Strategies for Adults Hurt as Children
By Nancy J. Napier
This book deals with solutions for resolving the difficulties we face when we grow up in homes that were chaotic, neglectful, addictive or abusive, or in any other way overlooked the childhood need for support, nurturing and validation.
Guided Audio Meditations:
Table of Contents:
Excerpt: Chapter 1 – Introduction: I Know I’ve Been Hurt, But Now What?
Excerpt: Chapter 2 – Dissociation and Childhood Hurts: When you Have a Need Not to Know
Chapter 3 – Therapeutic Dissociation: A Better Way
Chapter 4 – Identifying Triggers: Why am I So Scared?
Chapter 5 – Healing with “Mindfulness”: Something to Hold Onto
Chapter 6 – Containing and Sitting with Feelings: I Feel Like I’m Going to . . .
Chapter 7 – Disappointment and Despair: I Just Don’t Know What to Do
Chapter 8 – Dealing with Inner Child Parts: What Do I Do with Them Now?
Chapter 9 – Shame and the Disowned Self: I Can’t Bear to Let You See . . .
Introduction: I Know I’ve Been Hurt, But Now What?
This book emerged from a deep feeling of necessity, from my response to workshop participants, clients, and people I’ve never met personally who have called me for help in dealing with what sometimes seems to be the overwhelming challenge of just getting through the day as a survivor of childhood abuse. It is for those of you who may have experienced any kind of childhood hurts, for your therapists, and for others who are close to you. It is meant to provide information and exercises that will help make the days, the nights, and the relationships easier to manage. It’s hard to be someone who was hurt badly as a child. It’s challenging to be your therapist. It can be confusing to be someone who loves you.
As a therapist, I didn’t intend to specialize in treating adults who were abused as children. This focus emerged organically, both from my interest in hypnosis and altered states of consciousness and from my experiences in dealing with my own childhood pain. As a psychotherapist, I have spent a number of years helping abuse survivors deepen their healing process. Along the way I have had to deepen my own healing. I have had to learn to acknowledge, tolerate, and deal with my own hurts more profoundly than I ever wold have imagined possible. Only in this way have I been able to accompany others into the dark, hidden places of childhood with any sense of comfort, safety, and confidence.
Healing from childhood hurts is a powerfully involving process. It can be so even when the hurts you experienced weren’t extreme. In fact, you may be someone who grew up in a home where the adults were overwhelmed with responsibility and simply ignored you. You may have lived in a home where a relative was ill and the family focused all its energy on caretaking, with little left over for your needs. Or you may be someone who was adopted at birth and subsequently has struggled with abandonment issues at the very core of your being. Perhaps you are one of the many people for whom the psychological abuse of being ongoingly devalued as a child was so pervasively devastating that it felt as if you were being beaten regularly. Or, you may, in fact, have been brutally attacked, sexually assaulted, and psychologically battered.
Whatever your experience, it is your own and it is unique to you. It can’t be compared to anyone else’s. As you read the following chapters, please be gentle with yourself and find your own truth in the ideas shared here. Whatever your truth may be, it is your key to freedom. It will tell you how you came to be the person you are and what you need to resolve and change in order to become the person you want to be.
Sometimes abuse survivors need to know “nuts and bolts” kinds of things other people take for granted, such as “How do I give myself permission to say, ÎNo’?” Others have an urgent need to learn to handle intense feelings that may sweep over them from out of the blue. Still others want to know how to manage the urge to let themselves become numb whenever difficult feelings begin to emerge.
Underlying all the work that adults who were hurt as children must do to reclaim their lives is the following premise: Even as you work on resolving wounds that occurred in the past, you also need to be able to deal with your world in the present. I’ve heard many people say, “I can’t stand to live like this! What will make me feel better, more competent today? I know I have to look at the past in order to heal, but how do I get through the next hour?”
It matters how you live today. If you can’t get through this moment, then what happened to you in the past can seem pretty removed and unimportant. Some days may be easier to handle than others. Yet childhood hurts affect how you experience yourself and the world and can make it difficult to maintain a sense of internal equilibrium when life presents you with its inevitable challenges. Knowing some strategies that will help make today an easier place to live can be of real value.
You may be more than familiar with those times when it’s hard just to get out of bed in the morning or to care about the fact that your boss wants that project tomorrow. So what if there’s a house to clean or groceries to buy? What can any of that really matter, you might think, when deep inside you are dealing with the experiences of a child ö you ö who was traumatized and whose feelings are flooding your awareness?
Reclaiming and processing your unacknowledged or unremembered past is one of the fundamental tasks of healing. Another is healing the wounds that exist in your relationships with other people. Equally important to the process of becoming a healthy adult in the present is learning to cope effectively with your current day-to-day life. It’s important to be safe in the present, to be able to take care of yourself adequately, and to know what to do if you begin to feel overwhelmed by the demand that you act like an adult when your really feel like a three-year-old.
Childhood Trauma and Dissociation
In recent years, many books have been written for abuse survivors. What few of them emphasize, though, are the special issues that arise when a traumatized child uses dissociative strategies to deal with hurtful experiences. In Chapter 2, we’ll explore the effects of trauma-based dissociation in some detail. For now, I want to emphasize that, while this book will be helpful to anyone dealing with the effects of childhood hurts, it will also offer information and strategies for those who are struggling with the special challenges that arise when a child dissociates herself from her body, her feelings, her thoughts or urges.
It’s hard enough to deal with having been hurt by people who had more power than you. It’s especially challenging when you may not even remember that you were hurt and yet find yourself terrified of certain kinds of people and situations for no apparent reason, or feel like a little kid when a moment ago you felt just fine as the grownup you are.
Dissociation exists along a continuum, ranging from normal, non-traumatic dissociative moments to the profound dissociation that often occurs with extreme abuse and results in multiple personalities. We’ll look at this kind of dissociation in detail in the next chapter. At one end of the continuum are the natural dissociative moments we all experience, whether we’ve been hurt as children or not. Some of the most common include staring off into space while riding in a train or bus; becoming so absorbed in music or reading that we don’t hear someone enter or leave the room; losing track of time ö time flies when we’re having fun and drags when we’re bored; focusing so intently on something that we don’t realize we’ve hurt ourselves ö later, when a bruise appears, we’re sometimes baffled about how it got there until we remember that we walked into a table while having a heated conversation with a friend.
As we move along the dissociative continuum, we begin to find people who used dissociative strategies in protective ways when they were children. In order to deal with a difficult experience, for example, we use dissociation to forget certain aspects of what happened even as we remember others. Many adults abused as children use this kind of dissociation. Perhaps you can think of a time in your own childhood when you remember certain events, but you know there are gaps in your memory.
An example from my own life comes to mind. I vividly remember the day my sister came home from the hospital as a newborn. I ran home from kindergarten, thrilled that I would finally get to meet the new member of the family. I recall what the day looked like. I remember how I felt. I have vivid images of seeing my sister for the first time. What I didn’t recall until many years later, in therapy, was how I felt when my father moved out of our house just weeks before my sister was born. In fact, I had no recall of how it felt to have him gone, or how we said goodbye, or even of the few visits he made after he left. It was only after working in therapy that these memories became available. As a young child, I just couldn’t handle the deep hurt of losing my father, so I put all my conscious awareness and feelings into the arrival of my sister. I dissociated everything that had to do with him during that time.
Problems arising from trauma-based dissociation can be hard to understand and frightening for abuse survivors and those close to them. What many people have found is that information about dissociation and how it operates in adult life provides a sense of relief and mastery. A good portion of this book is dedicated to providing that information. Also, it helps to understand that trauma-based dissociation operates in such a way that there is a continuing potential for confusion and unanticipated reactions in adults who used this strategy as children.
The more you understand about dissociation, the more empowered you can feel in your day-to-day life. For example, it helps to know that it may be because of dissociation that your moods switch quickly and without warning. Knowing that dissociated feelings are as pure as the first time you felt them in childhood can help you get through some of those particularly difficult moments when intense feelings unexpectedly surface. Also, it helps to know that panic and nightmares often accompany the emergence of previously unremembered events from childhood. Realizing this can help if you suddenly find yourself awash in panic and can’t identify any external, present-day source for your feelings. The more you know, the greater your ability to handle the present moment effectively.
Even if you didn’t use dissociative processes to deal with life in a troubled family, chances are that, if you were abused physically, emotionally or sexually, your normal childhood development was affected. Most of us who grew up in a dysfunctional family of whatever kind struggle with how to be effective adults in the present. Whether experiences were traumatically dissociated or not, we all have inner child parts, some of which relate to unresolved childhood events. Whether emotions were traumatically dissociated or not, most of us need to learn better ways to deal with our feelings once they are triggered and we find ourselves reacting in ways that may not be good for us. Learning new strategies that help us live more consciously within ourselves, whatever our original strategies for dealing with childhood hurts, can make it easier to get through this moment, right now.
If you did use dissociation to get through an abusive childhood, you may already be working with a therapist who has helped you place yourself along the dissociative continuum. Or you may be reading about dissociation for the first time and be curious about how it may operate in the unconscious strategies you developed as a child to cope with hurtful experiences.
Everything that is offered here is meant to help you get through the many moments that make up the present day. What this book can’t do is take the place of solid, ongoing psychotherapy with a professional who is trained in working with abuse survivors. Self-healing is a wonderful, natural process that is available to all of us, but it can’t take us through the blind spots we don’t even know how to recognize. For most people, it is too hard to do this work on their own. With a competent therapist, you have the help of an informed guide. Your therapist becomes a safe “container” for the powerful feelings that are part of healing and provides a secure context within which you can go deeper and with more certainty than you ever could on your own.
At this point, I’d like to share with you my bias: eventually, in order to heal fully from the effects of childhood abuse, you will benefit from going into therapy, if you haven’t already. It’s impossible to explore and resolve, by yourself, the interpersonal wounds that occur when childhood hurts are brought about by the very people you needed to trust, perhaps the very people on whom your survival depended.
If the idea of therapy frightens you, that’s natural. Most of us feel uncertain and downright scared the first time we walk into a therapist’s office. In Chapter 12, we’ll explore what to expect, what to look for, and how to envision what a therapy process might involve.
In addition to therapy, it is important to have support from friends, and from others who are also healing from childhood hurts. You may find that you get a great deal of comfort from ongoing support groups. Or you may discover that groups are too much for you to handle and that you prefer to have a few close friends you can talk to about what is happening in your life. It’s helpful to know that a therapist alone can’t provide all the support you may need as you go through your process of healing. The same applies to your partner, if you’re involved in a relationship. No one person can be enough.
What This Book Offers
This book draws upon many approaches and offers strategies geared especially to help you cope today, right now, with the parts of yourself that hold dissociated and unprocessed memories of hurtful experiences. For example, you can learn how to send child parts to safe places “inside” when you have something to do that is particularly scary for them. We’ll explore ways in which you can soothe yourself when you get upset. Using self-hypnosis and guided imagery exercises, you can tap into future resource states and learn how it feels to be confident and to have a sense of safety that may have been lacking when you were a child. Tapping into these kinds of experiences can give you a boost, some hope, when things feel stuck and too big to handle. We’ll also look at some ways to deal with compulsive behaviors that push you into action when sitting with your feelings could be more healing.
Some of the exercises and ideas in the book address the difficult journey into your memories. All are offered with the hope that you will keep in mind that whatever you experienced, then, happened a long time ago. You survived. You are here, now, and that is proof that you can get through the work of remembering and coming to terms with your past. Your early experiences didn’t do you in then, and they won’t now. Yes, it will be frightening and at times it will seem to be overwhelming. The key thing to keep in mind is that feeling overwhelmed, terrified, enraged, or filled with despair is just that: a feeling, a remembering. You can let it flow through your awareness without having to do anything with it. You can also learn to pace yourself gently, so that you aren’t recreating the overwhelmed feelings of childhood by pushing yourself too hard.
You’ll also learn how to remind yourself that feelings are to be taken seriously but not literally. This is an important theme throughout the book. Your feelings need to be acknowledged and owned. That doesn’t mean, however, that the feelings are literally related to what’s happening in the present. Just because you feel that the noise in the hall is your father coming to rape you doesn’t mean it’s true. What may be true is that you hear something that reminds a part of you of your father’s approach. As you understand better what’s happening to you, you can choose to deal with it in new ways. You might decide to focus your awareness on the fear and listen to the child part that is experiencing it, rather than hide in a closet. When you are able to choose to listen and bring your adult awareness into the fear, your ability to stay focused in the present increases.
A word here about memories. Currently, there is a controversy brewing over the reliability of memories that come into conscious awareness during the process of healing from childhood abuse. While memory seems to be context-specific, being constructed and reconstructed over time, it is essential to keep in mind that memory content is but one element of a cluster of symptoms in abuse survivors. Taken together, body states, self-destructive behaviors, interpersonal difficulties, flashbacks, and memory content give a clearer picture of the origins of childhood abuse.
There is also controversy over the use of hypnosis in the retrieval of dissociated memories. When misused, hypnosis may involve abuse and the potential retraumatization of survivors. Many therapists using hypnosis have found that survivors are able to recall memories that previously were not readily accessible. While this may be true, some professionals fail to recognize that “forcing” clients to bring into awareness a memory that the unconscious has wisely pushed away from conscious recall may create a very real risk of retraumatization. Because of the aftereffects of abuse, which include a tendency to comply with the perceived demands of authority figures, survivors are vulnerable to potential revictimization.
Hypnosis is a proven and useful tool in the process of healing ö when it is used wisely, and in conjunction with what is emerging naturally from a survivor’s unconscious. Then it can become a means for deepening work with memories that have begun to surface, increasing a sense of safety, promoting communication between and among parts of the self, and accessing profound states of comfort. Some of the chapters that follow contain exercises that draw on hypnotic techniques. These approaches are self-hypnotic in nature, and respect the slow and steady pace of remembering and healing that can convey empowerment rather than retraumatization. I want to encourage you never to use self-hypnosis to push yourself; instead, let it become a gentle support that can help you accomplish many of the tasks of healing.
Many clinicians who work with adults who were abused as children, and who move with these clients through the experience of bringing an unremembered event into consciousness and resolving it, support the view that ö even if the details of specific memories aren’t accurate ö working with them may bring relief, and that’s what matters. Seeing the change that can occur when a memory surfaces and is resolved often creates a willingness to suspend judgment and work with whatever emerges. If you are willing to accept the fact that some of your memories may be more like metaphors than an accurate recall of actual events, then it doesn’t matter how memory works. What matters is that you are able to tap into a way of representing past abuse that, when explored and resolved, brings relief. We’ll explore issues around memory in more detail in Chapter 8.
For now it’s enough to know that when you have strategies available that allow you to go into old feelings and memories with your adult, present-day awareness, you are on the road to freedom. As long as your childhood experiences remain unconscious and unprocessed, you risk falling into them at any moment, any time. Until your history is integrated into your adult consciousness, it holds the potential to pull you back to unremembered terror and pain, without your really knowing what you are feeling or why. We’ll pay particular attention to dealing with unresolved pockets of childhood memories in the chapters on containing feelings, using mindfulness to reorient to the present moment, and understanding what things trigger you into these difficult feelings and responses.
Sometimes it may feel as though your whole day were lost in the past. For example, some abuse survivors have a hard time experiencing themselves as grownups. If this is true for you, even if you can’t find a sense of yourself as an adult, you can increase your ability to observe your feelings and to deal with them. Over time, you’ll discover that something has changed, that you feel more present and aware than you did before. It doesn’t matter whether or not this developing state of mind feels “adult.” What does matter is that its presence in your ongoing consciousness can make a big difference in how you handle your daily life.
If you are gentle with yourself and allow yourself to pace the healing process in small, slow steps, you can free yourself from the hold the past has had on you. We’ll explore ways to slow yourself down, ways to pace your exploration and discovery that allow you to validate your right to be treated with respect, especially by yourself.
A theme that comes up often in therapy with survivors of childhood abuse is the slower you go, the faster you get there. There is a great deal of wisdom in this simple statement. Because abuse creates feelings of being overwhelmed, it’s not unusual for survivors to move into high gear and overwhelm themselves as part of their recovery process. While it’s understandable that you want to be free of the pain and struggle that may characterize your present life, going slowly will allow you to learn how it feels to respect your needs for safety. You’ll have a chance to experience mastery, to go through a natural process of absorbing new information at your own pace, a pace you can manage.
In fact, one of the things that survivors often don’t learn is how to modulate their feelings. If this applies to you, you may be one of those people who experiences things as all-or-nothing, as profoundly intense or intensely boring. You may, at times, be swept along with whatever feelings happens to be triggered by some event, experiencing the chaos that can arise when things are out of control. Or you may have learned how to numb out, turn to stone or wood, and not feel anything at all. In Chapter 6, we’ll look at some strategies for changing how you learned to cope with your emotional world.
Whether you work on your own or with a therapist, you will find that the capacity you have for dealing with the hurts of childhood fluctuates. For example, sometimes you’ll feel strong and ready to plunge in deeper. Those are times when you may want to use some of the exercises in the book that allow you to discover more about what you feel. At other times, you may want to hide in a good book or stay in bed. At times like those, you are telling yourself that you have taken in enough for now. You need time to process things unconsciously. Listen to yourself. Be gentle. Remember that, as a child who was hurt, you had to shut down what you really felt. You had to handle more than you were equipped to manage. You had to learn not to know what you really needed or wanted. Part of healing is allowing yourself to reawaken to what feels right for you in the present moment. What a precious gift it is to be able to say, “Yes, I know what I want right now,” and then be able to give it to yourself. Cherish that gift. It’s important and you’re worth it.
An underlying theme of this book is choice. It’s about the constant opportunities offered in daily life for you to choose to heal. As a child, you chose to survive ö and you did! It was one of the few choices available to you. So, even if you feel your life isn’t working the way you would like it to today, you did succeed at your most important decision ö to get through it all. Now, each moment of your adult life offers new choices.
It can be hard, though, because now you know, ahead of time, that choosing awareness can mean that you will have to tolerate some pretty uncomfortable feelings. As we explore some ways to deal with the discomfort, keep in mind that this book is intended to be a bridge between where you are right now and your most fundamental, unconscious impulse to be whole. Deep in your psyche, outside conscious awareness, is the urge to heal, to reclaim your whole self ö to be free of the confines of a troubled and unprocessed past. The information and strategies offered here can help you connect with that place inside.
This is no fix-it manual, though. Rather, you might think of it as a map. You are the explorer of your own, unique internal terrain. No one knows you better than you know yourself, even though there will be times when you can’t see yourself clearly and need the help of your therapist. All the exercises and strategies offered here are general suggestions. They tap into a vast store of creativity and wisdom we each carry inside: the unconscious. Your unconscious can take in these strategies and make them specifically useful to you. Your own creativity can embrace what’s meaningful to you and leave the rest. You may find that, as you work with some of the suggestions in the book, your own ability to come up with strategies that help you get through the day will increase.
The most basic choice any of us faces as we delve more deeply into childhood hurts is deciding that we are the source of our own healing. We must become the source of our own rescue, even as we allow an experienced guide, such as our therapist, to help us discover this truth about ourselves. No one outside us is going to come along and say, “Ah yes, I see. I can make it better for you now,” ö not a friend, not a fellow traveler on the healing journey, not even a therapist.
Instead, each of us must take the journey inside ourselves and deal with what we find there. We can have help, but no one can do it for us. Each chapter offers ideas and tools that will help you to choose healing to connect to the present moment even as you continue to open up the hurts of a painful childhood.
Each time you choose to deal with your feelings in healthy ways, to remove yourself from abusive situations, or to take some time to get in touch with the memories, feelings, thoughts, or body sensations associated with some past hurt, your inner strength increases. You add to this foundation of strength every time you make the choice to reclaim your feelings, each time you acknowledge and own what happened to you and how it has affected your life.
It’s also important to know that you can choose to have moments away from the healing process. Healing goes on even if you’re having a good time doing something else, or a quiet time with a good book, or a blank time staring at the television set. That deep place in your psyche, the part of you that always seeks to heal, carries on the process no matter what you’re doing. It’s your decision to heal that matters. Once that is made, the process carries itself along.
We’ll also touch on issues of spirituality. The world of meaning and the unknown become part of the healing process as abuse survivors ask themselves, “Why did this happen to me?” “How could there be a God if little children are allowed to be hurt?” Although such existential questions are inescapable, they can’t really be answered in any final way. What they can do is open the door to your spiritual beliefs and how you explain your world.
Many times survivors report how important it was, and is, for them to have an awareness of parts of themselves that are spiritual in nature. These parts may be experienced as guides or as wise men or women who lead the way to brighter, happier places inside a hurt child’s internal, imaginary world. Sometimes they were the only source of hope for a young child who had nowhere else to turn.
I do not limit the concept of spirituality a belief in God or religion. Spirituality may be expressed in your connection to nature or in a belief that you are part of a larger organism of consciousness, even if you leave the nature of that organism undefined. Spirituality can refer to anything that gives you a sense of connection to something more than yourself, to something that brings meaning to your life. If you are interested in tapping into this aspect of your consciousness, some strategies are offered to help you do so.
The Collective Unconscious
Another aspect of the healing process that touches on things spiritual is the concept of the collective unconscious. The existence of a collective unconscious was proposed by Carl Jung, the famed psychologist who originally was a student of Freud. According to Jung, within the collective unconscious are all the thoughts, feelings and accumulated experiences of humanity throughout time.
All of those who have healed, who have led full and vital lives, have contributed their consciousness to this collective. While we are compelled to be aware of our shared pain as human beings, we can also tap into our collective potential to heal and be whole. Every person who has come before you, and who has healed and moved beyond the confines of a hurtful childhood, has blazed a trail you can follow unconsciously. All the learnings and accomplishments of those who have healed already are available within your own unconscious and can guide you on your way. Also, it’s important to realize that each time you make a choice to go deeper into your own healing you contribute something to the collective, as well. All who come after you draw unconsciously on your achievements.
An example of how the collective unconscious may be currently affecting those of us who were hurt as children is the recent emergence of people who are willing to publicize their victimization on television and in other media. At the same time, therapists have made available information that previously would have been found only in professional publications or at professional conferences. All of the public revelations and books demonstrate an important message: no matter what happened to you, or what strategies you used to get through those experiences, you are not alone.
Its as though a tide of awareness were sweeping through our collective unconscious. The increasing understanding of dissociative processes in childhood, supported by public revelations from people who have recovered memories in adulthood, has been tremendously freeing for people who suffered child abuse. It is helpful to be reminded of the fact that there are people who have healed successfully. They demonstrate an important truth about what happens when there is abuse: the way you are today is the result of a reasonable response to an extraordinary and unreasonable situation, and there is a way to move out of an accommodation to trauma into new, more effective strategies.
Successfully facing a hurtful past isn’t the only challenge where help from our shared, collective unconscious is useful. Those who have accomplished the journey of healing have faced the often frightening and uncomfortable experience of change. They have answered for themselves the difficult questions we all must confront when we choose to heal: What will I lost if I get better? What are the risks of becoming aware of my full self? What will change? Am I entitled to a different life? Will I know myself?
The thing to keep in mind as you ask yourself the many questions that must arise as you journey into healing is that you can draw on the wisdom others have found in their struggles with these important issues. Because of this collective wisdom, there is hope. Once any one person accomplishes something, it becomes possible for the rest of us.
Special Issues for Multiples
Those of you who may have multiple personalities, something we’ll explore in more detail in the next chapter, I have made special comments you may wish to consider as you work with the material offered. For you, especially, it’s important to have an ongoing dialogue with a therapist as you delve more deeply into your world of multiplicity. This sharing can create a greater sense of stability and equilibrium in the present, as you explore your inner process.
Some Technical Notes
The cases described throughout the book are all composites. None represents an actual person. They have been compiled from many different individuals I have met or heard about in workshops, as clients, on the telephone, at conferences, and in clinical discussions with colleagues. In fact, any resemblance between the people described in this book and actual living persons is purely coincidental. These composites have been created to describe general patterns found in the lives of people who use dissociation as their primary survival strategy in childhood.
If your story doesn’t seem as dramatic as some of those described in the following chapters, fine. Allow yourself to remember that we each are the star of our own dramas. No one else’s story can match your own for its immediacy and impact on your life.
As you explore the approaches offered in this book, please keep in mind that each of us is unique. What works for one person may not feel relevant for another. Your style of going inside and discovering what’s bothering you, quieting an inner child’s terror, or encouraging yourself to get out of bed an go to work will be unique to you. It’s fine ö even better than fine ö to take these suggestions and change them to create what works best for you. Not al strategies are appropriate for every person. It’s a good idea to read each one and see how it feels as you consider it. If it seems right, great! If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too.
Throughout the book, I refer to “him” and “her” randomly. Girls and boys alike are hurt as children, and this book is for the women and men alike who are struggling to free themselves from a painful past.
There are notes for each chapter [not included in web site excerpts]. They are at the back of the book and provide references and further details on ideas presented in the chapters.
The reference list at the back of the book [not included in web site excerpts] includes titles on healing, abuse, recovery, spirituality and related subjects. Inevitably, it will be out of date almost as soon as this manuscript takes final form. Thankfully so many good books come on the market regularly that it’s impossible to keep u with them all! It is certain that I will have missed some that are special to you and that you have found to be immeasurably helpful. I apologize for this and hope that you will pass along
to your friends the names of books that have served you well in your journey of recovery.
In Recreating Your Self, I mentioned that I was certain my ideas would change and evolve from what I wrote there a number of years ago. I want to say the same thing here. This book contains what I understand to be helpful at this point in time. I am bemused to say that I have received calls about things I said in Recreating Your Self that I understand differently now. Such is the price of putting ideas in print. They get frozen in time when, in fact, the ideas presented in any book are really the seeds of new thoughts to come.
And so, I hope you will allow your own ideas to continue to evolve as you move through your healing process. There are no right answers. There are only the answers we have available now. It is certain that new and more effective ways to heal the hurts of childhood will emerge, and probably in the very near future. It’s an exciting time to be in a healing profession, but it’s also a time that requires all of us to have open minds and open hearts.
Dissociation and Childhood Hurts: When You Have A Need Not To Know
If you happen to be one of those people who used dissociation as a way of coping with a difficult childhood, you unconsciously chose a good survival strategy. Unfortunately, what works so well in childhood creates all kinds of problems in adult life, so the process of healing involves learning to use other kinds of psychological coping strategies when you’re afraid or distressed. For example, instead of dissociating feelings of fear by unconsciously pushing them outside your awareness, you may begin to identify the feeling as fear. Then you can take steps to soothe yourself, which we’ll explore in detail in later chapters. For now, it’s helpful to know that there are options to dissociative strategies, now that you are grown up and can be more aware of what you feel as you move through your day-to-day activities.
If you find yourself saying, “Hey, I wasn’t hurt that badly as a child. None of this applies to me,” let yourself be curious bout the following information anyway. What I will talk about in terms of multiple personalities represents an exaggerated version of how parts operate unconsciously in many of us who had difficult or unhappy childhoods. Also, if you have friends who were traumatically abused as children, this information may help you understand the unique challenges they face and what life is like for them on a daily basis.
In this chapter we’ll consider the essential concept of parts of the self, especially as they operate within a context of dissociation. It’s important to remember, here at the beginning, that dissociation is a normal part of human consciousness. Most of us dissociate at last some of the time: when we daydream; when we drive along and enter “highway hypnosis,” where we don’t realize how far we have gone or how we got there; when we become deeply engrossed in a task and seem to lose awareness of our surroundings; and at countless other times when our attention wanders or blanks out.
Parts of the Self
Central to the coping strategies presented in this book is the concept of parts. Instead of our each being a unified, one-dimensional being who is the same all the time, most of us have a rich world of shifting states of mind, moods, and behaviors within which we define ourselves. Different parts of us are activated in response to environmental and interpersonal events, as well as to internal fantasies, fears and memories. These parts may represent or encompass mood states, performance states, talents, fears, unresolved hurts and unremembered experiences from childhood, as well as spiritual awareness.
For example, when you are at work and things are going well, it’s likely that you are able to access certain skills and states of mind that are appropriate for the task at hand. Generally, the parts of you that support your present-day adult capacities are active when you are at work, unless something goes wrong. When this happens, you may access parts of your consciousness that encompass feelings of fear or vulnerability, instead of a sense of adult competence.
When you’re not at work or engaged in other day-to-day responsibilities, you might naturally be in an entirely different mood, engaging in entirely different behaviors that, in turn, activate other parts of you. For instance, when you’re at home, you might experience parts that are more relaxed and casual than when you are at work ö unless “home” was a place where you were hurt. If this were the case, you might find yourself accessing parts that are anything but relaxed. These are times when your present-day self seems to fade into the background and inner child parts emerge. It’s when inner child parts come into the foreground of your experience that dealing effectively with day-to-day living can become a difficulty challenge. We’ll look at strategies for dealing with these parts in later chapters.
Parts of the Self and the Dissociative Continuum
It’s important to keep in mind that, even if you didn’t use dissociative strategies as a means of coping with a difficult childhood, you do have parts. Much of what will be described here will help you move towards a more conscious awareness of these aspects of your inner world.
As I mentioned in Chapter 1, dissociation happens along a continuum. At the nontraumatic end are the many experiences of daydreaming or floating off into reverie I have described above. Other kinds of normal dissociation include forgetting where you put your keys, momentarily forgetting why you got up to go across the room, or becoming so absorbed in a book that you don’t hear what is going on around you. At the other end of the continuum are various trauma-based kinds of dissociation that sometimes result in multiple personalities. If you live with this kind of dissociation operation in your consciousness, daydreams may become terrifying fantasies, experiences of reverie may become frightening flashbacks, and forgetting may be profound. Hours or whole days may be lost. The thread of a conversation with someone may disappear midstream, leaving you with embarrassing gaps in memory. Sometimes, at this traumatic end of the dissociative continuum, you may even discover yourself walking along a city street without knowing why you re there or even how you got there.
At this point, let me make a “therapy” comment. Throughout this chapter, I’ll have lots to say about multiple personalities and all the varieties of this kind of trauma-based dissociation. As you read, I would ask you to keep in mind the “medical school syndrome.” This is a situation in which medical students become convinced they have every disease or condition they learn about as they go through their coursework. It’s no different when you read about psychological responses to trauma. Some of you will decide, based on what you read here, that you must have multiple personalities.
Diagnosing this response to trauma requires a good deal of expertise and must be done by a mental health professional who specializes in the treatment of dissociative disorders. Self-diagnosis may feel right, but you really need an expert opinion (and, preferably more than one). Much of what I say in this book will relate to many of you who were hurt as children and who used dissociative processes to protect yourselves but who do not have multiple personalities. With that caution in mind, let’s continue our exploration of the dissociative continuum and its relationship to the many parts each of us has inside.
One area where you might think you have multiple personalities, and don’t, concerns parts of the self of which you aren’t consciously aware. Each of us has certain parts we aren’t aware of at times. Think of a time when you have been asked to take on a specific role, such as teacher, boss, lover, or friend. When you step into one of these roles, chances are that you bring with you a particular state of mind, way of thinking, or way of feeling. When the situation changes, and you have to take on another role, such as when you go home from work or when you’re shopping, your mood probably shifts and your way of thinking and behaving may be quite different. The key thing that allows you to function within a context of constancy and predictability is your ongoing sense of I-ness, a continuous sense of self, that exists throughout your experience of your different parts.
For a person with multiple personalities, this continuous sense of I-ness may be lacking. For example, at the extreme end of the dissociative continuum, the shifts from one part of the multiple’s self to another may bring with them complete shifts in the sense of I-ness. Instead of a continuous sense of “being me even though I’m in a different mood now,” the multiple’s sense of self shifts as parts are activated and then replaced by other parts coming and going in and out of overt expression. When this happens, one part may experience itself as a young girl with her own name and qualities, while another part may feel it is a strong, aggressive teenage boy. This isn’t true for all multiples, but does illustrate the classic form of multiple personalities, as described in Sybil and The Three Faces of Eve.
Identifying multiple personalities is complicated by the fact that sometimes there is an ongoing sense of I-ness, even though the inner parts are as strongly defined in the multiple where a continuous sense of self doesn’t exist. It is because of these subtleties and complexities that anyone suspecting he or she may be a multiple needs to be diagnosed by a professional who is especially trained to do so.
Identifying Your Parts
Take a moment to identify some of the parts of yourself of which you are aware. For example, you might be aware of how you behave and feel when you are at work and things are going along well. When you are identified with this part of yourself, your body may feel a certain way, and you may be in a particular state of mind that feels solidly effective. On the other hand, there may be times when you are aware of a child part of you that is frightened or that keeps you from doing things you want and need to accomplish in your present-day life. If possible, let yourself notice which parts feel as though they have developed into resources in your current life, and which feel as though they hold old, unresolved feelings and behaviors from the past. Learning to identify and interact with the many parts of you that comprise your complex self is one of the major tasks of healing and of becoming more competent and empowered in the present.
If you re a multiple, your task is the same, but it is complicated by the way your parts may experience themselves as separate people. Because of this, communication with your parts may, at first, feel as though it is with individuals as well defined as yourself. The thing to keep in mind is that, in the long run, all the parts of you constitute one psychological being, no matter how powerful, individual, or separate they may feel at this point. As you heal, one of your goals is to work towards an ever-increasing, continuous sense of I-ness.
In nontraumatized people, most parts of the self operate unconsciously and automatically. They usually cause no difficulties as they shift in and out of our ongoing experience; in fact, they add to the richness of our capacities and the depth of our emotional lives. Things change in how we are affected by our inner parts, though, when they are characterized by unresolved, and perhaps unremembered, hurts we experienced as children. When this happens, a powerful dynamic is put in place where certain parts of the self are created to hold, encompass, or embody certain aspects of abuse. In time, they may become autonomous, to some degree or another, and exert a tremendous influence on daily life, for both multiples and non-multiples.
These dissociated parts are created so that the child who is being hurt doesn’t realize the extent of the trauma she is experiencing. For instance, many adults who were traumatically abused as children describe floating up in the corner of the room, or on the ceiling above their bodies, during abuse experiences. It’s not unusual to hear these trauma survivors talk about how they learned to shut out any sensations in their bodies while they were being beaten or otherwise abused. I’ve heard people describe a moment in childhood when they felt a knot of determination develop inside: They would stop feeling anything, and they absolutely would not let their abusers know they were hurt. At this point, it’s important to emphasize that most of these individuals did not develop multiple personalities, even though they successfully used dissociative processes to protect themselves during childhood trauma.
The step from using dissociation to block out certain aspects of experience to developing multiple personalities is a seemingly small but powerfully meaningful one. For example, one of the pervasive ö and tragic ö responses to the extreme childhood abuse and neglect that result in multiple personalities is the relentless, if unconscious, presence of terror. Imagine, for a moment, what it would be like if you were frozen with terror all the time. For most multiples, somewhere inside there is a constant state of terror that affects every moment of every day, even if the multiple is totally unaware of it on a conscious level. For this reason, the multiple’s extreme form of dissociation must accomplish a dissociation of the self from itself, rather than from aspects of a traumatic experience. In other words, it is a little girl pretending that the abuse is happening to someone else.
Because they were able to draw on the dissociative process unconsciously, abused children who dissociated didn’t realize, thankfully, that some part of them did know how the abuse felt. Some part of them did experience the hurt. Another part felt the rage. Yet another felt the despair of betrayal, even when the abused child believed he was completely numb in body and spirit. The underlying reality is that, even when these parts are outside a child’s conscious awareness, they are present inside. Their pain, terror, and other unconscious, unresolved experiences can significantly affect life during adulthood, a subject we’ll return to in later chapters.
Alters, Ego States, Subpersonalities, or Fragments?
There are many names for parts of the self, all of which represent states of consciousness encompassing feelings, thoughts, memories, beliefs, sensations, or impulses to act. There are alters, a term used early on to describe the parts that exist when there are multiple personalities arising from trauma. Then there are ego states, those naturally occurring parts of the self that are somewhat autonomous and arise with or without trauma. The term subpersonalities is similar to ego states. Subpersonalities exist in all people and embody all varieties of feelings, capacities, unresolved issues, spiritual orientations and consciousness, and wisdom.
Alters, ego states, and subpersonalities are all theorized to exercise some degree of autonomy within the human psyche, but do not necessarily arise from trauma alone. Again, the underlying premise is that there is a natural multiplicity operating in all people, and these are some of the ways that natural multiplicity has been described. Finally, there are fragments, the many partially developed parts of the self that contain certain aspects of your experience or feelings, but do not have autonomous power to affect your behavior the way more developed parts may have. Again, you most assuredly do not have to be a multiple to have fragments of unprocessed childhood experience within your consciousness.
An illustration of how a fragment may operate might be helpful here. The process described is similar to one you might initiate with any parts that hold awareness from your childhood, however subtle or powerful they may be. With a fragment, you may be dealing with a part of you that encompasses a previously unremembered portion of a childhood experience. For example, you may consciously remember a time when you went to the beach with your family. Your recollection is that it was a good day, that you enjoyed yourself, but you find that, even as an adult, you have an irrational fear of the ocean. You may discover, held within an unconscious portion of your awareness, a fragment encompassing an unremembered, unprocessed piece of the beach memory: your brother held you underwater that day until you were afraid you would drown. Once you connect with this unremembered piece of the memory, you may discover that the fragment disappears and that the content it held becomes part of your ongoing adult awareness.
Essentially, it doesn’t matter what you call the many parts of yourself. What’s important is that you develop a means of connecting and communicating with them. On a day-to-day basis, it’s easier to deal with life’s ongoing challenges when you have available the full array of your psychological capacities for doing so.
One of the real benefits of learning how trauma-based dissociation operates in your life in the present is that this new information can affect how you interpret some pretty confusing or terrifying internal experiences. For example, it’s not unusual for people who are dissociated as a result of childhood trauma to be convinced that they are crazy, which they most emphatically are not. Examples of experiences you may have if you used dissociation to cope with early childhood trauma include: unexpected mood shifts, as though suddenly you were “injected” with a feeling; hearing voices arguing in your head; and feeling unaccountably frightened by what seems to be nothing at all.
The symptoms resulting from trauma-based dissociation are more pronounced for multiples than for people who didn’t take the extra, unconscious step of creating parts so well defined that they function as separate personalities. For all adults who used dissociation to cope with childhood hurts, multiple or not, understanding why certain things happen as they do, or why the mind works as it does, can be profoundly reassuring and freeing. The more you understand, the more mastery you may experience in the present.
It’s important to know that, for many adults who were hurt traumatically as children, the effects of trauma-based dissociation can be healed. New strategies for dealing with feelings and challenges in your present-day life can be learned, and in time you will feel less need to move away from a conscious awareness of what is going on inside you.
In general, some people are more naturally dissociative than others. Think back for a moment: Were you one of those kinds who day-dreamed all the time when you were at school? Did you seem just to “go off”? Did people always have to “call you back” to the present? Did anybody else in your family go around with his “head in the clouds”? For those who are naturally dissociative, being abused or traumatized ö even in a natural disaster, for example ö is likely to produce greater dissociation.
While we still don’t completely understand how dissociation is created or how it works, we do think that it is a capacity that is passed along in a family. It may be that some children learn to dissociate by observing parents who use this mechanism, or it may be that there is an inherited tendency to dissociate under stress. People who are exceptionally talented at hypnosis are good dissociators. So are people who have rich fantasy lives, as well as those who are able to go into altered states of consciousness with ease. For most people, some degree of dissociation is natural and normal.
Depending on the degree of trauma a child undergoes and the degree of overwhelming experience that must be kept out of conscious awareness, the “barriers” that separate parts of the self may be more or less “transparent” or “opaque.” You might imagine these barriers as blank screens that can be pulled down between parts of the self. The screens serve to keep the parts from being aware of one another, and especially from the “core” personality of the abused, or otherwise traumatized, child.
As a symbol to represent degree of dissociation, you might imagine that the greater the amount of dissociation, the more opaque the screens will be. Conversely, the less powerful the dissociation required in childhood, the more transparent will be the screens between parts of the self.
Keep in mind that the screens are only a symbol to represent a dynamic process of consciousness. In fact, the whole idea of “barriers” is just that: an idea. It’s a way of expressing activities in the unconscious that we don’t really understand. What we do know is that some kind of dissociative process serves to keep certain awarenesses from becoming conscious. In this way, for example, a child can go to school and perform quite well, without any conscious awareness of the terror she experiences at home. Another child may fly into rages without any conscious knowledge of the helplessness that lies beneath the rage. Or the child may overeat, or become a compulsive reader, as a means of not knowing what he really feels inside. All of these strategies operate as barriers to conscious awareness.
An important part of the healing process is to move from a more to a less dissociated way of dealing with psychological reality. In other words, as healing progresses, the screens become more transparent, so that you are increasingly able to see what’s behind them. As the strength of the dissociative barriers lessens, you’ll know more about what you really think, feel, and want to do. The more transparent the screens, the more complete your awareness of what’s going on inside. If you were severely abused as a child, chances are the screens that represent your dissociative barriers will tend to be quite opaque. Your conscious awareness probably contains what is on this side of the screen. To a greater or lesser degree, what exists on the other side of the dissociative barriers is unknown to you.
If you are a multiple, you may have more or less opaque barriers between your inner parts. Stepping over that line to create more defined personalities within you doesn’t automatically mean that you have no recall of your childhood or of the feelings, thoughts, and urges your parts encompass. What you will find different in your process is that the separateness of various thoughts, feelings, and urges to behave in certain ways are more purely held within particular parts of you.
Non-multiples, as well as multiples, may have total amnesia for certain events, as dissociative barriers from childhood continue to operate in the present day. For example, you may remember the story of the former Miss America, Marilyn Van Derbur, who had a “day child” and a “night child” inside her. During her childhood, and throughout much of her young adult life, Marilyn apparently had no knowledge that she was an incest victim. Her “night child,” the part of her that experienced the abuse, was completely dissociated from her conscious awareness. It was as if the screen were pulled down and locked in place. In her ongoing, conscious awareness, she was the “day child,” a bright, happy little girl. She had no hint of the presence of the night child until her memories began to return when she entered therapy well into midlife. All she knew before then was, as she got older, her life wasn’t working and something was terribly wrong.
It’s important to emphasize, again and again, that even this level of forgetting doesn’t necessarily indicate that multiple personalities exist. Part of what makes dissociation so effective is that this level of forgetting or lack of awareness is quite possible, even when it doesn’t’ go to the extreme of creating the underlying psychological response that results in multiple personalities.
Dissociative Barriers in Multiples
For some people who do have multiple personalities, the dissociative barriers may be so firmly locked into place there is no awareness at all between the everyday self and other parts of the multiple. When the barriers are this complete, one part of a person might perform as a prostitute with a definite sense of “I-ness,” or identity, and a particular way of being in the world. When this part is at work, her life is predictable, her personality consistent. People who know her in this role recognize her and can describe what she is like as a person. Later, when the “prostitute” goes inside and the “business self” comes out into the daytime world, a whole different mood state and personality are present. People who know the business self would be able to describe her. She, also, has a sense of “I-ness” and a predictable way of being. Then, at home, when a child part comes out and wanders around the house or curls up in a ball on the floor, this child part experiences her own sense of “I-ness” that is also consistent with her feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. If you were this multiple, with dissociative barriers so firmly in place, you might not even be aware of these different parts of yourself.
When the dissociative barriers are this impermeable, it’s often impossible, at first, for the various parts to realize that they are different aspects of one person’s consciousness. In fact, it is deeply upsetting to some multiples to think that there may be a time when the parts will become more “integrated” and less distinct as seemingly separate individuals. As far as the parts are concerned, the fact that they all exist within one body, and yet may have different and conflicting goals, isn’t a problem and isn’t something they want to change.
As we move along the dissociative continuum, there are degrees of how defined, or separate, a multiple’s personalities seem to be. While for some multiples the barriers are as complete as described above, for others the screens are locked in place and yet are somewhat transparent. When this is the case, certain parts may be aware of one another, and yet unaware of still others. The everyday self, also, may be conscious of the existence of some parts and not others. Because each multiple is unique, the dissociative barriers among parts will be unique, as well.
If you are a multiple, sometimes you may feel unable to prevent another part from being “out” in the world, even as you realize, consciously, what is happening. Even if you have this kind of awareness, you may have experiences of losing time, of not knowing what you’ve been doing for the last minutes or hours, and lapses in awareness during conversations with people. This can occur when still other parts, ones you don’t know about, operate outside your conscious awareness altogether.
What is difficult is that knowing another part is “out” may not give you the power to control the behavior, thoughts, or feelings of that part. Once the healing process has begun, and you have developed some transparency within the dissociative barriers, you can more readily set up communication and collaboration among your parts. This is an important aspect of recovering from childhood trauma, whether you are a multiple or not, as internal communication and collaboration support the curtailing of self-destructive or dangerous activities in which parts may engage. It also supports the process of creating safety and bringing dissociated memories and feelings into conscious awareness.
For some individuals who are diagnosed as multiples, there may be an ongoing sense of “I-ness” most of the time. This “co-consciousness” indicates that the dissociative barriers among many of the parts are fairly transparent. For others, there are likely to be parts of the self that are outside conscious awareness and that function somewhat autonomously.
For some adults who were traumatized as children, it is painful, but relatively easy, to define and express early childhood experiences of which they have been vaguely aware all their lives. For others, it can be terrifying to bring into conscious awareness dissociated feelings, thoughts, and memories that have operated so naturally that they’ve never been defined consciously. When a therapist asks about dissociative phenomena such as losing time, the client may ask, “Well, doesn’t everybody?” Dissociating is all the person has known. It’s like asking a fish, “How’s the water?” The fish is likely to answer, “What water?”
Whether you are a multiple or not, when you’ve lived your whole life using dissociation as a protection against feeling intolerable pain or anger or experiencing the effects of overwhelming abuse, it’s easy to take for granted the switches from one mood state to another, the sometimes seemingly bizarre behaviors that are so unlike you, and the lost time. As healing proceeds, things settle down and it’s not nearly as unnerving as it may be in the beginning.
For those of you who have multiple personalities, the process of beginning to make dissociative barriers more transparent can be truly harrowing. It you weren’t aware before of the existence of parts of the self that may present themselves as separate entities, the process brings this into consciousness. Sometimes, at first, it can be pretty scary to discover that there are aspects of your personality that believe they aren’t part of you at all. For example, there may be male parts in a woman, and vice versa. There may be children, animals, and other kinds of beings. Some of the parts may be extraordinarily enraged. Others may quiver with fear or curl up in a ball in an attempt to disappear. Some may hate you and want to hurt you. Others may be so young that they have no way to communicate their distress other than to cry.
For some multiples, then, the beginning of the healing process may create a feeling that everything is getting worse. The important thing to remember is that things settle down as healing proceeds. In fact, as you learn to experience your therapy process as a safe place in which you may explore your inner world, experiences of “switching” from part to part helter-skelter and generally feeling out of control lessen. As the dissociative barriers become increasingly transparent, communication among parts increases, with the result that a consensus of goals and behaviors may be reached that makes daily living more manageable.
In essence, the experience of multiplicity has as much variability and individuality as does any other aspect of human development. While there are general similarities in how dissociative barriers operate in multiples, the ways in which you will experience them and how your inner world will appear to your conscious mind will be uniquely your own. What is offered here is a general guideline; if your experience is different, trust yourself. An increase in co-consciousness will emerge within whatever metaphor, imagery or understanding works for you.
The Importance of Volition
Officially, dissociation is defined in Webster’s as, “. . . a split in the conscious process in which a group of mental activities breaks away from the main stream of consciousness and functions as a separate unit, as if belonging to another person.” It is, in a sense, a process that allows us to move in and out of different states of consciousness. When we do this voluntarily, as in meditation and self-hypnosis, dissociation can have wonderfully positive effects. For example, self-hypnosis ö which represents a conscious, volitional use of dissociation from the body ö can be an effective way to ease physical pain. In meditation, you can enter an altered state where you seem to be less connected to your thoughts and feelings; again, this is volitional. Both of these processes are different from the unconscious, involuntary dissociation that takes a trauma victim outside her body so she won’t feel the pain or away from her thoughts and feelings so she won’t know how terrible her experience was.
We can use dissociative processes voluntarily when we deliberately get in touch with inner child parts, or various subpersonalities, and discover new understandings and awarenesses. It’s different, though, when the feelings embodied by a child part inside “come over us” involuntarily. This is what happens with the dissociative process operating in so many adults hurt as children: they shift unexpectedly into a part that knows about the abuse. At times like these, the dissociative process can be frightening, eliciting feelings of helplessness and confusion.
Perhaps the single most important distinction between parts whose origins are naturally occurring and nontraumatic and those that arise as a result of trauma is the presence, or lack, of a sense of volition. As we’ll see in Chapter 3 on therapeutic dissociation, there are many ways that parts of us operate unconsciously to convey positive and negative states of mind and feeling, and to prompt certain behaviors. Most of the time, though, we can shift away from these parts if we choose to do so or if we have something that needs our attention and we can’t afford to be sidetracked by a child part.
Take a moment, now, to think of a time when you may have become aware of some upsetting feelings that came up during an interaction with a friend or family member. Maybe you decided to have a dialogue with an inner child part, or to go deeper into your feelings, or to come out of them so you could focus on another activity. Did you find that you were able to choose what you wanted to do? Did you succeed, at least enough to allow yourself to get some freedom from or resolution of the feelings?
For many people who were hurt as children, it’s possible to make these choices with some degree of success. And so, even if you can’t shift completely away from unpleasant or distressing feelings, you might at least be able to keep some sense of yourself and remember that you will feel better eventually. It’s different if you are a multiple or a survivor of childhood trauma who has fairly well-defined inner parts. When this is the case, it may feel as though you have no control over your moods.
Let’s consider how you automatically respond to distressing experiences that may come up in day-to-day living. For example, let’s say someone hurts your feelings and you get in touch with a deep sense of shame. Are you able to talk to yourself, reassure yourself, and shift away from the shame after a while? Or do you find that you just can’t seem to shift gears once you’re into it, that you have to ride it through because nothing seems to make it any better? What if you fail a test and end up feeling horrible? Do you stay stuck in that horrible feeling, caught up in a part of you that is characterized by a sense of worthlessness, or are you able to engage in some activity that shifts your mood into another, more competent-feeling part of yourself? Or do you suddenly move out of a bad feeling into a space where there is no distress at all and you feel numb or calm? Do you ever find that you are suddenly immersed in an awful feeling and have no idea at all where it came from, or that your mood has shifted suddenly and you don’t know why?
One of the reasons to do the work of healing is to make conscious what is held by the dissociated parts that encompass these responses. Then you have much more choice, much more volition as to how you experience the many parts of yourself. Your parts can work with you, and you can work with them, to create the quality of life you’d like to have.
Who’s Responsible for My Actions, Anyway?
One of the important reasons for exploring issues of volition and dissociation is to answer the difficult questions about who is responsible for the actions of any given part of a person’s entire psychological system. Multiples often have the experience of feeling that parts are taking control and doing things that get the everyday personality into trouble. This does happen. Yet, once you are in a therapy setting where expectations and boundaries are carefully set and explained, a lot of this kind of difficulty ceases.
Experience has shown that many multiples actually can control their behavior in surprisingly effective ways, once they learn that it is possible to do so. So often, things feel out of control, and the behavior of dissociated parts seems to prove it. Think back for a moment to a time when you may have done something and then felt foolish or wished you hadn’t done it, or a time when you got into trouble for something you didn’t realize you had done. Once you understood what went wrong, you were in a better position to act differently the next time. It’s the same with dissociated parts. Once you understand what happened, you can take steps to set up internal controls and strategies that help prevent parts from taking control in self-destructive ways.
A good example was presented at a recent conference on multiple personalities. It involved a young woman who had been hospitalized after being arrested for shoplifting lipstick from a department store. During therapy, the therapist explored which part of her had shoplifted. The part responsible turned out to be a 14-year-old girl who wanted to wear makeup. The patient was a grown woman who didn’t like to wear makeup of any kind, and the 14-year-old was furious. Through a process of communication and negotiation, arrangements were made for the 14-year-old to wear makeup at a certain time of the day, when it was all right with the everyday adult self. As is common in these cases, the woman hadn’t realized that the 14-year-old part existed inside her and was baffled when she found herself with lipstick in her pocket. Once the teenage part was made conscious, a relationship was established and a more constructive day-to-day experience was arranged.
An important premise is that the whole person is responsible for the actions of every part. So, if one part begins to engage in some self-destructive behavior, it is up to the overall “system” to take action to stop what is happening. This applies to non-multiples, as well. In fact, it applies to each and every one of us. Since everybody has parts, it is fair to say that we all have the fundamental responsibility ö and capacity ö to monitor ourselves in ways that allow us to live our present-day lives as constructively and effectively as we can.
Also, it’s helpful to know that stress increases the probability that any dissociative strategies you may have developed as a child will be called into play in your adult life. As you move through the healing process, there may be times when you feel more stressed than others. If you notice that you are more dissociated than usual, you may suspect that there are internal or external stressors affecting you. As with any mechanism we use for psychological protection, an increase in dissociation is a signal that something is going on that needs your attention.
Healing and Dissociation
In healing, the purpose is not to stop dissociative processes altogether. Rather, it is to stop unconsciously drawing on nonvolitional forms of dissociation as a protection against knowing your feelings. Instead, you have an opportunity to learn to be present in your body and generally to have an integrated, ongoing awareness of yourself. To be truly safe in the world and to be able to function as the full adult you have the right to be means to be with yourself consciously. To have relationships that work means to be aware of what you are feeling, to have the freedom to act constructively on them, and to be able to communicate those feelings effectively to other people.
When you’re dissociated as a result of trauma, it can be very difficult to do this, especially if you are a multiple. There may be just too many conflicting agendas, fears, and anger going on all at one time. For example, one child part may want to lash out at anyone who comes near, because to this part closeness means being abused. To another part, one that holds the hurt, for instance, it’s unbearable to risk losing someone. This part may cling to people whenever they come close, and that may terrify another part for which the terror of having someone near is just too much to take. This part may feel an urgent need to run away when anyone approaches, emotionally or physically.
With all these mixed feelings going on at the same time, it can be exhausting just to get through the simple events of the day. You have a right to experience life more fully than that. But first you have to be in touch with yourself on how you can to be the person you are. You have to claim a more complete awareness so you can be a fully functioning human being.
It’s important to remember that you don’t have to have developed multiple personalities to have used dissociation to get through difficult childhood experiences. Keeping the dissociative continuum in mind can help explain why you act as you do at times and can remind you that you may have greater or lesser dissociative strategies at all as a means of coping with a difficult childhood, you do have parts. Much of what has been described here is useful whenever the healing process demands a more conscious awareness of these aspects of your inner world.
We’ve been exploring how dissociation is called upon by a traumatized child, nonvolitionally and unconsciously, to get through overwhelming experiences. In the next chapter, we’ll explore how the therapeutic use of dissociation, engaged consciously and deliberately, can lessen the power of dissociative barriers, help you soothe yourself, and give you the tools to make getting through the day, right now, easier.