Healing Complex Trauma, Part I: The Path to Self-Awareness

Woman at foot of stairs holds face in hands

Editor’s note: This article represents the first of two parts. The second part, which appears here, moves from awareness to attuned self-compassion, then from compassion to integration.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).” —Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Those who seek therapy for complex trauma often do so unknowingly. They may first notice depression or anxiety, numbness, spaciness, lack of motivation, or a failure to connect or thrive. They might simply feel stuck, uncomfortable, or confused, either as an individual or in relationship.

Complex trauma refers to the way we organize our “Self” in the wake of ongoing or repeated exposure to interpersonal disconnections (sometimes overt abuse, oppression, or neglect; sometimes simple, unintended, unavoidable misattunements). At its base, complex trauma represents an ability to exist in pieces—an adaptive preservation of Self at any cost. While initially adaptive, this separation from parts of Self sometimes brings confusion in all relationships—internal versus external, Self versus Other, “what should be” versus “what is,” present versus past or future.

We stop cooperating with our “selves.”

Internally, we move from equality to hierarchy, subjugating the very parts we want to protect.

We adapt to each imperfect system (i.e., family of origin) by internalizing the system rulebook and policing ourselves to enforce the system rules. To maintain relationship with caregivers and preserve Self long enough to survive childhood, we contain parts that do not “fit” the system. We dis-integrate. Self organizes against Self, and we become walking dualities: the containing versus the contained, the rigid head versus the chaotic body. It happens automatically to all of us, with extreme reactions happening in extreme adaptations.

This is the complexity of complex trauma: “missing experience” creates an inability to heal, yearning for unmet needs while protecting against them. Just as we internally separated parts that seek connection from parts that seek safety, we push externally against whatever we need most in life because there is no agreement.

At some level, we wait for the elusive experiential safety that will release us and reverse the process, bringing everything together.

From Disconnection to Autopilot

When ongoing threat remains familiar—when it lives within our homes, permeates the atmosphere, and becomes just another layer of everyday experience—we adapt to it. Assuming we come into the world with particular needs and dispositions, in the tunnel of childhood we often temper parts of Self. We fold and contain in order to fit.

Assuming we come into the world with particular needs and dispositions, in the tunnel of childhood we often temper parts of Self. We fold and contain in order to fit.

Even as infants, we track and respond to nonverbal cues of caregivers. We see their responses to various emotions, and we learn to contain whatever triggers them to fight, flee, or disappear. Often, this includes either particular emotions or emotions in general. We adapt to their system and separate from our bodies to avoid exiled, “unwanted” parts of Self. In this, we also separate from sensory information, becoming insulated against new input and trapped in the adaptation.

In order to adapt to the system, we become the system. We absorb and recreate our caregivers internally. If caregivers judged us, we judge ourselves. If they dismissed or diminished us, we do the same. If they did not know how to see us, we do not know how to see ourselves; we struggle to notice or articulate internal events. We often go into life not knowing how to regulate our bodies (or how to notice basic signals such as hunger). And while the dis-integration proves successfully adaptive, there remains a subtle knowing: a felt experience of disconnection, a subtle background noise, a gentle reminder that some part of us yearns to be remembered and reunited once safety is established.

These are our fragmented lives: parts of Self, surviving independently by turning against other parts Self, enforcing an embargo on that which would heal.

From Autopilot to Self-Awareness

This is just a lens, a way to begin observing our own internal conflicts, differentiating one side from another: one part judging, one part receiving that judgment and feeling it.

This automated containment system protects us from punishment (fight) or abandonment (flight) of others within our original family system(s).

Internal conflicts can look like this:

  • “I want to be seen” might be met internally with “You’re too needy. You’re flawed. If you let others see, they will leave you.”
  • “I want to be big” might be met with “You’ll become a target. Stay small to stay safe.”
  • “I want to express my energy” might be met with “You’re too exuberant. You show too much. Stay still or they’ll leave you.”
  • “I feel angry” might be met with “Anger is not allowed. If you show it, they will leave.”
  • “I feel sad” might be met with “You’re weak. If you show it, they will hurt you.”
  • “I want to be taken care of” might become “Nobody will take care of you. You are alone. Do it yourself.”
  • “I want to experience safety with others” might become “Nobody feels safe with you. You will be alone forever. If you want people nearby, you have to keep a safe distance to avoid triggering them.”

Sometimes the parts we try hardest to contain become most visible to others. We try to hide emotion, and it becomes bigger and louder. This is how we polarize. The containing side attempts to diminish because the other side is amplifying, because it is trapped and simply wants attention. The contained side amplifies because the containing part is attempting to diminish. And so goes the dance.

We land, sometimes, on either side of the conflict. Sometimes we’re the contained part, feeling our own unmet needs on top of feeling trapped. Other times we are that containing part, wanting to survive and meet needs, knowing that if the contained part escapes we will face punishment or abandonment. No matter where our consciousness lands, the other side becomes the villain.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jeremy McAllister, MA, LPCI, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Liza

    January 19th, 2016 at 9:08 AM

    so terribly sad that someone would become so accustomed to that fear and trauma that they would believe that this is what is normal

  • jenn

    January 19th, 2016 at 10:24 AM

    So the trauma could actually be masking as something else, and it is not until we begin work in therapy that we begin to understand that this goes far deeper than what we thought or even realized.

  • Margarite

    January 25th, 2016 at 11:26 AM

    Guilty! I put up the barriers and hide, really so I feel safe from getting hurt again

  • Noni

    January 26th, 2016 at 3:40 PM

    So how do we go about truly finding that balance that we simultaneously crave and yet are afraid of having?
    The dichotomy is so hard to even imagine ever achieving!

  • Lex

    January 27th, 2016 at 2:54 PM

    Is there a way to determine which of those needs are unmet and how to meet them>

  • Abby

    August 23rd, 2016 at 7:03 AM

    This article perfectly describes what i have been trying to understand about myself for the last few years.

  • Cheryl

    November 29th, 2016 at 1:32 PM

    It is amazing how you were able to tap into my life’s struggle. You have explained the battle that I fight in my own thoughts, the rules…containment. I am currently in the process of going from auto-pilot to self-awareness. Great article. Thank you

  • Vicky

    September 9th, 2017 at 8:08 AM

    I have been on this journey for sometime. I wish I’d read this article a long time ago. Why don’t we all know this. It seems that we have to figure it out along the way until we are aware enough to seek out such articles. Thanks…. I feel i need to read it over and over again !

  • Cathy B

    February 8th, 2018 at 11:21 AM

    Find a therapist who utilizes the Internal Family Systems model. It is wonderful for complex trauma and really helps create heart-centered balance in the system. Other therapies that focus on “Parts Work” such a schema therapy are also useful.

  • Baila

    May 1st, 2018 at 2:52 PM

    Beautifully explained! precisely how its really happening…

  • Jeremy McAllister

    May 4th, 2018 at 10:05 AM

    Thank you for all of the comments. While I haven’t been around to respond to each, they are appreciated.

  • Kate

    July 17th, 2018 at 8:50 PM

    I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that’s made me introspect with such clarity and direct sense of my reality. It took me a while to get through this article because there were parts of it I didn’t want to acknowledge or accept about myself, but each sentence allowed me to breathe and understand slightly better.

  • Jennifer

    September 6th, 2018 at 4:49 PM

    Jeremy: I cannot thank you enough for writing this… I have been exploring this subject for some time and seeking the insight you provide in this article. I am a “quiet” BPD (intense prolonged physical and emotional violence in childhood) and therapy has eluded me due to splitting and my inability to set aside my defenses especially when seeking resolution. In avoiding pain/depression/anxiety at all costs for so many years I’ve been locked in a baffling self-destructive loop. Though considerably less intense in the past year the last remaining (overwhelming) mechanism has been self-loathing with a pathological remorse. Your insight is the first glimpse I have had of the other side of this pain and frustration and cringing. THANK YOU!

  • Audrey

    June 22nd, 2019 at 2:39 AM

    Excellent article which I found via reading 2 of Shahida Arabi’s books. I’ve had a ton of valuable counselling and therapy and was diagnosed as a Complex Trauma survivor around 6 months ago though still sometimes feel more like a victim than a survivor. But that’s feeIings. It’s not who I am. At 69 and have gone through the phase of thinking that it’s a bit late in life to be at my best in recognising a detrimental person quickly and to go “no contact” ASAP and with no guilt feelings about it. But going NC with negative people feels empowering and creates the space for empathetic people and beauty to come into our lives.

  • Guillaume

    August 16th, 2019 at 3:29 AM

    Thanks so much for this article.
    It is short, but full of meaning. What a brilliant description of what is going on in fragmented id due to C-PTSD; thanks for this very helpul article :)

  • MC

    March 4th, 2020 at 6:29 PM

    Yes that is exactly it. There is NO rest. Exhaustion is my companion

  • BN

    August 14th, 2020 at 8:41 AM

    i am in therapy now doing this parts work, after a life time of suffering and not understanding my own behaviors, form complex ptsd and anxiety disorder and ocd, from childhood sexual abuse over many years. I can say this work is a life saver, and i totally am starting to understand my SELF now and all the brave parts who save me back then. Looking forward to the future, and an internal family system that works for me.

  • C

    July 27th, 2021 at 10:42 AM

    I’ve been in therapy, with a very good psychotherapist, for three years now. I come from a childhood of having a manic depressive (was was), self harming and then suicide parent, alcoholic mother, and abusive older brother. And all sorts of other messes. I’ve spent two decades looking at and reading internet articles and this is the first one that has entirely hit the mark of what happened to me; and the reproduction of my childhood circumstances as an adult. I find life terrifying, every morning I wake petrified, but I have managed to keep down a very good job now for seven years (I’m 54), have stopped all unhealthy relationships, and am definitely going through a slow and painful reintegration of all my parts. It’s absolutely horrible, sad and very slow, but I know I am getting somewhere. So, a thank you to people like you, from people like me.

  • Nigel

    August 7th, 2022 at 12:23 AM

    Thank you for your comment.

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