Emotional trauma is defined not only by painful and frightening experiences, but also by their long-term impact on our lives. When experiences leave us with an implicit conviction that our survival is at risk, a suite of defences is constellated deep within our unconscious minds and bodies. These defences are the best we can do, but tragically they foster insecurity, and leave us relating to ourselves and others in distorted and damaging ways.
The experiences that have the potential to create trauma include overt abuse and neglect, feeling unloved or unwanted during childhood, and being subtly undermined and shamed by our parents, peers or teachers. In some instances the traumatising experiences happened to previous generations, whereupon it is their distorted ways of relating which are surreptitiously passed down to us.
Irrespective of its cause, the impact of emotional trauma is so deeply embedded in mind and body that we cannot see it for what it is. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our suffering results from ‘who we are’ at some innate level. Additionally, when we are unable to recognise our trauma, we have little choice but to try to alleviate its visible symptoms, perhaps through short-term therapy, psychotherapeutic drugs, achievements or romantic relationships. Such measures can provide temporary respite, but because they leave the underlying trauma untouched, our suffering returns.
Genuine healing requires that we enter the unconscious, and explore our traumatising wounds from inside our emotional mind and body. We must consciously experience the impact that our wounds have on our lives, get to know the defence system that was constellated deep within, and find new ways to relate to what we carry. A multi-layered understanding of trauma can help with that process.
The psychological system created when a child is traumatised is life-saving but has a terrible down-side. The normal reaction to unbearable pain is to withdraw from the cause of that pain; however when we are children, and it is our caregivers who are causing pain, we cannot physically withdraw, so withdrawal happens at a psychological level instead. We dissociate. Our relational and creative potential, which in happier circumstances would animate and vitalise our life, goes into hiding in the unconscious. At the same time, another part of the psyche moves to the forefront to become its protector.
This protective system vehemently avoids anything that appears to carry a risk of retraumatisation, but tragically it sees danger in the very opportunities that would bring us healing, fulfilment and meaning. Thus it sabotages these opportunities, perhaps by creating an insidious belief in the hopelessness of our life, or by fostering a vicious, scare-mongering inner critic. It may also sabotage these opportunities by spiriting us into a world of fantasy or addiction.
Rather than providing genuine protection, this psychological system is ultimately life-denying and self-traumatising. The inner protector becomes an unwitting inner persecutor. Healing requires that we move beyond the protector/persecutor, enter into our brokenness, and reconnect to our buried potential, as well as to the original pain. It is a difficult and challenging process. The fairy story of ‘The Handless Maiden’ brings the archetypal dimensions of this system to life, and describes how we can move beyond it.
In essence, emotional trauma occurs as a result of a discrepancy between an individual’s inner and outer world. If our environment cannot give us what we need to grow, we have no choice but to dissociate parts of ourselves, and abandon aspects of our internal reality. In time, we become self-alienated. Out of such self-alienation flows shame: an all-pervasive, embodied sense of being fundamentally defective as a human being. Shame distorts and poisons our relationship with ourselves and others.
In a misguided attempt to alleviate the suffering born of dissociation, self-alienation and shame, we look outside of ourselves for healing. Whatever appears to offer us respite risks becoming the subject of an ‘addiction’. However, the relief is an illusion. In our inner world, nothing has changed. Rather, our misguided attempt to heal exacerbates dissociation, deepens shame, and intensifies self-alienation.
Real repair requires that we turn inwards and forge authentic, compassionate and responsible ways to reconnect to ourselves. We must come to know our shame from inside our embodied experience, engage with our pain, and acknowledge our fear. We must discover how we abandoned ourselves, dismantle our old defences, and build a life that is rooted in our internal reality – a reality that includes the legacy of our woundedness. The feelings involved in this process can be strong, deep and, at times, overwhelming. Frightened by those feelings, we look for easier options. However, if we aspire to recover from our trauma, and to embrace the life that is authentically and uniquely ours, then we have no choice but to undertake this challenging inner work.
Our journey through life is encoded in our bodies just as the rings of a tree encode the life-story of that tree. If we grow up in an emotionally supportive environment our posture will be secure, our movements fluid, and our speech expressive. We will also be at ease with our bodies, and enjoy an open connection between body and psyche.
If we grow up in the wake of emotional trauma, it is a different story. Our bodies take on the postures, movements, and ways of speaking that seem to offer us protection: we may puff ourselves up or make ourselves small, overeat or starve, yell or stutter. Once established, these bodily defences limit our experience of ourselves and the world. Additionally, they often create painful physical symptoms. Equally damaging is the disembodiment that accompanies childhood trauma. Emotions are primarily bodily responses, so by cutting off from our bodies we can distance ourselves from unbearable pain. We are not necessarily conscious of our disembodiment, but there are consequences. We cannot pick up the subtle feelings that reflect our bodies’ emotional states and which could act as a compass during life. We have little access to the images that arise in our bodies which could help to guide our journey. We see our bodies as objects and tend to blame at least some of our pain on their imagined inadequacy.
Healing trauma requires that we work directly with our bodies to release what they hold, and forge the connections between body and psyche that will enable us to live an embodied life. There are many creative ways to do this work, including authentic movement, voice-work, yoga and working with masks.
Emotional trauma results from being unseen and unvalued as children. It compromises our ability to live a creative and authentic life, and forces us to construct a false persona and to develop inauthentic goals. It makes us determined to control our emotions and our bodies, and leaves us striving for perfection. It propels us towards addictions.
Worse than being unseen, is growing up with a parent who wishes that we, or some part of us, did not exist. The energy manifest by such a parent is symbolised by the archetype of the ‘Death Mother’. It is a deadening energy which permeates both psyche and body, turning us to stone. It stifles growth and imprints our cells with profound fear and hopelessness. In time, our vitality drains away and we find ourselves yearning for the oblivion of death. Ultimately, our body may turn against itself, as it does with cancer or auto-immune diseases. The Death Mother energy is vividly depicted in the myth of Medusa.
Having internalised the Death Mother energy, reclaiming our life requires a series of descents into the underworld of the unconscious mind and body. During each descent we meet the fierce and uncompromising energy symbolised by the archetype of the ‘Apocalyptic Mother’. This energy challenges us to face our truth and to surrender our old ways so that something new and more authentic can be born. Each time we accept this challenge, we move further beyond the clutches of our internalised Death Mother to reclaim more of our lives.
Under normal circumstances, we take experiences that we deem to be significant to ourselves. As a result we feel they are our experiences, and weave them into our life story. However, if we are chronically abused or neglected during childhood, or if we suffer overwhelming pain, we may be unable to integrate our experiences. As a result we become dissociated: our personality divides into two or more parts, each of which has its own feelings, reality, purpose and identity.
Some of these parts are fixed in the painful experiences. The traumatic past is their enduring reality and it frames their present. They are metaphorically called ‘emotional parts of the personality’. Their purpose is to find safety, and they are typically guided by the mammalian defence system (freeze, fight, flight or collapse), or by the attachment system (which seeks protection from others).
Other parts are distanced from the painful experiences. The traumatic past has little, or perhaps no, place in their reality. They are metaphorically called ‘apparently normal parts of the personality’. Their purpose is to navigate daily life. Because it is hard to do this when emotional parts are activated, apparently normal parts try to shut out emotional parts. They are rarely completely successful – the emotional parts, and the traumatic memories they encompass, intrude on daily life through highly charged flashbacks, nightmares and inner voices, behaviours, beliefs and bodily symptoms.
Healing requires the integration of trauma: apparently normal parts must realise that the traumatising events are part of their history, whereas emotional parts must realise that the traumatising events are over. Only then can the divided parts be integrated into a cohesive and coherent personality. It is a challenging process which requires patience, compassion and perseverance.
Our earliest attachment relationships have long-lasting effects on the structure our emotional brain, our relationships with ourselves and others, and our psychological well-being.
Good enough early nurturing fosters the neural networks (located in the right hemisphere of the brain) which enable us to regulate our emotions healthily. We grow up trusting our emotions (be they painful of joyful) and capable of responding to our social world appropriately. As a result, we develop an embodied, deeply-rooted and implicit sense of inner security.
In contrast, poor early environments compromise the development of the right hemisphere, leaving us struggling to respond to our social world appropriately, and unable to regulate our emotions healthily. Unregulated emotions overload the system, and because we cannot tolerate being emotionally overloaded for long periods of time, we unconsciously learn to dissociate from our emotions and to prevent them from reaching awareness. If we turn to dissociation on a regular basis, dissociative neural pathways become engrained in our developing brains to create emotional instability, a nebulous sense of disconnection, and an implicitly embodied feeling of fundamental insecurity. At this point, dissociation, which began as a defence, has become embedded in the structure of our developing personality and part of our character.
Repair is not achieved by making the unconscious conscious: rather it depends on restructuring the emotional brain itself through building new neural networks. Achieving this requires relationally-based, emotionally-focused psychotherapy with an empathic therapist who is an active participant in the process. Healing occurs primarily through the non-verbal, right brain, implicit connection between a therapist and patient.
People who enjoy psychological well-being are typically emotionally secure, compassionate, open-minded and curious. Underlying these qualities is neurobiological integration. Growing up in an emotionally nurturing environment fosters the development of neural integration, whereas an emotionally inadequate environment stifles it.
Our early emotional environment also plays a vital role in creating the unconscious models that contribute to our ‘attachment status.’ If our caregivers are attentive, compassionate and loving, we become ‘securely attached’ and learn to experience ourselves as loveable, others as trustworthy and the world as safe. However, if our caregivers are neglectful, intrusive or abusive we develop ‘insecure attachment’, whereby we come to experience ourselves as unlovable, others as untrustworthy and the world as unsafe.
These unconscious models are encoded in ‘implicit memory’. Rather than returning as a conscious memory of a past event, implicit memory returns as a way of seeing the world, a suite of emotions, and a set of behavioural reactions. Over time these ways of being become part of our character and we mistakenly believe this is who we are, rather than what we have learnt.
If our childhood emotional environment prevented us from developing emotional well-being, we can do so later in life. The human brain evolved to be shaped by interpersonal relationships, so working with an attuned and empathetic therapist can be powerfully reparative. Mindfulness practices can also make an important contribution. Not only do they foster neural integration and help us to become aware of our implicit memories, they also teach us to attune to ourselves with compassion and love, thereby enabling us to develop secure attachment through our relationship to ourselves.
Early attachment relationships have long-lasting effects on developing minds and bodies. They influence our fear system and sexual development. They shape our attitudes to romantic relationships, our parenting style and how we see both ourselves and others. Typically, the trajectory that develops from being sensitively nurtured and securely attached is seen as normal and healthy, whereas the trajectory that follows from being inadequately nurtured and insecurely attached is seen as abnormal and unhealthy.
Modern evolutionary theory has a different perspective. No single trajectory is best for all individuals of a species; what is optimal in one environment is rarely optimal in a different one. In particular, it is now thought that the pathways described by secure attachment offered advantages to ancestral humans who were living in benign environments, whereas the pathways described by insecure attachment offered our ancestors more chance of surviving and reproducing in harsh physical environments or when social support was lacking.
For ancestral infants to develop along the pathway that would be most adaptive for them as individuals, they needed information about the environment into which they had been born. The quality of parental nurturance provided that information in an implicit and embodied form. Parents are more attuned to their infants when living in benign environments and when they have plentiful social support, than when they are struggling. Thus, the quality of parental nurturance became the crucial, albeit unwitting, cue which influenced development.
The adaptive value of insecure attachment does not mean that it has no costs. It does. It creates profound suffering at both emotional and physical levels. However, for those of our ancestors who were born into harsh physical or social environments, that suffering was the price of surviving and bearing descendants.
Humans are a product of evolution. To understand the relationship between mothers and infants we need to understand how evolution has shaped this relationship, and to identify the challenges that ancestral mothers and infants faced.
Modern society defines mothering as caring for children, but for ancestral women mothering encompassed everything that contributed to leaving descendants: choosing mates, procuring food, building shelters, striving for high rank and creating a supportive social network. The allocation of time between these tasks was also part of mothering, and a matter of life-or-death for both mothers and their children.
The allocation of limited resources between children was an equally crucial part of mothering for our ancestors. Today we see mothering as synonymous with unconditional love, but this is a relatively modern concept. During our evolutionary history, when resources were scarce, when mothers had insufficient social support, or when children were spaced too closely together, if women were to have any surviving descendants they needed to favour some children over others. During particularly difficult times, that meant nurturing some children whilst abandoning others to die. Most at risk of abandonment were infants. This ancient facet of mothering, which is at least a quarter of a million years old, was visible in European societies until relatively recently, and remains part of life for many of today’s hunter-gatherers.
Knowing this, helps us to understand why human infants are so exquisitely sensitive to signs of maternal abandonment and why they experience a mother’s lack of commitment as genuinely life-threatening. It also deepens our understanding of some of the dilemmas that mothers face by rooting those dilemmas in the context of our inherited legacy.
To understand emotional suffering, it is vital to understand what the underlying emotions evolved to do. Emotional suffering is caused by ‘negative’ emotions, which we generally see as undesirable and try to eliminate as quickly as possible. However negative emotions evolved over millions of years to warn us of danger and to motivate us to withdraw from threatening situations. Thus it is not always wise to eliminate these emotions; rather it is prudent to first explore whether our suffering relates to our circumstances, and if so, act accordingly.
Sometimes, however, we are assailed by negative emotions which seem inappropriate to our circumstances. Then we are diagnosed as having a disorder such as depression, anxiety or panic attacks. Evolutionary thinking helps to explain why we are susceptible to these ‘disorders’, and enables us to contextualise the particular dynamics involved in terms of what we have inherited from our distant ancestors.
Evolutionary thinking also elucidates why happiness is elusive, why we turn to self-blame when misfortune befalls us, and why will we sacrifice so much to remain within groups. It can even shed light on why psychological change is difficult. Most importantly, evolutionary perspectives help us realise that our emotional states result from our deep heritage rather than because we are abnormal, and that realisation makes it easier to develop self-acceptance and self-compassion.
Today we have a much greater understanding of the evolutionary forces that have shaped our emotional world than ever before. Incorporating this understanding into our lives, and our clinical practices, enhances our ability to alleviate emotional suffering and foster well-being.
When we are emotionally traumatised, we live in an inner world that is fundamentally different to the world in which we would have lived, had we not experienced trauma. This world is organised around the implicitly embodied conviction that important aspects of our physical, emotional or mental survival are at risk. It is built upon the distorting foundations of fear, dissociation and shame. Living in a ‘trauma-world’ leaves us no choice but to experience ourselves and others in ways that create new layers of pain and suffering.
Understanding trauma from a variety of perspectives helps us to experience ourselves and others more authentically. It encourages us to develop an embodied awareness of our unconscious fears, and recognise how they shape our relationships. It emboldens us to reach deep inside our minds and bodies, and reconnect to the dissociated parts of ourselves. It frees us to dismantle the shame-full belief that we are fundamentally inadequate, and relate to ourselves with more clarity, compassion and responsibility. In short, a multi-faceted understanding offers us guidance, support and inspiration as we engage in the challenging inner work required to transform our trauma-worlds.
To illustrate this, insights from different conversations are brought together to address three questions: (1) Why are particular types of childhood experiences likely to leave us traumatised (2) Why does emotional trauma leave us prone to reacting in ways that create new suffering? (3) Why is it hard to make the changes that take us out of our trauma-worlds? The answers that emerge speak not only to these specific questions; they also help us to understand what it means to heal emotional trauma and live a more and vibrant and fulfilling life.