Complex PTSD is Not a Personality Disorder


“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.” ~Viktor E. Frankl, MD


Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a psychological injury, NOT — as some people believe — an inherent personality disorder.

What difference does a label make? Personality Disorders “blame the victim.” C-PTSD blames the trauma.

I have copied below four excerpts from the book COMPLEX PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: a Guide and Map to Recovering from Childhood Trauma by Pete Walker, M.A., MFT. Pete Walker is a therapist with more than thirty years experience in treating traumatized patients.

All of the following excerpts are taken from Chapter One.

Here is the first excerpt:

First, the good news about Cptsd. It is a learned set of responses, and a failure to complete numerous important developmental tasks. This means that it is environmentally, not genetically, caused. In other words, unlike most of the diagnoses it is confused with, it is neither inborn nor characterological. As such, it is learned. It is not inscribed in your DNA. It is a disorder caused by nurture [or rather the lack of it] not nature.

This is especially good news because what is learned can be unlearned and vice versa. What was not provided by your parents can now be provided by yourself and others.

Recovery from Cptsd typically has important self-help and relational components. The relational piece can come from authors, friends, partners, teachers, therapists, therapeutic groups or any combination of these. I like to call this reparenting by committee.

I must emphasize, however, that some survivors of Cptsd engendering families were so thoroughly betrayed by their parents, that it may be a long time, if ever, before they can trust another human being enough to engage in relational healing work. When this is the case, pets, books and online therapeutic websites can provide significant relational healing.

(Second Excerpt):

Definition Of Complex PTSD

Cptsd is a more severe form of Post-traumatic stress disorder. It is delineated from this better known trauma syndrome by five of its most common and troublesome features: emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, self-abandonment, a vicious inner critic and social anxiety.

Emotional flashbacks are perhaps the most noticeable and characteristic feature of Cptsd. Survivors of traumatizing abandonment are extremely susceptibility to painful emotional flashbacks, which unlike ptsd do not typically have a visual component.

Emotional flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regressions to the overwhelming feeling-states of being an abused/abandoned child. These feeling states can include overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief and depression. They also include unnecessary triggering of our fight/flight instincts.

It is important to state here that emotional flashbacks, like most things in life, are not all-or-none. Flashbacks can range in intensity from subtle to horrific. They can also vary in duration ranging from moments to weeks on end where they devolve into what many therapists call a regression.

Finally, a more clinical and extensive definition of Cptsd can be found on p. 121 of Judith Herman’s seminal book, Trauma and Recovery.

PTSD isn't about what's wrong with you, it's about what happened to you.

PTSD isn’t about what’s wrong with you, it’s about what happened to you.

(Third Excerpt):

List Of Common Cptsd Symptoms

Survivors may not experience all of these. Varying combinations are common. Factors affecting this are your 4F type and your childhood abuse/neglect pattern.

Emotional Flashbacks
Tyrannical Inner &/or Outer Critic
Toxic Shame
Social anxiety
Abject feelings of loneliness and abandonment
Fragile Self-esteem
Attachment disorder
Developmental Arrests
Relationship difficulties
Radical mood vacillations [e.g., pseudo-cyclothymia: see chapter 12]
Dissociation via distracting activities or mental processes
Hair-triggered fight/flight response
Oversensitivity to stressful situations
Suicidal Ideation

(Fourth Excerpt):

What You May Have Been Misdiagnosed With

I once heard renowned traumatologist, John Briere, quip that if Cptsd were ever given its due, the DSM [The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] used by all mental health professionals would shrink from its dictionary like size to the size of a thin pamphlet. In other words, the role of traumatized childhoods in most adult psychological disorders is enormous.

I have witnessed many clients with Cptsd misdiagnosed with various anxiety and depressive disorders. Moreover, many are also unfairly and inaccurately labeled with bipolar, narcissistic, codependent, autistic spectrum and borderline disorders. [This is not to say that Cptsd does not sometimes co-occur with these disorders.]

Further confusion also arises in the case of ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder], as well as obsessive/compulsive disorder, both of which are sometimes more accurately described as fixated flight responses to trauma [see the 4F’s below]. This is also true of ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] and some depressive and dissociative disorders which similarly can more accurately be described as fixated freeze responses to trauma.

Furthermore, this is not to say that those so misdiagnosed do not have issues that are similar and correlative with the disorders above. The key point is that these labels are incomplete and unnecessarily shaming descriptions of what the survivor is actually afflicted with.

Reducing Cptsd to “panic disorder” is like calling food allergies chronically itchy eyes. Over-focusing treatment on the symptoms of panic in the former case and eye health in the latter does little to get at root causes. Feelings of panic or itchiness in the eyes can be masked with medication, but all the associated problems that cause these symptoms will remain untreated.

Moreover, most of the diagnoses mentioned above are typically treated as innate characterological defects rather than as learned maladaptations to stress – adaptations that survivors were forced to learn as traumatized children. And, most importantly, because these adaptations were learned, they can often be extinguished or significantly diminished, and replaced with more functional adaptations to stress.

(End of Excerpts)

For more information see Pete Walker’s website:

Here is the Amazon link for Pete Walker’s book, COMPLEX PTSD:

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ABOUT COMMENTS: I have disabled comments to focus on writing my memoir. In the meantime, you may contact me on Twitter via @LadyQuixote.

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About Linda Lee

Linda Lee is my pen name. I am a former nurse, a Mensa member, and a writer, diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by severe trauma and narcissistic abuse. Formerly an agnostic, I am now a Christian. My husband, a USMC combat veteran and a chaplain, has also been diagnosed with PTSD. We've come a long way on our healing journey; we have a ways to go. ***We put the FUN in dysfunction***
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