Honouring what you did to Survive

When the client is ready to challenge their avoidance and begin to look at their traumatic past, one of the first things they will need to come to grips with is the consequences of the trauma on their own behaviour. They need to be helped to understand the human response to imminent self-annihilation – that we will do whatever we have to do to survive.

Survivors of trauma need to understand that because they had almost no control over external circumstances (which is partly what made it traumatic) the only thing they could control was their own behaviour. Unless they were given help by people who understood the trauma, the survivors would have sought help from their own internal resources, which would have been minimal. Most self-survival strategies would have involved some form of escape, either physical, psychological or emotional, or a combination of these.

Forms of escape are:

Dissociating (psychological escape)

Denying (rationalizing, minimizing, forgetting)

splitting (good/bad daddy or mummy, splitting one’s consciousness)

controlling behaviour (by creating chaos, being a control-freak, spacing out, manipulating others)

self-destructiveness (self harm, suicide, addictions, acting out, eating disorders, stealing, workaholism)

safety at any price (avoiding intimacy, being a good girl/boy, closing off from the world, taking refuge in dissociative religious or spiritual practices)

Most of these forms of escape are also forms of avoidance.

It is likely that some of these behaviours have become automatic and habitual, and it can be a great relief to have them brought into present-day consciousness, so the survivor begins to have a choice about challenging the behaviour/s. The survivor needs to be helped to understand that what began as a strategy that gave them some control in chaotic circumstances is now controlling them and preventing them from taking charge of their lives and making healthy choices.

Therapeutic strategies : therapy exercises in this area need to help make automatic and dysfunctional patterns of behaviour visible. At the same time the therapist needs to frame the growing self awareness in a context of honouring the great creativity and inventiveness of the individual who came up with these survival strategies. Constantly reassuring them how clever that little child was (or adult), how creative. But now it’s time to let the strategies go, they are no longer working and no longer needed.

Because there are so many sub-categories of survival behaviours, arts exercises might need to allow for several bubbles of imagery to be processed on the same page (if doing painting/drawing). That will depend on the story of the particular client. It can also be helpful to encourage a linking of the dysfunctional behaviour with imagery of the helpless and disempowered child, or adult, to foster a sense of compassion towards self.



Back to “Essential Issues”

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