The Value of Reflection

“In the absence of reflection, history often repeats itself and parents are vulnerable to passing on to their children unhealthy patterns from the past. Understanding our lives can free us from the otherwise predictable situation in which we recreate the damage to our children that was done to us in our own childhoods….By making sense of our lives we can deepen a capacity for self-understanding and bring coherence to our emotional experience, our views of the world, and our interactions with our children.” ~ Dr. Dan Siegel, Parenting from the Inside-Out.

Last week I commented about some of my readings in Freud, who developed the theory of the repetition compulsion which states that, absent significant efforts to overcome the programming established in infancy and toddlerhood, adults will compulsively repeat their trauma patterns throughout their lives. All the empirical evidence points to the need for substantial corrective and healing intervention over many years, for in addition to the obvious problems they create in interpersonal relationships, childhood trauma and neglect affect the brain in ways that can actually be seen and measured through brain imaging and psychological testing.

I’ve been working on a certificate in Jungian Studies through courses taught by several of the world’s most prominent psychiatrists, neurobiologists, and other experts on trauma. Thus far I’ve learned that there’s a large body of research that indicates beyond doubt that child abuse and neglect cause sobering and significant long-term effects. The only saving grace, they say, is the possibility of reflection–having a healthy human being who cares for you, reflects your dysfunctional belief systems and behaviors to you, and trains you in new and healthy ones. In short, what New Testament Christians refer to as “accountability” and what Buddhists refer to as living “in community” are much more than outdated means of healing: they are the way to healing. There is, as far as I’ve been able to learn in 20 years of study and experience, no other path to healing other than healing in community with others who are healthier and to whom we can be accountable.

I’m halfway through the coursework, and one of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that chronic emotional neglect and verbal cruelty have far worse long-term effects than physical abuse, unless the physical abuse included repeated sexual molestation. For example, Bessel van der Kolk states that being told, “I wish you hadn’t been born, you’re a burden, your birth was a mistake,” and similar messages will have a far more deleterious effects in general than childhood physical abuse. Being treated as if you’re invisible, worth less than others, and being scapegoated as the “bad child” or “unwanted child” all have long-term effects that are as significant as those seen in children who were physically abused. “Words hurt” is true.

With regard to sexual abuse, brain structure and behavioral research has established that the form of sexual abuse matters less than other factors. It’s a common but mistaken idea that penetration is ‘worse’ than having been fondled or having had a parent or expose himself or engage in other violations of a child’s trust. One study at the University of Massachusetts found that as many as 90 percent of individuals who had been sexually abused or molested as children developed subsequent drug or alcohol addiction. The traumatized brain, damaged in its ability to regulate itself, sought any means of self-medication available. Those who did not self-medicate somatisized their traumas, with over one-third developing significant physical illness, chronic disease, or other bodily manifestations of trauma.  Many psychiatrists believe that only pharmacological intervention can change brain chemistry and help people regulate themselves, insisting that no one can change brain chemistry or cure brain damage by reason alone.

Shock reactions, fear, and shame throughout childhood inhibit brain development in areas that process perceptions of reality, the ability to relate to others, and the ability to reason. Individuals who lived much of their childhoods in fear and anxiety increasingly lose the ability to reason once aroused. Van der Kolk states that when the fight-flight reaction is aroused in neglect or abuse survivors, they need to be hugged and calmed before they can even begin to reason or perceive reality as it is. The idea of a hug as a prescription for healing makes me smile.

Over many years of living and working with traumatized people, I’ve seen that reality is malleable for the traumatized. They see what they need to see–it’s not a matter of choice, but of biological necessity. Healing is possible, but unlikely unless ongoing relationship with healers and a healthy community is established and continued in. I have known this from a religious perspective for many years, because the Bible is clear in its directives that Christians live with and love one another in mutually cooperative and accountable ways; Buddhists, too, teach the necessity of true community if one hopes to become whole. To hear this taught by psychiatrists, neurologists, and psychologists as well is to have come full circle as a person of faith. As Saint James wrote, “faith that is seen is not faith.” It’s science.

17 responses

  1. Eve,

    Thanks, you’re too kind. I wish I could say I did it on purpose.

    Repairing or altering (to repair or rework) the brain makes sense in this case and I have to agree with Monica that mediation is probably the best way of creating “awareness” in the Zen/Buddhist sense of the word—the watcher or witness. I believe it was Ken Wilber that said awareness itself is transformative. If you can get through the “sales pitch” there is some interesting science/theory in the physiology of the brain and altering it at http://www.centerpointe.com/ .

    Freud? Hee hee, must have really missed my point on that one. Trying to parse it badly into Jungian terms, one cannot the primary identity attachment to the ego-based identity AND be differentiated. The ego identity is a construct, an illusion, though a compelling one, and as such, will never be Whole—the Self contains the ego identity, the ego-identity does not contain the Self. The ego identity’s inherent wound is that it is not whole, not it, not the whole enchilada, and that wound cannot be healed, though it can be transcended. Don’t know if that explains it any better or just made things worse.

    ““All roads lead to Mordor.” This gave me a pang straight to the heart. Yes. Yes, they do, if one chooses to go on those roads.” Eve, when you get to a certain point in life, honestly, what other roads are there worth going down? Oh, I like to think that I live bravely, but I, my ego, have none of the courage of Frodo. If my ego had its way, it would simply FEDEX the ring to Mt. Doom so it could stay home safe feeling smugly good about itself and how wise and learned it was. Not much of a story there, the whole epic reduced to a confirmation of delivery receipt.

    Anyway, I unwittingly stumbled upon the perfect symbol for ya for the last couple of posts—I’m actually surprised that no one has thought of it before and will have to get someone to do me a proper picture. I imagine it will make you laugh.

    Compulsion

    It’s destruction.
    No, it’s creation.
    No…and yes,
    the third voice— mine—
    it’s Maya, illusion.
    How can you tell?
    The shoes…
    Shiva’s wearing red shoes.

    • “Eve, when you get to a certain point in life, honestly, what other roads are there worth going down? Oh, I like to think that I live bravely, but I, my ego, have none of the courage of Frodo. If my ego had its way, it would simply FEDEX the ring to Mt. Doom …”

      HAHAHA! I laughed out loud over this. Thank you for a mental image that will stay with me for a long time. :oD

      I will say this in defense of our egos, though: We do need them. Ego has its drivers license, pays the rent, and (for the most part) can behave itself in company. I used to malign mine because of the tight reign she kept on the rest of the cast (including my own Frodo), but… yes… that was really amusing. I’ll be saying “I’m just going to FEDEX that” from now on, and I’ll think of you when I say it.

    • And oh good lord, Shiva in red shoes!!!

      I’m having a good laugh here. I hadn’t even gotten to that part when the FedEx line made me laugh.

      Thank you so much; it’s a gloomy, foggy, damp day here and I’ve been in winter forever. I need a good laugh.

  2. Hmmm. I tend to think of mental/emotional illness and healing in extremely simple terms.

    The illness is finding such profound difficulty with everyday life that the self, and how to manage, are the person’s main focal points.

    Healing can be said to be in progress when the person empathizes with others’ pain, and is preoccupied with humankind instead of the self exclusively — when there is something that can be safely and gladly given to others, without compromising the person’s functioning or integrity.

    I know very few mentally/emotionally “ill” people who genuinely care about The World or Others. It seems to me that the capacity to “feel” outside the self increases as healing begins and progresses.

    I am intrigued as well by the “vogue” mental illnesses, and have frequently wondered how useful it is that I, for example, have been diagnosed with DID. On the one hand, I remember the twenty years I spent in therapy that did not have a specific protocol for that diagnosis, and how completely useless it was — and I look at the amazing progress I’ve made in two and a half years with a therapist who uses the protocol for that diagnosis. On the other hand, this is also the first therapist I’ve had whose intelligence and personal integrity met my internal standards for any kind of trustworthiness.

    So the question remains — is it the protocol that is useful, or the fact that she’s a good therapist for me, or a bit of both? Would I have progressed to this degree with any therapist who didn’t condemn me as “dangerous” (as one past therapist did) upon hearing about the odd ways my brain has managed itself ever since I was little? Is part of my progress contingent upon my having diagnosed myself with personality fragmenting long ago, without knowing anything about DID, and so I was not “diagnosed” so much as “recognized,” and therefore there was no loss of my personal power or autonomy to the diagnosis?

    And perhaps more importantly … in the end, does it matter what language is used to describe the same thing? There is nobody with mental or emotional illness who is not trying to reconnect with and release the trauma of the wounded self. That’s what the process is. If I were clinically depressed, the language around it might be different, but the process would be the same … find it, name it, look at it, wrestle with it, submit to it, let it go. My way involves personified affect states whom I do not perceive to be part of my own brain. Someone else’s way involves delving into vast and self-alienating mood swings. Another person’s way is to face the meaning of compulsive behaviors. But we are all looking for the same thing, aren’t we? The defining wound, the closed-over festering boil in the soul? And a good guide can heal that, no matter what it’s being called … depression or addiction or multiple personalities or demonic possession or what have you.

    The damage, I think, comes when the diagnosis becomes the point, rather than the process becoming the point. One of the most interesting protocols for DID and trauma clients is called the Process Healing Method, which is used with clients who have easy access to their subconscious. Unlike the DID treatments in vogue, this method cares absolutely nothing for the structure of the system, or who does what in the brain, or even how it happened. It works directly with finding and surfacing the defining wounds, without paying much attention to how they are managed by the client. It requires a phenomenal client-therapist bond for this method to work (it doesn’t work with me, for example, and would not work with most highly attachment-avoidant clients) but the point of it is interesting … that it focuses on the “what’s there,” not the “what it looks like.”

    I appear to have divagated pretty spectacularly from the beginning of this comment, but oh well. I’m allowed. There are at least ten of me in here, you know. 🙂

    • David, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I always learn something from you. With regard to your therapist and her protocols, I’d say “both,” because good protocols in the hands of jerks are next to worthless, and no protocol in the hands of the warmly well-intentioned are… probably more effective but even then, something like the skilled carpenter who has no tools.

      You wrote, “And perhaps more importantly … in the end, does it matter what language is used to describe the same thing? There is nobody with mental or emotional illness who is not trying to reconnect with and release the trauma of the wounded self.” I especially liked these questions, even if rhetorical; I’d say that as long as we understand what is meant, the language doesn’t matter. And yes, this is the goal of the kinds of healing we discuss here: “to reconnect with and release the trauma of the wounded self.” I would add that it is also to go beyond the trauma and become able to consciously live the life of the whole Self. This is a lifelong task even for those who are less traumatized.

    • Oh, David, and about this:
      “It works directly with finding and surfacing the defining wounds, without paying much attention to how they are managed by the client. It requires a phenomenal client-therapist bond for this method to work (it doesn’t work with me, for example, and would not work with most highly attachment-avoidant clients) but the point of it is interesting … that it focuses on the “what’s there,” not the “what it looks like.”

      Now this really interests me, because it sounds so Jungian/depth-oriented. What is it called? Where can I learn more about it? I’m full of curiosity about what is done, how it works, and why it works. Without knowing more than you’ve posted here, I’ll say that we’ve learned some techniques for working with the unconscious (techniques I have yet to have time to write about here, but intend to), and they seem to me to be useful for just about anyone who wants to take the plunge into more robust relations with the personal unconscious… except for people who are already there and have or are at risk for psychosis.

      • Hi, Eve —

        You can order the practitioner’s book directly from Amazon — it’s called “A Theory and Treatment of Your Personality” by Garry Flint. He developed the technique in response to a need to be able to work quickly and deeply with people suffering from very dangerous forms of mind programming — specifically cult survivors, and certain veterans of the US military. My therapist has been personally trained by Flint in the protocol, but it is also very clearly explained in the book, as far as I can tell … I read part of it, but the protocol was so utterly wrong for my particular internal organization that I was prevented from reading the material by, uh, forgetting how to read. I realize that sounds entirely nuts, but it is literally true.

        However, my therapist has used the technique successfully with many of her DID clients; part of the success or failure of it depends upon the client’s trust level, so it tends to work best with people who have a young or vulnerable part easily “forward” which will attach deeply to the therapist as a parental figure.

        The most basic part of the technique is the client entering into a self-induced (and therefore entirely consensual) light hypnosis, which permits the unconscious to communicate directly (but coconsciously) by finger signals agreed upon in the protocol, or some other signal that the person’s own subconscious devises.

        • Thanks! I ordered the book a short time ago. From what I read in the descriptions and what you’ve shared, I suspect there will be some similarities between what he’s doing and the self-hypnotic and active imagination techniques we’ve learned.

          This excites me, for just days ago I was mulling over a problem a friend of mine is having. His father has DID and I don’t get the impression that the therapist is helping much. In fact, matters are going from bad to worse and the family’s functioning is suffering. I’ve been pondering the possibility of Jungian help, for Jungians have a different take on DID; but I never know just how intrusive to be with my enthusiasm. What we learn in theory ought to be practically applicable. Jung and Freud both were most interested in effective application of their theories so that their patients were actually helped or ‘cured.’ Theory wasn’t enough. So as fun as theory is, I try to think in terms of ‘cure’ or problem solving, adapting, etc. rather than mere ideas.

          I thank you for this.

          • You’re most welcome. You are also always welcome to email me privately if having a functional DID-er with a good therapist to bounce questions off of would be helpful (good God, that was a crappy sentence!). I’m comparatively sane, not “stuck” in the diagnosis, and fairly well-educated about the various protocols that therapists try, and why they do/don’t work depending on the client … and also the difference between useful destabilization vs. the wrong therapy.

    • Thanks kindly. There’s some excellent reading in there, not to mention opportunity to run down numerous rabbit trails. And I do like rabbit trails. ;o)

  3. I recall, a year or so ago, having a “debate” with you on the meaning of the word “heal” and this post has made me recall it. What is meant by “heal” here: to return, via forward progress/motion (not regression) to the (pristine?) state or condition prior to the wounding/trauma; to learn to functionally live within the wounded state, mitigating its most deleterious effects and living as a functional and socially acceptable neurotic (crutches); or something else? Are we talking about healing the self or about healing wounds to the self?

    The paradox, as I have come to view from my own journey, is that the self’s (egoic-identity, persona) inherent and original state is wounded and therefore cannot be healed. Wounds and traumas to the self can be healed, which will relieve specific suffering, but the state that your return to is the self’s inherently wounded state.

    In the greater sense, I see healing as a process, not a state, which ironically, if successfully seen to the, sometimes bitter, end, lead to ones death—all roads lead to Mordor—or, as Robert Johnson puts it, the transference of the seat of consciousness from the ego to the Self. The process of healing awakens the awareness of who you could be, but more specifically, who you are not but have believed you are. It is a road that, understandably, many choose not to take.

    And maybe most ironically, the even greater paradox, once you get far enough along, is realizing that you were never truly wounded in the first place, regardless of what you have lived through or believed, for the Self is imminent at all times, though rarely realized. It would be comparable I think, to “the kingdom of God is at hand,”; always present, always available but rarely realized. And it seems that most would rather suffer (damn that Quaker/Puritan work ethic) to reach that realization rather simply touch and become it—think Christ’s journey as opposed to Elijah/Elisha’s.
    Coincidentally, the NYT’s has an article out that touches, quite interestingly, on your topic. It is far too long to quote at any length, though I’ve included just a tad, with link, below. Who would have thought that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle would apply to the psychology?
    The Americanization of Mental Illness
    In any given era, those who minister to the mentally ill — doctors or shamans or priests — inadvertently help to select which symptoms will be recognized as legitimate. Because the troubled mind has been influenced by healers of diverse religious and scientific persuasions, the forms of madness from one place and time often look remarkably different from the forms of madness in another.
    That is until recently.
    For more than a generation now, we in the West have aggressively spread our modern knowledge of mental illness around the world. We have done this in the name of science, believing that our approaches reveal the biological basis of psychic suffering and dispel prescientific myths and harmful stigma. There is now good evidence to suggest that in the process of teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we’ve been exporting our Western “symptom repertoire” as well. That is, we’ve been changing not only the treatments but also the expression of mental illness in other cultures. Indeed, a handful of mental-health disorders — depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia among them — now appear to be spreading across cultures with the speed of contagious diseases. These symptom clusters are becoming the lingua franca of human suffering, replacing indigenous forms of mental illness.
    …What is being missed, Lee and others have suggested, is a deep understanding of how the expectations and beliefs of the sufferer shape their suffering.

    …In addition, Western-trained traumatologists often rush in where war or natural disasters strike to deliver “psychological first aid,” bringing with them their assumptions about how the mind becomes broken by horrible events and how it is best healed.

    Some philosophers and psychiatrists have suggested that we are investing our great wealth in researching and treating mental illness — medicalizing ever larger swaths of human experience — because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/magazine/10psyche-t.html?em=&pagewanted=all

    • Librarian, in this (shorthand) context, the word “heal” means the literal repair of brain structure as evidenced by imaging and subsequent behavior. This is in the language of psychiatrists, but a clinical psychoneurologist might say (I’m guessing based on what I’ve learned so far) that deleterious effects are minimized or corrected and new pathways built; therefore there would be ‘healing’ going both directions.

      The paradox you see is, interestingly enough, what we spent a weekend discussing at my Jung seminar. Freud believed just as you do; that the self is wounded from the start. Jung had a more optimistic perspective, believing we start and finish as whole persons–although the ‘finish’ is spiritual and not experienced in this mortal world. I’m on the more hopeful end, myself.

      “All roads lead to Mordor.” This gave me a pang straight to the heart. Yes. Yes, they do, if one chooses to go on those roads. How well I know that, and how very much exhausted and weary I’ve felt over the past few years, going and going and going along those roads. UGH. Going back is not an option, but sometimes going forward seems an impossibility too. It often feels like a crab-like gait I have.

      I’m going to go watch Monica’s video and read your article here… but the synchronicity of your sharing this is wonderful, for we talked at length about the “psychiatric illness of the year” at our seminar. Every year or two, a different diagnosis comes into style and suddenly patients with that disease proliferate. Currently it’s DID; the one before that was bipolar disorder; the one before that was depression, anxiety disorder; in the 1960s it was schizophrenia or schizoid disorder; we have ADD and ADHD among children (and now bipolar among children). And it goes on and on and on. Why? “Because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering.”

      Thank you for your comments. As always, they provoke and inspire me to yet more thought.

  4. Agree with all you say here…I too have studied trauma quite extensively.

    I have learned in addition to community, spiritual practice especially meditation, which has been studied extensively, but I’m sure we could generalize and include deep prayer, changes the neuro-pathways of the brain and literally rewires it.

    This is the burgeoning science of neuroplasticity of the brain. It’s likely that it’s the neuroplasticity in action when one forms loving bonds in community too…the brain learns how to open pathways of love and trust and thus healing occurs…I know that drugs are by no means always necessary even in cases of mental distress in which people are deemed hopeless with labels of schizophrenia and bipolar etc. I know some of these folks who have recovered and the most remarkable stories involve an incredible loving therapist or extensive meditation…of course, as you might imagine, there are all sorts of ways to heal with combinations of these healing methods.

    I have a link to a documentary you might enjoy. In it both a Catholic nun is wired up and so are Buddhist monks.

    It’s called “Mystical Brain”

    http://www.nfb.ca/film/mystical_brain/

    • Monica, wow… thank you for this information. I’m going to watch the documentary but am also interested in any other information you have to offer about healing trauma. I’ve seen what works with my own eyes, and I know as well what is likely to fail and what’s likely to cause significant setbacks.

      From what you’ve learned, does the type of meditation make a difference? What sorts are most effective?

  5. “…when the fight-flight reaction is aroused in neglect or abuse survivors, they need to be hugged and calmed before they can even begin to reason or perceive reality as it is. The idea of a hug as a prescription for healing makes me smile.”

    This is good to know, not just for me but for my children and my patients. I used to ask my husband for hugs, a part of me knew what I needed. He used to hate hugging me. That hurt a lot, more than I realized at the time. Sometimes I need someone to hold me tight and contain what’s ripping through my body and mind. I’m not crazy.

    Let the hugging begin.

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