In The Therapy Room: Trauma & The Fragmented Self

We all experience trauma at some point in our lives. When we experience a trauma that is so impacting on our sense of self, the way that we respond to keep ourselves safe, is by the fight, flight, freeze and flop response.  (I am not going into the detail of how this works in this post). This response is a biological and primeval part of ourselves, that is designed to keep us safe in the face of danger. It is instinctive, and there to protect us from harm, it is our friend, our ally.  Here is a brief overview of the different responses:

Fight – we approach

Flight – we run away

Freeze – we are frozen to the spot

Flop – we collapse

When we experience trauma, it triggers one or more of the responses to keep ourself safe, but at the same time, our sense of self gets fragmented. I use the analogy of a pot to describe this. The whole pot is sitting on a shelf, doing what it does day to day and along comes a threat.. knocking the pot off its shelf, its safe space.  This causes the pot to fall and land shattering into lots of little pieces. This is our fragmented self. The pot, now in pieces feels lost and broken.

The pot gradually gets its pieces put back together (more on this later), but it’s not the same pot anymore, there are new marks where the cracks are, where the light gets in.

In Japan this is a sign of beauty.  Kintsugi, is a Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with gold, silver or platinum.  It shows the repair as a part of the history of the pot, rather than something to disguise.  The beauty of the pot combines the skill of the original maker with that of the repairer. They are making something new; embracing and celebrating the imperfect. More than anything else, showing us a broken pot can be something beautiful, useful and something to treasure. 

Often clients will say to me ‘I want to get back to who I was before’. As we can see from the analogy of the pot, it would be difficult to go back to the same as before.  Its about working in the here and now, with what we have moving forward, rather than trying to get back to who we were before.  This can be a painful process, involving loss, integration and restoration.

The starting point for healing is acknowledging that our pot is or was broken. The more you try to ignore your fragmented self, the more lost, fragile and fearful you become. The world is suddenly a very scary place, normal routine activities like food shopping became a huge effort, a very unpleasant experience leaving you feeling burnt out and exhausted. To combat this you start to avoid going out. The more you stay at home, your new safe space, the more you fear the world outside. You become isolated. You are constantly ‘on guard’ and protective of yourself and your family, and to overcome the constant feeling of fear, you became avoidant. You may find unhealthy coping strategies, or live stuck in a cycle of adrenaline.

In your own way, you are trying to look after yourself, but being ‘in it’ you can’t see what is happening before you get yourself deeper and deeper into a spiral of fear.  It is a normal response to feel like this. After all, how can our body tell when something is dangerous or not, when in the past, the response to danger has been reactive, not proactive. This type of thinking, where avoidance becomes the normal, is contra-indicated for healing. The more we isolate ourselves, and stay at home in what we think is a safe bubble, the more we re-affirm that cycle of thinking that when we do go out into the world, something bad will happen, because we don’t go out, we don’t get to experience the end result, which would challenge the negative thinking cycle.

Maybe this really resonates with you? When we are in this cycle of isolation, avoidance, fear, what can we do to help ourselves? It is a slow path of healing when there has been the experience of trauma. The starting point is self-care, thinking to yourself, ‘what do I need right know, to help me to feel safe?’ Take a look at my post on creating a safe space for yourself.

Its about starting with small achievable goals. A plan of action, for example, if you are avoiding going out of the house would be –  ‘I’m going to go for a short walk to the end of the street and back’, I can turn around and come home at any point, but I am going to try to get to the end of the street, and back, or to the end of your drive or path and back. Practicing this small achievable goal begins to form a new memory. The key is to repeat the same task until you start to notice a difference. Gradually over time, you will be able to walk further, to the local shops for example. I will be sharing more examples in future posts, its important to take small steps so I don’t want to list them all here. Be kind to yourself, make a note of how far you have come, and remember, you are a survivor, and your body has just been doing what it was designed to do, keep you safe.

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