Earlier this week I discussed my desires to work with PTSD and trauma. Today I want to discuss a slightly lofty, but palpably real concern regarding traumatic events. Though I will discuss aspects of trauma, I will be avoiding all details. I will be getting into what identity is, what it involves, and what is lost when we are harmed. I will close with a brief on how certain types of therapy can help us regain those lost pieces and become more than we previously were.
WHAT IS IDENTITY?
This is a much argued and non-universal concept. To be fair, even the greatest of philosophers were never able to answer the question to the satisfaction of 100% of the human race. Plato proposed that we have identity because we have spirit. Descartes took this a step further and tried to offer a scientific proof of the difference between mind and body. Early works by Plutarch and his paradox of the Ship of Theseus led to deep questions such as, who a person is, and does a person remain that same person if perhaps we transferred their brain to a new body. The questions of identity remain philosophical. What some refer to as the identity, and what I will use in this post, is made up of the important factors that make up who you are. Some factors are internal, such as being fiercely independent and caring, while some are external, such as skin color and hair type. Some factors are self-discovered, such as deeply personalized emotional traits, while some are environmental and guided, such as a work ethic and respect offered by parents or family.
Today, I will stick to discussing the internal identity. These are the things that make you who and what you are. Some people are strong-willed, and some are gentle and soothing. Some people loving and compassionate, and some are distant and inter-personally creative. The great argument is how our personality and identity are derived; nature versus nurture. It is that particular argument that leads this post.
IDENTITY FORMATION AND INTERRUPTION
When people are harmed by traumatic experiences, especially children in formative years, there is a pause in mental processing. While the body continues to grow and mature, the mind, spirit, and maturity, freeze in light of overwhelmingly negative events. You can see this on occasion in adults who were abused as children. Despite having grown intellectually and chronologically, sometimes the same growth does not occur with respect to maturity. To put it simply, when we are harmed greatly, we pause. In a healthy environment free of harm, and with an inquisitive mind, people discover who they are over a lifetime. They find deeply ingrained beliefs about themselves and bring light to a ‘whole person.’ This is the mark of healthy formation. First, we work out our operational and functional world. Then, we follow by seeking deeper wisdom about ourselves.
However, when we are deeply hurt, and we are given pause to our processes, one of two potential events occur. Some people, being traumatized, will bury the pain in a passive or active manner. When this happens, their lives pause and effort is made towards maintaining the barrier between that moment and our remaining lives. Survivors in this state describe living in a very tense and vague world where things can easily, and immediately, ignite. On the other hand, some become so emotionally entangled in the moment that they become obsessed with every detail and the time building up to the trauma. Survivors in this state often describe a dark and all-consuming void. Either outcome can lead to a loss of identity. In a way, the abuser ‘took’ a piece of the survivor’s identity with them. Sometimes, society and self-disgust can replace that fractured and missing piece with a false identity.
It is quite often the case than men and women who were sexually abused or assaulted find themselves to be ‘ugly’ and unable to understand why anyone would want their company. When we lose these vital pieces of who we are, we begin a perilous emotional journey of recovery. In the face of identity loss, we as survivors sometimes wander aimlessly and are unable to refocus. This is where a professional or a team can aid our efforts.
HOW TO RECOVER AND WHAT IS ON THE OTHER SIDE
Fortunately, with trained professionals, a holistic effort, and in some cases, psychiatric medications, survivors can heal and cope. The process of identity discovery and reintegration starts with a genuine desire to regain your life. Depending on the specific school of psychology involved, the therapist and client can take different approaches towards this goal. In some schools of existential thought, identity is an exceptionally important aspect that can be revived by looking deeply at the inevitability such as freedom, death, and meaninglessness. Despite the morbid sound of the campaign, existentialism is geared towards finding positivity by facing the depths. Analytic psychology, which is my school, aims to look at the layers of the psyche, including the energies and ‘masks’ that clients wear daily, as signs of what lies in the person and their identity. The ultimate process involves individuation, or repackaging of the pieces that make up the genuine ‘you.’ Arguably to a lesser extent, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help identify the negative, internal talk and help clients twist these dialogues into positive speech.
Whatever the approach, identity does not have to remain lost. Through hard work, guidance, and an accepting and prepared mind, survivors can regain their sense of self and find power they were not aware existed. Upon completion of identity work, survivors discover that old factors become coupled with new and unseen strengths that form a whole person that is more courageous and durable then they previously imagined. If you are a survivor and wish to seek help, please seek professional mental health resources. If you are at a loss on how to search, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Be as well as you can be….and if that is not enough…
Be well through help and guidance