“You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” – Eckhart Tolle
Last time, we explained how trauma impacts the way our Parts are created. We learned about Amy’s story; she was only five years old when she started caretaking for her father who struggled with alcoholism. In this article, we will examine how different Parts of you can be in direct conflict with each other and how this impacts your well-being. We will revisit Amy’s story to understand how her Parts, that were originally meant to protect her, eventually created distress in her inner world.
More on Trauma and the Brain:
The brain is an adaptive organ and it is constantly processing information for you. It works much like a filing cabinet, extracting information from your typical day-to-day activities and automatically filing it away into the appropriate folders.
When something scary or traumatic happens, your brain will be sure to file away the details of what happened along with the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that were triggered by the traumatic event (Gonzalez & Mosquera, 2012). Unfortunately, during a traumatic event, the brain is unsure how to make sense of the new information from the experience, and is unable to organize everything in a healthy way.
It is only natural to want to forget scary memories and if we are really young we do not have the ability to understand and organize a scary event. Because of this, instead of understanding the information and filing it away in an organized manner, your brain does the equivalent of throwing the papers into a messy pile with a sticky note on top labeled, “file later.”
Those papers to be “filed later” start to become a problem. Every time you are reminded of the traumatic event – through a memory flash, thought, feeling or sensation – your brain adds another paper to the “file later” pile. The pile continues to grow over time and it becomes distressing for the brain to not be able to organize it.
The content of this pile holds highly intense emotional information. Looking at just one piece of paper would likely feel like you’ve traveled “back there” to the time when it happened. The brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s happening now and what’s happening in a memory; this can set off its alarm system even if you are currently safe. Because of this, looking at that pile of paper can feel unsafe and overwhelming. This is where we come in.
A child may become overly pleasing and compliant in order to secure some form of safety.
Each Part Holds Its Own Pile of Disturbing Information:
Parts begin to form during the critical time of childhood and adolescence, therefore, our interactions with parents and caregivers play a central role in their development. If a parent is frightening, unpredictable, or emotionally or physically unavailable, over time this creates an experience for the child that is very intense and difficult to deal with. It becomes almost impossible for the child’s brain to file the experiences in an organized way.
In order to cope with his or her experiences, this child will begin to develop and test out different strategies. For instance, one Part of the child will hold the belief that, “My father is unsafe because he hits me.” This Part will likely feel insecure, scared, constantly on high alert, and ready to fight or flee at any moment.
Another Part of the child figures out how to bond with the parent that hurts them. Children need their parents to survive. The parent-child relationship is crucial for brain development and how the child learns to relate to the rest of the world (Gonzalez & Mosquera, 2012). A traumatized child might realize that if they follow all the rules and only do as they are told, their father will not hit them and they can feel some sense of love from him. This child becomes overly pleasing and compliant in order to secure some form of safety.
How do you imagine these two Parts would get along internally? One Part sees the parent as someone who is unpredictable and even dangerous. The other Part loves the parent deeply and would do anything for the relationship. It is common for the Part that holds the memory of the damage, pain, and confusion to reject, and even belittle, the Part that needs the parent. This Part that feels scared and on alert can view the Part that loves the parent as weak and a danger to your survival.
This sort of internal conflict creates an unbearable emotional burden (Gonzalez & Mosquera, 2012). The conflict manifests in different ways for each child. Some children internalize the inner turmoil and experience anxiety, have nightmares, withdraw from other people, and/or have physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches. Others will externalize their disturbance by doing things like showing physical aggression, disobeying rules, and/or bullying.
“I can’t tell anyone about this because it would hurt my dad.”
Amy’s Inner Conflict:
In our last article, we shared about the Part of Amy that needed to have a relationship with her father. Since the time she was a little girl, Amy felt responsible for her father and would do anything to be with him. This is no task for a child to begin with, but especially for Amy because her father would drink heavily every day. This Part of her held the attachment to her dad and valued their bond over her own physical safety. Let’s call her “Little Amy.”
Little Amy had her own set of thoughts, behaviors, and coping responses. She had thoughts like, “I love my dad,” “I have to keep my father safe,” and “I can’t tell anyone about this because it would hurt my dad.” Little Amy had a way of “going somewhere else” in her mind when things got scary. She knew how to tune out, and this ability helped to keep Amy sane in such an unpredictable environment, like when her father drove her to a friend’s house while drunk.
At the same time, another Part of Amy was developing – the part that held the trauma – who we will call “Siren.” Siren would not let Amy forget about her father’s alarming behavior, his inability to be emotionally present, and the pressure he put on Amy to keep him alive. Siren had thoughts like, “I hate my father,” “Tell mom!” and, “You have to get out.” When Siren was activated, she would yell at her dad, have uncontrollable crying outbursts, and leave his house abruptly. Siren had a way of getting Amy out of dangerous situations when it was really bad. For Amy, it was this Part of her who decided she had to stop seeing him midway through high school.
Here you can see how both Little Amy and Siren were important in helping Amy get through her childhood experiences, however, they did so in very different ways. As Siren became stronger, she could not fathom why Little Amy would stay with her father and endure such pain. However, when Amy’s father died shortly after she stopped visiting, the Little Amy could not forgive Siren for keeping her away from her father. This resulted in immense guilt for Amy, and Amy felt completely lost.
Amy’s Journey to Inner-peace:
As an adult, the only way Amy knew how to manage the guilt and shame her Parts were experiencing was by drinking alcohol herself. Unhealthy coping behaviors, such as excessive drinking, are a way for our Parts to avoid the impact of negative experiences. It can be an effective way to protect oneself from thinking, feeling, or experiencing painful memories through positive anticipation (Gonzalez & Mosquera, 2012).
Amy knew that drinking as a way to cope and was out of alignment with the person she wanted to be. In therapy, using the techniques of Part Identification and Integration, Amy was finally able to put the battle between Little Amy and Siren to rest. By looking at herself through the lens of empathy and care, she came to a new understanding about her Parts and how each Part’s feelings were valid given all that she had experienced. For the first time in her life, she realized that she had done what she needed to do in order to survive. Making peace between her conflicting Parts could now allow Amy to thrive.
We have given you a lot of information on how trauma impacts the Parts of us. Next time, we will focus on identifying and growing the Parts of you that are positive and helpful.
Gonzalez, A., & Mosquera, D. (2012). EMDR and dissocation: The progressive approach. AI.
Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures. Guilford Publications.