even trauma can be a survival strategy

Sounds strange, I know, but this is the case, and here is why.

Our Trauma of Love, if we have one, and most of us do, influences our ability to make good relationships, whether work relationships, friends, social, and particularly our love partnerships. This early trauma, what Franz used to call ‘symbiotic trauma’, is the trauma we experience if our connection with our mother is disturbing or non-existent. This commonly is because our mother, herself, is traumatised, and so tends to dissociate in emotional and intimate situations… such as bonding with her child.

At this beginning phase of our life our connection with our mother, emotionally and physically, is all we know. In the womb we are at our most physically and emotionally merged with another human being…. we do not have an existence separate from her. She is our world, our anchor, our life, and our sense of safety and security comes from her, if she is herself able to be emotionally and physically warm, available and welcoming to us. A baby does not know he is safe… he only knows if he feels safe, and he feels safest when in connection with his mother.

So a Trauma of Love happens at this very early time of our life, often pre-birth, and is a situation where the baby is not able to feel safe with his mother. In more extreme cases the mother is a clear perpetrator. An example would be where a mother leaves a child in his pram for long periods of time, perhaps gives him a bottle but doesn’t feed him herself. She really leaves him to fend for himself at a time when he is completely incapable of doing so. A baby cannot even take off his sweater if he is too hot, or cover himself up if he is cold.

A subtler situation is the emotional dissociation of the mother, because connection with her child is emotionally stimulating for her, as it should be. The bonding process between mother and child is a highly emotional process, both mother and child being flooded with hormones that are designed to promote love and bonding. But if the mother is traumatised any intimate and emotional situation opens the gates to other, more frightening emotions to do with her split off trauma, and in time her child may even come to seem a source of anxiety and fear for her. She must control her contact with her child as she does with her partner and others, as a way of controlling the emotions such connection brings up in her. The child becomes a source of anxiety for the mother and the mother becomes a source of fear and uncertainty for the child.

This Trauma of Love unconsciously preoccupies us for the whole of our life if we do not address it. All our relationships are influenced by this early, first relationship, and since we are social, relational beings, this trauma affects every moment of our lives: our ability to work with others, to relate to others in all situations, but of course primarily in our partnerships and our relationships with our own children.

There are other traumas of course. Franz posits two other major categories of trauma: Existential Trauma and Loss Trauma. Existential trauma covers any situation that is a major threat to our existence, whether from accident or intent: physical attack, mugging, rape, torture, terrorism, traffic accident, fire and so on. Loss trauma covers major losses such as death of a parent for a child, or death of a child for the parents, loss of a partner, particularly deaths that are before the normal anticipated time. Although a loss trauma is usually due to a death it may be due to an abandonment for the child, such as adoption. Even in the very early time of our life we may have been subjected to existential trauma. The birth process itself may have been a dangerous situation for the child. Before birth if the mother is in an accident and suffers an existential trauma, the child may be traumatised as well. Attempted abortions are existential traumas for the child if the child survives the attempt; some surgical procedures before, during or immediately after birth may be traumatic for the mother and/or for the child. Procedures such as circumcision are likely to be traumatic for the child.

Other traumas for the young child may include sexual exploitation, rape, torture and terrorisation, and into adulthood we may suffer other existential traumas that do have a profound effect and cannot be diminished in our thinking. But it seems from our work that this Trauma of Love preoccupies us on a deeply unconscious level more than anything else.

One of Franz Ruppert’s most interesting and valuable contributions to understanding trauma in my view is his grounding of our psychological understanding in evolutionary thinking. In his book Symbiosis and Autonomy he explores humans within the context of biological systems thinking, understanding that, like all other species, everything we do at its most basic level is to do with our evolution. Everything we do is preoccupied with two evolutionary issues: survival and procreation… the ongoing furtherance of the species as a whole. Survival covers finding food, warmth, safety and boundaries to our territory. Procreation covers ensuring that the species continues and evolves to survive in a constantly changing and evolving environment.

TFLIn his latest book, Trauma, Fear and Love, Ruppert takes this to its logical next step, an exploration of the structure and function of the human psyche, which tells us simply this: the purpose of our psyche is to enable us to perceive reality as it really is, so that we can ensure our safety, finding food, our survival, and procreation. The structure of the psyche is not just the brain matter, but the whole of our nervous system down to the cells in our body… everything in our body that can experience, perceive and remember. We perceive reality through our senses, touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We process the information that comes through our senses with our psyche in order to make meaning that helps us survive and continue as a species. That is the purpose of the psyche: to process the information we receive so that we can perceive reality as it is.

The ability of our psyche to do this is influenced by our experiences, and of course trauma is a major life experience; and it is trauma most importantly that affects our ability to perceive reality as it really is. It is trauma that distorts our perception. It is our survival strategies that protect us from experiencing the split-off trauma and distorts our vision of the world, thereby influencing our decisions, our choices and our relationships. One of the major survival strategies involves the stories we are told by our parents and others about ourselves, and the stories that we then tell ourselves about ourselves and about life in general, our belief systems, structures of thinking, political, social and familial ideas, and these become part of the psyche’s distortions of reality.

As part of Ruppert’s practical exploration of his ideas, through his work with the Constellation of the Intention with his clients, he has realised that the Trauma of Love unconsciously is our major life preoccupation. Since it is to do with our ability to relate, and since it happens so early in our life, our ability to relate, however that is, seems to be who we actually are. But while it is a major preoccupation for us unconsciously, our survival self of course functions solely to protect us from addressing it. We are trapped between the deep need and desire for good relationship, the need to heal this early relationship dysfunction, and our unconscious need to avoid the issue, to avoid the actual trauma. The Trauma of Love happens before we have the intellectual and emotional ability to understand what it actually is. It may even happen before birth. This makes it something essentially unknown and potentially inaccessible even if we, as adults, can have the concept.

But of course the later trauma is known. Even childhood sexual exploitation that, in the growing to adulthood may be forced out of conscious, is usually remembered later. So a situation arises where, for example, the childhood sexual abuse, or the adult existential trauma of, say, being severely burned in a fire, are seen as the major trauma of the person’s life and become the focus of therapy. And many months or years, even decades may be spent attempting to resolve this trauma, with varying degrees of effectiveness. In our view two major things affect how useful this work can be.

One is that most trauma therapy actually re-enforces survival strategies, teaching people how to manage the emotional and physical symptoms of the trauma rather than deal with the integration of the splits caused by trauma.

But the second is that a situation arises where the later trauma becomes a distraction from dealing with the Trauma of Love, a means to avoid this first trauma, a survival strategy. The later trauma often seems, and is of course, massive and dramatic and life-changing, but it is no more so, in fact really less so, than the Trauma of Love, because the Trauma of Love is formative… so the later trauma can actually become a survival strategy to avoid the experience of the trauma of our distorted and disturbing relationship with our mother.

Added to this, apart from the unconscious and unknown nature of the Trauma of Love, there is a social taboo to seeing the mother as anything other than perfect and sacred. This perception of motherhood is so deeply embedded in our cultural thinking that many of us find it very hard to think that we may have suffered a trauma at the hands of our mother, or that she was a perpetrator and objectified us to her own unconscious uses. The later trauma is often more ‘acceptable’ in a sense.

So Ruppert has seen that, in effect, we cannot properly and fully address any other trauma until we have resolved this Trauma of Love. Whatever else happens in our life, this Trauma of Love underlies and influences it.



Comments welcome… all comments are held for mediation, so don’t expect them to appear immediately. Please keep comments short… maximum around 500 words, and to the topic as much as possible. Thanks


even trauma can be a survival strategy — 19 Comments

  1. Thank you Vivian for this thoughtful and very clear article. I have a question on the sequence so to speak of healing trauma. In the previous trainings, we were looking at healing traumas in the historical sequence – the outer traumas first, the deeper traumas last. From reading this article, it seems that the first trauma to heal would the the Trauma of Love, and only then – sexual abuse, etc etc. Am I seeing it correctly?

    Thank you,
    Inessa Mil’berg, USA

    • Exactly… Franz maintains that although we may attempt to deal with the later traumas first, and may well do good work in so doing, we cannot properly resolve such traumas until we have dealt with the trauma of love.

  2. A really thought provoking piece Vivian, thank you. It has got me thinking about my own early trauma through separation which is almost certainly a love trauma although I may never know if it was my first love trauma of course.

    It has set me thinking though, one of my issues is that when I love I feel pain and the two seem inextricably and curiously mixed for me…. perhaps this is at least an explanation of how this might have occurred … this is something that I have thought strange and has puzzled me for years.

    I think perhaps I should work on that!

  3. This article and the new book have me wondering: I thought Franz (et al) had moved away from placing people in the constellation unless they were mentioned during the constellation. The first chapter in the book has the therapist placing the mother…the old-fashioned way? Or have things changed back?

    • You are correct. Trauma, Fear and Love was originally published in German as Trauma, Angst und Liebe in 2012; we were a bit behind with our translation with this book. However despite the method having evolved there is much theoretical thinking in this book that is very important.

  4. In this model the psyche has the job of “enabling us to perceive reality as it really is” at the same time however it is so vulnerable to being traumatised that this can occur even in the womb. In effect then the psyche becomes the agent whereby we don’t get to perceive reality as it really is – but instead through our traumatized eyes. So, it would seem to me that there must be some purpose – ie some learning for us -for the psyche to be continually boomeranging us back to our unconscious traumas. Otherwise it would seem to be a counter survival mechanism Any comment Vivian?

    • The healthy part of the psyche wants to re-integrate the splits, to be whole, to heal,
      The psyche is itself split and perception is distorted. It’s not that the psyche intends us to learn anything… That is the language of spiritual thinking – that there is something for us to learn – and can be part of the survival self thinking. It isn’t part of trauma thinking.

  5. Hi Vivian, I enjoy reading your blog and resonate deeply with the subject matter of the ‘trauma of love’. I have a question. You say that trauma, “affects our ability to perceive reality as it really is.” Turning this around, I wonder if, when we step back from the slings and arrows of our ‘story’ of who we are and perceive life as it really is, whether our trauma can continue to exist? When life is perceived as it really is there is ‘this’ life ‘happening’. We step out of the conventional narrative of ‘me’, there are no meanings or values made or attached, just life happening right now in this moment. Perceiving reality as it really appears is a somewhat ‘neutral’ experience and, as human beings, we seem not to linger here for any length of time being more attracted to the ‘created’ stories of ourselves and others most probably, as you state, because everything we do is based around our survival and continued procreation. I think of the founder of gestalt psychotherapy, Fritz Perls, as someone who worked from seeing reality as it actually is whilst his clients were stuck in their individual ‘story’. How else could he retort that, “there is no such thing as trauma”? I see him trying to shake them, in his direct approach, into seeing what he could like a Zen master does with their students. I wonder if, as counsellors and therapists, we can offer our clients this spacious place of mindfully seeing reality as it is as an aid to their better being with and accepting of trauma? Thanks, Howard

    • Howard: I think it is the other way around: trauma causes a split in the psyche and the development of a survival self (see ‘surviving after trauma‘). In this state, due to the activity of the survival self we cannot see reality clearly. In our opinion it is only through addressing the splits in the psyche that result from trauma that our perception becomes clearer, and so it is not really possible to “step back…” if the trauma isn’t addressed. The survival self will not allow that degree of clarity because the emotions involved are perceived as too frightening. You are, I think, talking from a meditation standpoint, but this perception that might be achieved in some form temporarily under certain circumstances, is too much to maintain as a quality of who we actually are without addressing the splits in the psyche.
      I do not think that perceiving reality as it really is, is a “neutral experience”… it is simply being able to see things as they are without the survival self’s distortions. There is a difference between the evolutionary impulse to exist, find food, keep safe, set boundaries, which we may call ‘survival’ in the given environment, and Ruppert’s concept of the ‘survival self’, which comes into existence after a trauma in order to protect the person from the split off trauma feelings.
      In my view Perl’s was wrong, and I don’t think it possible to “shake someone” out of their trauma. Trauma as defined by Ruppert is very real and dominates our lives… it is this fact that in my view psychotherapy as a discipline and profession has really not addressed.

      • Thanks Vivian, both for your response and for all the work that went into bringing Franz to London. I was very interested in his discussing the getting stuck in dualistic terminology. I wonder how far that can be taken in work with trauma given for each layer of trauma, and they keep coming, there is a conceptual construct to aid intellectual understanding. Best wishes, Howard

  6. Thank you for your reply to my previous question Vivian. By what mechanism does the psyche influence the representatives to give such poignant portrayals of split off parts of ourselves/family members etc do you think? I think getting my head around this question is my main stumbling block when it comes to your approach to this work and I would love some help with gaining some clarity here in my attempts to understand this. Thanks and Happy Easter!

    • Harriet, firstly apologies for not replying to this comment sooner, but for some reason I wasn’t notified of it. Yes this is an interesting question… same for family constellations. One explanation is limbic resonance (see A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. The limbic brain is essentially non-verbal and emotional, and from this part of our brain we are more in contact with each other than we realise. This may be how the representatives are in communication with the person whose constellation they are in.

  7. Thanks Vivian, really great piece. I agree totally about the potential for later traumas to be used as a distraction/avoidance /denial from trauma of love. I do think though, that useful work can start with later traumas and work backwards. The archetype of the mother is so profound, that if it is suggested that mothers are anything other than fully loving in their actions it is seen as a sacrilege and deeply disloyal. Alice Miller writes powerfully about this too and about the therapists fear of punishment at the hand so their own parents should they confront the reality of the maternal or paternal perpetrator. Slightly different for the father perpetrator, more readiness to recognise the trauma but equal resistance, I think, to be able to recognise it as perpetration. Although Alice Miller writes pre-Franz, I find her thinking and observations really helpful in applying to Franz’s work.

    • Julia, I agree. Of course it is often the first place of attention, the known and later trauma… and in fact easier to deal with in a way, because of the taboo of seeing the mother as anything other than the sacred image we have of her. And yes, the therapist is often entangled in these ideas. Alice Miller of course was a rebel and rather rejected by her peers for her views, sadly.

  8. From my personal experience of undergoing years of therapy on remembered trauma, it really is the radical (etymology = root) work that the Trauma of Love offers that has connected me with an original sense of self. By re-experiencing the early (in utero, pre and post natal) atmospheres that have shaped me, I begin to feel the freedom that arises from autonomy, letting go of the shame and self loathing that my mother and father carried (mother still does) which I swallowed.
    For many people entering the realm of therapy and self-reflection as novices, perhaps there is some merit in the counselling of later traumas, as it acquaints them with the ideas of deeper self-regard. Yet it can, as Vivian articulates, be another avoidance of where the real seam of richness lies. We are so used to denying ourselves that which heals us. We learned to fit in and conform. Now that counselling and therapy are seen as acceptable and institutionalised, this way too needs to questioned. I love this radical approach. It connects me to the depth within myself and all that I am.

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