Trauma and the creation of the false self

Trauma is an event (or series of events) which threatens life. Classic examples of trauma include physical and sexual abuse, incest, sudden lose of a loved one, an accident, fighting in war, being the victim of violent crime, and surgery – the body under anesthesia still knows on some level that it’s being cut open.

When trauma happens during childhood development it can have deleterious life-long effects. In addition to the previous examples, children can also be deeply traumatized by a host of seemingly ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ circumstances such as living in an unstable home, domestic fighting, alcoholism or drug use in the family, divorce of parents, bullying from peers, and confusion about sexual identity. Even being sent away to a boarding school, or being subjected to extreme temperatures can be traumatic for a child.

There are two responses that occur during trauma – ‘fight’ and ‘flight’. These reactions are ‘wired’ into our biology; adrenalin and cortisol levels rise, breathing accelerates, muscles engage and our bodies instantaneously engage in either aggression, or getting away as fast as possible. But Dr. Peter Levine, in his book HEALING TRAUMA, describes a third reaction that can also occur, and its this reaction that can be utterly devastating to the normal development of a child. Levine calls this the ‘immobilization response’ – it’s when the child does nothing. For a myriad of reasons, aggression or flight do not seem to be viable options for the child, or he intuits that either reaction could ultimately cause him more suffering. So the child does nothing. This immobilization is a defense mechanism that seems to happen automatically.

Levine saw this mirrored in nature. A Gazelle, when hunted and chased by a tiger, knowing that there was no escape would, before the tiger had actually gotten hold of him, simply lay down and give himself to the tiger. The Gazelle’s biology sends an instantaneous signal for it to stop fleeing in order to minimize the inevitable pain and terror of being ripped apart. Conversely, this immobilization can cause the tiger to be confused, to pause, and the gazelle is given an opportunity to possibly get away. It’s like a small ‘death’ before an actual death, and it is experienced in humans similarly.

During immobilization, conscious awareness leaves the body. Psychotherapy calls this ‘disassociation’ – a part of our consciousness, our ‘spirit’, separates from the body in order to endure the trauma. The last place you want to be during a car crash is in your body, and nature seems to help make this happen. From a shamanic perspective, this loss of consciousness is called ‘soul loss’; a piece of our vital essence splinters from us. But the trauma remains in the body. When clients come to me because they have ‘bad energy’ or think they are being ‘haunted’ by ‘evil spirits’, often my first instinct is that they have trauma trapped in their body. And from a Shamanic perspective, that is essentially what is happening.

This process of disassociation, of soul loss, wreaks havoc on the child’s development of self. It greatly compromises the natural and biological intuitive system that we all possess – the part of us that, when functioning normally, tells us that we are in danger, that someone or something is bad for us, that we are being violated, even that we are angry. Without a healthy and functioning intuitive system, we go through life defenseless, vulnerable and without clear direction.

This is why so many of my clients; intelligent, educated, often extremely gifted people, have no idea what they want to do with their lives. They have little sense of purpose, no clarity on what is good for them or what they truly want, they are in jobs they hate, in relationships that are damaging etc.

In addition to a dysfunction in the intuitive system, trauma causes another problem, and this is perhaps the most important factor in how trauma creates the false self. Children are incredibly adaptive, but they lack the intellectual capacity and autonomy to see the truth about their situation. In other words, they are unable to understand that it is the perpetrator that is at fault. And they begin to draw conclusions about what has happened to them, laying the blame entirely on themselves. After all, from a child’s perspective, a parent (or any adult) is a magical person who seems to know everything, who feeds and clothes them, has taught them language, potty training etc. The child simply can’t understand that he is not the one at fault.

Children therefore, have no other alternative but to begin to draw false conclusions and create misperceptions about themselves and the world. And because this process is happening during formative years (they are called formative for a reason), these become the foundation of the child’s core beliefs. These beliefs look like this: ‘there is something wrong with me’, ‘I deserve to be hit’, ‘I’m a bad girl’, ‘I’m unloveable’, ‘relationships are violent’, ‘I don’t deserve any better’, ‘the world is unsafe’, ‘the world is cruel’, ‘women don’t like me’, ‘men don’t like me’, ‘I’m dirty’, ‘the way to get through life is to be as quiet as possible’, ‘my only power is when I am sexual’, ‘I have to be perfect’, ‘I’m a failure at everything’, and on and on.

This mis-knowledge, this fundamental mis-take, becomes the basic groundwork for the development of the self. And, these beliefs become as ingrained and automatic as recognizing ‘that is a cat’, or ‘this color is red’. A persona, an entire sense of self, is created that has absolutely nothing to do with reality. And it becomes habituated and totally unconscious.

Negative beliefs and misperceptions, unexamined, will remain with us forever. This is why people, even with an ‘adult’ understanding of what happened to them, having even forgiven their perpetrators, will still attract (and unconsciously seek out) energy, relationships, situations, careers, addictions etc. that mirror and support the fundamental negativity that they acquired during trauma. This follows the Freudian model of seeking that which will help us ‘work through’ what was dysfunctional or incomplete in our early primary relationships.

But healing is about being in present time. This means knowing where your energy is going, having an intimate awareness of what thought forms you give clout to, and what perceptions and beliefs about yourself and the world that you are currently ‘financing’. It means facing squarely all the ways in which you compromise yourself, and calling your soul back to you with bravery and purpose. If ANYTHING in your energy, your psyche, and the world that you have created for yourself is not serving you, is antithetical to your true nature, and is not leading you to your heart’s content, it must be consciously released, and vigilantly guarded against returning. This takes time and it takes effort. But it’s way better than letting a terrified child run your show.

You CAN come back to yourself, your true self, after trauma. You can at anytime begin the process of finding out who you actually are. And when you take even one small step in this direction, you will find to your surprise, that the universe will help you in ways that you never imagined. And there just may come a time when you say ‘thank you’ for ALL OF IT (even the bad stuff), and go on your merry way.

Alice Miller, psychotherapist and author: 

The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body. And although we can repress it, we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feeling manipulated, our conceptions confused and our body tricked with medication. But someday, our body will present it’s bill. For it is as incorruptible as a child. Who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses. And it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.