In my book, The Heart of Things, chapter 8.2, I discuss the difference between the real emotions of trauma (primary emotions), and the form of emotional expression utilised by the surviving self in order to avoid the real trauma emotions and experience (secondary emotions). The difference between these two can be seen in the process of expression as such:
As you can see the trajectory of clear resolving emotion is simple; it rises to a peak and then falls and is finished. This would be the expression of an emotion that is appropriate to the current situation, resolves itself clearly and finishes. In a process of present grief for example, one might have this experience many times over a period of several months, or even a couple of years, as one comes to terms with the loss of a closely bonded person. If the grief is allowed full and clear expression it is likely to follow this trajectory, and between such expressions the person gets on with their life.
Such is also the case when a past trauma is integrated: the appropriate emotion is felt and expressed and will follow this trajectory. The person may quite suddenly feel the full impact of the emotion, make a short expression of the emotion (perhaps a moment or some minutes, but rarely much more) after which it is done, and they will return to a calmer state. Sometimes it is as subtle as a sharp intake of breath and deep exhalation. Sometimes it may be a scream or intense crying. The experience involves the whole body/mind of the person, is intense, deep and for the peak moment, all consuming.
The ‘survival’ secondary emotional expression is in effect a defence against feeling the primary emotions, a survival strategy so as not to feel the full-blown and frightening trauma emotions. The trajectory of secondary emotional expression rises in intensity, but not as high as the primary emotion and doesn’t reach a clear peak. It may rise and fall and rise and fall over an extended period of time, sometimes for some hours, but doesn’t reach any feeling of satisfaction and completion. The experience is often as if there are physical blocks in the body, often feels confusing and unsatisfying.
Even with this distinction it is important for trauma constellations therapists to understand that it isn’t always so clear. As much as trauma constellations facilitators know that we are usually functioning from a mix of survival, trauma and healthy self in our lives, an emotional expression may also be a mix, which might look like this:
So simply put, there is a difference between the true expression of unresolved trauma emotions and the expression of survival, ‘instead of’ emotions.
However something I hadn’t realised at the time of writing my book, but saw just the other day, is that if one is symbiotically entangled with the unresolved trauma of another, most commonly with our mother or father, we will unconsciously attempt to express these unexpressed emotions ‘on behalf of’ the other so to speak, which actually is not possible.
For example, a woman who is symbiotically entangled with her mother’s unresolved grief at the loss of her mother when she was a child, may frequently feel grief-stricken, and over the years find herself persistently attempting to express this emotion, without ever being able to really complete this expression satisfactorily. It is a fixed gestalt, a stuck, unresolvable and impossible to resolve situation. The grief is not hers, and while she may have her own grief about losses that have happened to her, she cannot satisfyingly express her mother’s unresolved grief.
So to state this clearly:
we cannot satisfactorily express the taken-on emotions of another.
The trauma constellations facilitator then, observing the client in a constellation attempting unsuccessfully to complete an emotional expression can have two hypotheses:
- The client is more in survival mode and as yet is not able to touch the true trauma emotions.
- The client is attempting to express emotions that are not truly his or hers.
So a suitable intervention might then be to include a representative for the person in whom these emotions might originate. To take the example above, if we include the client’s mother and her mother (the client’s grandmother) we might see the grief in the mother. When the client can see this she can then resort to her own feelings, understanding that she could not and cannot express her mother’s grief for her.
I recently started to write a blog with the first sentence as:
a lot of psychotherapy aims to ‘improve’, to be positive, while at the same time ignoring the truth.
Those of you who have worked with me or have been to my presentations will know that I am particularly interested in the issue of how psychotherapists who do not understand trauma from the perspective of Franz Ruppert’s work are likely to miss the trauma in their clients, even unconsciously avoiding it because of their own survival self’s desire to protect them from their unresolved trauma which might be triggered by the client’s trauma.
Taking on Ruppert’s theories of trauma causes us to re-consider many very basic assumptions of conventional psychotherapy, one of which is this: if we include in our thinking the idea that the client may be symbiotically entangled with the traumas of others, we can now know that persistent encouragement to get the client to complete an expression of an emotion may be barking up the wrong tree. However, most psychotherapy involves encouraging expression of emotion… but what if the emotion doesn’t in fact belong to the client? Might this strategy not in the end become a persecution of the client by the therapy? Such basic notions of conventional psychotherapy as ‘resistance’ are often used to describe someone who veers away from emotional expression.