By Madeleine Dunbar
As someone who experiences some symptoms of C-PTSD (Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), I often find myself taking the blame for traumatic events. I want to talk you through my rational analysis of these feelings, and I hope my musings may help someone else make peace with their misplaced and sometimes destructive emotional responses.
What is the definition of guilt?
Guilt is a feeling which occurs as a result of someone believing (rightly or wrongly) that they are responsible for a violation of moral standards.
Though similar, guilt can be distinguished from shame, another emotion commonly linked to PTSD.
Where guilt follows the negative evaluation of individual instances of behaviour and action, shame applies to the entire individual. For instance, should someone evaluate themselves in a negative light, they may feel shame. Common precursors to shame are evaluations of oneself as worthless, weak or useless.
Though for the purpose of this essay I shall be focusing on guilt, it is important to discuss shame as a response to trauma. Guilt can, in certain instances be a positive emotion. It can inspire people to make steps in a positive direction e.g., by apologising and taking accountability for their actions.
Conversely, shame seldom has a positive influence on those who experience it. A lesson I have learned through CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) in combating shame is forcing oneself to appropriately weigh up the evidence for their negative self-perception. This process includes looking for evidence against your negative self-image and not dismissing it.
Trauma & Guilt
The experience of trauma and the feeling of guilt are often closely acquainted. The feeling of guilt stems from an evaluation that something that you could have done would have improved a particular situation.
“Survivor’s guilt”, common amongst Holocaust survivors, is a mental condition that occurs when someone who has experienced a near death experience believes they are responsible for some wrongdoing by surviving when others did not.
My view is that guilt can be a substitute emotion for feelings of anger, upset and injustice. By placing the wrongdoing in our own hands, we are able to reclaim some control over the traumatic situations we have faced.
By concluding that there was something different you could have done within traumatic events, it prevents you from confronting the terrifying fact that sometimes, bad things happen to good people, regardless of what they do to protect themselves.
Unfortunately, it is the case that, sometimes without rhyme or reason, people do bad things to one another. Worse still, sometimes those responsible for such wrongdoing will never face the repercussions they ought to. Often, justice is left unserved.
When experiencing feelings of guilt, I find it helpful to remember the context of the traumatic experiences you faced.
What could you have done, knowing what you knew then, with the skills you had at the time?
We all know the saying ‘hindsight is 2020’, and in recent years this idiom has reasserted itself with ironic poignance. When reflecting, we reflect as we are now. Often, we fail to respect our past selves and the capacities that they had at the time of facing traumatic events. Forgive yourself and take pride in the fact that the knowledge you have now may be different to the knowledge you had at the time of experiencing trauma.
It was not until recently that I learned there are four trauma responses. I was aware of better-known freezing, fleeing, and fighting responses. The fourth, known as fawning was seldom discussed.
Fawning is a form of appeasement that can occur in instances of abuse. Characteristics of a fawning response include, individuals abandoning their own preferences or personal needs in favour of maintaining peace and stability with their abuser.
Having a fawning response can mean that you particularly struggle in evaluating your own needs and interests.
A way in which I cope with this milder form of de-personalisation is by making sure to ask myself “what do you need in this moment?”. The answer is seldom the same, and it may at first feel frustrating. Surely if I knew what it was that I needed I wouldn’t be feeling this way. That being said, it is an important first step in becoming better acquainted with oneself in order to provide the best form of self-care. Sometimes I will even go through a simple checklist, have I eaten, drank water, slept enough?
A common implication of having a fawning response is experiencing difficulty in communicating with others. A fear of negotiating or expressing one’s own desires can negatively impact relationships both in personal and professional spheres.
When I find a conversation particularly daunting, I find it helpful to write some bullet points down. What do I want to get out of the conversation? How should I bring about my concerns and which form of communication would I feel most comfortable using? Writing a brief script for oneself can be influential in assuring that you assert yourself in the ways in which you intended.
Self-compassion is critical in assessing past instances of abuse. Though it can be tempting to put the burden on ourselves and turn our resentment inward, there are other forms of reclaiming the control we crave. We can focus on developing new skills and learning how to better assert our own boundaries. We can fight our destructive urges with unabashed self-love. We can learn how not to hurt others by not hurting ourselves.
For a more in-depth discussion of C-PTSD and the four trauma responses I recommend Pete Walker’s ‘Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving’. As I am not a medical professional my advice is mostly anecdotal, inspired by my own experiences within therapy and years of introspection.