Holistic Depth Psychotherapy - Nicole Ann Ditz, MA CMHC

The Invisible Faces of Complex Trauma

"One's own self is well hidden from one's own self; of all mines of treasure, One's own is the last to be dug up."
~ Friedrich Nietzsche



"I felt very still and very empty,
the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle
of the surrounding hullabaloo
...And I sit here without identity;

~ Sylvia Plath


There was a time long ago as a junior league therapist when I wanted to believe that I could dig down through all those variegated masks until I discovered a client's real self: a miniature homunculus crouching in the person's interior basement, waiting to be set free. I know now, after long years of foraging in the murky process of self-ing, that I was missing a much more complicated picture. Gone is my former comforting idea of simply debriding or peeling back the thick calluses and dead tissue of masks and defensive strategies in order to reach pink living derma with well defined features and a fully formed, though concealed, countenance.

So now I engage in thoughtful experiments in the naturalistic psychological field and ask many questions: "What helps people develop an experiential sense of an authentic self: one that wears a 'face' that feels connected, warm, blood filled, alive and operated smoothly from the inside out? What lies underneath these endless versions of defensive post traumatic facades in adults? Is there half a face waiting to be fleshed out? Is there nothing more than an amorphous heap? Or is there a quiet potentiality protected underneath one thousand masks waiting for richly nutritive and compassionate other(s) to help it form its own unique features?"

Years of excellent research in the fields of child and developmental psychology, trauma, and neurobiology have revealed not only varying levels of disorganization in survivors' brains, central nervous, neuroendocrine and attachment systems but also significant disruptions in the formation of a robust sense of self. A sturdy sense of self is not a preexisting genetic given like eye color or temperament but rather is a pliable social construct dependent on the catalysts of early primary relationships to begin to take form and develop complex patterns of thinking, understanding, believing, and behaving.

Our psychological sense of self, healthy or pathological, takes shape first and foremost through the ways significant others viewed us and treated us as children. Perceptions of self are encoded into memory structures via internalizing the prototypic patterns of caretakers' style of engaging with us. If we were related to as insignificant, for instance, we will likely experience ourselves as unworthy and unconsciously construct an array of protective masquerades at a young age. In this instance, a person may reveal an overly agreeable and submissive face toward others or, conversely, may shield herself with a closed and reserved face. These become long term characterological strategies of ingratiating oneself and indirectly soliciting support or camouflaging vulnerability, minimizing further hurt, shame, and disappointment. There are endless variations of defensive facades adopted early to survive within dysfunctional families.

Detached face

Kate Parker

"At what point in our lives do we stop blurring? When do we become crisp individuals? What must we do in order to end these fuzzy identities- to clarify just who it is we really are?"

~ Doug Coupland

Complex childhood trauma impacts the formation of self in such profound ways because it occurs during the developmental period when an individual's nascent self is most tender, malleable and defenseless. Stressful and neglectful familial environments can severely derail the process of self-ing as energy is displaced over long periods of time into building psychological moats and twisted masks rather than genuine self substance. Childhood is the most critical normative developmental period for the formation of self as it is for so many other developmental tasks. Complex trauma involves the warping of the most significant and powerful influencer and facilitator of self shaping, the parent-child primary attachment relationship.

Pathology in self-development is conceptualized in contemporary psychological theory as disturbances or deficits in self-structure. This entails a maladaptive self-organization lacking integration, stability, a capacity for emotional self-regulation and accurate self-awareness. Dissociative gaps in psychological construction are referred to clinically with a variety of names: black holes, lacuna, internal voids, unformulated experiences and breaches in the Self. My clients have described these self-deficits subjectively as feeling "numb, lost, empty, defective, blank, or even, dead." They often experience these psychic holes as flooded with free floating anxiety, confusion, shame, loneliness, annihilation terror, self-hatred as well as primitively painful and inchoate sensations.

In the case of complex developmental trauma, it can be imagined that characterological adaptations and defenses have been grafted into a survivor's psycho-biological 'skin' at a very young age, often beginning with the birth of consciousness itself. These early deformations of identity have so many years to take root, spread and merge throughout the interior landscape that they can appear seamless with the original psychological blueprint of the person. It is as though the line between false and real self substrate is erased, leaving the individual a scrambled montage of masks and native features. Suffocated deep inside, seeds of authentic Self are, to varying degrees, developmentally stalled, buried under a 'person' who may feel in moments like living mannequin: disembodied, insubstantial, mechanical, detached from the warm bedrock of her/his own true Being.

Nicole Ann Ditz, MA CMHC, Holistic Depth Psychotherapist

Voice Mail: (401) 573-6396  Email: info@holisticdepththerapy.com

Serving Rhode Island and Southeastern Connecticut