2021 – Understanding and Healing All Parts of Ourselves
Judith Herman, one of the pioneers of trauma treatment, has been quoted saying, “It’s bad enough that our clients lost their childhood; it’s unacceptable that they lose their adulthood too.”
Being overwhelmed by anxiety, anger or upset can be a regular occurrence for clients at Phoenix. Intellectually a person who is a survivor of child sexual abuse knows they are now no longer in danger and that they can ask for help, but their nervous system is automatically set to protection mode so any slight reminder of the past trauma e.g., a kind therapist can be a reminder of the grooming process and can trigger them into protecting themselves from feeling unsafe and they automatically panic and withdraw or snap with an angry defensive comment followed by shame and regret. So, how can counselling help clients from being hijacked by their emotions?
Janina Fisher (2017) uses a Structural Dissociation Model to help explain what happens to the nervous system as a result of childhood trauma. When a child endures repeated experiences of turning to an adult for love and security but is abused, their nervous system must find a way to cope as there is no escape or anybody to rescue or protect them. Their two brain hemispheres split off, so the left verbal linguistic self keeps on going with normal daily living tasks whilst the right emotional brain with its more physical survival resources prepares for the next threat and is known as the ‘trauma -related part.’ To be able to keep on doing daily functioning tasks the left part of the brain will distance itself as much as possible from the right emotional trauma parts to say as Ana Gomez reports ‘not me not mine’ because the emotional trauma is just too painful and shameful.
Clients are very familiar with the different survival responses of their trauma parts and which ones they relied on as a child and adolescent:
- Fight Part (Vigilance) – Angry, mistrusting, suicidal, self-destructive all in a bid to try and gain control, sense of purpose or mastery.
- Flight Part (Escape) – Wants distance and to escape so may resort to addictive behaviours.
- Freeze Part (Fearful) – Terrified, phobic of being seen so can have avoidant behaviours and reports panic attacks, craves safety from harm or threat of death.
- Submit Part (Shame) – Self-sacrificing, ashamed, filled with self-hatred, people pleaser, passive, caretaker, depressed. Needs to feel worthy and autonomous.
- Attach Part (Needy) – Craves rescue, connection and safe from being abandoned, wants someone to depend on.
Janina Fisher helps clients to recognise in their bodies the difference between the two states of being ‘blended’ and ‘unblended.’ Being ‘blended’ is to be overwhelmed by one of their emotional parts e.g., anger, shame, or fear. In this state they feel all consumed and if they try to push it down or ignore the feeling only gets stronger and more intense.
Being ‘unblended is coaching the client to have dual awareness so they can be in a state of being calm, curious, and compassionate and this state is known as being in ‘adult’ and is innate in everyone no matter what trauma a person has experienced. Whilst in ‘adult’ the client can then be aware of their emotional part(s) being felt in different parts of their body e.g., tightness in the chest from a scared anxious part that wants to withdraw.
Helping a client to know what their triggers are and noticing their body and when they are starting to become ‘blended’ helps them to begin having a little more control over their emotions. People of lived trauma experiences have had a lifetime of automatically reacting to certain cues to stay protected and safe so to now be ‘unblended’ takes a lot of practice.
It is very important clients understand that their emotional parts of anger, suicide, addictive behaviours (although may seem negative and destructive) all have the good intent of trying to ensure the young, vulnerable, hurt traumatised child part is not exposed. Knowing this then means the counselling work is about hearing, understanding, and accepting all emotional parts. No ‘part’ is rejected or ignored.
A key component in Fisher’s work is when clients have a felt sense of being ‘unblended’ they are asked to relate to their emotional part in the third person- s/he not I because this enables the client to maintain a separateness, so they are not overwhelmed and helps them develop a communication, understanding and co-operation between parts so ultimately their internal nervous system works harmoniously.
Janina Fisher’s approach is very different from other trauma treatments because she does not focus on clients remembering or reliving their trauma (which is a huge relief for clients) but rather centres her work on the here and now. The aim of the work is helping clients to develop the ability to notice their emotional parts and separate from their parts and use their trauma memory to evoke compassion for their young vulnerable part and what s/he never had and now needs.
I think the theory of Fisher’s work is very easy to understand and very relatable for clients, but it should be stressed its application and behavioural change can be long term work. Due to their childhood traumas clients amazing automatic survival strategies are not going to change quickly and if a client has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) this change can take longer as parts may not be initially aware of each other. However, feedback I have had from Phoenix clients is that it really makes sense to them and that it enables them to be an attuned parent for their internal nervous system.
Each time the adult self of the client attunes to the child’s parts of unmet need, fear, or painful emotion and ‘repairs’ the distressing experience, attachment bonds are built, piece by piece, experience by experience.
I will conclude with some paraphrased comments from my clients to further demonstrate the powerful positive impact of Fisher’s Structural Dissociation Model.
- It’s a relief to feel separate and start to hear and understand my 9-year-old anger part.
- My warrior part is pretty fierce and now I recognise its not helpful for her to be in charge all the time.
- I realised my irritated 7-year-old just needed to be heard and understood because I kept trying to ignore her.
- I see her (10-year-old self) and she is really sad and needs a hug and told she is special.
SALLY WOODS SENIOR COUNSELLOR EMDR PRACTITIONER
References: Janina Fisher (2017) Healing The Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors – Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation Ana Gomez – www.anagomez.org