-worth from others, thus allowing them to define us according to their definitions and expectations.”

Professional therapies and young woman suffering from ptsd

He goes on to describe some of the circumstances that lead to this type of complex PTSD:

“… During prolonged traumatic experiences, people are typically held in a state of captivity, physically, emotionally or both. In these situations, people feel under the control of the offender and believe that they will never be able to escape from danger. Some examples of such complex traumatic situations include: being held captive in a concentration or prisoner of war camp, prostitution or child exploitation rings, prolonged domestic violence and/or prolonged physical, emotional, sexual abuse in children.”

He goes on to describe some specific ways this deeper form of complex PTSD can be generated, such as with residential school syndrome, which is identified as the impact on the many thousands of indigenous adult victims and survivors who were placed in government established and religious-based residential schools as children. Children placed in these schools often experienced internalized feelings of abandonment, disenfranchisement, oppression, shame and racism. He also describes the sustained history of forced migration of children that occurred for over 400 years in the United Kingdom where over 130,000 children were sent to other countries like Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Australia.

Any form of historical racism fits into this description of complex PTSD. In this era of growing awareness, angst and outrage concerning racist practices, this author helps us better understand the depths of the pain and loss of these profound injustices. Hundreds of thousands of children have been wounded, who then carry these wounds into adulthood and often pass them along to their progeny.

The power of this kind of complex PTSD has deprived generations of their basic human rights and their ability to experience safety and develop a deeper, core belief of personal worth. This realization can enhance our appreciation of the pain and struggles that have existed and have been passed on for multiple generations.

We as a nation and world struggle to grasp the depth of the injustices brought on by this type of complex PTSD. There are no easy solutions. Right now, gaining new awareness, appreciation and respect for all the pain and losses that have occurred for many centuries is at least a start. Once we become more aware, we can grow in our sense of outrage as well as compassion. We can look for ways to promote some degree of healing and resolve to find ways to halt those cultural practices that deprive children, families and whole groups of people from their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I am grateful for authors like James Houck who provide new insights that can challenge us to end horrifically unfair practices and find ways to prevent this kind of complex PTSD.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. How does this information on complex trauma involving a loss of self enhance your understanding of the power of its power to deprive people of their basic human rights?
  2.  How might this information impact those who are white? Those who are Black, indigenous or people of color?
  3. If you are someone who has been impacted by complex trauma, how can you use this information to help you better understand yourself, your needs, and the work you need to do to address the wounds of your complex trauma?
  4. To what degree do you feel an obligation to continue raising your awareness and understanding of the power of this kind of complex PTSD to rob people of their human rights?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute