After a trauma the psyche splits into the three entities, the original healthy part of ourself, the split off traumatised part of ourselves, and a new ‘self’, the survival self.
The relationship between these different entities is complex and constantly changing depending on the circumstances in which we are at any time. It is never fixed, and we are never completely in one part… it is always a question of degrees, which is the dominant part at any one moment.
When we feel safe we can be more in our healthy self. This means we are able to see things clearly, see others clearly, think clearly, make good decisions and choices, think logically and rationally, understand reality as it actually is and live our life well. Here is a diagram that indicates the relationship:
In this image we can see that the healthy self is dominant, the trauma self takes up very little space and the surviving self is larger than the trauma self, but also doesn’t dominate.
In a situation of re-traumatisation, a situation where our trauma is re-stimulated for some reason the situation changes. Things that are likely to re-stimulate our trauma include:
- any situation where we feel overwhelmed or helpless
- any situation that may be similar to the original trauma situation (which we may not know)
- any sensory stimulus (smell, sound, image, taste, touch) that may be similar to that of the original trauma situation
- any situation that involves emotions: the psyche cannot distinguish between the emotions we want to feel and the unresolved trauma emotions. Once the door is opened to feeling any emotion, such as love, empathy or fear, all the other emotions crowd up together attempting to gain access to consciousness. Thus ‘love’ can become confused with terror, resulting, for example, in a form of mildly (or not so mildly) suppressed panic or anxiety in intimate situations.
In this situation the traumatised self becomes large… for moments, until the survival self kicks in and does whatever actions it has developed to prevent the trauma from resurfacing. In this way the survival self dominates, and may even obliterate the healthy self:
In such a situation we do not feel safe, we are unable to see reality clearly, we will not relate to others well, we lose our good rational ability and we will not make good decisions or choices. We feel to an extent as though our life is on the line, and we need to defend ourselves, distract, deny reality, control ourselves, our environment and other people, and any of the other dissociative and distractive strategies we have developed. This will continue until the perceived danger is past.
Such a re-traumatisation may be quite subtle, and may happen quite frequently. Our unresolved symbiotic trauma is to an extent constantly with us, and one of the most common ways in which we can get re-traumatised is in situations of relationship.
Relationship is about contact, connection, and often intimacy with another human being… it is a situation where we are likely to feel emotion, and when we feel any emotion, whether love, anger, fear or sorrow, this is an opening for the unresolved trauma emotions to surface. The gates of emotion do not offer us an ability to choose which feelings we will feel… we may feel love for our partner or our child, but this ‘love’ may become confused with other feelings, perhaps even terror, which is the emotion of life-threat. Our ability to love, then, may often be confused with with anxiety or panic, causing us to recoil from the other person, even reject them. These feelings may be our own split off trauma feelings, and they may also be mixed up with the unresolved trauma feelings of our mother, or others in our family system, which we are entangled. Feeling becomes a primary re-traumatising factor.
In a major re-traumatisation, perhaps when something happens to us that would actually constitute a traumatic situation in its own right, such as a rape, or other life-threatening situation, or even a continual and unremitting high stress situation, that frequently hits the tipping point into traumatisation, it is always also a re-triggering of this original trauma. Such a situation may overwhelm our survival self’s current strategies for maintaining the boundaries, causing the survival self to fail. This failure will cause further splitting and more extreme survival strategies to develop, which becoming more limiting, restrictive, and even dangerous.
This is surviving after trauma.
Living after trauma is a different thing; healthy living after trauma must involve proper trauma therapy, that understands the model and works towards increased awareness of survival strategies, the splitting process, and recognition and strengthening of the healthy part of the self, so that our ‘self’ looks more and more like this as a more permanent and enduring image of the self:
…where most of our trauma has been allowed to resolve by recognition, expression and absorption…where our survival strategies have mostly disappeared and rarely interrupt and distort our day to day life, and our ability to live from our healthy, integrated self is dominant.