When I first started working with parts of my personality in my efforts to recover from the effects of childhood sexual abuse, I wasn’t using the model of structural dissociation. I did not see my personality as divided according to the defenses fight, flight, submit, freeze, and attach. More like Riley in Pixar’s Inside Out, I had big emotions that corresponded with certain times in my life — the natural neediness of a toddler, the curiosity of a preteen who also feared being hurt again, the anger, shame and suppressed grief of a too-cool adolescent — a different terrain than the one structural dissociation offered for defenses.
Identifying and befriending my younger parts was an imaginal process. I started by creating a timeline of my first two decades of life, chronicling memories, studying old photos, and asking family members what I was like when I was young. I also tried to remember what I enjoyed at different ages, as well as what I had feared and what caused me shame. I used a journal to dialogue with the different parts of myself, telling them things I wish I would have heard at certain junctures along my path to adulthood. I made time to play as a child would play: painting, making jewelry, molding clay. I tried to become a good mother to my younger selves. I lacked consistent maternal support and protection when growing up, largely because of my mother’s own childhood trauma, including her history of sexual abuse. I used EMDR to help resolve the memories I couldn’t deal with on my own.
I became aware of how different parts lived in my body. Certain postures and body sensations correlated with witnessing the world from a younger perspective. I found it helpful to know these somatic indicators and when I might be functioning from the level of a 5-year-old who feared abandonment, or a tween who needed to discharge pent-up energy. This kind of somatic awareness helped me reduce stress, dissociate less, and have greater self-control.
Much of what I experienced felt real to me, as if there were younger parts of myself, which sometimes was disorienting. Yet by acknowledging their presence, I also felt stronger, and with more gratitude and compassion, which is how I like to feel. When I successfully created ways to fully immerse in connection with the younger parts of me — always through the imaginal — it was deeply touching, and I was able to let go of a lot of shame and feelings of betrayal that had haunted me.
As it would turn out, the process of getting to know my younger parts became the foundation for letting them go, returning them to the stuff of imagination, dreams, and memories. This juncture in my recovery wasn’t about once again abandoning parts of myself that I had rediscovered, but rather the natural development that came from changing my relationship with the imaginal, as well as with my history of sexual abuse. I no longer saw the imaginal as inferior to cognition, or used left-brain executive control to defend against traumatic memories. Working with parts, I developed respect for active and purposeful engagement with the imaginal, which became as important as seeking knowledge for creating my reality.
After this depth-focused work, I felt resilient and energized. I soared without the burden of trauma. I took on more work, creative projects, rekindled my social life — even learned to scuba dive, something I had wanted to do as a kid. This was the right thing for me to do. Increased resilience and feelings of relief are not uncommon after completion of Phase II work, according to the Phase Oriented Model of recovery and the task of working through traumatic memories. Granted, the imaginal efforts I made with younger parts had been integrative for me, yet I worked with parts largely to stop avoiding memories of sexual abuse. Fortunately, I also experienced a transformation. I wanted to enjoy the newfound me and share my optimism with others.
Despite all my gains, however, I hadn’t completed my recovery. I needed to mature beyond the mindset that led me through Phase I and Phase II work, and my equating recovery with eliminating traumatic triggers. For Phase III, I needed to develop a new perspective of myself, one that went beyond the rosy picture of resuscitating relationships with my younger parts. I had to acknowledge at times I felt inwardly conflicted, and continued to sometimes react to the present as if I were still trapped in the past.
What I describe here is different from failure to launch. Rather, I am referring to the need to address how conflicting action tendencies can get activated at the same time, and cause regression to old defenses. It’s like wanting to collaborate at work, or get along with your partner, but your Fight Emotional Part (EP) unconsciously gets riled by something said or done, and you’re suddenly stuck posturing, feeling you must protect against some perceived threat. Unconscious defenses, dynamics, and beliefs from the past get projected into the current situation or on another person, although there isn’t phobia of remembering the trauma.
For me, this is where the model of structural dissociation (MSD) proves invaluable. Not only does MSD help to understand inner conflicts, it also addresses feelings of ambivalence and periods of stuckness that are common along the road to recovery. I also prefer theories that suggest interdependencies and parallels between how we live in our minds and bodies, and how we live in our communities and societies. This has been an interest of mine since my dissertation, How We Become Mentally Ill (the title got a few laughs when announced at graduation). With MSD, it’s possible to think about how social dynamics are reproduced in our minds and bodies.
Trauma therapist Janina Fisher described dissociation as “a failure of internal community.”1 Fisher saw dissociation — and the failure to create cohesion, collaboration, and trust among the different parts of oneself — as reflective of the social dynamics present when trauma occurred. She referred primarily to adults who endured ongoing childhood abuse, where the role of leader in the family was often held by an abusing caregiver. Yet even if sexual abuse didn’t occur during childhood, or was not perpetrated by a caregiver or other trusted adult, there is nevertheless a long history in all societies of either ignoring the suffering of those who have been sexually abused, or blaming them for what happened. We tend to recreate the same dynamics with the parts that hold memories of the abuse.
Without support from relationships or community to help integrate dissociated parts of ourselves — and without peaceful, cohesive, and supportive communities to model how to create society within ourselves — we exile the parts of ourselves no one else is willing to witness. Recovery means creating a new society within us, one that invariably will influence how we want to create community following sexual abuse.
If all the different possible defense action tendencies (fight, flight, freeze, attach, submit) have a corresponding EP, then when threatened or overwhelmed, several reactions can occur at the same time: the Fight EP can cause impulsive anger, the Flight EP leads to desiring escape, while Freeze EP results in feelings of terror. Activation of Submit EP causes feelings shame, while Attach EP creates the need to seek someone to help.2 When you witness how many emotions and defenses can be activated at one time, I hope it’s easier to understand why intimacy in particular is difficult after sexual abuse. It’s not uncommon to both want to push someone away and seek their closeness when feeling overwhelmed or triggered.
As well as feeling pulled in multiple directions, the parts themselves can conflict with each other. Fight and Flight don’t want to deal with Attach’s desire to seek help. They also want Submit to get a backbone and stop trying to appease every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Freeze lives in terminal fear of Fight, while Submit is worried Fight’s behavior will cause rejection.3 These inner conflicts often lead to self-judgment and self-criticism.
If there are more than one ANP — such as a worker, caretaker, and social self — there is often confusion about how to orchestrate one’s life. If I’m in relationship, can I really prioritize my career? Can I have a vibrant social life and be a good mother? Each role is placed in tension with the others, and choices are often approached with a sense of life or death importance.
According to Fisher, other types of internal conflicts also emerge:
• wanting to act autonomously yet at the same time feeling clingy
• wanting to live a productive life yet engaging in addictions, eating disorders, or self-harm
• wanting to be in relationship (including with a therapist) but also wanting to escape emotional ties and commitments
• wanting to change but also fearing it.4
When continually trying to manage competing emotions and defenses, what may look like self-sabotage may instead be conflicting EPs and ANPs. There can also be a lot of feelings of ambivalence, even towards seemingly small goals. The outcome of chronic inner conflict is often despair if not self-loathing, wishing for someone’s rescue, self-destructiveness, or avoiding one’s inner life as much as possible.5 It’s no wonder people feel stuck after trauma, or think they’ll never recover. Most of us blame ourselves, thinking we’re emotionally weak and just need more will power. Yet the answer isn’t more defensiveness towards our EPs, but rather the kind of responses that create cooperation.
Two things need to happen for integration to occur. First, your ANP has to become a competent and compassionate leader for your EP(s). Second, you have to embrace the fact that part(s) of you want change and other part(s) resist change. Unresolved trauma alters our relationship with adaptation and growth. Fisher wrote, “‘Change’ in the context of trauma is something that happens just before the moment of full impact. Prior to each traumatic event, life is going along normally, then suddenly there is a change, and then the ‘worst happens.’ Change is thus threatening to trauma patients.”6 Getting better, with all its hope and promises for a good life, is an unknown, hence some defenses will react to change as a threat.
Even the ANP functions by resisting change — for as long as we can, most of us do all we can to avoid EPs and their memories of the trauma. The EPs are also entrenched in the status quo, as they are the product of unconscious conditioning, if not the archetypal drive for survival.
Rather than trying to tackle head on inner resistance, which tends to just activate defenses, it’s best to approach all parts of oneself with radical self-acceptance. Remember when we are talking about parts, we are speaking of an amalgam of defenses, emotions, beliefs, and personality traits that are conditioned, unconscious reactions to both inner and outer environments. Radical self-acceptance means accepting whatever emotions, beliefs, and body sensations come up. However, radical self-acceptance is not about tolerating suffering. It is always a good idea to respond to any form of mental pain with techniques that increase living within the Window of Tolerance.
Radical self-acceptance addresses the tendency to disown parts that hold memories of abuse and truncated defense responses. Most of us unconsciously blame our EP(s) for sexual abuse — we should have fought the abuser (Fight EP), not trusted him (Submit EP or Attach EP), or tried to escape (Flight EP) — and disown those parts of ourselves, just as societies have done for millennia. But we can’t integrate what we disown. To recover, sometimes we have to create societies in ourselves that are much better than the ones we have known or currently reside within.
Often this is as simple as beginning with a shift from the “I” mindset of the ANP to addressing the inner “we.” Both ANPs and EPs have needs and intentions. The best leaders try to take into consideration everyone’s objectives, even if they are not going to act on them. Think of the perfect job. Even if your idea isn’t the one chosen for the project, you still want to be acknowledged.
Another important aspect of integration is mindfulness. Earlier on Ambivalent Goddesses I shared research on the neurobiology of change, which showed that we must be mindful of the changes we are creating for them to become new habits. This is also true of integration and creating lasting connection between parts. When communicating between your ANP(s) and EP(s), you want to mindfully witness the process. This is also true for witnessing inner conflicts. You want to identify which parts tend to lead to inner conflict, and when conflict occurs, trace back to the exact moment when problems arose. Perhaps it was something as simple as feeling you need to take a night class to advance your career, but this activated your Flight EP and the fear of being assaulted when commuting alone. Try to be with this ambivalence compassionately rather than beating yourself up (Fight EP) for not being fearless. (And maybe Attach is right — the solution is finding someone to travel with you.)
Practicing curiosity rather than judgment also promotes integration. Ask yourself when you feel stuck or overwhelmed: Which part is having this feeling/thought/body sensation? Even simple questions, like asking EPs, What do you need from me to feel safe right here, right now? can go a long way in creating inner cohesion and setting the foundation for the trust necessary for lasting change.7 If you can’t identify exactly what’s going on inside you, try putting your hands on your heart and say something like: I feel you. I know it’s hard for you right now.
The goal of these mindfulness-based approaches is not necessarily to give voice to the parts, or even to inhabit their perspective. Rather, it is to integrate ANP conscious awareness with the unconsciously activated experiences of EP(s). Ultimately, we want our ANP to become a benevolent presence and wise guide capable of shepherding the safe authentic expression of all parts of ourselves (which sometimes only happens imaginally). We want to become mindful of our EP(s), although not necessarily living from them. As the saying goes, you don’t want your 12-year-old self driving the bus. (But you do want to know why she wants the power.)
Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist wrote about the relationship between the left [ANP] and right [EP] hemispheres in The Master and His Emissary. He hypothesized the division of the hemispheres may have originally evolved in response to two competing needs of survival: the predatory quest for sustenance and the equally important avoidance of becoming prey. Using the perspective of a bird, McGilchrist describe how these two tasks are segregated: “If you are a bird, in fact, you solve the conundrum of how to eat and stay alive by employing different strategies with either eye: the right eye (left hemisphere) for getting and feeding, the left eye (right hemisphere) for vigilant awareness of the environment.”8
According to McGilchrist, these two types of attention did not evolve to remain separate, but are meant to combine in ways that further adaptation. The right hemisphere, which is concerned with the state of the world, relays emotional and somatic perceptions to the left hemisphere that become fodder for mental models of how we anticipate the world to be (e.g., for the bird, small brown spheres are approached as if they are edible seeds, but let’s assume instead they are beads). The success or failure of the left hemisphere’s assumptions about the world are then meant to be communicated to the right hemisphere, giving cues for how to focus attention, influencing the next round of scanning the world through the senses. Yet when there is dissociation, the left hemisphere resists what the right hemisphere is trying to relay about the world, or ignores its responsibility to return to the real-world attention of the right hemisphere. To integrate as nature intended, we must slow down, take the time to connect with our emotions and bodies rather than dissociating from them, as well as share with the right hemisphere the brilliant insights we glean from employing our mental models, which sometimes may be as simple as telling an EP, right here, right now, we are safe.
We cannot ‘will’ ourselves to stop creating associations we unconsciously made in the past, which have become part of how we organize and respond automatically to our inner and outer environments. Yet once activated, we can react to these associations in ways that lead to new ways of feeling and organizing experiences. By habitually responding with compassion and radical acceptance, especially towards inner conflicts, we begin to create space for a less defensive and fractured ‘society’ to emerge within us, one that increasingly is able to cope with change.
Rather than questions to ponder this week, I would like to suggest an activity. It comes from a creativity class I took that had nothing to do with recovering from trauma. Take out a large sheet of paper, or tape together 4 to 8 pieces of printer paper, or cut open a paper bag. On this paper, create a dinner party for your parts. This can include parts that you associate with defenses like the model of structural dissociation (see last week’s post for a more in-depth description), or they can be other parts of yourself, such as a creative part, a mischievous part, or a part who holds the grief. It’s up to you. Draw each part around a table. Pay attention to who would sit next to whom. How would they act at such a gathering? Who would be sociable? Who would be shy? Who would want to leave early? Is there anyone that everyone else would like to sit at a separate table? If you feel comfortable drawing, make pictures of your parts — what you think they would look like, what they would wear, the expressions on their faces. If drawing isn’t your thing, imagine easy symbols or colors you could associate with the different parts. If you are resistant to drawing such a picture, try journaling about your different parts and what a gathering of them might be like.
1 Fisher, Janina. (2010-2011). Principles and Challenges of Trauma Treatment. Online webinar.
8 McGilchrist, Iain. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world. New Haven: CT: Yale University Press, Kindle 723-728.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).