Overcoming Self-Destructive Behaviors

Sexual abuse is often perpetrated by someone the survivor knew and was thus a profound betrayal. Not surprising, trust isn’t always easy for survivors. Instead of seeking help, many rely on substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, or suicidality to fend off intrusive memories and emotions. Once these coping strategies become habits they are very challenging to overcome, and add one more obstacle to recovery from sexual abuse.

Trauma-Informed Stabilization Treatment (TIST) combines the model of structural dissociation with efforts to eliminate self-destructive behaviors. TIST is based on the assumption that only specific parts of the personality engage in self-harm rather than the whole person. These parts are not identified as the source of the problem; rather, they are understood to play a central role in survival. 

According to TIST, self-destructive parts of the personality try to protect more vulnerable parts of the self, and thus are actually life-affirming. Furthermore, whenever we reject parts of ourselves, we risk causing more fragmentation, thereby heightening the inner sense of alienation, if not also increasing the likelihood of future self-harm. Just as recovery from trauma depends on integration of all aspects of the self, so too does recovery from all forms of self-destructive behavior.

TIST thus takes the attitude “no parts left behind.”⁠1 According to trauma psychologist Janina Fisher, “As functional as the normal life self might be, he or she will not be allowed to abandon the parts responsible for survival.”⁠2 Fisher adds, “clients have to trust that all their parts are committed to survival in different ways, that even their most suicidal parts ‘want to die in order to live’.”⁠3

In the TIST program, clients identify their Emotional Parts (EPs) of the personality, along with their corresponding feelings, triggers, and impulsive reactions to threat. Clients are encouraged to feel empathy for their self-destructive parts and learn to distinguish intentions from actions, such as separating the desire to end suffering from the use of substances or self-harm. With this distinction, it is easier to explore what a part of the self hopes to accomplish, instead of solely focusing on the problems caused.⁠4 

The Fight EP of the personality is thought to initiate suicidality and self-harm, whereas the Flight EP pursues safety through escape and seeks relief in substances, processes, or food. Instead of discouraging the natural impulse to regulate overwhelming affects through fight or flight, TIST encourages anticipating the needs of the vulnerable parts of the self that fight or flight tries to defend.⁠5 Clients learn ways to constructively soothe vulnerable parts, which lessens dependency on fight or flight to self-soothe and emotionally regulate. 

TIST also focuses on developing what structural dissociation calls the Apparently Normal Part (ANP) of the personality, or ‘normal life’ self. Instead of relying on fight or flight to self-regulate, clients learn to let their left-brain ANP take over this function. The left hemisphere of the brain is associated with executive control and other analytical skills that are useful for problem solving and can replace reactively responding to feeling threatened or overwhelmed. 

It’s difficult to accept those parts of the self that engage in self-destructive behaviors, especially when our actions are life-threatening. Yet, like every other aspect of recovery from sexual abuse, we ultimately want to accept and integrate all parts of ourselves — even as we commit to change. Empathy for all aspects of the self is the foundation for recovery. As Fisher wrote, “The ashamed part, the frightened part, the addicted or eating disordered flight part, or the suicidal, the angry, self-injurious or justice-seeking fight part: all deserve respect and compassion.”⁠6 In contrast, when treatment focuses solely on ending self-destructive behaviors, the underlying internal dynamics remain. Inner fragmentation and self-alienation continue, along with the likelihood of relapse.

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Given the stigma associated with sexual abuse, fear of being ostracized can lead to hiding memories and emotions associated with the trauma behind what Jung called the persona: “a functional complex that comes into existence for reasons of adaptation.” Jung’s notion of complex is similar to the idea of parts of the personality put forth by the model of structural dissociation:

“Complexes are psychic fragments which have split off owing to traumatic influences or certain incompatible tendencies…. Complexes interfere with the intentions of the will and disturb the conscious performance…. They appear and disappear according to their own laws; they can temporarily obsess consciousness, or influence speech and action in an unconscious way. In a word, complexes behave like independent beings….”⁠7

Jung believed complexes were an inevitable aspect of development. Difficulties arise when complexes become rigid rather than adaptive, or overtake conscious awareness, much like EPs that overwhelm the ANP. In response to trauma, the persona complex may become a defense against vulnerability, as well as a way to avoid or deny rejected parts of the personality.

Similar to the model of structural dissociation, Jung saw psychological integration as the optimal state of mental well-being. However, for Jung the integrated psyche is an expression of soul, and seeking integration is a spiritual quest characterized by the thirst for wholeness.

According to Jung, spirituality does not necessarily involve living in accordance with religious doctrines or rituals. Instead, spirituality is an attitude toward the Self that supports living authentically, creatively, and in accordance with awareness of both the unconscious and conscious aspects of psyche that together make up the Self. 

The process of integrating the Self — what Jung called individuation — similar to the relationship with a god, involves what Rudolf Otto called numinosity, the quality of being in the presence of an awe-inspiring mystery. Jungian analyst Murray Stein wrote, “To enter into the presence of ‘the Holy’ was for him [Otto] to be shaken to the foundations by the power and awesome magnitude of the Other who is confronted in this experience” (2014, p. 40).

Jung used Otto’s concept of numinosity to describe the power of the unconscious when experienced as a foreign and powerful presence. Especially when gripped by a complex, we can feel as if overtaken by the unconscious. Yet numinous experiences of the unconscious also have the power to transcend ego limitations. Through their integration, complexes contribute to full realization of the Self. 

Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), used Jung’s ideas to create his philosophy for the AA fellowship. Jung thought recovery from alcoholism required a spiritual attitude toward the Self. By taking a spiritual attitude, the numinous experience of transcendence sought through alcohol (or other substances) would instead foster integration — and acceptance — of all aspects of the Self. 

Jung associated alcoholism with a shadow complex — what a person rejects in herself and attempts to hide from others, if not also from herself.⁠8 The presence of the shadow influences the formation of the persona complex, which becomes a way to hide the shadow.  When the persona feels like a false self, there can be a longing for authenticity. Substance abuse then becomes an attempt to contact the shadow and be released from the oppressive ‘all-perfect’ persona. 

A central aspect of AA is community. According to Jung, a sense of belonging is necessary for establishing wholeness. He wrote, “to love oneself one needs to hold communion with people … to see that you are just the same, that all suffer from the same problem.”⁠9  By acknowledging the shadow while being accepted by community, we open ourselves to the possibility of true belonging, which supports integration and \ helps resolve the social alienation common to self-destructive behaviors. 

Rejected parts of the self that make up the shadow complex are not necessarily ‘bad.’ Rather, their expression and development would have interfered with living the life either chosen or determined by circumstance. Most of us will deny or avoid parts of ourselves we interpret as interfering with getting on with life and gaining social acceptance. Yet to recover from traumas like sexual abuse, as well as self-destructive behaviors, we must start by compassionately accepting all that we are. 

Questions to ponder: Have any form of self-destructive behaviors played a role in how you cope with the effects of sexual abuse? Is this a problem for you now? If so, how might your behaviors be an attempt to protect more vulnerable parts of yourself? Do you treat your history of sexual abuse as part of a shadow complex that you must hide from the world? How do you imagine your life would be different if you didn’t feel shame about your history?

See you next week,

Laura

References

1 Fisher, Janina. (2017). Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. New York, NY: Routledge,  p. 142.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., p. 138.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., p. 141.

6 Ibid., p. 142.

7 Quoted in Smith, C. Michael. (2007). Jung and Shamanism: In Dialogue. New York, NY: Paulist Press,  p. 128.

8 Jung is also credited with describing addiction as a battle between different complexes associated with good and evil.

9 Quoted in Bauer, Jan ( 1985). Alcoholism and Women: The Background and the Psychology. Toronto, ON: Inner City Books, p. 69.

Stein, Murray. (2014). Minding the Self: Jungian Meditations on Contemporary Spirituality. NY, NY: Routledge.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).