'He has his back to me. It looks like he's sulking… he definitely doesn't want to talk. It's so strange, but I get the feeling he's saying 'Why would I want to talk to you? You never talk to me'. And he's right, I suppose… I try to just ignore that part of me."
"So you can understand why he's upset with you? Try telling him that, Jim, and see how he reacts."
"There's a slight turning of his head, as though he's listening. I'm just telling him over and over again that I'm sorry… because I am. He's been trying to get my attention for so many years but I've just ignored him."
"Ah... just like his mum ignored him and didn't have time for him."
"Yes! But he was just a kid, he needed his mum."
And then my client made a key realisation: "But I guess he has me now, that's what you're trying to get me to see, isn't it?"
This was indeed what I'd been hoping Jim (not his real name) would realise. His husband was on the point of asking Jim for a divorce, tired of the lack of communication and intimacy. But the relationship Jim really needed to work on first was his relationship with himself - all the traumatised, younger parts of himself that he had been rejecting, just as his mother had, but which had been trying to get his attention in various ways. The first wounded part we met was the little six-year-old boy he was trying to talk to above.
As a child, Jim was caught - as so many children are - in a terrible conflict: his social engagement system would have been driving him to attach and connect to his mother, but his animal defence system would have picked up that this same parent wasn't safe and so would have been driving him at the same time to fight, flee, freeze or submit. The only way for the psyche to resolve this dilemma is to split. So, part of Jim - his carrying on with normal life part - continued going to school and playing with friends and eventually grew up and became a successful solicitor; while other parts of Jim stayed stuck in their trauma.
It seems like a glaring omission to me now, but most therapists are not trained to identify or work with splits in identity when, in fact, I think we all have different parts. We are not just a singular 'I'; we are a multiplicity of parts. But anyone who has experienced any kind of trauma - from parental neglect or sexual abuse to bullying or violence - will have parts that are more compartmentalised and independent of each other.
But up to now, splitting was only really a hypothesis. The advances in our knowledge of the brain have changed that, where it's been shown that the two halves of our brain operate separately when under stress. So when something triggers an alarm in the body, the thinking part of our brain goes offline and this allows our emotional or trauma-related parts to hijack the mind and body. One study with severely dissociated patients - such as trauma sufferers who continually disconnect from the present and from themselves in order to cope - found activity in the cortical, thinking, part of their brains only when their adult self was present and engaged; but none when their trauma-related parts were in control; here, the activity was all in the right brain.
The concept of parts of the personality isn't new, but the approach I use is a combination of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy's structural dissociation model and Internal Family Systems therapy. It encapsulates the neuroscientifically supported idea that we all have innate defensive responses, and that parts of our personality develop around these automatic responses and continue to be triggered into adulthood.
It doesn't mean you are schizophrenic; rather, our psyches are designed to split in order to help us survive, so that while parts of us remain stuck in the trauma, there's a part of us who can carry on with normal life. It's an approach that shifts the balance of power towards clients as their adult self is guided to heal their own parts.
Most people know now about the fight or flight survival response, but we have five ways of defending ourselves.
In Jim's case, the first defence, to cry for help, wasn't an option as he had no caring or responsive adults around him. So his body automatically mobilised him to fight (second defence) and stand up to his mum when she criticised him but her punishing reaction quickly suppressed it. The flight (third) part of him then wanted to run away but it was soon realised there was nowhere to go. So the freeze (fourth) part of him would take over and he'd just keep quiet, totally still and wait for the threat of attack to end.
Other times, Jim's submit defence (fifth) would kick in and try to appease mum, be a good boy, in the hope this-would win her approval.
The real trouble is that these responses that helped us survive difficult childhoods persist into adulthood even when no longer needed. For Jim, it was the submit response that continued to be most dominant, showing up in his frequent depressed and collapsed state.
But while all the parts of us are trying to help in their own way, they're not working co-operatively with each other and, crucially, they're not functioning under the guidance of our wise, adult self. Instead, they are the ones, more often than not, who are assuming executive control as they remain stuck in survival mode.
It's the hypervigilant 'fight' parts I tend to meet first in therapy. For example, as a young girl there was little Jo (not her real name) could do to stand up to her domineering father, on whom she was entirely dependent after her mother's death.
Now, in sessions with me - a context that inevitably evokes vulnerability or dependency fears - her fight part will alternately rage at me or refuse to talk to me, so vehemently is it protecting Jo's vulnerable child part.
When a part of you is still carrying unresolved pain from the past, sooner or later it will make this known and try to get your attention - by flooding you with anxiety or self-doubt or fear or anger; or even physical symptoms, such as headaches, or a persistent pain in your heart that has no biological cause.
But how else might you recognise when you are being hijacked by a younger part or if you have some kind of inner conflict between parts?
Well, maybe you have long been highly competent in your job and then you suddenly find yourself feeling completely incapable and having panic attacks - it could signal that a younger part of you stuck in the 'flight' response has been triggered somehow and is overwhelming the adult part of you.
Or maybe you could drive but now no longer can - possibly a child part of you is in the driving seat, so to speak, and of course children cannot drive.
Maybe you are constantly caretaking other people or have trouble setting boundaries with your unhappy mother? That's probably a submissive young child part, who doesn't realise she no longer depends on her mother for survival and so doesn't have to worry so much about her well-being anymore.
And if you are relentlessly self-critical, you can be fairly sure that's a militant 'fight' part protecting a vulnerable child part - because if a part is constantly telling you how horrible, pathetic, weak or incapable you are, then you're less likely to extend yourself socially or professionally, something the fight part views as too risky, and you'll just stay home.
It's difficult at first for many clients to help their wounded parts, because the parts are so blended with the adult - clients have to learn to get some separation.
It's the difference between saying "I'm feeling so anxious" to being able to say "There's a part of me that's feeling so anxious".
But when the adult part of you can start to give the child parts experiences of safety and acceptance and show them that things are different now, they can begin to let go of their pain and the parts that protect us can stop working so hard.
We all have parts of ourselves we don't like - but if you continue to exile the angry, vulnerable, ashamed, needy or scared parts of you, you will likely feel like a fraud and experience self-alienation. "I don't know who I am" is something I hear frequently.
Healing from trauma begins the moment we start to feel and communicate compassion for ourselves - all of them.
Client confidentiality has been respected.
Useful links: sensorimotorpsychotherapy.org janinafisher.com selfleadership.org
Gayle Williamson is an IACP-accredited psychotherapist practising in Dublin. Contact her at ferneytherapy.ie