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NOT working with 'the trauma' when working with trauma

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

Having developed skills and confidence in working with trauma in recent times I have come to make a developing observation on where our work needs to be. It is not the trauma per se that requires the attention but the subsequent development of protective behaviours that has manifest as a result of how the event was dealt with. This does not mean that there is not work to be done regarding the initial trauma event itself but this cannot be done until the client can feel at ease to do so from a present day and pre-frontal cortex standpoint, not whilst still sat in the limbic system state of the past.

To do this we can understand how this has manifested in behaviours still being enacted in current day that creates the illusion of no longer being the victim but by closer analysis is actually maintaining the position within the client.

Protector not defences

We need to firstly consider the language we are using. In traditional terms if we were to use the psychodynamic term of ‘defensive’s’ it conjures up an image of a warrior being dressed in armour, on guard ready to fight a battle. Thus the adrenal state, and subsequently the experience of the traumatised part, remains aroused and on guard. It infers a fearful relationship with the ‘trauma’ which clients feel and so have difficulty letting go of any defences they have created. This does not allow space for vulnerability and resilience to form.

When we utilise the ‘internal family systems’ term of ‘protector’ this creates a completely different relationship for the client. It conjures up something different, a softness, a vulnerability that requires compassion and appreciation of what the protector is providing our internal state. I have repeatedly noticed in my clients that when they view this part of them as something that is protecting them they feel compassion towards it. This feeling sees the client sink into themselves and their resources, realising they can be in charge of the protectors actions, which already allows the adrenal state to settle.

Problems lay in the behaviours the protector creates

We don’t necessarily need to spend time recalling the trauma, risking what most therapists fear would be retraumatising. Any brief details the client feels able and wanting to offer regarding the event may be enough, and even in many it is likely to have been repressed and un-accessible. Information from the event itself can be helpful to understand how and why this protector has developed but done so without immersing the client into the experience of the event itself. It is only the therapist’s belief that to reach catharsis we have to gruesomely delve into recalling the pain of the event. We have sufficient information from the behaviours that the protector generates in the client in present time to work with.

The protector learns that there is no threat in the present

We learn about needing to see the trauma through in order for the client to be free of it. But this creates a misconception that it needs re-enacting to do so. What this really means is that the client has to become free of feeling under threat. This cannot be done whilst the protector is doing a great job as it means it is holding the client in the position of victim, a victim of an incident that happened in the past. Activating the frontal lobe the client can work with communicating to the protector that this is no longer the case, even though a part of the client still holds onto feelings of being under threat.

Problematic feelings are in response to what surrounded the event and people, not the perpetrator.

It is presumed any held feelings, particularly of anger, will be manifested towards the perpetrator. However, this has proven to only play a small part in the clients overall trauma response. Invariably I have observed clients able to reassess their views of the perpetrator earl on as a way to stop feeling they have a power over them and hoping this is all that was needed. However, deep feelings of fear, shame, disgust, anger or abandonment remain.

Particularly those who were young at the time, stronger feelings have been placed at family, leaving them to feel abandoned, misunderstood or unprotected. The people they expected to be the ones to protect them failed, and so they had to build their own internal protector. Those who they felt should have taken their experiences seriously may not have, particularly when the police do not follow up the report. They then develop behaviours in which provide a false sense of these feelings that reflect the given environment at the time.

By understanding what the protector is doing we can understand how the client has been impacted by the event and the subsequent responses.

Examples may be;

If nobody acknowledges the impact of the event at the time of reporting they may continue to act invisible to others and themselves whilst remaining angry that nobody ever acknowledges or understands their suffering. The protector has learnt that nobody will listen so don’t expose yourself to further rejection and abandonment by opening up. It takes on the ‘flight’ or ‘submissive’ response.

If their vulnerability was exploited because others were not looking out for them they may learn to behave in a way that is seen as a fighter, somebody to fear. Their protector takes on the ‘fight’ response’.

By maintaining an internalised fear of being seen to be vulnerable they never allow themselves to trust those around them, or themselves, therefore never feeling safe and supported when they do feel vulnerable. The protector is seeing vulnerability as too risky so it ‘hardens them’ to it through the likes of dissociation, angry behaviours, fear of intimacy with others and self, or sabotaging intimacy when it occurs, leading to self-harm and lack of self-care.

They may continue using their body in dangerous ways to create a false sense of control over others or themselves whilst the sense of disgust and shame remains and is actually being reinforced.

They may look to prevent harm being done to others at all costs but devalue the need to protect themselves. The protector fools them into believing they are a good person when inside they don’t believe they are (even though they are good).

Gaining access to the traumatised part to find out what it is feeling by asking the protector to step down

To gain access to the younger traumatised part they need to ask the protector to step down in order to gain access. By doing this we can then find out what is still left unresolved in the younger part. They may say things like…

“I feel abandoned”

“I feel alone”

“I need someone to believe me”

“I feel invisible”

“Nobody was there for me”

Now we start to understand what it is we are working on, the surrounding experience, without having to relive the traumatic event.

The present day client learns to provide their younger traumatised part of what they need.

By the present day client activating their pre-frontal conscious brain, they become able to see that the threatening event itself is not actually happening anymore and that the environment they are now is not the same. They can then start teaching the younger traumatised part this and give them what they needed at the time. This then enables them to fully acknowledge rather than repress what happened to them. They can reassure them they are not alone and they are listening, that they believe them. They can reassure them that it is now all over. They can teach them that being vulnerable can make them more resilient to cope in the future.

The younger traumatised part starts learning to trust the adult self and thus is able to move away from the fear it is has been sat in and no longer needing to feel a victim of their environment. They can be brought into the present day to realise that it is now very different and they have support from themselves, the therapist and others.

Feeling safe to revisit and reassess

Once there is this greater sense of unity, calmness, reassurance and feeling that the present day client is in control it may be then they want to revisit the event itself in order to regain a new perspective of it in order for it to lose power over them. This may involve coming to forgive the perpetrator, accept what happened or just feel less angry, or even feel sorry for them.

I have been through this process a number of times now with my clients and in every case it has not been the event itself that needs the exploration but the subsequent behaviours. I have watched clients take the lead on the relationship they have with their protectors and younger part indicating to me it resonates effectively as a process that involves compassion and taking control rather than catharsis and immersion into trauma.

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