Pete Walker's Model of CPTSD

Been reading Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. Realized that in that book's ontology, interacting with other live humans is enough to put me in a (low-grade, very high-functioning) flashback. Woke up this morning* and spent a few minutes reminding myself that I'm not gonna get yelled at for being late to a thing, it's OK, I'm safe...

Not knowing about the kind of deep work things like meditation enable is one of the two big things the book gets wrong. It also buys into the frame that trauma is mainly a problem deviants have, even as it points out a lot of things that imply our "normal" is trauma, e.g. it points out that (a) emotional neglect is enough to cause CPTSD, (b) successful treatment of CPTSD leads to above-"normal" emotional intelligence.

Sarah Constantin writes:

If you ever struggle with “problem behaviors” like losing your temper, feeling like you have to be perfect, procrastinating, people-pleasing, or hating yourself, I highly recommend the book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. Don’t let the title throw you off: it’s not just applicable to people who had dramatically horrible childhoods. The book’s thesis is that people can get fucked up by parents who were “merely” emotionally distant or verbally cruel.

An “emotional flashback” or “being triggered”, in the book’s lexicon, is basically any time someone “freaks out” or has an excessive emotional reaction to a situation. Also, “motivated cognition”, “denial”, “being avoidant”, all kinds of fear of looking at the truth.

Those dysfunctional patterns seem like just “the human condition” or “things everybody does”; but the book implies that they are due to trauma and that it is in principle possible to *wholly* eliminate them; it’s just REALLY hard.

If any time you notice you screwed up, you punish yourself, because you associate mistakes with childhood punishment, then it’s hard to stop that pattern because you’ll punish yourself...for punishing yourself. So “fear of social punishment”, and all the attendant coping mechanisms (self-isolating, being defensive, perfectionism, self-serving biases, etc) is hard to get rid of, ie it might take decades from the point you first decide you want to change.

The book is extremely gears-level and accurate about how emotional flashbacks work, in a way I’ve never seen in writing before.

You encounter something that makes you feel a little bad. You’re like “pshaw, this is no big deal” and dismiss the feeling. But it tends to escalate gradually into a bad day; you get irritable, you get down on yourself, you do things you feel ashamed of...

The solution is to actually be nice to yourself. Yes, really. Like a loving mother. The book has example scripts like “you are a good person” and “you don’t have to be perfect to get my love and protection.” It’s kind of magical how well that works.

“But should I really be nice to myself? I do things I objectively shouldn’t! Isn’t this kind of...unjust?”

Nope! Common rookie mistake!

It would totally be unfair of you to expect other people to give you endless, unconditional love and support. But that doesn’t apply to you. You’re stuck with yourself for good; you can commit to being on your own side no matter what. Everyone needs validation! The problem is not that you need it, the problem is that you never give yourself any so you’re looking for it externally. You’re not greedy, you’re starving.

It’s interesting to compare and contrast this with Ayn Rand’s take on the same issue. She gets that insecurity/motivated cognition/social validation-seeking is an incredibly destructive force, and that it’s really common but not a necessary part of the human condition. Her portrait of an insecure people-pleaser (Peter Keating) could have been a vignette in the CPTSD book. Raised by a domineering mother, a young man becomes obsessed with social approval & professional “success”, to the point that he has no idea what he himself thinks or feels —

eventually his sucking up to people escalates to plagiarism, betraying his best friend, ruining his romantic relationship, and even murder. Outwardly he seems nice and competent, but he’s actually miserable and morally rudderless.

The problem is that he’s the villain. He has no way to redeem himself. Rand tends to describe the pathologies of insecurity as evil. And while they are really harmful, and it does make sense for people to learn to recognize dangerous people and defend themselves, just identifying the pattern as “evil” is a totally inept form of guidance for people who struggle with insecurity. It’s a useful wake-up call if you weren’t previously aware of the problem, but it’s not a method for solving the problem.

According to the CPTSD book, it’s super common for people to realize “Oh! I have an irrational, dysfunctional behavior pattern! Now that I understand that, I’ll just never do it again.” And then you do it again. And get discouraged, and give up.

In a “well resourced” mental state, you feel clear, open-minded, able to take criticism, and you like yourself. You don’t feel the need to be defensive or people-pleasing or hide from reality. If you switch between states like that, and states where you have overwhelming cravings to do things you know are dumb, the latter state is an emotional flashback. And “I’ll never have a flashback again, now that I know they’re Bad” is an unrealistic promise to make.

The book’s approach is a.) notice flashbacks early when they’re little and apply self-compassion; b.) make time for working through grief and anger at how you were mistreated in the past. Cry and yell. Put the blame on the perpetrators, instead of on yourself or on innocents. (Mistreatment “counts” as such even if it’s normal in your culture. There are probably many things we think are “normal” to do to children which are wrong and damage their minds.)

Once I had this model, I see “triggered” behavior EVERYWHERE. “Is this person being reactive/defensive/flinchy/avoidant/appeasing?” Well, often, yes! It makes me both more compassionate and more judgmental, if that makes sense. I often ask myself the question “was that person doing a dumb thing just there, or was it actually the optimal move in a game of N-dimensional chess I don’t understand?” Well, if they have the speech patterns and body language of a triggered person, it’s probably a dumb thing. (obviously, it’s much harder to tell if you haven’t observed the person yourself, which is why speculating about the motives of people you only know from the news is so unreliable.)

The model in the CPTSD book also neatly explains how you can get so many "life-changing epiphanies" that don't stick. Going to a self-improvement workshop, or reading a good book or having a good conversation, can put you in a non-triggered, well-resourced mental state. Inside that mental state, you feel like "Gosh, I was so insecure before! I don't feel any need to do those dumb things any more, now that I realize that I'm a basically good person and I can actually look at the problems in my life as solvable! I'm cured!" But then if you get triggered again, you're back to being the person you were before, so you'll conclude the epiphany was "fake." It wasn't -- you really were in a better, saner state temporarily. But it wasn't a "cure" either.

Actual progress, says the book, means gradually getting triggered less often, and catching your triggered states earlier so they don't escalate as high or knock you out for as long.

The book's model is an alternative to the traditional "rationalist" model a la Eliezer Yudkowsky's Sequences. The theory of cognitive bias is "people are full of motivated cognition by default; evolution didn't build our brains to think clearly and accurately so we are by nature prone to flinch from harsh truths and otherwise avoid reality. But maybe if you're extremely motivated and work very hard to resist cognitive temptations, you can overcome them."

The trauma model of motivated cognition is more like "There is a "default healthy state" which is at least MUCH MORE reasonable and reality-oriented than the way most people are when they're driven by motivated cognition. This state doesn't necessarily take effort to reach; you may have had it naturally as a child, or you may fall into it now and then by sheer luck. Most if not all motivated cognition is the effect of a specific mental motion that you might call "self-punishment" or "flinching", which you learn to do from being bullied. unlearning motivated cognition, as in the rationalist model, is really hard but potentially attainable; however, the kind of work involved is not limited to self-discipline, but also involves a lot of self-compassion, as well as curiosity/experimentation."

Under the trauma model, it's still possible that the "untriggered state" has a bunch of systematic biases; but if your goal is to be more reality-oriented, and you're currently in a "triggered state" a lot, your first job is to fix that. If the trauma hypothesis is true, we'd expect to see people becoming less rational and more biased frequently, especially after being treated badly by other people. If the cognitive bias hypothesis is true, we'd rarely see this.

My response:

Strongly recommended, but I'm gonna talk about the books' weak points as well in this thread.

Walker has a REALLY good schema that helped me identify subtle CPTSD flashback behaviors, the 4Fs model: fight, flight (i.e. scramble to pass performance tess), freeze, fawn. The typology is too rigid, favoring crispness and clarity over accuracy. I was able to recognize my triggered behaviors by believing the types, but NOT the "combination" types.

Walker discloses a lot of info that implies most people have CPTSD (e.g. he points out that recovery from CPTSD creates above-"normal" emotional intelligence), but he's also committed to the idea that CPTSD is abnormal, that the law is on the side of victims, endorses scapegoating parents, etc. He somehow mixes "it's very common to wrongly assume that your trauma Doesn't Count because it's Not So Bad" with "your CPTSD upbringing is abnormal, and there's a safe normal mainstream culture to escape to."

The Body Keeps the Score specifically claims that people with CPTSD, like Walker, will reflexively side with transgressors against nontransgressors. It's very common to try to reposition oneself within the dynamic of abuse instead of actually exiting it, and Walker seems to have repositioned himself to scapegoat "abusive parents" along with the authorities, instead of scapegoating himself & other "abuse victims." Very obviously the abusive parents are most likely traumatized abuse victims! The scapegoating frame is compelled to define abuse as deviant; CPTSD mindset is simply incapable of a radical critique.

(I am not exempt from this process! Help me by pointing it out when I seem to be doing this! I have very strangely shaped trauma that makes me unusually helpable in this respect, and I've also partially liberated myself.)

If being on the side of "abuse victims" is only possibly through blaming "abusers," then one must unsee the transgressions of the authority under the aegis of which the "abusers" are scapegoated. So Walker implies a much lower level of institutional betrayal than in fact exists, absurdly claims that it's safe to assume that the authorities are on your side, and casually refers to his army buddies as examples of a basically healthy situation. Blind to Betrayal and Achilles in Vietnam might be useful companion books to correct this blind spot.

The book describes an "inner critic" layer underneath the surface layer of CPTSD flashbacks. Its description of the Inner Critic layer was sufficiently verbally loaded that I wasn't able to notice mine for a while - for me, it consists of the feeling, behavior pattern, or posture of shame about engaging in triggered behaviors, mostly not verbalized self-judgments. (I have the same problem with cognitive behavioral therapy.)

It leans harder than I'd like towards blaming parents, which I think may be an unavoidable developmental stage for people still stuck in a scapegoating mentality, but is unjust and I'd have liked a more precise finesse of that issue (as well as more clarity on systemic abuse).

Even so, it's the first book on the subject of PTSD that I was able to actually use, and led to immediate opening up, creating clarity about and processing trauma, and I'm grateful to Pete Walker for writing it.

* Compiled from an old Twitter thread

8 thoughts on “Pete Walker's Model of CPTSD

  1. Noah

    I. I'm wondering what causes people to side with transgressors. I think I've seen myself tend to side so. Something like, by transgressing, a person demonstrates power, and the severer the transgression, the higher on the predator pyramid they show themself to be.

    a. I think I have tried to demonstrate power by transgressing too, and to some degree "succeeded", in the sense of gaining dominance, but more importantly and unfortunately, made (some of?) my relationships sadder and communication-blocked as results. Though it also seems that maybe these "transgressions" were expressing real feelings as well, in a way that could be important and good.

    b. I guess what causes people to side with transgressors is basically the "point deer, make horse" thing and maybe what's going on in the rough environments described your "Locker room talk" post.

    i. It's curious that (at least under my reading / recollection of reading), it seems like when you posted "Locker room talk", your model was more like "Red Tribe areas tend to have these perverse transgressor dynamics much more than Blue Tribe areas, I am in a Blue Tribe area, let's try to propagate info better between these overlapping cities that can't see each other" and now it feels more like "actually these perverse transgressor dynamics are really common in a lot of places".

    ii. I have noticed with myself, a fearlike emotion which has some desire to avoid conflict with especially prominent transgressors, conflicting with a sense of moral indignation, which has caused a sense that I am terrible ("if you were better [sometimes, "manlier"], you would fight against these people, you are being one of the 'best that lacks all conviction', i.e. not really that great at all").

    1. Noah

      I wonder if some part of you realized circa writing the "Locker room talk" post that this kind of perversity was really common all around, and that you had contributed to it as well (I'm basing this idea off the impression I currently have left from your Twitter thread about your Fannie Mae work), but you were conditioned not to look at that. Or that you were really just oblivious to it. The former kind of makes more sense with the rest of your story as I understand it, but obliviousness ("being blind to (certain classes of?) conflict theories"?) makes more sense with what I remember from reading "Locker room talk" and some of your other posts around that time and earlier.

    2. Benquo Post author

      I agree that siding with transgressors is strongly related to the point deer make horse dynamic. CPTSD, antilaw / sadomasochistic coordination, attachment trauma, betrayal blindness, and shame are one behavior complex being pointed to from different angles.

      When I wrote "Locker room talk" I was sure it wasn't as simple as Red vs Blue but thought there was some strong correlation. I now think that at least some of the Trumpian rhetoric was just vice-signaling. I still think there are probably important distinct subcultures with distinct sexual consent norms, some of which coordinate for and some against certain kinds of transgressions, but it seems like most or all of them are thoroughly infiltrated by generalized transgression bonding.

      Picking actually dangerous fights with transgressors is sometimes playing to lose, and I'm trying to learn to play to win.

  2. KS

    > It leans harder than I'd like towards blaming parents, which I think may be an unavoidable developmental stage for people still stuck in a scapegoating mentality, but is unjust and I'd have liked a more precise finesse of that issue (as well as more clarity on systemic abuse).

    Do you know of any material (or have you written any) that points out of parent blaming to a higher dev stage?

  3. Michael Vassar

    I’m pretty sure that the blue tribe is aspirationally, and within its own narrative, less perverse, but the difference is shrinking with time. The red tribe circa 2000 normalizes much more abuse than the blue tribe circa 2000, but the differences would have been much greater between the cultures within what is now the blue tribe before WWII

  4. to establish a reference between

    I have been trying to point out that you seem to be doing this wrt Buddhism. Alas, I've been too afraid of this to make myself clear


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