HomeReflectionsWhat is trauma and how to heal from it?

What is trauma and how to heal from it?

what is trauma

There are many misconceptions about trauma, a very common one being what constitutes a traumatic experience. When people hear the word “trauma”, they often associate it with life events that are objectively dangerous and violent, such as rape and war situations. While it is true that such events will most certainly cause a trauma, it is important to widen our definition to include any overwhelming event that was perceived as life-threatening at the time of its occurrence.

The origin of trauma

Traumas can be caused by any overwhelming event that was perceived as life-threatening at the time of its occurrence.

What makes an experience overwhelming is not just the event in itself (it might actually appear trivial in retrospect), but our limited ability to adequately respond to the event, given the strength, skills, knowledge, and alternatives we had at the time. Consequently, many traumas happen when we are very young and dependent on our parents for survival. Babies and toddlers are not yet able to take care of their own needs or to regulate their emotions. This is why at that age, we constantly end up in situations that feel overwhelming and are, thus, potentially traumatic.

For example, a baby might feel abandoned if the mother takes a bit more time than usual to respond to its cries. Obviously, from the baby’s perspective, being abandoned means certain death. This is an important aspect to keep in mind: behind most traumas, there is the fear of death (and its correlate, the instinctive urge to stay alive). The other important aspect is the subjectivity of the experience. For a trauma to be created, it is enough that the baby believes it is being abandoned by its mother. This is because the mind doesn’t distinguish between real and imagined threats.

The Internal Family Systems perspective

Here is how the mind works, according to the IFS model. As I wrote above, every time we have an overwhelming experience perceived as life-threatening, a trauma is created. In that moment, a part of our psyche splinters off and becomes an autonomous “mini-me”, carrying the memory and emotional burden of that experience. At the same time, some other parts of our mind take up the role of Protector and become assigned to the trauma-carrying part.

Protectors have two main functions: make us believe the trauma never happened, and make sure that something similar never happens again. They hide away the part carrying the trauma, turning it into an Exile. Protectors are like very diligent and effective prison guards, preventing contact in both directions: we can’t access our Exiles, and Exiles can’t get in touch with us. This is why Exiles are so miserable and desperate. Not only are they carrying a heavy traumatic burden, but on top of that, they’re being punished for doing so.

protector and exile
Metaphor for the relationship between a Protector and his Exile.

Exiles are also frozen in time (the time when the overwhelming experience happened), and are usually holding on to incorrect beliefs about us and the world. These beliefs are the direct consequence of the initial traumatic experience, and often appear absurd or exaggerated from the perspective of our adult self. However, they always make absolute sense and are completely logical from the Exile’s perspective. Typical beliefs would be, for example, that we are not good enough, that we are not lovable, that we deserve what is happening to us, that people (or certain categories of people) can’t be trusted, that the world is a dangerous place, or that we need to display a certain behaviour in order to survive.

Locked up behind their thick and soundproof prison door, Exiles are constantly crying for help and trying to come out, but no one is hearing them or opening the door. Quite the opposite: the louder they get and the more they push against the door, the more the Protectors are pushing back. This inner battle often causes physical symptoms we’re all familiar with, such as lower back pain, tension in the neck and shoulders, or headaches.

If you have these symptoms on a regular basis, try to observe them and see what makes them come and go. You’ll probably notice a pattern, which you can use to learn more about your Exiles and Protectors, and the types of situations that trigger them.

If, for some reason, Protectors feel they’re about to get overpowered by an Exile, they will resort to even more radical measures, such as knocking us out (classic reactions are falling asleep, getting drunk, or dissociating), or causing us to self-harm (because the self-inflicted pain temporarily masks the Exile’s pain). These countermeasures might be occasional, or, if no better solution is found, turn into something repetitive and systematic. This is when people develop chronic conditions such as bulimia or alcoholism, or any other form of addiction. As a side note, here is something I’ve learned from observing myself and other people: addictions are always Protectors’ attempt at keeping Exiles under control.

Addictions are always Protectors’ attempt at keeping Exiles under control.

In most cases, when people seek professional help, it is because of what their Protectors do. Indeed, in their attempt at being helpful and keeping us safe, Protectors often cause a lot of unwanted, annoying, or even debilitating symptoms that we would love to get rid of. However, it is important to realise that whatever Protectors do (or make us do), they always mean well. Therefore, rather than getting mad at them and trying to make them stop, we should develop compassion and gratitude towards them. The best way to achieve that is to activate our heart centre and be in Self (you can read more about that in this article). Remember, Protectors do what they do because they believe that the outcome would be even worse without their intervention.

Once we have developed a positive attitude towards our Protectors, the only way to (gently and permanently) change what they’re doing is to give them a good reason to stop. Achieving that is at the same time straightforward and tricky: we need to make them redundant by rescuing the Exiles they’re guarding. Once “their” Exile is out of jail, the Protectors’ services are no longer needed, and they will happily transform and use their skills for something else. While this is self-evident from an IFS perspective, it is an often-neglected aspect of trauma work.

How to heal from trauma

Many therapy methods (both mainstream and alternative) don’t help you to really heal your traumas, because they only give you tools to bury your Exiles a bit further or to force your Protectors to change. In both cases, you will have less of the disruptive and annoying symptoms that made you seek help in the first place. While this will give you temporary relief and allow you to function a bit better, it won’t lead to a permanent change or improvement, because you are still carrying the same traumas as before.

To heal from trauma, you need to create the right conditions to access, rescue, and reintegrate your Exiles.

Of course, many people are not ready to face their traumas, and are therefore happy with such band-aid solutions. However, if you’re serious about healing trauma, you need to create the right conditions to access, rescue, and reintegrate your Exiles. Since the Protectors prohibit access to your Exiles, you need to find ways to convince your Protectors that it’s OK to step aside and open the door. Once they grant you access and you’re finally able to meet the Exile, the Exile will usually share its story with you and release the emotional charge related to its trauma.

Typically, after the unburdening is done, you can take the Exile by the hand, lead it out of the prison cell, and reunite it with the other parts of your internal family, which is always a very beautiful and emotional moment. If the rescue operation was successful, it will be the last time you’ll encounter the emotions and beliefs carried by that specific Exile, because the traumatic burden will be out of your system, once and for all. This is how you safely and successfully heal trauma, one Exile at a time.

I offer guidance and support to people who want to really heal their traumas. If you’re interested in working with me, don’t hesitate to contact me.