A person suffering from the effects of trauma recently asked me why she constantly replays the moments leading up to her traumatic experiences. The question itself was a very positive indication of her potential to heal herself because it showed her capacity for insight.
I want to play a bit with the word insight here. The official definition of insight is “the understanding of a specific cause and effect within a specific context.” In this specific context, she was witnessing a dynamic within herself – the psychological dynamic of reliving and retelling the trauma.
But for me, what is important about this kind of insight is her inward sight. She was looking at herself in such a way that she had become an objective witness to a psychological dynamic, one which was associated with her traumatic experiences.
Developing this capacity for objective witnessing is a crucial step for anyone who wants to heal themselves from traumatic experiences. Objective witnessing creates a sort of boundary between you and your traumatic experiences.
In psychological terms, we call that boundary a stimulus barrier. If you click the link, it will take you to three articles I have written where I say more about this.
It’s not like you actually say to yourself, “Now, I create this barrier around myself” or anything like that (though you could try it, but that’s not what I am talking about). I’m talking about a natural process of dis-identification with the trauma. This kind of thing takes some inner work and it happens over time.
Reliving and retelling of traumatic events in our lives is an autonomous psychological dynamic, meaning it runs on its own energy. We don’t do it, per se. We get drawn into that autonomous dynamic of reliving and retelling because it’s a powerful dynamic – far more powerful than our ego, even when we are at our best.
You can get some idea of what I mean by autonomous dynamic when you consider how many times an old song gets stuck in your head and replays itself almost beyond all endurance.
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The psychological factor in trauma
Let me give you a bit of my own history before I get into this psychological factor thing.
Before I became a Jungian analyst, I taught yoga and meditation, as well as led workshops in present-centered awareness and mindfulness. As a matter of fact, without yoga I may have never been ready to approach Jung’s work.
Yoga taught me how to be a witness to the inner workings of my mind and to be a witness to my own suffering.
What I could not buy into in yoga, however, was some of the dogma about the illusory nature of the mind. I knew the power of the mind from own experience with it. The effects of my mind were certainly not illusory.
Anxiety, panic, depression, and all of those things are very real. And not only that, but there also is a very real power behind all of it.
And that power is yours if you can learn to work with all of its various manifestations.
At first, I thought that by becoming a witness to my mind meant that I could protect myself from all of the destructive thoughts and feelings that would come up.
Not so. I still suffered, and not only that, I suffered even more because I was no longer suppressing what I didn’t want to feel. Furthermore, I was also no longer repressing what I didn’t even know I felt!
Deep reflection, contemplation, and meditation breaks up all of that shitty-shit buried deep within ourselves.
So there I was: I had evolved to the point of being the witness to my thoughts and feelings, knowing better than to identify myself with any of it, yet still profoundly suffering from everything I had experienced in my past.
I was intrigued.
Making Connections Between Trauma and Your Inner Dynamics
Why was this so? How could I intellectually know the cause and effect of my issues, and even more powerful than that, spiritually know that somewhere in all of it was a lesson for my soul’s journey, yet still suffer to the point of abject despair?
That question finally brought me to the work of C.G. Jung. The answer has to do with what Jung called the autonomous factors in the psyche.
Even though you can be aware that you do something, as well as understand why you do something, the psychological dynamic behind all of it unconscious.
And as I told this young woman who asked me the original question, if you can become an active witness to this process as it is happening, then you can get a step further in understanding and resolving it.
This step is essential for healing from trauma. When I say healing, I meaning absolute transcendence of the trauma and the traumatic experience, not simply a resolution of the symptoms.
The imprint of trauma
When you experience trauma it leaves a powerful psychological imprint in your psyche. A psychological imprint – the memory – is not just snapshot of whatever happened.
Our memories are living, psychological entities. These entities are the psychological factor, I mentioned above. They live and breathe in us. They have their own perspective on life, and when these entities overtake us, we unconsciously take on their distorted perspective. And what’s worse, we totally buy into it.
You have to stop that! Stop believing it.
And as with any other memory, the experience of trauma is a dynamic pattern that informs the rest of your life. How trauma informs your life depends on your awareness of the autonomous patterns that trauma creates in your life.
Now again, we come to the importance of developing the capacity for objective witnessing. Developing some kind of meditation practice is so helpful. The link I gave you can help. It’s from my other site, Unfolding the Universe Within.
The woman who came to me with the question had become aware of a pattern in her psyche. That means that she had separated herself from the pattern.
How Past Trauma Informs Your Daily Life
Let’s look at what I mean by how trauma informs your life.
First, trauma forms an unconscious lens through which you see the world and everyone in it. Everything you experience is seen through that unconscious lens of trauma.
Now, this is no joke. When I say, unconscious lens, I mean that you have no idea that you are even looking through this kind of lens. For you, it’s reality. Truth. The way it is.
It’s just like wearing a pair of weird glasses. Everything is distorted.
The most typical distortion I see with people who have suffered long term, repeated trauma is that they see everything in terms of a strict duality, for example fair/unfair, right/wrong, justice/injustice, or punishment/reward.
Another common distortion is to see everything as expressions of victim/perpetrator. People who have suffered trauma will have hundreds of life stories revolving around being the victims of horrible people in their lives. They also see those same stories playing out between others.
Sometimes this strict duality is a really subtle undercurrent, but it’s there. I call this the mindtrap of dualistic thinking.
Trauma and Projection
Everything I have just described to you is called psychological projection. Projection is the unconscious transfer of our subjective contents onto the world around us. In particular, we project that content onto others. Again, this kind of thing is totally unconscious. Initially, we don’t know we’re doing it.
All of the players in the original traumatic event are projected into the world around us. If we had hateful older sisters, then we’ll meet her again and again in our lives until we work it out at the inner level. The same goes with our terrible mothers and fathers: there they are again in every professor, teacher, and boss.
Projection is an attempt at self-healing, but it doesn’t work so well if you don’t eventually recognize it for what it is. It’s the recognition of the projection that heals us. That recognition brings to light something about ourselves that has been unconscious until then. A client of mine recently told me, “I finally heard my constant self-loathing as the voice of my mother.”
Breaking Free from the Traumatic Event
Now the woman originally asked the question always stopped just short of reliving those moments of trauma. That’s normal. Ultimately though, you have to let that dynamic play out within yourself so you can psychologically process it. That really means you have to get back in there and relive it, so to speak.
This is not for the faint of heart and I highly suggest doing it with someone who can help you hold that space.
You have to relive it because the original trauma was not processed at the time of the event. This is most especially true if you suffered repeated childhood trauma.
You see, psyche forms a protective cocoon around us during traumatic events. It’s part of what helps us get through it without losing our minds. We have to get that part ourselves who we can bring it into our current life. It wants to live.
As long as we don’t psychologically process trauma, it will continue to haunt us, as we can see from some of these rather disturbing images I’m sharing with you.
How Trauma Affects Our Lives: Reliving and Retelling the Trauma
The second way trauma informs our lives is through the psychological dynamic of “reliving the moments before the trauma”. Again, this is an automatic process, and also, a natural attempt at psychological healing.
So, you’ve got this unnatural event or series of events lodged in the body-mind memory and it has to be processed through the psychic system in order to get it out. You can’t extract it and you certainly can’t will it away with positive thinking. It must be metabolized.
Trauma can be compared to a viral invasion in our body. Whenever our bodies sense a foreign invader, then they mobilize forces in order to expel the toxin. Every time you relive or retell your trauma, it is an unconscious attempt to expel the toxin from its depths.
The only cure for that toxin is consciousness.
The key to stopping this mechanism is this: you have to find a way to let go of the narrative that keeps playing out in your mind, and possibly, that narrative which plays out in your life as well. I’ll explain that.
The narrative of trauma
The narrative is that reliving and retelling of the trauma. It is that line of thought, images, and emotions that play out over and over again, typically in the form of the victim/perpetrator story.
This narrative can play itself out in your head, or, you can be retelling that story to others. As a psychotherapist, I hear the narrative of my clients’ trauma many, many times before a client is ready to consciously work through the experience.
A similar narrative also plays out in the person’s life in his or her encounters with others. You may have dozens of stories about how various people in your life have injured you. If you do, then you probably tell those stories again and again.
All of it is part of the narrative.
Feeding the Monster of Trauma
These stories, regardless of their truth, or imagined truth, feed that automatic process that I have been talking about. It’s a monster that feeds off of your precious life force. Every time you re-tell or relive the trauma, you feed it.
The important thing to know about the monster is that it is an attempt to protect that wounded part of your soul. However, it’s no longer in your service. It’s working against you.
As I have said, repeating the story is an unconscious attempt to work through the trauma, but because this repetition is mostly an unconscious process, all that does is feed the cycle of trauma.
At the root of the problem is an inability to psychologically feel and process the real pain and grief of the trauma. This inability is also a defense mechanism.
But now you ask yourself why this is happening. If you can ask that question honestly, then something in you is ready to heal and process this trauma.
I know that it may feel like you have already felt the pain, because you have no doubt suffered.
However, in reality whatever work you have done hasn’t penetrated the core pain. And to repeat, the reason you haven’t been able to do it is because your psyche has protected you from re-experiencing the actual trauma, typically by replaying the moments before it.
You have to break down that defense mechanism before you can reach your pain.
Working Through the Trauma
Every time that story comes up, it wants you to look at it. Instead of allowing it to play out and unconsciously wish that it had never happened, you have to say: this has happened to me. As Carl Jung said, we have to ask ourselves, “Who am I that all of this should happen to me?”
We don’t ask it from the perspective of self-pity, but rather Self-exploration.
Once you can stop the narrative and ask yourself this question then you can let the real pain, grief, and suffering of your experience come through. Allow it to become a sublime experience – one that transforms you.