The model of structural dissociation, like other trauma-focused treatments, seeks to put an end to traumatic reminders breaking through present moment awareness. When no longer afraid of one’s memories and emotions, trauma begins to feel resolved.
Conventional models of trauma treatment focus on the triggered fragments of unconscious emotion and body memories. In contrast, the model of structural dissociation addresses the complex reaction that happens when an entire part of the personality is triggered. When memory fragments are triggered, terror is usually the primary response. When dealing with a personality fragment, such as an emotional part (EP) of the personality, what constitutes a ‘traumatic’ response isn’t always straightforward.
For example, perhaps in response to sexual abuse you developed a Submit EP that when triggered doesn’t lead to recall of fragmented memories of abuse, but rather results in depression, feelings of despair, self-hatred, loss of energy, and loss of interest in experiences that usually bring pleasure. It’s more difficult to recognize these states and traits as traumatic reactions than it is to witness feelings of terror as evidence of being triggered. More often, the tendency is to experience these traumatic responses as who you are. Not only would such a belief be inaccurate, it would hamper recovery and posttraumatic growth.
Trauma specialist Janina Fisher uses the term blending to refer to states of either completely identifying with an EP or being so flooded with an EP’s emotions and body states that you can’t maintain conscious awareness of your larger personality.1 Blending is relatively common until you get to know your parts and triggers well enough to identify when you have blended. Even then, most of us still fall into old patterns and may need someone to help us identify when we perceive the present moment through the emotions, body sensations, and personality traits of a part of ourselves that emerged in response to trauma.
Having a limited capacity for mentalizing inner experiences is a primary obstacle to recognizing when blending has happened. Mentalizing is the mindful observation of one’s emotions, thoughts, and body states. It’s the capacity to witness inner experiences, see oneself as a whole person, and identify one’s needs. Mentalizing is foundational for narrating experiences, including articulating what you need. For many of us, mentalizing is a skill we need to cultivate.
Mentalizing can be especially difficult if sexual or other types of abuse (including neglect) began early in life. If this was the case, there may not have been sufficient opportunities to learn how to mentalize. The capacity for mentalizing is derived from how our caregivers speak to us and relay their attention to our mental, emotional, and body states. By finding ourselves in the minds of our caregivers, we learn how to mentalize ourselves in our own minds.2
The terror of abuse can also alter the capacity for mentalizing. When we are afraid of our minds because of the memories they hold, or the overwhelming emotions we associate with past trauma, mental processes can in general feel frightening. As well as a phobia of traumatic memories, there can be a phobia of observing one’s mind. One effect, according to Jungian analyst Jean Knox, is difficulty making meaning of experiences:
“If reflective function [mentalizing] itself has come to be perceived as a threat, then emotion may act as a signal that the meaning-making process itself must be avoided.”3
When repeatedly overwhelmed by EPs, and unable to mentalize our inner worlds in ways that might put an end to blending, life can feel cyclically burdensome, as if lasting change is always out of reach.
Working with the core organizers, and practicing exercises from the Window of Tolerance Guide supports the development of mentalizing skills. Yet many of us need more than regulation skills when working with EPs. We need profound compassion to create what Fisher described as an “internal healing environment.”5
To support separating from our EPs and their emotional distress, many of us need to create a new part of the personality — a compassionate inner observer. Fisher recommends using the idea of the observer role that comes from Internal Family Systems, which is understood as a core self present in all of us. The eight “C” qualities of the observer role are:
About this observer role Fisher writes, “… each quality is an innate resource available to all human beings no matter what their past or present circumstances.”6
To cultivate an observer role, you have to believe these qualities are true of you, no matter what happened. You have to believe no one and no experience can take these away from you. At times you may feel as if you’ve lost them, but you have to trust they continue to be part of you.
Fisher noted that for some people, the “C” qualities can be triggering. If this is true of you, she recommends choosing just one of the qualities and focusing on accessing only that quality.7
My recovery has centered on cultivating the observer role, as has many of the women I’ve supported in their recovery. With the perspective of the observer role, it becomes easier to mentalize when an EP is dominating your outlook. Furthermore, at times when we attempt to create our best lives, yet continually find ourselves stuck in an EP that interferes with living the good life we deserve, we can purposefully encourage the observer role and thus cultivate a more integrative, healing attitude.
According to Pat Ogden, the creator of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, “trauma can be viewed in terms of stimulus/resource ratio: the fewer the resources available [at the time of the trauma], the stronger the impact of the trauma; the more intense the trauma, the more resources necessary to mitigate the effects.”8 Most of us lacked the resources needed to overcome the effects of sexual abuse. We usually didn’t have the relational support that would help up see that the eight qualities of the observer role — curiosity, compassion, calm, clarity, creativity, courage, confidence, and connectedness — are still a part of us, even if they have been obscured by the trauma. Thus, many of us must develop this resource for ourselves.
If you are not in the habit of mentalizing, or recognizing the inherent goodness in you, it can feel challenging to identify when you are in the state of the compassionate inner observer. It may help to think of the observer role as having a certain energetic quality that is related to two aspects of conscious awareness: the field and level of consciousness.
The field of consciousness is the amount of stimuli held in conscious awareness.9 Field of consciousness expands or retracts depending on the task and capacity for awareness. When tired or stressed, the field of consciousness tends to retract. Similarly, when defenses are triggered, consciousness retracts to the perspective of the EP activated. Yet the field of consciousness can be manipulated, for example, by intentionally concentrating on one thing, by practicing active imagination, or by meditating. In the observer role, we have a field of consciousness expansive enough to mentalize beliefs, emotions, and/or body states, recognize when they diverge from the eight “C”s, and imagine how we might nurture or regain these qualities.
The level of consciousness has to do with the amount of energy available for conscious awareness.10 When hyperaroused, the level of consciousness tends to be high, which allows for scanning for the possibility of threat. When fatigued, dissociated, or ill, the level of consciousness is low, which can affect memory and attention. Sometimes it’s necessary to let the mind wander or daydream, which also lowers the level of consciousness. However, when attending to a task that requires sustained focus, a higher level of consciousness is typically needed. In the observer role, we have enough energy to both mentalize inner experience and redirect attention to the eight “C”s.
We have greater control over the field and level of consciousness when we live well-balanced, nurturing lives. If you are having difficulty cultivating a field and level of consciousness that supports the observer role, you may want to ask yourself,
Sometimes we must first take care of basic needs, or get back in the Window of Tolerance, before we can access the observer role.
Cultivating the observer role does not replace the challenging and often painful work of understanding EPs, why they respond as they do, and how they came to be. Yet by developing the observer role, the inner experience of selfhood starts to feel safer. In response to inner conflict, despair, or even self-loathing, you can begin to shift towards a healing state of mind.
Questions to ponder: Of the eight “C’s” of the observer role — curiosity, compassion, calm, clarity, creativity, courage, confidence, and connectedness — which come easiest to you? Which are the most difficult? Are there images, memories, or fantasies you can associate with each of the eight qualities? What activities can you take part in that support being in the observer role? What activities might interfere with accessing the observer role?
1 Fisher, Janina. (2017). Healing the fragmented selves of trauma survivors. New York, NY: Routledge, p. 81. The term comes from Richard Schwartz and Internal Family Systems.
2 Wallin, David J. (2007). Attachment in psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
3 Knox, Jean. (2003). Archetype, Attachment, Analysis: Jungian Psychology and The Emergent Mind. New York, New York: Brunner-Routledge, p. 146.
4 Quoted in Goodwin, F. K., & Jamison, K. Redfield. (1990). Manic-Depressive illness. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 21.
5 Fisher, p. 80.
8 Ogden, Pat. (2007). Level I: Training in affect dysregulation, survival defenses, and traumatic memory. Boulder, CO: Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, p.111.
9 Hart, Onno van der, Nijenhuis, Ellert R. S., & Steele, Kathy. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: WW Norton & Company, p. 102.
10 Hart et al, pp. 102-103.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).