1. Heal Your Past (1)

By M.K. Styllinski

“I’ve always thought that we are what we remember, and the less we
remember, the less we are.”

— Carlos Ruiz Zafon, author

—————-

“The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the
power to transform and resurrect.”

— author and creator of somatic experiencing, Peter A. Levine


Reading time: 25 mins

The above photo illustrates well the relationship to healing and the mind-body complex. We often place useless band-aids over the wall we have erected within ourselves and the promise of a more fulfilling life. Trauma, hurt and an array of psychic wounds are bricked up and plastered over so that we might pretend all is well and struggle on regardless. After all, it can be frightening to address deep-seated issues we know are holding us back. It can be even more disruptive to acknowledge we need help or that we need to go beyond just surviving. (Assuming that is, that such a wall hasn’t blocked out any awareness that there is a problem).

The triumph of the spirit over adversity resonates to everyone because we admire and relate to the person who has faced seemingly insurmountable odds and returned from the Dark Night Of the Soul to offer healing redemption for all. They become beacons of guidance that lights the way on our own path so that we may learn from and thereby transcend the trials and tribulations which emerge in our own lives. When someone is not only victorious but shows how we can be the same, they become an example.

One of the very first things we must do to obtain a more fulfilling and meaningful life is to heal the past. It is our accmululation of knowledge which allows us to “anticipate, protect and know ourselves.” [1] The will to survive and those survival mechanisms – our in-built means of protection against the threat of death – can then be placed in proper context so that they do not overwhelm us; where our views of the world are not violated through a lack of knowledge and adaptation. We can reduce the propensity for trauma in this trauma-inducing world. Without understanding this we cannot move ahead. Without seeing challenges as opportunities to grow and develop a creative complexity that enriches life. We must simplify our lives so that greater complexity can eventually arrive when we have the character to handle it. The “bliss” of chosen ignorance numbs the pain but stagnates potential.

The nature of trauma is a complex one. It is not just children who suffered from abuse or grew up in dysfunctional families that take on post-traumatic stress and the continuance of dissociation in adult life. There are many incidences in the lives of young children which induce trauma purely due to the fact that they are here, existing in this beautiful and horror-laden material world. Parents are often entirely clueless that their children have even suffered trauma that has overwhelmed any capacity to cope and laid down potential problems for the future. What’s more, infants and children do not have the mental or emotional maturity to mak sense of or communicate what has happened to them. At a certain age, they must stew in the juices of trauma and survive as best they can.

Take these imaginary examples:

Jenny is four-years-old. She has had an operation the evening before to remove her tonsils and has woken up in a strange room all alone. She vaguely remembers something about an operation and her parents reassuring faces that it would all be okay. But it’s dark and an odd blue glow envelops the room. Alien noises come from the large window to her right and a low hum to her left. It smells like the bathroom, and when she’d cut her knee her mother would put a plaster on it. She is scared and her throat is very, VERY painful. Such pain is entirely new to her and she feels a rising panic. Why is she alone? Where are Mummy and Daddy? Her heart rate rises. She hears voices outside and sees a yellow-orange glow spilling through the bottom of the door. She doesn’t recognise the people. Why is he alone in a strange room? Why isn’t the light on? Shadows leap and twist and turn in the corners. Her heart beats faster still. She tries to move but she can’t. The blankets and sheets are so tight and he feels so weak. Tears begin to stream from the corner of her eyes and he starts to sweat. Maybe he was naughty too many times and didn’t pay attention to what Mummy said. Maybe they decided to leave her here? She would be a good girl in future…She would be good…If only they would come back…She tries to cry out but only soft gurgle escapes.

After twenty minutes Jenny is beside herself soaked in sweat and salty tears and the pain-killers administered by the nurse on duty have worn off. It is only when the nurse arrives to check on Jenny at the allocated time that she calls the parents in. Amidst the jolly, cheerful atmosphere of relief and the complete ignorance of this little girl’s hour and a half of emotional and physical trauma goes unrecognised. Her mother mentions that her daughter’s face and hair is damp, her eyes red and that she looks very hot. The nurse takes her temperature and finds it a little above normal. “No worries. It’s all good. I’ll top up her pain relief and she can go home before lunch.” The nurse adjusts the drip and strokes Jenny’s forehead. Her parents sit on either side of the bed holding her hands. The father stares at his daughter. “She seems very quiet. Are you sure she’s okay? Jenny? You all right sweetie? On her way out the nurse responds: “She’s bound to be a bit groggy and spaced out. She’ll be fine.” Jenny stares ahead, pale, glassy-eyed, unresponsive … and traumatised. Where once distant voices seemed reassuring they would now signify loneliness, pain and abandonment.

***

Six-year-old Jonah and his parents are visiting Auntie Janet and Uncle Bob on their dairy farm in the country. Since they live in the city this is a trip Jonah has been looking forward to. He loves the countryside and his Aunt and Uncle. He has been mucking around with his cousin Jimmy who is 12 years old – much older than him. Jonah had never felt very comfortable around Jimmy and he was always so rude to his parents. He didn’t understand why Jimmy was always so mean. Jimmy has been told by his parents to show Jonah around the farm, very much against his will. Reluctantly he takes his cousin along who follows behind struggling to keep up.

They look at the tractors and all the farm equipment and he shows Jonah the cows in the milking stands and a warehouse full of corn feed. Then Jimmy has an idea. “Want to see the hay-loft?”

“Sure!” Jonah replies, trying to appear enthusiastic and unafraid.

Jimmy takes him to an old barn and stands in front of a long ladder attached to the facing wall stretching up about 15 ft up into loft full of sweet-smelling hay. From Jonah’s perspective, the ladder might as well reach to mars.

“Get up there”. Jimmy suddenly barks.

Hmmm?

“Get up that ladder!”

“I — I can’t climb up there.”

Jimmy draws closer. “Chicken. You’re just a weak little chicken. Get up that ladder NOW! If you don’t I swear to God…” He shoves his fist in front of the little boy’s face. Jonah’s eyes widen. He is shocked at the anger from his cousin seemingly from nowhere. Why is he being like this? He hesitantly places his hands on the ladder and slowly begins to climb, his fear rising at each step. Jimmy is behind him. “Faster!” he bellows. By the time Jonah reaches half way his mouth is dry and he is shaking with fear. He has never felt this fear before, his whole body shivering like he is very, very cold. But he doesn’t want to show Jimmy he is so afraid. He can’t show his fear. When they reach the top. Jonah unbuttons his blue duffle coat and sits on a hay bale. Jimmy sits on another opposite and fixes him with a malevolent gaze. Jonah looks at the floor and tries to recover.  Jimmy produces a knife from his pocket and turns it over in his hands.

“I could kill you up here and no one would ever know.”

Jonah feels cold and stares at his cousin incredulously. Jimmy suddenly throws the knife just to one side of his leg and it sticks in the hay-bale with a “thunk”. Jonah feels the world shrinking, he can hear the blood rushing in his ears and his heart beating as if it would break through his rib-cage. Then he begins to feel nothing. He is numb, switched off and nothing matters anymore. He can hear Jimmy yabbering obscenities but he, Jonah has gone somewhere else. Soon, Jimmy forces him down the ladder again, and this time, though Jonah is afraid and he begins to sweat, something has broken inside and he doesn’t really care if he lives or dies. Jonah manages to tell his parents what happened. But it doesn’t come out right, sounding like a mischevious game. When he tells them about the knife however, their smiles disappear. They call for Jimmy but he is nowhere to be found. By the time they have reached home they have forgotten the incident. Jonah realises that his parents don’t consider it important enough to follow up, so Jonah convinces himself it didn’t mean anything. He would never mention it again. He goes to bed early that night feeling very tired and lays in a fetal position under the covers. The little boy doesn’t know that he is traumatised the effects of which will remain in his unconscious and locked into his body for decades.

***

Sarah is four-years-old and its her first time on the school mini-bus. She started kindergarten this morning and is on her way home. She has a backpack and an extra sandwich provided by her mother whom she knows that she will be there to pick her up. He mother told her it would be a very short trip and that she would have picked her up if she’d had a car but there was no other way around it. Sarah didn’t like to be away from her mother and would rather be playing with her toys in her comfy, cosy bedroom. Tears were just below the surface. She is surrounded by a lot of big, noisy school children and she is afraid. Everything is so loud! She looks out of the window and thinks about Alfie her dog and his big pink tongue. She wished he was here with her – he would make it all right. It isn’t long before the bus judders to a halt and everyone piles out in a mass of shouting, bustling bodies. Sarah remains in her seat not sure if she should follow. Her heart begins to thump and she wanders down to the driver and pulls on his sleeve.

Hey, sweet-pea, this your stop?

Sarah stares at him wide-eyed. She nods…”Mom’s coming to pick me up.”

Well, okay then, you better get out here. You don’t want to be going into town.”

She nods again, brushes the hair from her eyes and adjusts her Power Rangers backpack. Turning to the doors she gingerly clambers down the steps and onto the warm pavement. The mini-bus pulls away. The other children have departed and there is not a soul to be seen. Sarah find herself alone.

Her heart begins to thump faster and her breathes become shorter. Sarah wanders over to the bus shelter and waits. She sits on the long plastic seat her legs straight out in front of her. Her mother will be here soon and the the thought calms her down. She bobs her shiny shoes up and down as if in happy confirmation. Sarah absently looks at the occasional passer-by hoping that the person is her mom. Each time, it is a stranger and each time she is disappointed she becomes more agitated. After half an hour Sarah’s chin begins to wobble and she calls for her Mom. She breathes rapidly looking around wildly in the vain hope if spotting her mother. Everything looks so strange. She doesn’t recognise anything or anyone. She frowns and screws up her face and begins to cry punctuated by cries for Mom. After one hour Sarah is calling her mother’s name only occasionally and plaintively between wracking sobs. But still no one comes. The street is empty.

She goes and sits on the side of the pavement as the sun begins to go down in the hope that someone – anyone will take her to her home. She sees a man walk hurriedly past on the other side of the street and is trapped between desperate wish for him to help her and her equally desperate fear of a stranger. She looks at all the homes and doesn’t even consider knocking on someone’s door. Everything is alien and therefore threatening. After an hour and a half, Sarah has cried herself dry. She is fiddling with her backpack and tracing her finger around the stitching repeating the process again and again. She barely looks up when her mom arrives and gathers her up weeping with relief. Sarah has been collected at last but this little girl has transported her mind somewhere else. There are no tears and not much recognition. She is in a state of detachment and drowsy acceptance of her fate. She is traumatised. The next morning Sarah will appear much better but the trauma of that event will have etched its itself into her mind and body with repercussions for the future.

These examples illustrate how precarious and vulnerable children are to the everyday trials of life growing up. It is impossible to avoid negative events as they are simply a part of what makes us human. But what we can do is build our knowledge base so that these inevitable challenges do not define us in later life, where traumatic experiences lie undetected and unresolved, keeping us unnecessarily locked in within the confines of the traumatic memory that claimed us through no fault of our own.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)

Fully remembering our personal history can be a painful process – almost unbearable for some. But it must be done to bring us back to ourselves. As that wise old bird Hippocrates noted: “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” Depending on the level of repression/suppression of emotions, time may heal. But trauma and adversity may just “freeze” the system in complex ways. As co-director of the The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) Vincent Felitti MD notes: “Contrary to conventional belief, time does not heal all wounds, since humans convert traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life.” [2]

Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s book Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal is an excellent place to start in discovering how to evaluate ACE and to implement the solutions provided. The studies and their questionnaire scaling shows, with surprising accuracy, that the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences an individual had, predicted the amount of medical care that person would require as an adult:

  • Individuals who had faced 4 or more categories of ACEs were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer as individuals who hadn’t experienced childhood adversity.
  • For each ACE Score a woman had, her risk of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disease rose by 20 percent.
  • Someone with an ACE Score of 4 was 460 percent more likely to suffer from depression than someone with an ACE Score of 0.
  • An ACE Score greater than or equal to 6 shortened an individual’s lifespan by almost 20 years. [3]

So, why such dramatic results?

When the developing brain becomes chronically stressed it releases a hormone that shrinks the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for processing emotion and memory and managing stress. The higher an individual’s ACE Score, the less gray matter available in primary, operational areas of the brain. particularly the prefrontal cortex which governs decision-making and self-regulatory skills and the amygdala, or fear-processing center. (Self-regulation will become clear in the next post) This means children whose brains have changed by ACE the chance is high that as adults they have a very low threshold to even minor stress. If the childhood stress is chronic however, the neurochemicals flood the brain and nervous system to such a degree that equally chronic neuro-inflammation can occur which is difficult to assess from outside appearances. Yet, the brain can experience deleterious change that is difficult (though not impossible) to reverse.

The brain is not some disembodied organ separate from the immune and nervous systems, it has vital pathways which flow via the circulatory and lymphatic systems and deeply connected to the immune system. In the latter, liquid “lymph” carries toxins away from vital organs and immune cells from one part of the body to another which includes the brain. That means inflammatory chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol flood the body and set up commensurate reactions in the mind. Stress saturates the psycho-immunological state creating far-reaching implications for the mind-body disease connection.

When this state of toxic stress becomes normalised with the flight-or-flight condition a daily condition, the network of brain, endocrine, intestine and nervous systems are in a state of disregulation and effectively operating well below normal levels.  Such a condition can persist for decades after prolonged normalisation of toxic stress and/or trauma. It will be no surprise that difficulties relating to the social environment is often clear for people who have suffered, and continue to suffer in this way.

According to Donna Jackson Nakazawa, scientists have discovered that those who had “…experienced chronic childhood adversity showed weaker neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampusThe prefrontal-cortex-amygdala relationship plays an essential role in determining how emotionally reactive we’re likely to be to the things that happen to us in our day-to-day life, and how likely we are to perceive these events as stressful or dangerous.” [4]

So, you begin to get the picture. Brain connectivity and the complex psychoneuroimmunological systems of the body can be disrupted in childhood with enormous repercussions for adult life.  However, there is many an “opportunity” to be found in the rediscovery of ancient healing systems of the past now updated with the science of the 21st Century. It can mean the difference between many years or several months before you begin to live a more balanced life. A stark illustration of the pyramidal trajectory of effects which can result in denied or undiagnosed issues from ACE is shown below:

The ACE Pyramid represents the conceptual framework for the ACE Study, which has uncovered how adverse childhood experiences are strongly related to various risk factors disease throughout the lifespan, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [5]

“neurons that fire together wire together”

The limbic system or reptilian brain is known to be the seat of our emotions and behaviour. The new theory of limbic resonance complements the ACE study in that without loving listening, empathy and acceptance during childhood our brains will not develop properly and lead to developmentally stunted emotions. That means fragility in the face of stress. To rewire the neural structure of person who has suffered trauma or emotional neglect a support system with suitable mentors and exemplars of success in self-healing. The limbic system then becomes “resonant” toward those living examples and uses them as a model for re-structuring. When traumatised persons trust those around them it gives a much better chance for mirror neurons to do their work and build those fresh neural clusters.

***

Understanding our personal history is crucial but we must not fall into the trap of over-identitfication. That’s when we get locked into sensitive memories and experience a circularity of unresolved pain. The overriding objective should be to observe and thereby release negative elements of the past so that we can fully experience the present and our innate capacities; to release resources, strength, skills and resiliency. Instead of just running on empty we fill the present with new energy accessed through freeing up the past leading to genuine self-regulation. This process is the only way to build true freedom and autonomy, where the future and its potential chaos doesn’t throw us off course. We know that whatever comes our way: we can handle it.

Maybe you have untold fears rising up in formation to tell you can’t handle it for reasons which seem powered by logic and rational thought but which are, in reality, keeping you in a state of safe predictability.  After all, this sneering voice will tell you: you’re a worthless piece of shit who has never been of much use to anyone…Why start now? You’ll fail just like you’ve always failed…Or perhaps this voice is polarised to the other extreme and seeks to ensure your eternal avoidance by narrowing your conception of success to image, possessions and status; you are a superhuman dynamo and so charismatic and go-getting that you’ve never had the time to even grab a proper meal let alone look inside the engine of your looming burnout. Either way, both directions usually lead to a breakdown somewhere along the line.

The bigger the gap with reality the greater that eventual bridge needed to cross over into stability. And it is the process of building that bridge as you go that ultimately reveals a new internal landscape.

Quarantined Memories

I’ve known folks (myself included) that harboured pride and guilt over asking for help or revealing that there was part of one’s self – usually that small child that didn’t get what s/he needed when growing up – that needs attention. Perhaps you are one of those with a particular survival strategy that cannot allow yourself to receive assistance or feel guilty about initiating healing and self-care? What good are you to others if you can’t care for yourself and end up imploding under the pressures of unrecognised trauma or accumulated stress? What a waste of everyone’s time. Unless that is, such an implosion finally wakes you up to how deluded you have been, then all to the good. (Destiny usually has its way).

To reveal that one is vulnerable, that you are not superhuman or indeed, that you are not coping very well is not weakness. It is strength. To discover that there were very real deficits in love and attention in your childhood and to acknowledge the presence of those memories and the stunted emotional counterparts in your present personality is a vital process. Yes, this “inner child” deal is almost comical now with its new age associations and pop psychology baggage. However, there is truth to these clichés otherwise they wouldn’t be popularised and lampooned. (As we know, the other extreme is a narcissistic entitlement coupled with an infantile fragility, something which has been explored in previous posts). It is also very possible to exhibit symptoms of all the above.

Healing requires recognition of hurts and wounds – large and small – catalogued in the unconscious and often expressed in our body and perceptions. If you experienced emotional neglect and/or physical-sexual abuse as a child then there is no doubt that the child that you were at different stages in life will exist in your psyche as a split off fragment of consciousness. We might view it as quarantined memory locked into the very cells or your body and nervous system and existing in its own right with a precise function of protection.

Another way to see them would be as autonomous snapshots of the film of your life existing as continuous loops and imbued with the defence of the system as a whole. Since these are created through defence mechanisms designed to cope with those traumatic circumstances, then they are merely doing the job they were tasked to do at that time. Such trauma can be so severe that in order for the whole mind-body to survive a little piece of consciousness is sacrificed and cast adrift, housing the energy of that trauma within it – and crucially, a replica of your “I” in that moment.

But such a compartmentalisation of consciousness gradually starts to interfere with proper adult functioning because that “child” still thinks that it must protect you from that pattern of potential attack. And those perceived “attacks” can widen and become pathological since this quarantined memory and its “I” has no awareness of the larger mind-body reality of which it was once and is, a part. That’s when we need to speak to that child and help him or her to understand that things have moved on. In doing so, you release that aspect of yourself and perpetual loops within which s/he is imprisoned and integrate that energy into the present. Such a child still exists in its own right and with the right form of healing takes its place within a community of psychic complexes who cannot move forward unless all aspects of the psyche have been gathered in from their “prisons.” Which brings us to avoidance and denial that can possess the mind-body.

Proper psychotherapy and hypnotherapy that is up-to-date with the latest advances in trauma care and somatic-based healing can be extremely useful in releasing these packets of consciousness so that they integrated into the present personality.  Meantime, we have to be aware of an obstruction to growth in the first place.

Symbolic life and the Victim/Hero

Picture a car laden with baggage on the roof rack, stuffed into the boot, on the rear and passenger seats. Now, imagine that there is diesel in the fuel tank instead of petrol; that there isn’t enough oil, the battery is weak; the brake pads worn and some of the tyres have slow punctures. Occasionally you remember to pump up those tyres to keep them going just a bit longer, even though they have long since lost their tread. Perhaps the windscreen is filthy with no washer fluid to get rid of the debris; the rear-view mirror is hazy and you can’t see out of the back window not only due to the caked-on mud but the amount of baggage obscuring your view. Despite this, you continue to pick up more baggage at every service stop. You careen out of the service area as if your life depended on it and back onto the highway, flooring the accelerator and turning up the music, only vaguely aware of the landscape rushing by as you stare fixedly ahead. Everyone else is doing the same so why should you be any different? The bumper stickers shout individuality but merely show desperation. You look at your GPS and it says “calculating route.” It’s displayed that message for the last several thousand miles yet you have no idea where you are going anymore. But the information and support is out there to change direction.

Our mind-body complex is much like a car, which is probably why it occurs as a modern dream symbol of the personality and destiny. I’ve seen countless events and situations in my own life and that of others which were astounding in their symbolic translation from inner state to outer reality. They could even be seen as warnings and messages sourced from the inner turmoil or lack of attention of an individual/group and manifested in the material world. Such phenomena have been interpreted in ancient wisdom teachings and oral traditions for millennia, with narratives and images devised to act as a bridge to release unconscious dynamics, thereby self-collective awareness and psycho-spiritual adaptation to one’s inner and outer environment.

Learn how life can be highly symbolic of inner processes then you can start to access the mystery of consciousness and how it flows through matter and mind. The symbolic life has an intimate connection to our state of mind, our neurology, the hormones and neurotransmitters of the endocrine system – indeed all levels of our psychology, physiology, biology and what makes up the sensitive streams of our psycho-spiritual matrix. Our inner state will determine outer events. Which means if we are not paying attention to the psychic divisions within the unconscious they will seep out into daily life in often disruptive ways. (More on this in no.25 “Record Your Dreams”).

The unconscious is a vast adaptive storehouse of active and passive processes; a sophisticated complex of energies assigned roles and regulations which bury and build in equal measure. Some of these processes are rightly inaccessible for reasons of efficiency rather than purely Freudian repression. The mind/body has to economise for optimal functioning including some higher order psychological processes. It is a non-conscious, selected, evolutionary adaptation to our environment over millennia. We can’t expect instant access to all and everything should that even be possible. It’s a finely tuned evolutionary machine at the biological level. It is both an interface and enabler of higher order thinking. The vast hinterlands of the unconscious mind is highly adaptive however.

When you change at a fundamental level then the unconscious has a vital role to play both in terms of hindering that advance (it’s threatening) and releasing one’s psychic hostages for evolutionary goals (negotiation/integration) But we must embody and activate the change in order for the unconscious to fall into line and adapt – thus assist us in that process. The unconscious learns faster and better than our conscious minds and since it will interpret information that is outside conscious awareness and does a pretty good job on the whole. But if it has become saturated with past trauma, stress and incursions from life’s hurts and apparent disasters then it will adapt to that which offers optimum functioning, even if that information is seriously faulty. Which is where the conflict between interpreting objective reality and the desire to feel happy and contented is always raging. The transformation of emotion, feelings and thoughts will aid in re-establishing the proper role of our unconscious as both machine operator, intuitive navigator, archivist and protector.

It makes sense therefore, to not only look within but to pay extreme attention to what happens outside our inner state. This deductive method offers insights regarding impressions we give others, our behaviour and our reactions as well as the symbolism we can glean from the material world. Too much introspection is never a good idea. A parallel process of discovery is essential, then we will be in a better position to get past some of the more trenchant defence mechanisms and convert energy into the light of awareness so that we might address that which impedes our highest aspirations. We can then begin to build a constructive personal narrative that embodies the archetype of the hero. This is where the conscious self works in tandem with the unconscious self.

The storing of painful memories can protect us from recalling the events of trauma and stress which could paralyse us. Going back to the metaphor of the car: it’s only a matter of time before we literally and metaphorically fall asleep at the wheel as a natural consequence of falling asleep to mental and emotional reality. Our defence mechanisms eventually corrode the means of transport and accumulate the rust of disease and inflexibility. The vehicle of the personality can only go so far before it breaks down. Before that occurs, perhaps you’ll drive off the road; slam into a wall; run over pedestrians or involve others in a multiple pile up due to a lack of attention regarding your own issues. Driving half a ton of metal at 100 m/ph is only dangerous when our lack of attention becomes habitual from all kinds of internal pressures and “combustions” begin to make themselves known. These personality deformations and are caused by social conditioning, muscle tension sourced from psychological tension and the distortion of our perceptions.

Unconscious suffering is always asking us to make a choice which we might simplify into two responses:

1) To be a permanent victim and entrench dysfunction as one’s intrinsic identity; where the opportunities for learning are inverted and used against the mind and body. Suffering is seen as wholly unjustified to the extent that is without cause or purpose, where no opportunity for betterment can be envisaged. The quest to understand, comprehend and move towards greater freedom of mind and body is rejected in favour of an overidentification with the negative condition and victimhood, often to the point of emotional manipulation as a means obtaining emotional and material currency. The latter expression is due to the choice to erode will and self-belief in favour of dependency and external sources of energy. Ignorance is chosen over self-knowledge. The development of resilience is never allowed to grow. This is contractile, entropic and self-serving by using victimhood as an unconscious strategy for daily living. Meaning, purpose and happiness is prevented since there is not enough energy devoted to self-growth and therefore the will needed to overcome diversity. Sadly, in such a feedback loop support and advice is often rejected thereby increasing the likelihood of further ostricisation.

2) To be a Hero/Heroine which chooses the road away from victimhood and its associated trauma and stress by recognising the opportunities for growth inherent in the situation and striving to transcend the obstacles and challenges they produce. Suffering is seen as a means to understand, comprehend and move towards greater freedom of mind and body. Knowledge is chosen over ignorance. The development of resilience and strength of character is a product of the friction produced by meeting challenges and the development of constructive strategies despite inevitable failures. Eventually, elevated confidence and a positive self-concept derives from these successes despite and ultimately because of past trauma and adversity. This is expansive, creative and serves others, by example. The latter motivation comes to characterise and enliven meaning and purpose: to help others overcome similar challenges or work to ensure that no one experiences the same horrors that individual was forced to undergo. Wisdom of experience is the outcome of suffering.

That is not to say that when we experience tragedy, loss, abuse, accidents and disease we aren’t victims, which is especially true for infants and children who are highly vulnerable. Nor does it mean that our survival strategies weren’t correct to kick in at that time. The key point is to see when a mentality of perpetual victiimisation has become the lens through which we see ourselves and the world, ironically reinforcing the negative states of disequilibrium. We might ask ourselves do we want the bad things we have experienced to define us?

These differentiations are similar to the recognition of two self-concepts – the self guided by higher principles (Hero/warrior) and the ego-self (victim/predator) who wishes to stay in the land of the habitual; the conditioned behaviour that has biology, instinct and gratification as its driving forces. The latter will have some pretty sophisticated ways of extracting the needed energy to fill that lack.

Of course, it’s easy to write about such things removed from each individual’s plight. There is no judgement on those who choose permanent and unconscious victimhood as a means to survive. Life is suffering and boy, it can get extraordinarily dark. Yet, these principles hold true – there is always a way forward. The alternative is to embrace chaos of a personal abyss which is only too happy to gobble you up and leave nothing but bones for the price of stagnation and transcient comfort. And yes, that is the final equation.

How we engage with misfortune determines the net result. It may take many years before the penny drops and a person gets angry enough to change his or her situation away from stagnation and pain. But human beings are immensely adaptable and full of enormous reserves of courage. Perhaps many of us haven’t suffered quite enough to push themselves toward that threshold, or they have come to see their suffering as who they are. Some are capable of making that effort. Others, perhaps too damaged or without sufficient support simply cannot make the jump, yet the choice is always there in the face of apparent hopelessness and despair. The more severe the life obstacle the sweeter the eventual, self-empowered release. Which brings us to the theory of positive disintegration. What if all the mental anguish and psychological imbalance do indeed signal change and transformation? Would that be a reason for a different kind of support that harked back to the sacred rituals of the ancients who guided their youth through such transitions to greater states of awareness?

Positive Disintegration

Sounds like an oxymoron right? Maybe not…

Why is it that some people can cope with adversity and stress and others seem to fall apart? Moreover, why do we continue to assume that expressions of mental illness or tragic events cannot be thresholds for constructive transformation? Some people see adversity as an opportunity for personal growth while others succumb to the negative states such pain initially (and naturally) induces.

The role of mental illness and neuroses as an integral part of a conscious transformation to a higher level of personality development is increasingly understood by modern pioneers in progressive psychiatry and psychology. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabroski was one such person. His 1967 book entitled Personality-Shaping Through Positive Disintegration contributed to a resurgence in the understanding of trauma, mental illness, disease and neuroses and their value as an prelude to positive change. Dabrowski believed that when a person consciously seeks to accelerate the growth of his personality it is highly probable that such a path often cannot be realised without manifesting  anxiety, depression, panic attacks and other forms of neuroses. (We are not talking about severe pathologies here such as suicide, extreme narcissism, borderline or psychopathy etc.).

Far from being something that is covered up with drugs and treated as negative in the orthodox sense, Dabrowski believed that these were symptoms of stages along the way to shaping, at minimum, a more balanced personality. The challenges that push us to the limit are part and parcel of birthing a new more adaptable and resilient personality so that it might serve a higher master – the best in ourselves. Growth means new energy and without a personality that “fits” the new self, we cannot meet the new criteria ready to be implemented. So, disintegration of the old must take place. Failure to adapt to our environment, is potentially as instructive and as important as eventual success. Indeed, it will define not only that success but the wisdom of experience. Partial or complete breakdown at some point along this cycle to betterment is not only inevitable for most of us, but necessary and natural.

Key to Dąbrowski’s theory of positive disintegration is the idea of an “overexcitability” of super-sensitivity that means certain crises are experienced much more strongly and a deeply personal way. In other words certain individuals reacted to trauma with soul-searching and introspection. This caused them to traverse what Dobrowski termed five levels of development that characterise positive disintegration. Innate sensitivity to truth or conscience is another way we might describe it, but this is the term that Dobrowski used so we’ll stick with it. These overexcitabilities appear within certain personalities as follows:

  1. Psychomotor Overexcitabilities
    Individuals with psychomotor overexcitabilities will likely have excess physical energy, talk more frequently and faster than others, tend towards impulsivity and competitiveness, and may turn to excessive work to deal with stress or other problems.
  2. Sensual Overexcitabilities
    These individuals have a heightened response to the senses and may feel an enhanced need to touch and/or be touched. They may overeat and indulge in many superficial relationships, but they will also likely have a wide range of experiences interacting with others due to an aversion to loneliness and enhanced need of attention from others.
  3. Imagination Overexcitabilities
    Those with imagination overexcitability have a tendency towards visualisation, and are likely inventive, highly imaginative, intuitive, and have a greater capacity for the use of imagery and metaphor. (In other words, they are able to access the internal symbolism and its relationship to external reality).
  4. Intellectual Overexcitabilities
    Intellectually overexcitable individuals are persistent and voracious learners with a capacity for intense concentration and theoretical thinking. They will likely ask many questions and have an affinity for logic, puzzles, and mysteries. 
  5. Emotional Overexcitabilities
    Those with emotional overexcitability will likely form strong attachments to people, places, and things. They may be highly inhibited, enthusiastic, and concerned about others, social justice, and their own sense of responsibility. Generally, these individuals are able to effectively feel and internalize the emotions of others. [6]

These individuals will have a greater potential for self-growth due to their analysis of their own lives and the world at large, in Dabrowski’s view, thus turn crises into meaningful experiences. Though these excitabilities are not enough on their own (innate skills, genetic predispositions, the will to self-express and adaptive experiences also feature) they play a major part in the stages of developmental growth and whether or not a person will not only survive this process but go on to constructive transformation.

Having looked at these centres of gravity/sensitivities or excitabilities, we also have three foundational influences that act as primary drivers for those five levels of disintegration:

  • Instinctual level – genetics, survival, hunger, sex etc
  • sociocultural level: – external influences from our social environment such as education, peer groups, family and day to day activities.
  • Intrinsic-extrinsic evaluation level: influences borne from a conscious choice concerning what we value and what we choose to incorporate into our lives.

Echoing Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs these influences will lead those with a high value toward personal and social conscience to five developmental levels of growth. Some individuals will travel through each level and arrive at a fully integrated personality and altruistic desire while others will remain fixed at any one level of disintegration for a variety reasons, be it a lack of motivation or insufficient support.

These are:

1.Primary Integration

Primitive level driven by the no. 1 instinctual level comprising basic, selfish desires and impulses typical of children.

2. Unilevel Disintegration

Social awareness and relationships driven by no. 2 social level. comparison to one’s peer group; discovery of the “other” and how one fits in within society.

3. Multilevel Disintegration

Driven by no.2 level of socialisation, personal awareness of no.3 re-focuses attention on society and one’s community taking that comparison and evaluation still further. Values, beliefs and a sense of one’s moral compass come under scrutiny which may produce  and existential crises and their negative reactions.

4. Directed Multilevel Disintegration

This questioning gives way to attempts at true independence and a congruent identity in relation to the above discoveries. This leads to goals and aims centered around a moral, altruistic values. Empathy and authenticity are the driving factors.

5. Secondary Integration

This level culminates in an active engagement with society based on the hard-won growth of the previous level and its inevitable crises caused by his own internal struggles and resistance from Official culture that is the antithesis of such psycho-spiritual integration. The primary goal is to contribute to the betterment of his community or the society at large. He is resilient, authentic and confident disbursing the wisdom attainted from the previous stages in practical ways. He is a true individual, separate and sovereign, but dedicated to the relief of suffering from those to whom he is connected. The form by which such contributions will take could be anything from charitable work, new economic initiatives, community-based art initiatives or anything that allows him to channel his new visions in service to others.

Dabrowski’s modality is merely a re-working of much of metaphysical or esoteric teaching within the field of psychology, but no less important. With this in mind, we must reiterate the fact that, odd though this may sound, there is nothing wrong with you, insofar as any disease is an opportunity to not only address inner imbalance manifesting through the mind and/or body but it may constructively transform you. This transformation allows us to confront the brokenness and suffering and follow the ancient path of the mythic hero who makes the choice to change himself alchemically and to turn his state of lead into irreducible gold; to travel into the shamanic concept of the underworld where demons and shadows of imprisoned emotions and addictions lie – to set them free consciously, from disintegration to integration, consolidation and synthesis.

Shamanic healing stretching back maybe thousands of years and the occult traditions of pre-history up to the present day warn us that initiatory process is like series of thresholds that is akin to dying. For instance, ancient metaphysical wisdom called “The Tradition” as explicated by Boris Mouravieff a student/teacher of esoteric Christianity also describes a form of “moral bankruptcy” as a prerequisite of true self-development, a prelude to a real sense of self and growth of the soul. Similarly, the metaphysician George I. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way schools had within them a necessary warning that to follow a path of total transformation from a purely mechanical man who is asleep and unaware, one must be prepared to “pay all…in advance”, such is the seriousness of this path. The first step is to become aware that our emotions must be healed in order to have any chance of further progress. Then we might be able to battle the dragon in ourselves and its lair of the unknown.

Everyone of us who elects to heal themselves becomes a living archetype of the wounded child or wounded healer seeking to integrate the scattered parts of his soul and thereby create a healthy personality or ego. It is in this context that an initial dis-integration, a breakdown, a psychosis, depression or physical disease may yet prove to be an archetypal redemption rich with possibilities of renewal and rebirth, exactly in line with the example of the crucified Christ. This was, at its most simplistic rendering a teaching that life is suffering…How are you going to deal with it now you’re in the pig-sty? Wallow in the mud and close your eyes and ears to the nature of life or embrace Truth of life as it is and work your way beyond daily “crucifixion” to total transformation?

If we are able to endure and persist then we essentially become shamans, alchemists or artists of healing at various degrees of intensity whose role it is to heal the community as a result of his own journey from darkness to light. Indeed, unless the knowledge and creativity gained from disintegration to integration is shared and disbursed to others then the redemptive circle cannot be closed. Although some of the great teachers reached a depth of self-awareness reached what the east calls “enlightenment”, ours is the same path at a more moderate or preparatory level. But make no mistake, it is the same process.

If we reap the benefits of our hard won metamorphosis for our own self-interest this decision inverts those gains toward the ego rather than the Higher self and soul which requires disbursement and application of wisdom to build on further cycles of change in the future – perhaps even when consciousness takes another incarnation to learn. Without this sharing, energy becomes stagnant rather than free-flowing. We might say that this is a precondition of anyone attempting genuine healing and self-development. This process is ultimately never just about one’s own journey but how it will define our destination(s) and what we will do with the knowledge we have accumulated.

Psychic tension must be generated for creative development. It is in this way that attempting to rid an indvidual of the symptoms of transformation – an urging of the soul to be more that one is and to dismantle the wall within – is to interrupt and intefere with a natural process thus causing sometimes irrepairable harm to the individual. It amounts to resistance and avoidance of what must be; an artificial obstruction from without. That is not to say support and understanding should not be available – it is essential. But the eradication of such neurotic illnesses misses the point and by doing so, makes sure the individual focuses on the negative aspect of these symptoms divorced from the long term view which indicates that these are painful but necessary stages in the growth process. (Of course, we have vast industries dedicated to doing just that, namely modern psychiatry and Big Pharma). With a fuller multidisciplinary comprehension of personality development we might see that such negative manifestations are temporary. With the right support they may be ameliorated over time, if we allow due adjustment to the process.

Very often states of sadness, dissatisfaction and anxiety occur at important developmental cycles such as the onset of infant independence, puberty, mid-life and beyond. These are natural thresholds offering natural tension and promise of new growth. In this way, guilt, shame, anger, dissociation, neuroses in many cases is the urging of a higher self to reddress the balance through disintegration. The key as to whether those symptoms remain temporary or become permanent depends on one’s level of knowledge and the diagnosis and orthodox influence you choose to undertake.

Mental illness can be seen as thwarted potential insofar as it is a temporary anomaly and psychneuroimmunological response to conflicting signals from the past to the present. Even a certain amount of chaos during periods of our life might actually tune up our immune system in the same way that self-growth tunes up the personality toward greater complexity and challenge. According to Dabrowski: “From the point of view of Positive Disintegration we can make a diagnosis of mental disease only on the basis of a multidimensional diagnosis of the nature of the disintegration. The diagnosis may eventually be validated by the eventual outcome.” [7]  And the outcome is determined through self-knowledge, self-education and integral support, the reactions to which will be tempered or strengthened by the quality of those connections within a group or wider community.

Again, how we react to these symptoms determines their longevity. If we over-identify, we run the danger of being possessed by them. If we seek self-initiated restorative modalities based on seeing the reality of who we are (warts and all) rather than running away from the value these neuroses are offering, then we likely shorten the period of disintegration in favour of integration and synthesis. In this sense, however, whether you have neuroses or anger issues, express insecurity or have a controlling nature, there is nothing “wrong” with you. Certainly nothing wrong to merit a label to which you must identify. It’s a personal signal for change; to understand the possible causes and their effects and to accept the challenge. How we react to our circumstances plays a huge part in the ultimate resolution.

Let’s hope a true “multidimensional diagnosis” will begin to build on orthodox medicine and palliative care very soon. People are crying out for it.

 


Notes

[1] p.52; Stout, Martha; The Myth of Sanity – Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness (2001) Published by Penguin books. Quoting Andrew MacFarlane and Giovanni de Girolamo from The Uinversity of Adelaide, Australia. The full quote is as follows: “Writing about the distribution and determinants of post-traumatic stress reactions in human populations, MacFarlane and Girolamo state that more than just frightening or painful traumatic situations are “events that violate our existing ways of making sense of our reactions, structuring our perceptions of other people’s behavior, and creating a framework for interacting with the world at large. In part, this is determined by our ability to anticipate, protect and know ourselves.”
[1] The effect of multiple adverse childhood experiences on health: a systematic review and meta-analysis By The Lancet, Volume 2, ISSUE 8, August 01, 2017.
[2] p15; Jackson Nakazawa; Donna, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal (2016)
[3] Ibid. p.107.
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adverse_Childhood_Experiences_Study
[5] ‘Theory of Positive Disintegration 101: On Becoming Your Authentic Self’, 04 Aug 2017 I https://positivepsychologyprogram.com | M.K.: Thanks to the ppp website for this article which I added to and paraphrased with a view to making it somewhat more accessbile.
[6] Personality-Shaping Through Positive Disintegration(1967) Revised edition (2015) Kindle edition loc. 211.
See also: PositiveDisintegration.com

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