I have had this post lying in my ‘draft post’ box for some time now, with the title of ‘trauma, truth and trust’ and one line as a reminder to me of what the post was supposed to be about. This is the line:
a lot of psychotherapy aims to ‘improve’, to be positive, while at the same time ignoring the truth.
A somewhat explosive and outrageous statement! So I decided to try and explore what I was thinking at the time.
Taking as the starting point thinking about the relationship between trauma and truth I could begin by saying that we survive traumas by denial and avoidance of the truth of the trauma, in order not to feel the powerful and frightening feelings involved. This is how we have managed trauma for millennia. If we had not done so as a species we would not have survived. The trauma of predation is a natural part of life, and seems naturally manageable by all species, but relational trauma, which seems not so common amongst species other than humans, is a different matter entirely.
There are two main categories of trauma:
Natural events such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods etc. We seem to manage these reasonably well. We understand that this is a natural consequence of living on this planet, and often we are not alone in our trauma experience, and a sense of community amongst others similarly affected helps.
Relational trauma: this is an intra-species category of trauma, where one member of a species harms another member of its own species. This is not so common amongst species other than humans, where a multitude of submissive and display behaviours are used to manage issues of supremacy, territorial disputes and general survival and evolution of the species. Humans however have evolved differently. Presumably originally we also used submissive and display behaviours to avoid actually harming or killing our own kind, but over time we have evolved to go to war, to gratuitously terrorise, torture, intentionally harm and kill, abuse and traumatise each other. How this happened is not clear to me yet.
However relational trauma is mediated by two things as to its severity:
- Intention – whether the harm is perceived as intentional or accidental.
- Relationship – how close the bonded relationship between perpetrator and victim is, the closer the relationship the more severe the impact of the trauma is likely to be, and the more shocking the experience, the greater the sense of betrayal and the loss of an ability to trust others, oneself and life in general.
So one important fact of trauma is that it severely impacts our ability to trust. For example, all children have to trust their parents, they have no option; as a baby a child is entirely reliant on his mother for his survival, and so regardless of how traumatised and untrustworthy she may actually be, he must trust his very life to her. He must trust her even when she avoids contact with him, or feels anxious with him because of her own trauma, or when she uses him subtly to control her husband, or when she tries to control him because she is frightened of him. His ability to trust then becomes distorted, he has to trust the untrustworthy, the untrustable. His ability to assess his safety and whether he can be safe with others is confused and he is likely to continually put himself in situations that are not actually safe. All his relationships are tinged with this inability to properly assess his safety.“Trust breeds trust, and mistrust breeds mistrust. The nature of the survival self of the client – and of the therapist – is seductive and alluring, and is based on mis-truth and illusions, promising relief from pain and frightening emotions that cannot be fulfilled.” (Broughton, 2013)
Trauma is a situation that dramatically calls into question our very survival and so evokes powerful feelings, mainly terror, and such feelings themselves are terrifying. We therefore develop efficient strategies to avoid, reduce or even obliterate these feelings. These are what we call our ‘survival strategies’. There are many subtle and not so subtle ways of diminishing or obliterating the reality of the impact of trauma, in order to downgrade and deny the emotional and psychological (also physical) impact of trauma. There are four components to this, that may be combined and inter-linked:
- Outright denial of the truth
- Distortion of the truth
- Construction of a story to replace the truth
- Reducing the truth to anecdote, abstracted from the emotional impact
All are forms of avoidance.Truth is distorted in order not to feel, and commonly families and other systems the person belongs to (even psychotherapeutic systems) will collude with this avoidance.
For example, a daughter is told by her mother that her birth was complicated by the cord being looped around her neck. A common event. But the telling of this contains little, if any, indication of the emotional impact on mother or the child.
Another example, a man who comes for a session tells me, without any emotion or change of voice tone, that his mother died while giving birth to him. This is the long-term reduction of the emotional truth of the impact of the trauma by the process of story-telling, making it a fact abstracted from the actual impact.
Another form is the denial of reality by parents to their children in order to cover up the naked truth. For example, a mother refuses to believe that her daughter has been molested by her father, and tells her daughter that she is mad and bad, and that, if it did happen she must have encouraged it, that the father is a good man and would never do anything like that. At the same time the father may tell his daughter that no one will believe her, that she provoked him, that he is only doing it to please her and a myriad of other ways in which truth gets distorted in order to protect the perpetrator.
Or when families insist that everything is fine, and they are happy when in fact the family is harbouring abuse, violence and betrayal, such rank distortion and denial becoming the currency of belonging to the family.
So what about psychotherapy? Well an important question here for me is why has it taken so long for psychotherapy to make trauma central to its work, particularly in light of the fact that trauma was the initial impetus for the emergence of the psychotherapeutic endeavour back in the mid-19th century? The answer to this is that all traumatised people are involved in such denial, and all the original students of psychotherapy back then were likely to be struggling with their own survival strategies. In fact the beginnings of psychoanalysis were founded on the archetypal struggle between the healthy endeavour to heal, and the survival impulse to avoid. Jung pointed out to Freud that he had blind spots (see The Trauma of Freud: Controversies in Psychoanalysis by Paul Roazen), and Freud was the most un-analysed practitioner of his time, he self-analysed as it was thought there was no one who could analyse the founder of psychoanalysis.
We have been (and still are to an extent) subject to a ‘trauma-blindness’ (Fischer & Reidesser, 1998), where psychotherapy itself has tended to collude with the avoidance of the truth of trauma. This is evidenced by the fact that trauma as a topic has only become a valid topic for discussion in the last 15 to 20 years. The diagnosis of PTSD only entered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Psychological Disorders (DSM) in the late 1970’s, and yet the foundations of psychotherapy grew out of the study of ‘hysterical neurosis’, for which read ‘trauma’.
We never discussed trauma when I was a student of Gestalt psychotherapy back in the late 1980s. It is changing, but slowly.
Broughton, V. 2013. The Heart of Things: understanding trauma, working with constellations, Green Balloon Publishing, Sussex.
Fischer, G. & Reidesser, P. 1998. Lehrbuch der Psychotraumatologie, Munich.
Roazen, P. 2001. The Trauma of Freud: Controversies in Psychoanalysis. Transaction Publishers