What does it mean to be in our ‘healthy self’

Trauma is a devastating experience that we cannot cope with. We are helpless, overpowered and vulnerable. We feel as if our very existence is in danger: we may not actually survive. Our psychological reaction to trauma is to split our psyche, to split off the unbearable emotional experience of terror, helplessness, annihilation, so that we can at least survive as an organism and continue our existence. We do continue to exist, but our psyche is split, and our ability to perceive clearly is compromised. (see Surviving Trauma)

The split result after traumatisation can be represented by this diagram:Slide3

We have to give up our integrated healthy self in order to survive. This initial splitting often happens right at the beginning of our life, even perhaps when we are in our mother’s womb. The trauma self holds the split off and frozen trauma experience; the healthy self is still there, but is ‘managed’ by our survival self. The survival self – actually it is more accurately a trauma survival self – comes into being as a means of maintaining the split structure… ensuring that the trauma stays out of our consciousness. As we grow as a child, adolescent and young adult, the survival self develops increasingly sophisticated and efficient strategies in order to maintain the split structure, and in this way it manages our ability to maintain a healthy stance in any particular moment.

After a trauma our ability to function from our healthy self, then, is modified. We can function from our healthy self so long as we feel safe, but the moment something happens that raises the unsafety stakes, our survival self kicks in and takes over. We have no control over this… it is an unconscious and reactive process. Until we increase our awareness of our survival strategies by purposefully focusing on resolving our trauma, essentially we are not in control of ourselves; in fact we are not truly who we are, because given any kind of threat we are taken over by these basic survival instincts.

Understanding the experience of being in our healthy self will then, by contrast, highlight when we are not.

What does it mean to be functioning from my healthy self? Here are some answers, when we are functioning from our healthy self :

  • we usually feel good
  • we can breathe easily
  • we can perceive reality as it really is in the current situation
  • we feel solid, grounded and at ease
  • if asked a question we can think clearly and answer appropriately
  • we can express ourselves clearly
  • we can feel clear emotions that are appropriate to the situation
  • we can clearly describe and define what we are feeling
  • we can be in good contact with another person without losing ourselves
  • we feel in charge of ourselves
  • we feel autonomous
  • we have the ability for self-reflection and self-knowing
  • we have the ability to be moral and ethical in our thinking and behaviour
  • we are interested in truth and reality as it is, not idealising or fantasising unrealistically
  • our behaviour is appropriate to the situation
  • our desires and needs are ‘healthy’ and self-enhancing rather than unheathy and self-destructive
  • our thinking is clear and we can make good healthy decisions
  • we can make good relationships
  • we can recognise when a relationship is unhealthy or not good for us and dissolve it without shame or guilt
  • we are open and available for contact and connection
  • can remain present in intimate situations without splitting
  • we can feel a range of emotions that are the healthy response to current events
  • feelings of guilt and/or shame are healthy and relate to real current circumstances
  • we can retain a good memory of the past
  • we can stay in the present

Now this is a wonderful list of many things that many of us would like to be able to do, and cannot. At the same time many of us have in our lives glimpses of these things, moments when we can feel some of these things; these are moments when we are able to access our healthy self. For some this will be rare, and for others it is easier. Nevertheless, if you can recognise some of these, and recall moments when you experienced one or two, then you can know that it is possible to experience yourself as healthy, to exist in your healthy self, you do have a healthy self.

But if we are functioning from a split psyche this is not the whole story. Something may happen, maybe the most minor, almost unnoticeable thing… we don’t see it, we don’t know it happens, and yet in that moment we lose ourselves. Our access to our healthy self is gone; we are reactive, not in control, vulnerable and struggling. When this happens we lose all those good experiences; our perception of the world is distorted, unreal and threatening; our breathing even is different: it isn’t so easy, we may feel breathless and panicky. Or we may find ourselves dissociating, zoning out, distracting ourselves by immersing ourselves in television, or work, or drugs, or alcohol. We may have very strong, uncontrolled and uncontrollable emotions, we may lash out verbally or physically; we may do or say things that later we regret… in short our survival self has taken the helm, and the healthy self cannot maintain itself.

This is what happens when our trauma is re-triggered… and this may happen many times a day, quite subtly. Indeed for some it may be a fairly constant experience with rare moments of the healthy self’s clarity.

Trauma is about split off, frozen emotions, and the survival self’s job is to maintain that split boundary. In the rough and tumble of life the healthy self is not really in charge… the survival self is. This is why for many of us when we approach working with our trauma there comes a moment when we realise we don’t really know who we are… it is because our survival self’s modus operandi has been with us for so long, perhaps since before we were even born, that we think that is who we are. But it isn’t. The healthy self, the ‘original’ self, is really who we are. Of course the reality right now, as a traumatised person, is that I am all of this, the split of trauma, the survival and the healthy. This is the actuality of who I am right now… but it isn’t who I can be, and it isn’t the truth of me.

The work that we do with the Sentence of Intention is an exploration, an encounter with the self that helps us to learn and distinguish between the different parts of ourselves; to understand our history and the context into which we arrive, and how we were forced to give up on our healthy integrity by trauma. Through persistent exploration we start to recognise our survival strategies, thereby increasing and strengthening our healthy self, and when the healthy self and its resources are strong enough, resilient enough, bit by bit we can re-integrate our split off trauma parts.


Comments welcome, but please be patient; they will not appear immediately as they are moderated.



What does it mean to be in our ‘healthy self’ — 11 Comments

  1. Hi Vivian – thanks for this. Very helpful to go over this material again after the weekend. The trauma survival behaviours came about originally as a necessity, as you say an unconscious reactive response to unbearable circumstance. By using this method of the Sentence of the Intention we are given access to experiencing the survival behaviours, as well as the healthy self and the traumatised self. The work gives us pieces of a map. Pieces of a map that otherwise might have been remained lost, never gathered together.
    Often my experience during and immediately after doing the work has left me confused, puzzled, troubled. Anything but clear. I have come to accept this as part of the process. For me it is an entirely natural and healthy response. Time is required to dwell with the experience of the work, allow the psyche space to digest, process and integrate.

  2. Thank you Vivian, for this clear piece of work.
    It raises one question for me: you : ” we start to recognise our survival strategies, thereby increasing our healthy self …”
    Could you elaborate a bit more on how does that work? Why is strenthening of the healthy self a logic result of recognising our survival self? Is that a rule? Based on what theory/practice?
    In respect and admiration,

    • Yes, of course. As we becoming increasingly aware of what our survival strategies are, this increased awareness in itself strengthens our healthy self… and as we continue with the healing work with the method of the self encounter through the sentence of intention, gradually this also increases the awareness of the survival strategies and strengthens the healthy self. It is only possible for us to truly encounter our trauma and integrate the split off parts of ourself when our healthy self has developed some strength and we have developed sufficient self-awareness.

  3. Dear Vivian, the best article about trauma, I have ever read.
    everything, which should be mentioned is said.
    would you allow me to translate it into German and post it here in Facebook for my friends and clients? of course I will tell, that YOU wrote it!
    greetings from Germany, Eva

  4. Thank you Vivian for your imformative words of wisdom; I’ve done some psychosynthisis & trauma work over the years and worked with clients from different perspectives & using different modalities; what jumped out at me reading this was the image…..and the insights that trauma can occur within the womb (being a cranial therapist, I’d agree) but even down to the cellular mitosis & myosis of the initial cells may also play a part….my brain just being curious…interesting & thank you
    Warmest of wishes

    • Debbie, thank you for your comments… and yes of course, bodyworkers will know trauma in their clients, particularly if they have an understanding and awareness of trauma. I do think that Franz’s theories of what trauma is and how the splitting process and dynamics of trauma proceed are very helpful to bodyworkers since the splitting that happens with trauma is, of course, held in the body. And of course the method we use is also a form of body work, because the person stands and moves around during the process, and so is much more in touch with their physiology than if they are just talking about things, as they would in conventional psychotherapy and counselling.

      best wishes

  5. Absolutely brilliant!!! shame this isn’t taught in schools, my only question would be…why isn’t it?

  6. Adorei Vivian vou traduir para o portugues e colocar no face com todo respeito e colocando seu nome será um prazer.
    Abs Carlos (estive com você em Goiânia foi muito pouco eu estudo sozinho lendo seus trabalhos Obrigado!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.