It’s never helpful to berate oneself for not being a better person or for behaving badly. That in itself can be an old habit where one has internalised a critical parent who becomes judge and jury…It’s often only too easy to join in the familiar critique…Anna Freud named it ‘identification with the aggressor’ as we cheerfully throw our hat in to the ring to vehemently attack ourselves.
More helpful is to somehow be able to acknowledge that things may not have gone well or that we need to grow increasingly aware of our shadow self and if that acknowledgement can happen in almost a detached way – the observing of who and how we are then so much the better…that’s mental noting.
A further mark of progress is the recognition that we cannot heal ourselves. Self-help books and remedies are always attractive but often we have to have someone alongside us whether spiritual director or psychotherapist. If that isn’t possible or we cannot find the right person then the progress can be helped by accepting that we can open ourselves up to Divine intervention. The alternative is that we live unawakened still curled up in the womb position and turned within ourselves: centred on ourselves.
John of the Cross the sixteenth century mystic speaks remarkably clearly to our contemporary age when he writes of our envy about the spiritual progress made by others and how hard it can be to hear others being praised. We might be able to heal ourselves on the surface but not at the deepest level when envy, anger and pride seem to come up from nowhere. We are too bound to ourselves to be our own liberators. As has been said nobody escapes their shadow by running faster… But even if we were free the ultimate healing lies beyond our grasp.
St John of the Cross teaches from his own experience that the real wound is our need for God and so God himself is the cure. For John the healing comes in the waiting and it comes in the ‘night’ through surrender and discovery. Francis Thompson who wrote the poem called The Hound of Heaven put it like this: ‘Where I find nothing done by me, much may have been done in me,’ in other words that the healing can happen despite ourselves.
So we are asked to worship someone we do not control and celebrate what we do not understand. ‘Of God himself,’ John writes, ‘nothing could be said that would be like him.’ And ‘outside of God, everything is narrow.’ The Christ figure that we are drawn to offers us a deeper and deeper experience and an unfathomable mine of treasure where everything remains to be understood – so unlike our knowing age where all is dissected, reduced and pinned down. It is the saints and angels, John says, who find God always new and increasingly amazing. So we wait in anticipation of something outside our mind set, something other and something infinitely loving – what’s not to like!
Sudden or cumulative trauma rends and wounds the sense of self so part of the healing is both the acknowledgement of what has happened and the re-experiencing of what was so unbearable at the time. Taking hold of the anxiety rather than the anxiety taking hold of oneself can be achieved through this process and so some sense of understanding is gained. If we can understand what was so terrifying and destructive we gain control of it and also a sense of the meaning of what took place. The fear of breakdown is understood as referring back to the breakdown in the continuity of being that has already happened, and with this meaning and understanding it can be possible to feel compassion for oneself. In this way the trauma is not banished or repressed and it is not disassociated from, but rather it becomes something that has happened and now has been experienced, and so the power and fear of the unknown is diminished. It remains a part of oneself but not such a dominant part but it takes its place in the story of one’s life.
Unfortunately sometimes there are traumas that seem to defy meaning no matter how hard one tries and collective trauma of war and sadism will leave deep scars and may never be given adequate reparation. Is it here that the figure of Christ can represent something beyond the psychological and the known language of therapeutic healing? For Jesus Christ – the shepherd in the shadow of death – takes us into the spaces between suffering, death and resurrection into a spiritual experience that defies the logical and rational and that is beyond theories and our ability to translate experiences into words and so give meaning. This is the place of peace that we cannot possibly understand. And it is deeply personal.
Ann Belford Ulanov says that we need a name to hold onto as ‘you can’t talk to an abstraction, but you can talk to Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed…’ At this point the healing is coming from another source because the Spirit is pressing us towards abundant life, towards finding the lost sheep or the lost coin – the part of us that was lost and that is now found.
Fundamentally the healing of trauma is the story of creation and recreation and also of integration and reintegration. It requires the aggressive and destructive energies to be harnessed towards wholeness…and it requires hope that sometimes and someday things might be different.
This is the feeling expressed in this poem:
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
– by Sheenagh Pugh
The last post ended with the healing of the self so that we become the person that we are intended to be, and it is interesting to see that Carl Jung understood this process which he described as becoming all of our unique self individuation. He sees it as the most insistent of instincts. Jung believed that we needed to use our energy – our aggressive and destructive energies to be part of healing. He thought that the psyche had a quality of ruthlessness in forcing us again and again to heal trauma. In that way the repeating and the flashbacks are not so much a negative thing but rather a reminder of the urgency to repair and resurrect. The psyche urges us to wholeness and to break through the blockage and the stuck places to move us on to fullness and love.
The energy that comes from aggression can be so usefully harnessed and the destructive and aggressive energies can give us stamina and resilience. There is a rage at what happened either to us or to another or to a community, but the urgency is, as Winnicott expressed it, to allow ourselves to experience the trauma whether cumulative or one-off but this time with the adequacy and ability to bear it, and to describe it and so understand it. This may involve more suffering but the idea is to avoid denial or acting-out. Ann Belford Ulanov describes how symptoms hold the riddle to the whole trauma and the aggression is needed both to face the trauma but also to unlock all the defences we have built against experiencing it.
It seems both difficult and also perhaps liberating to see that the repeating and the flashbacks are a form of grace and a desire for healing. Ulanov quotes from her husband’s work that if we can see that this grace comes from the Spirit who is itself liberating us then repetition of trauma symptoms is a form of communication from God. ‘The destructiveness that was conscripted to protect us against anticipated abandonment is freed up to plow the very earth of us, aerating our entrenched structures, engineering us to face again the unbearable and respond in new ways.’
Once there is a measure of consciousness there is a measure of healing and insight into seeing how the parts are related to the whole psyche, and how we managed to deal with the trauma. This may have been through repression or dissociation with all the associated underlying threats of things breaking through to overwhelm us once again. Another way may have been through projection onto others, then it is possible to begin to see what one has done to oneself and how, Anna Freud called it identification with the aggressor, we have re-inflicted on ourselves the original violations.
Once some light has been thrown on to these dynamics it is possible – also by using the same aggressive energies – to reclaim the injured part and to recognise and empathise with it…in other words to turn again (to repent) and to love this exiled and neglected part of us. This then is the beginning of salvation; this then is the beginning of healing.
Trauma can be sudden or cumulative experiences but the healing of trauma is always cumulative. The healing can only begin once the trauma has been acknowledged. D. W. Winnicott writing about the fear of death as a significant symptom links it back to a death that happened but was not experienced. One of his examples is what he calls phenomenal death …this was not death as a fact but a death that happened in the psyche. He finds this in the people who spend their lives wondering whether to find a solution through suicide – that is sending the body to death in a way that has already taken place in the psyche. This then he sees as a gesture of despair rather than the answer.
The fear of the death that has already happened but was too much to be experienced, leaves the person with a fear of annihilation.
Winnicott explains it in this way: ‘It is like this, that a pattern developed in which the continuity of being was interrupted by the patient’s infantile reactions to impingement, these being environmental factors that were allowed to impinge by failures of the facilitating environment.’ What he means is that the mothering person intruded overly and inappropriately to force their attention and needs on the infant rather than responding to the baby’s. This would then be a cumulative experience of trauma starting in the very earliest of days.
The difficulty with the healing of trauma whether through psychotherapy or spiritual direction and spiritual practices is that it is not a straightforward process because there are always flashbacks, and/or repeats of what happened – what Freud called the compulsion to repeat what happened, and this compulsion is occurring at largely an unconscious level. Freud advocated a remembering instead of a repeating and so bringing what happened into conscious awareness.
As Christians one might say it is a bringing into the light out of the dark shadows. The hymn ‘Nox et tenebrae’ found in the Benedictine Office has this as the first verse:
Darkness of night and evil things,
Confusions of the world, give way,
Light enters and the day is here;
Disperse, for Christ the Lord has come.
The repeating and the flashbacks seem to take us back to the original shattering of the self, but as Ann Belford Ulanov explains: ‘the nature of healing is layer by layer, dream by dream, giving in to dependence on an other again and again, a sliver of insight and then another. We put down layers of a new way of being…’ She also suggests we forge links back to the self we once were before the trauma, but that can be especially difficult if the trauma (in the way that Winnicott describes) happened almost from the point of birth onward. I wonder instead whether it can become over time an awakening to and resurrection of the self that we were intended to be – the self that creator God intends us to be.