Please note that the theory we work with is now called Identity-oriented Psychotrauma Therapy. This essay was written under its old title of Multi-generational Psychotraumatology, and I have not changed the text so this term is still used here.
An Introduction to a Multi-Generational Psychotraumatology
This paper goes with the powerpoint presentation of the same title delivered at the above conference.
This lecture is based on the work of Professor Franz Ruppert, Professor of Psychology at Munich University of Applied Sciences. It covers a working definition of trauma, a post-trauma model of the psyche, and the primary life-trauma likely to have occurred, the symbiotic trauma, and it’s accompanying element, the symbiotic entanglement with earlier familial traumas. This gives a Multi-Generational Psychotraumatology.
Ruppert presents us with a model for understanding trauma, its processes and dynamics, that draws on a history of trauma study over the last 150 years, but gives us something new, challenging and illuminating.
As you proceed through this lecture there will be many elements that you will recognise, but the overall perspective is new. At the same time as this model presents us with ideas and answers that are illuminating and logical, it also presents us with a considerable challenge. Put simply: a truly transgenerational model of psychological disturbance, that takes as its central component a trauma that occurs at a preverbal, pre-memory, even pre-birth moment, and that urges us to understand the truly life-threatening nature of traumatisation, challenges how we work. Here is a question: if the most life-influencing event of our lives takes place at a time when we have no means of intellectual discrimination or relatable memory, how do we access this and how do we work with it?
From Ruppert’s model we can understand trauma as the defining psychological influence on our mental health and wellbeing.
Our first slide gives us an agenda of the topics I am going to focus on. The model offers much more by way of understanding trauma and its underlying influence than is presented here, which can be found in the books of Professor Ruppert and myself. This lecture is an Introduction to the model.
Definition of the Psyche
In order to develop a good working model we have to have clear definitions of the terms we use. The definition of the psyche we use here is that part of the psychosomatic system that allows us to perceive reality as it is.
However in order to perceive reality as it actually is, we need to have a psyche that is clear, integrated and undamaged; in other words, as I will show, an untraumatised psyche.
We perceive reality through our senses, and through our ability to apply cognitive meaning-making to the sensory data we receive.
The ultimate purpose of the psychic functioning is the same as the ultimate purpose of our physical functioning: survival and procreation.
We also need to define what we mean by trauma. The word trauma is not often clearly defined. There are ‘definitions’ that come close, but are usually based on post-trauma symptomatology, rather than on the thing itself. What constitutes a trauma as, for example, distinct from a situation that is a ‘high stress’ situation?
The definition developed by Ruppert has its origins from the work of two German psychiatrists, Peter Riedesser and Gottfried Fischer.
Trauma is a situation with all the following components:
- The situation is one where the forces at play are overwhelming for the person.
- The affected person is utterly helpless.
- The affected person fears he will not survive; the event is a life-threat
- The affected person experiences a failure of his stress coping strategies.
- Psychological splitting occurs, from which he cannot regain equilibrium.
An increase in stress in relation to a situation has a particular psycho-physiological response: an increase in mobilisation, the ultimate strategies of which are ‘fight or flight’. In order to fight or flee we need excessive amounts of energy and stress-related hormones. We cannot fight and flee at the same time and our reaction will be non-thinking as to which is best to do in the moment.
The hyper-mobilisation of the extreme high stress state is not sustainable for long. The psycho-physical stress on the person, if not interrupted, becomes a stress itself, that may result in death. If the fight/flight reactions do not resolve the situation, the psychosomatic system interrupts the process and the person enters the trauma state.
The trauma state is the opposite of the high stress state; it is a hypo-mobilised state, where the psychosomatic organism resigns itself to the situation in which it is essentially helpless. The reactions to this state are ‘freeze and fragment’. Unlike the fight or flight reactions, which are an ‘either/or’ reaction, the ‘freeze and fragment’ are two parts of the same activity.
The freezing is a state of tonic immobility, a kind of relaxation and surrender physically and psychologically. The fragmentation is the dissociative process of splitting off the intolerable experience in order to survive the situation. It is the primary and primal survival instinct.
Here is a diagram that shows the process from a state of normality to high stress, and thence to trauma:
So, in effect we survive a trauma by psychological splitting (fragmentation). There is also strong evidence that we physically split off the trauma experience and locate it in a part of the body.
This idea is not new of course, however Ruppert has proposed that, rather than think of the person as having defences against the trauma, resistances to the re-experiencing of the trauma, we actually develop a new self. He calls this the surviving self, and this new self develops its own personality, characteristics, philosophy and life-style. Ruppert’s model is given in its simplest form in the following diagram:
Split structure of the psyche after a trauma
Each of the different selves has their own characteristics, abilities, functions and aspirations, as you can see from the charts in the powerpoint; briefly they are:
- The Traumatised Self: holds the trauma experience and unexpressed emotions, is frozen in time, and is always looking to complete itself, to finish the experience by emotional expression.
- The Healthy Self: remains that part of ourselves that can see things clearly, wants integration of the splits and tries to do that.
- The Survival Self: only function is to keep the trauma out of conscious awareness by any means necessary, the primary ones of which are dissociation, denial, distraction, illusion and control of self and environment (other people). If necessary, i.e. if these developed strategies fail, as in a major re-traumatisation, it will develop new splits.
The Survival Self does not have the ability to reflect or reason. It is reactive, and when something happens that re-stimulates the trauma it will get busy and attempt to control both the Trauma Self and the Healthy Self, resulting in a situation where the reasoning ability of the Healthy Self is diminished.
The dynamics of the relationship between these three entities is complex and out of our control since it is unconscious; but it is these dynamics that we come to see as who we are.
Understanding trauma as outlined above brings us to the issue of what Ruppert has termed ‘symbiotic trauma’; that is the trauma that may occur at the earliest time of our life, pre- and post-natal trauma.
Symbiosis and Autonomy
First we need to understand our use of the term ‘symbiosis’. Traditionally in the psychological field the term ‘symbiosis’ has been used to cover the initial attachment phase, and in some instances to cover the adult merged relationship that is pathological, repetitive and undermining of individuality. Ruppert, however, has taken this term from the biological field as a term that describes: “a permanent challenge of how we get along with other humans and creatures and all life on the planet, and how these intertwined life-concerns are reflected emotionally in each one of us.” (Ruppert, 2013).
In other words, our symbiotic ability, which forms from the early symbiotic phase, influences our ability to be in relationship, and is mediated, influenced and complemented by our ability to be autonomous, which also forms in the early symbiotic phase. Our journey of autonomy begins at conception, and our whole life is lived in the tension between our symbiotic (relational) needs and our autonomous (individual) needs. Our ability to function healthily in relation to our symbiotic and autonomous needs is directly dependent on a healthy, untraumatised, symbiotic phase.
In order to understand symbiotic trauma we have first to understand that the conditions in which a trauma is likely to happen, ie utter helplessness and the potential to feel overwhelmed, even to the extent of feeling our life is in the balance, are exactly the conditions in which we come into life. The potential for traumatisation at the beginning of life is high. The embryo is entirely dependent on the mother for everything; his very survival depends on his connection with his mother and the fulfilment of his emotional and physical needs.
The needs of the child are as shown in the powerpoint, basic needs, but all are crucial. The emotional involvement of the child in his mother’s emotional state is not something the child can separate himself from. One could say that when in the womb the child’s emotional being is his mother’s emotional state, that he absorbs his mother’s psychological state as he absorbs nutrition.
The proposal of the symbiotic trauma is that, if the mother has suffered a trauma, and her psyche is split and functioning as we have discussed above, her connection with her child will be severely compromised. If a mother is unable to be emotionally available to her child without the intrusion of trauma emotions, the child will absorb this emotional confusion, and the trauma emotions of the mother. As the mother reaches for her child she will feel love, but the traumatised mother cannot feel any emotion without the potential for the intrusion of other emotions that are waiting for an opportunity for expression. Love becomes confused with, for example, anxiety, panic or even terror, the primary emotion of trauma.
The infant does not know he is safe… he only knows if he feels safe; and if his mother, the source of his experience of safety, is confused, traumatised, liable to dissociation and re-triggered traumatisation, his experience is likely to be also confused and frightening.
The proposal of this theory of symbiotic trauma, then, is three-fold:
- The child absorbs the imprint of his mother’s psyche, including her suppressed split-off trauma experience, her feelings of anxiety etc. as if it were his own.
- If this experience is to the extent that he fears for his survival, this will constitute a personal trauma for him (symbiotic trauma).
- Through his symbiotic merged connection with his mother he also absorbs any unresolved trauma experiences that his mother absorbed in her attachment phase – the multi-generational transmission of unresolved trauma.
This has potentially devastating and life-long implications:
- The child cannot complete a healthy move to autonomy and individuation, and remains entangled with his mother, his mother’s traumas and other traumas that his mother is entangled with.
- All his later relationships will replicate this primary relationship.
- All later traumatisations will always also be a re-triggering of this primary trauma.
- The severity of this original trauma will influence his vulnerability to later traumatisation.
- In the case of a woman, this original trauma will influence her ability to be present to her child, thereby increasing the likelihood of her child experiencing a symbiotic trauma. This is also true for a man, but his connection with his child comes later, and so is likely to be after any symbiotic disturbance from that bonding.
Healing the Splits
Simply, this is a process of disintegration of the post-trauma split psychological structure, followed by an integration of the split off elements of the psyche. This involves an engagement with the trauma as it is possible, through a softening of the surviving self and a strengthening of the healthy self. However, since the underlying issue is always a sense of a threat to one’s existence, this takes time and careful work. It also means that we have to discover ways to work with the unconscious, the pre-verbal and the pre-cognitive memory.
Challenges to Conventional Therapy
We need to understand the truly life-threatening nature of trauma, and the functioning dynamics of a split psyche, and put these understandings into this pre-verbal, even in-utero frame. This requires a high sensitisation to the reality of trauma, and a means of accessing pre-verbal embodied (rather than brain) memory. This is not an easy thing to do with talking therapies, perhaps not even possible.
We also have to expand our perception of our client to include a multi-generational context, sometimes over four or five generations. Few therapists are interested in their client’s family background to this extent. But if we know, for example, that our client’s grandmother was a refugee in a warzone as a young girl, and escaped losing all her family, her mother and father, we can ask ourselves such questions as: what might have been the psychological state of this woman when she has her child, in her belly, and in the first stages of that child’s life? What does she feel when she holds her child? Who may she unconsciously connect with when she holds her child? Does she automatically connect with her unresolved grief at the loss of her own mother? And how might this impact the child?
Trauma is held in the body; the split psyche is held by muscular tension that cannot relax, because to do so risks a re-traumatisation. How, then, can we include the body more in our thinking of our clients rather than just attending to the cognitive or the psychological? How can we resolve our own professional split of addressing the psyche without including the body?
And a final question: can we, as therapists, competently work with traumatised clients if we do not include the possibility of our own symbiotic trauma? If we do not address this in ourselves are we not likely to collude with our clients’ survival strategies of avoidance and denial?
What Ruppert shows us is this: if we include this notion of symbiotic trauma, and its high potential to occur, trauma may be much more endemic than we currently think. And if so, we may find that, contrary to the current DSM IV categorisation, trauma underlies all psychological disturbances.
For more on understanding the healthy self click here.
Broughton, V. (2013). The Heart of Things: Understanding trauma – working with constellations. Steyning, UK: Green Balloon Publishing.
Ruppert, F. (2011). Splits in the Soul: Integrating traumatic experiences. Steyning, UK: Green Balloon Publishing.
Ruppert, F. (2013). Symbiosis and Autonomy: Symbiotic trauma and love beyond entanglements. Steyning, UK: Green Balloon Publishing.