Complex Trauma, False Gratitude, and Letting Go

CPTSD Foundation
6 min readNov 15, 2021

In the first article of this series, we focused on toxic positivity and gratitude shaming. We spoke about how while gratitude is an important part of our life; it is unnecessary to be grateful for the harmful things that have happened to us such as childhood trauma.

This article will cover how false gratitude and letting go affect those of us who live with the aftereffects of complex trauma.

Complex Trauma, What Is It?

I realize we cover complex trauma quite a bit here in CPTSD Foundation’s blog, but it is far too important not to iterate and reiterate what complex trauma is and how it affects people.

Complex trauma relates to experiences of children who experienced neglect and abuse at the hands of their caregivers. These children grow up in highly dysfunctional homes that have a tremendous impact on their emotional, social, psychological, and physical development. Unfortunately, the ramifications of complex trauma on many children will last a lifetime.

A paper written in 2016 sums it up well, “Traumatic events during childhood were associated with later post-traumatic stress symptoms but with classic rather than complex symptoms. Social acknowledgment and dysfunctional disclosure partially mediated this relationship. These findings suggest that childhood traumatic stress impacts individuals across the life span and may be associated with particular adverse psychopathological consequences.” (Danese and McCrory, 2015).

In a closer examination of the changes a child goes through because of complex trauma, research shows that a child who has experienced childhood trauma also experiences brain structure changes because of high cortisol levels that cause inflammation of the brain.

Psychological changes may include children who grow up with the inability to regulate their emotions, develop a deep sense of self, and recognize their self-worth. Unfortunately, the children of child abuse often grow up to have depression or other mental health disorders, such as borderline personality disorder.

Behaviorally, children exposed to trauma clearly show changes in development and later in life, this may translate into an increased risk of self-harm and risk of suicide. These children also grow up having difficulty with their relationships and problems with societal functioning.

It is counterproductive to shove down the throats of victims of complex trauma the belief that they should be grateful for what they have, as for so many this invokes anger because of where they have been.

Reverse, False Gratitude vs. True Gratitude

Gratitude, the big “G” word, is something that all of us experience at some time in our lives. We may find ourselves the recipient of an award or be given a nice present at Christmas and we feel genuine thankfulness for having received them. There are three types of gratitude, reverse, false, and true.

Reverse gratitude. This type of gratitude occurs when we think about the things that did not happen or do not own and feel thankful. There are many things to be reverse grateful for. However, this line of thinking can lead to judgmental thinking about yourself and others. When we were children living in our dysfunctional homes too often, we were subjected to reverse gratitude, such as being told we should be grateful for our families of origin when indeed we were not.

False Gratitude. This type of gratitude is insincere and not authentic. False gratitude can happen in response to the feeling that someone is expecting us to express it toward them. Gratitude, when demanded, is not genuine and indeed is harmful. Feeling the need to be grateful is a way to lose genuine gratitude. Perhaps as a child, you were coerced into telling someone that you are grateful for them when all you truly felt was anger and resentment. False gratitude leads to a myriad of mixed-up feelings and thoughts and, in adulthood, can keep one away from healthy relationships.

We’ve looked at two negative forms of gratitude. Now let us examine true gratitude.

True gratitude. True gratitude comes from the awareness of the good things in our lives and the new experiences we have as adults. This form of thankfulness comes from the heart and allows for the right amount of gratefulness to keep us mentally healthy. No one can force you to have true gratitude, just as no one can force you to choose to be miserable. Growth comes from genuine gratitude, and we have many things in our “now” lives to be happy about.

All of us have experienced all three types of gratitude at some time in our lives. However, complex trauma has colored our ability to experience gratitude in the correct manner and proportions.

An Awakening

We, survivors, are members of an exclusive club of those who have endured complex trauma and neglect in our childhoods and yet are still here. The maltreatment we experienced should have never happened to us, yet it did. Now, what do we do?

Perhaps, just perhaps, we can develop a sense of gratitude.

Gratitude isn’t meant to be an intolerable word full of negative connotations of how we are or were treated as victims. Instead, gratitude is something we might want to feel inside ourselves toward our life today. I know there is much pain in many of our hearts because of the way we were treated as kids, and we have the right to be angry and ungrateful for what happened to us.

However, there comes a time when even survivors of complex trauma must let go of the pain and sorrow of yesterday to move on to tomorrow.

But remember, there is a vast difference between forgiving and letting go.

Forgiveness is something that is very personal and that many of us may never fully achieve for those who harmed us. Forgiveness is unnecessary to heal the wounds of the past, although holding onto the anger and angst of yesteryear only harms us, not those who hurt us as children.

Letting go means we allow the past to be the past allowing ourselves to heal. We can let go of the pain and sorrow if we want to and move on into the future with confidence and sincerity. Letting go allows us to grow without the hindrance of the past obscuring the way we see the world and other people. This vital step in healing comes after much work on the memories that plague a survivor of child abuse and neglect.

Having reached letting go, we will have an awakening to who we are and what we want out of life. Until then, we inadvertently live under the thumb of those who harmed us.

Pulling It All Together

Childhood complex trauma leaves us feeling anything but grateful. Many of us survivors live in a world filled with pain and sorrow. However, is this how we must live? Or is there something else?

Gratitude comes in many flavors, but it cannot be force-fed to someone and have excellent results. If you do not feel gratitude for your upbringing, (and many of us do not), then switch your focus on what you have today.

Yes, there are many effects leftover from the abuse in childhood that lingers on in our adult lives. For those things, we do not need to be grateful. It is the good things we have accomplished in our lives and those we surround ourselves with today for which we can show gratitude.

I used to say that an attitude of gratitude will take you a long way and I still believe that. However, I recognize that many who are still in the beginning or middle stages of healing from are caught up in the pain of yesterday and you have the right to be angry and hurt. The things that were perpetrated against you were horrible at best.

However, until we have an awakening to the fact that we can live on without forgiving but allow ourselves to let go of the trauma as a whole, we will remain prisoners of our past.

“Don’t be a prisoner of the past, be a pioneer of the future.” ~ Farshad Asl


Danese, A., & McCrory, E. (2015). Child maltreatment. Rutter’s child and adolescent psychiatry, 364–375.

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Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.