Healing Complex Trauma, Part II: The Path to Integration

GoodTherapy | Healing Complex Trauma, Part II: The Path to IntegrationEditor’s note: This article represents the second of two parts. The first part moves from disconnection to autopilot, then from autopilot to self-awareness.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” —Carl Jung

Complex trauma represents an expected response to ongoing and extreme interpersonal threats, revealing in its process the capacity of a core “Self” to preserve what matters most, even when it means separating from it. Part I of this article framed multiple selves as a natural adaptation to systems in which we must “fit” by placing parts of Self in storage, giving examples of potential self-containment strategies. Part II now moves toward reintegration of what was necessarily preserved while navigating the tunnel of childhood.

From Awareness to Attuned Self-Compassion

After years of automated disconnection and internal judgment, integration is often felt as an awakening, a softening toward what was once perceived as an enemy, a protective hesitance becoming a grateful encompassing. It is felt most profoundly in the surprising arrival of ownership and empathy for Self. The epiphany, or “aha” moment: a recognition that “I am not this intense emotion, nor the judgment of it.” It’s the point at which we realize this “part in exile” has been trying to get our attention, to elicit from us a response it never got from our caregivers. This gives us a chance to feel what it felt, to finally see it, to stop containing it as something evil and instead embrace it and feel with it.

Likewise, the containing part ceases to be perceived as a bully when we realize it has been protecting us all these years, that some part of us believed our core to be so valuable and worthy of protection and preservation. It’s a simple moment of self-compassion (often with a response felt physically), telling Self: “Yes, this did happen. This present feeling is how you felt for so long. I feel it in my body. I get it. You did not deserve this pain nor create it, and I will not punish you or leave you.”

After years of automated disconnection and internal judgment, integration is often felt as an awakening, a softening toward what was once perceived as an enemy, a protective hesitance becoming a grateful encompassing.

“I am too much for others” becomes, for instance, “I have been judging myself as too much in order to contain myself and avoid re-creating the feeling of distance I felt from my father.”

One might realize: “I am afraid of others because I fear myself.” Or: “I depend on others because I have abandoned myself.” Or: “My emotions grow and overwhelm precisely because I try to diminish and dismiss them.”

In the experience of abuse and neglect, these are the missing ingredients: attunement and compassion, allowing a moment of empathy for that contained part, that child who was hurt, who reacted the only way a child could. And a recognition in that moment of empathy: “All of this pain is also me, and everything that matters most in me has been preserved.”

From Compassion to Integration

Healing comes through integration, balancing of extremes, an olive branch offered between “enemies,” an internal dialogue of acceptance and compassion. It requires access to some part of Self that can simply observe—some witness able to watch our thoughts and emotions without landing in them, without becoming them. (This is where mindfulness comes in.)

When we know each part—when we can observe without judgment and treat it with compassion—it has no reason to polarize or amplify. It calms and centers. It synchronizes. It trusts our own core.

Many people, when imagining some part of Self as a child outside of their body—experiencing that child’s life, feeling their feelings—notice an internal stirring, even a release, recognizing that as they are empathizing and speaking compassionately to a child outside of Self, they are also landing in their own child part, hearing their own words of compassion, and feeling accepted.

This internal love—acceptance and appreciation without judgment—changes the entire experience of living.

Intentional self-compassion offers release from all these arbitrary rules we’ve carried. It’s a chance to experience both freedom and connection simultaneously, internally, knowing that as we navigate the countless systems of the world, external integration echoes internal.

© 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
  • Brady

    January 26th, 2016 at 9:41 AM

    Learning to love yourself is integral

  • Zoe

    January 27th, 2016 at 7:01 AM

    I really want to get to a place in life where I can love life and love myself but that seems to be harder and harder over time. It can feel like the world is against you.

  • Barb

    January 27th, 2016 at 2:52 PM

    It’s taken 20 years of therapy and 15 years of sobriety to finally reach this point. Between complex trauma and 3 additional, separate traumatic experiences, I can finally say none of them were my fault and I am looking forward to putting myself back together on a path I want to explore.

  • Judy

    January 28th, 2016 at 6:59 PM

    Loving yourself and your parts is great–in a book or out there in fantasyland. But we have found that with two of our people now gone, we have no CORE/CENTER. We have read, searched, explored. THEY were our core! Now we are adrift and ever so discouraged because we are lost to reestablish a core/center. Switching has started again and NO ONE is in control. It is hard to hang on. What if we can’t find it? We can’t love ourselves under these circumstances. We are fighting to survive again

  • laken

    January 30th, 2016 at 8:33 AM

    Have you ever worked with someone who was so broken that you had this fear that there was nothing that you could do to help them? Or do you just have this faith that you can always do something that will help them?

  • Nandakumar

    April 24th, 2016 at 6:50 PM

    Brilliant article, I can identify my own personal experiences.
    I’ve always been single minded about my goals.
    But when I set self realisation and healing as a goal more than 7 years ago, I had no idea if I would make it..It’s been an unbelievable journey and even though the end result isn’t what I thought it would be, it is no less magical.
    Of course the journey never ends!

  • Judy

    April 24th, 2016 at 8:38 PM

    Connection is so hard! We look to each other inside for comfort because we still do have to contain ourselves. It is so lonely. We try and try. Then we wind up blaming ourselves and each other for our deep pain and continual sense of hiding our “secret” to simply be acceptable to a world out there. We are so tired and lonely

  • Judy

    April 24th, 2016 at 9:03 PM

    Connection with the outside is hard and we blame ourselves and each other when we cannot maintain a relationship. Our empathy and compassion extends outward but we spend time hiding inside. We are so tired and lonely

  • Olivia B

    April 27th, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    During my reconnect efforts to move myself and my younger brother through our shared but often differently felt traumas since our births the cosmos and universe has shown themselves to be reliable touchstones to the next choices and steps. Life is what brings you a quiet peace inside. Passing through life means letting go of all the feelings of hurt and hurting others on all levels to be peaceful.

  • Elizabeth M

    December 6th, 2016 at 9:29 PM

    Top notch. Clear. Compelling. Accurate. Thank you.

  • Yvonne

    January 11th, 2017 at 7:17 PM

    Very informative article that I can relate with at so many levels. My experience of integration has been an emotional and exhilarating experience. I have found that the statement, “the truth shall set you free” has applied to all my other personalities and has helped me with the integration process. There was a tremendously emotional occurrence when my little girl was able to cry and weep over abuse done to her so many years ago. I will embrace tools toward my healing process and I am grateful and happy right were I am in my self realization.

  • John

    August 21st, 2021 at 5:16 PM

    I am only now learning about the importance of integration in creating a live worth living. I think integration is a useful term for defining how one achieves the benefits of self-acceptance. If I conceive of myself as an organized desk, I have important and relevant papers on the top of the desk. Then, I have the rest of the papers filed in an organized fashion for reference. That analogy works for the Self. I keep what’s important and essentially relevant in front of me and my other life experiences are organized and filed for easy access as needed. Voila!!!

  • Smellz

    November 15th, 2021 at 4:03 PM

    This internal love—acceptance and appreciation without judgment—changes the entire experience of living.

    Truly feel born again at 41.

  • Nancy

    February 18th, 2024 at 12:16 AM

    Thank you for this information – After years of suffering I may have finally made contact with an exile. Now for the integration. The intolerable, unbearable feels I’ve experienced will hopefully subside after this.

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