How Heart-Centered Hypnotherapy Breaks through Dissociation to Treat Trauma
Many traumatized individuals alternate between re-experiencing their trauma and being detached from, or even relatively unaware of the trauma and its effects. It can be very confusing, for the individual and for those who interact with them. When we understand the psychology of what’s going on, it’s really not so confusing and actually makes sense.
Let’s assume that a trauma occurred in childhood, and you are seeing this pattern in the individual’s life as an adult today. Back at the time of that severe threat or trauma, the child unconsciously made a choice about how to deal with the intolerable experience.
Of course, calling it a choice is misleading because there were no good choices, so the child was literally forced to choose the lesser of two evils. He or she created a split in personality in order to manage the unmanageable. She allowed one part of herself to “just deal with it”, or to “get over it”, and this part tried to grow up fast and act like nothing happened. She did whatever she thought she needed to in order to keep herself as safe as possible; she became compliant, or helpful, or tried to solve the family’s problems. She learned to avoid the source of the threat when she could, and to repress the experience when she couldn’t. She detached from the trauma. She was managing daily life as well as any survivor can.
We’ll refer to this part of her personality as the “apparently normal” part, because that’s what she is trying desperately to present to the world, to act normal.
Of course, another part of this little girl’s personality couldn’t “just deal with it”. This part of her remained present to her experience, including the terrible torturous pain of the trauma. This part of her was kept hidden as much as possible, even from herself (that is, from her “apparently normal” part). This part of her was scared, ashamed, lonely, and desperate.
She felt alone because even the “apparently normal” personality rejected her, exasperated with the fact that she couldn’t act and “just get over it”, blaming her for regressing to helplessness.
This regressed part, which we’ll refer to as her “emotional personality” carries all the raw emotion, and would sometimes re-experience the trauma, she would sometimes collapse in despair, or she might sometimes act out her rage or her self-hatred.
The “apparently normal” part of the personality is so busy engaged in matters of daily life and acting like everything is normal that she has failed to integrate the traumatic experience. And she has judged and rejected the part of herself that is left to try to deal with it, with no escape other than acting out: the “emotional personality”. She resents the emotional part for keeping her from portraying a totally convincing act that everything’s normal.
Yet she also knows that the emotional part provides a relief valve for when the pressure gets too intense – after all, she can act out.
The regressed emotional part resents being left with the “dirty work” and being judged for it. Yet she knows that the “apparently normal” personality is vital to their shared safety, like an older sibling. A rivalry develops between these two parts, and an inner struggle over which one is in charge at any given point in time.
They are actually, literally, sharing real estate in the body and the brain. They each have different nervous system reactions to stress, different access to memories, and different characteristic ways of being. So they are forced to share the real estate as a “time share”, being in control one at a time.
One has to move out (dissociate) for the other to move in, and it’s not by a congenial agreement or on a fixed schedule. A stressful moment, a triggering event, a perceived threat can force one to vacate with no notice and no time to prepare. Any traumatic or stressful experience can cause a switch to occur: being fired, the unexpected death of a loved one, making a mistake, or even positive but stressful experiences like having a baby or buying a new home.
These dissociative parts of the individual’s personality really each have a different sense of self, and respond to traumatic memories differently. This dissociation compromises the development of a coherent sense of personal existence in a framework of the past, the present, and the future.
The emotional personality carries memories somatically, and often pre-verbally, and experiences the memories of traumas as personal to the emotional personality. The emotional personality presents with the identity of a child, the arrested development inner child stuck in time at the point of the original traumatizing event(s). The traumatized individual’s apparently normal personality does not experience memories of traumas as personal, or may have no access to them at all. The apparently normal personality, dissociated from her body, her emotions, and her memories presents as, for example, the precocious caregiver willing to tolerate unreasonable responsibilities or as the demanding know-it-all who is only satisfied when she is in charge.
In other words, when the emotional personality is activated, the individual tends to lose access to a range of memories that are readily available for the apparently normal personality, and vice versa. The lost memories typically involve episodic memories of personal experiences. The emotional personality cannot function in the world like the apparently normal personality, because its brain does not have access to the memories necessary to function in that way, and is burdened with trauma memories that the apparently normal personality is not.
These two parts of the personality tend to be opposites from each other. One may “deal with it” by “spacing out”; being a “couch potato” vacantly watching television; eating or drinking in excess; chronic exhaustion (parasympathetic dissociation). The other will tend to “deal with it” through mindless busyness; incessant talking; chasing endless lists of “must do’s”; constant attentiveness to others’ needs (sympathetic dissociation).
The good news is that we can develop that part of ourselves that is neither one of these fragments of personality, the healthy adult who can reassure both of them that they no longer need to act or act out in order to be safe. And hypnotherapy is an ideal way to find and work with these parts, because it allows one to go back in age regression to the traumatic event(s) that caused the split in the first place. The genesis of the lifetime pattern becomes so clear in observing the small child, and we can have so much compassion for ourselves when we are relating to that child: a beautiful, innocent survivor.
Each of these alternative ways of being can be conceptualized as a cluster of mental/emotional states, proposed by psychologist Ellert Nijenhuis as a Theory of Structural Dissociation.
Nijenhuis, E. R. S., van der Hart, O., & Steele, K. (2004). Trauma-related structural dissociation of the personality. Trauma Information Pages website, January 2004. Web URL: http://www.trauma-pages.com/nijenhuis-2004.htm .