Key points

  • Victims of chronic trauma often have an overwhelming desire to control their surroundings.
  • Victims can improve their recovery by recognizing any maladaptive control issues they may have developed in response to trauma.
  • Trauma victims can take back some of their personal power by impartially examining their need for control.
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Trauma is a worldwide disaster that continues to have a global impact. Researchers have transformed their awareness of trauma in recent years to include emotional reactions to any horrible event, typically those that produce feelings of powerlessness in victims. Although acute traumatic incidents can produce destructive effects, exposure to long-term, chronic trauma can be devastating.

What Does Powerlessness Mean?

Feeling powerless is an important underlying impact of trauma. Particularly in chronic trauma—continued exposure to domestic violence, abuse of any form, war, poverty, and others—victims usually reported that they felt powerless to stop or change their circumstances. Victims of chronic trauma may lose the ability to make decisions in their lives.

These feelings have tremendous consequences for victims and can manifest in several ways. One of the most crucial effects of experiencing chronic powerlessness is an overwhelming urge to exert control at every turn. In some ways, this is a self-protective measure to avoid being further traumatized—burn the bridge yourself so at least you can see it coming, so to speak.

For victims of ongoing exposure to trauma, control becomes a safety benchmark that allows them breathing room. By exerting control over even the smallest details of their environment, they are effectively creating a safe space in which outcomes become more predictable. When someone has been repeatedly traumatized, predictability can be a lifesaver.

Characteristics of Trauma Victims Who Need to Control Everything

Recognizing some of the hallmark signs of control that may be a result of exposure to chronic trauma is necessary when it comes to healing and recovery. Resilience cannot be formed without first understanding the reality of how chronic trauma can transform your response to nearly every life event. These are some of the characteristics a person might experience:

  • They are extremely uncomfortable, often to the point of panic, in ambiguous situations.
  • They set rigid boundaries with no wiggle room allowed. Rigid boundaries leave no space for guessing, which makes outcomes more predictable in the long run.
  • They may be reluctant to share personal information and are often extremely private people. Their fear of information being used to take advantage of them in some way usually overrides their desire to open up to others.
  • Their past is off-limits. They often refuse to discuss or even think about the past out of fear that it will be repeated or trigger them to relive past experiences.
  • They seem avoidant of intimate relationships. It is often hard to get to know them, which, for them, is a safeguard against being hurt again.
  • They believe the worst in most situations. Misplaced trust may have led to traumatic experiences for them in the past, so they are cautious of making this same mistake again.
  • They can be unrelenting when it comes to loyalty. You are either on their side, or you are the enemy. Their fear of being hurt by others is magnified when someone lets them down, even in seemingly minor ways, and it can be a deal-breaker in relationships when they feel others cannot be trusted to protect them.
  • They may have unrealistic expectations. Out of an innate need for every situation to be predictable, they may seem to demand perfection from their relationships and themselves.
  • They refuse to take risks. Chronic trauma victims may want to avoid perceived danger however possible, so they often refuse to engage in any risk-taking behaviors, which could include risky financial moves, uncertain career changes, or even potentially hazardous recreational activities.
  • They fear abandonment. Because they were unable to trust people in the past and were routinely exploited in some way, chronic trauma victims often generalize these experiences to every future relationship. Even in the face of contrary evidence, their fear reactions may compel them to see the potential for abandonment in all of their relationships.

How to Heal from Chronic Trauma

Much trauma occurs in the context of relationships, and therefore healing and recovery often need to take place through healthy interactions with others. Unfortunately for chronic trauma victims, they can be their own worst enemy when it comes to establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. Because it was protective during their trauma to establish certain ways of interacting with others, they often continue to depend on these same measures, even when they are no longer needed.

Trauma victims can take back some of their personal power by impartially examining their need for control and learning to recognize if this is a potential issue for them. As challenging as it is to acknowledge unhealthy behavioral patterns, it is essential for trauma victims to be able to separate past experiences from present and future ones, along with the behaviors that were formed as a response to traumatic incidents.

By recognizing unhealthy behaviors and identifying the purpose they once served, trauma victims will be able to distinguish when these behaviors are no longer helping, and may actually be hurting them. Although the impact of trauma never fully goes away, victims can recover through self-empowerment and learning strategies to safeguard their present and future. Tapping into the “why” of certain behaviors is the first step.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


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