Trauma affects intense people differently.
People who are more emotionally sensitive have stronger reactions to adverse events in their lives. Their receptivity means they are deeply affected by toxic family dynamics, abuse, and manipulations. Their sensitivity to existential issues and intolerance of injustice mean they are susceptible to depression. Their need for emotional feedback from a young age means they are heavily wounded by emotional neglect.
Things that do not affect their siblings or peers hurt them deeply.
Unfortunately, few mental health professionals understand emotional sensitivity and chronic childhood trauma. People are likely to be over-diagnosed and medicated rather than getting the understanding they truly need.
We have previously outlined some of the family dynamics intense and sensitive children tend to face. In this article, we discuss the mechanism of structural dissociation, which is a common reaction to complex trauma that affects many of us for life.
Chronic childhood trauma is different from PTSD related to a single incident. Under normal circumstances, we would want to avoid our abuser and never go back to them. When we were a child, however, we had to stay. We had few options, and even when our parents hurt us, we could not leave. So instead of physically exiting, we psychologically withdrew.
If we knew our parents could not tolerate disobedience, or that we would be punished for creating conflicts, it made sense for us to swallow the pain rather than risk confronting them. We dared not be critical of the authority whose goodwill was essential to our survival.
This may result in the psychodynamic process of "turning against oneself," where we redirect anger and resentment for others toward ourselves. Our righteous anger became internalized guilt and shame that were unbearable, so we had to create a "separate self" in our mind to survive the invasion.
Chronically traumatized individuals can suffer from a form of dissociation known as structural dissociation, which is a lack of cohesion and integration of personality. Structural dissociation causes the inability to regulate emotions and a chronic feeling of emptiness within. These are also parts of what constitutes borderline personality disorder.
Having structural dissociation means we are split into different parts, each with a different personality, feelings, and behavior. As a result, we feel completely different from moment to moment. One moment we feel strong and happy, the next moment we feel empty and numb, then we feel rage. It might all happen suddenly without an apparent trigger.
Despite carrying painful memories, people with complex trauma still have to find a way to get on with their normal lives. In order to do that, we develop a "normal" facade—this is our "normal self." This part of us feels little, remembers little, hardly feels any hunger, desires, or sadness, and is an efficient worker. While on the surface we seem to function fine, the "traumatized self" may from time to time burst through, causing uncontrollable and apparently unexplainable behaviors.
We carry our traumatized self everywhere we go.
Our traumatized part sees danger, criticisms, and abandonment everywhere, and has a hard time receiving love.
It is frozen in time, so when our traumatized part takes over, we feel like a child in an adult body.
It is always on guard, always waiting to be harmed or betrayed.
It controls our body and emotions in ways we are not always conscious of. For instance, when we grind our teeth at night, or when we burst into an uncontrollable rage.
We Start Avoiding Life
In structural dissociation, we live a life designed to avoid our traumatic memories.
Our symptoms get worse as more and more sounds, people, and places remind us of the trauma. We become sensitized to all triggers in the world. For instance, someone not looking into our eyes reminds us of the times our parents dismissed us. Perhaps crowded places remind us of the time we were feeling suffocated and helpless as a child. Or, any sudden and loud noise reminds us of the violence at home when we were little.
Many of us also begin to avoid intimacy. Because we have been hurt in the past, we don’t ever want to risk that again. However, the healthy part of us yearns for love and connection and wants to reach out. These two parts then evoke each other in a vicious cycle, resulting in what on the surface looks like confusing push-pull behavior.
As we craft our life desperately trying to avoid our past, our lives become increasingly restricted. In the end, we build a wall against both the outer and our inner life and ended up feeling empty and numb.
Signs of Structural Dissociation
Here are some of the signs of structural dissociations that happen as a result of chronic childhood trauma:
Even we know that something happened, it does not feel real. We lose parts of the memories and so our story of the past does not make sense.
Feeling Empty and Numb
We feel internally vacant and are not able to connect to ourselves and anyone around us. In dissociation, we shift our consciousness outside of our bodies. It is as though we watch ourselves acting in life without being in it. Being a detached observer, we also lose touch with our instinct, spontaneity, and the ability to feel connected with others.
We detach from our physical bodies. We become like a working machine that does not know when it is tired, hungry, thirsty, lonely, or sad. Because of this, we also neglect self-care. Eventually, we get burned out at work and in life.
Lack of Motivation and Stamina
The healthy part of us might be motivated and positive when we set a goal, but when the traumatized parts take over, we lose the mental ability to take action. Because our various parts have different motives, psychology, and mental capacity, we may find ourselves procrastinating even if it is something we genuinely want to do.
Counter-Dependency and Isolation
We develop self-sufficient armor and feel unable to trust or be dependent on anyone. We put up a wall to avoid being known by others.
Our inner critic voice always started out as a protective mechanism: It believes that by criticizing us harshly, it will prevent us from venturing out for love and opportunity, so we will not be let down. This is, in the long run, a dysfunctional strategy and keeps us stuck.
The Wise, Healthy Part
Apart from the Apparently Normal Part and the Traumatized Part, there is another essential part of us: Our Wise Part. No matter how traumatized we are, our innate driving force towards wholeness and health does not cease completely.
When we are being self-critical, our wise part whispers in our ears telling us we are worthy of love.
It absorbs wisdom from loved ones, teachers, and resources, then acts as our inner guiding light.
Even when chaos surrounds our wise part, it continues to nudge us forward. It is the part of us that helps us to go to therapy, reach out to friends, and to seek out support. It is the part of us that reads poetry, makes a painting and sings a song to express our unspeakable pain. It is the part of us that honors our authenticity and tell us to be honest with our feelings.
In our work towards integration, we must find and reinforce this part of us.
Healing is to bring all elements of our selves together. After years of feeling empty, we can no longer tolerate a disintegrated life.
Resilience is being able to tell the past from the present, so we are not just reliving the trauma again and again.
It can be daunting when we first begin to drop the protective armor we have worn for years. As we gently open our hearts, we may feel tender, sensitive, and wary of others. We might feel as though we will get hurt again.
However, there is nothing to fear—we are merely going home.
Beyond trauma, it is in our power to take the next step.
Step by step, we can re-open as a human and re-emerge as a soul.
Your life is waiting for you.
This is a revised post of a longer, original version here.