What is trauma?

In simple terms trauma is what happens to us when we encounter a situation that overwhelms our ability to cope. When the fight or flight options are not available, we have no choice but to freeze and fragment under the tremendous weight of helplessness, overwhelm and a fear that we may die. In order to survive, we split off our conscious awareness from the pain of the trauma, which is a very intelligent protective mechanism, however we also split off from our life energy. From this moment we are no longer whole and fully healthy as part of us freezes and gets locked in time which alters our identity and affects the whole system in the body and mind. In order to stay alive with the trauma part now present, our system immediately needs to find the best way to live life with the new experience that the trauma part holds, thus we develop a survival strategy that guards that split.

There are some obvious traumas that belong to the category of existential trauma such as, war, natural disaster, accident, surgery, assault, etc., which we can manage better as often they don’t involve deep feelings of shame and guilt unlike relational traumas. As the name suggests relational trauma refers to a trauma that happens in close relationships, the closer the relationship the more shocking and devastating effects are likely to be, such as persistent feelings of rejection, betrayal or loneliness. Relational traumas may be perceived as less obvious traumas and often relate to the early stage of life and human development, just to mention a few examples: adoption, cesarean or induced birth, absence of breastfeeding, inappropriate weaning process, being inappropriately snuggled as a baby, being unloved and unwanted by the parents, not being accepted by a parent as a female or male, lack of warmth, protection, lack of healthy contact, eg. lack of touch or inappropriate touch, emotional neglect, psychological and sexual abuse, etc. It is important to add that many of such traumas are not inflicted intentionally by the caregivers which may act upon their most sincere intentions, however they can be often a result of unresolved trans-generational traumas.

What is relational trauma?

Relational trauma, also called attachment and developmental trauma, refers to the early relationship between a child and a mother or a primary caregiver. This early relationship shapes every human being and his/her adult life, the way we relate to ourselves, other people and everything around us, eg. authority, money, food, career, sexuality etc. If the relational process is not supported in a healthy manner from early childhood and instead we experience traumatic situations that causes pain, fear, terror, rejection, rage, etc. we experience a relational split from oneself, a relational trauma. In IoPT therapy relational trauma is seen as a result of a harm to the point of traumatisation within human to human relationships, where one person – the perpetrator – holds all the power and the other person – the victim – has no power and the person is forced to dissociate. It means that the only survival resource is resignation, surrender and splitting. Relational trauma very often has its origins in early childhood and pre-birth when there is a lack of safety, connection, attunement, love and protection. Relational trauma is rarely about horrific accidents but rather it is about very subtle and often invisible but deeply felt events.

What does it mean to befriend trauma? 

To befriend trauma means to open oneself to see the truth of what happened to us. It means to listen, to acknowledge and to feel all the forgotten emotions and feelings that have been rejected, denied and pushed away from the conscious awareness. Befriending trauma means to make friends with all the parts of yourself, especially with the physical body, and to listen to all the sensations, feelings and emotions with openness, curiosity and self-compassion. When we are able to see and feel own trauma as a frozen life force that survived rather than an enemy we begin a very unique relationship within that start to be reflected in the external relationships. The ‘befriending’ attitude can be reached when we start to see the personal trauma as a wisdom keeper, an intelligent force within that wants to keep us safe, but also that is guiding us, that wants to live, wants to connect, create and love.

What are the signs of relational trauma in relationships?

If we experienced relational wounding in early childhood we had no choice but to find ways of adapting to the primary caregiver and the environment we grew up in. This process of  adaptation resulted in forming, so called survival or coping strategies to keep us safe to help manage chaos and stressful situations. The coping strategies were helpful at the time to protect ourselves from conflicts or from confronting others and/or our own intense emotions, however those same strategies may not work in adult relationships and we may cause a lot of confusion, misunderstanding and suffering if we don’t address them. The most common and prevalent coping strategies and defence mechanisms that humans frequently develop and struggle to change in relationships are the following:

  • Avoidance – is a form of self-protection and self-preservation and can be often recognised in such statements when relating to the other: ‘I don’t have time’, ‘I’ve been so busy’, ‘I don’t want to talk about it’, etc.
  • Victim-perpetrator patterns – finding yourself in a perpetual circle of blame, complain and never ending emotional suffering
  • Control by ensuring you are always in charge and stay in a position of dominance rather than collaboration to the point of boundary violation and abuse
  • Manipulation – avoiding truth, lying, abusing others trust, loyalty and sensitivity
  • Invisibility – making others a priority instead of yourself, fearing being seen and exposed to vulnerability and authenticity
  • Objectification – seeing others as valuable beings only under certain conditions, such as social status, wealth, beauty, youth, sex, etc
  • Distrust – if we feel unsafe in relationships we may have a pattern of ending them quickly or we may have a pattern of attracting unavailable partners
  • Isolation – avoiding relationships that may be associated with conflicts, pain and constant disappointment rather than with connection, security and love
  • Confusion – relating to a partner from a place of a wounded child that looks for love or that holds anger toward mother or father, thus having a distorted view about the other person and unrealistic expectations that cause conflicts and disappointments in a relationship

How to resolve a relational trauma?

The resolution of a relational trauma is a complex and often long term process. It involves an in depth exploration of the victim-perpetrator dynamics that impact our current relationships with oneself and with other people around us. It is about touching to the very core the suppressed, forgotten and rejected parts that hold fear, shame, grief, anger, rage, complete powerlessness, helplessness, disconnection, self-hate, etc. Personally, I have tried many trauma therapies and I have experienced that IoPT therapy has a unique ability to address and deeply touch our most hidden inner parts. The IoPT therapy helps to work on the suppressed internal parts and allows them to be seen, heard and validated thus bringing them step by step to the state of understanding, peace and connection. In other words by exploring what is still unresolved the internal parts come to a resolution, from disconnection, anxiety, fear, anger to peace, stability, safety, trust and connection. The primary focus in IoPT is on the promotion of healthy autonomy and the development of a relationship with ourselves, not so much between the client and the therapist as in many conventional therapies. The method in many ways encourages and invites the healthy parts of us to become more active and alive, eventually allowing them to become the leading force in one’s life. 

“Healthy identity is the unconditional ‘Yes’ to our own existence”

Prof Franz Ruppert founder of IoPT

What does really a ‘healing journey’ involve?

Let’s start from understanding what ‘healing’ means. Healing means to return to the state of wholeness, health or wellness. What I have experienced and understood in trauma healing is that readiness is crucial. If we are not ready, nothing can shift and we need to listen and respect that. Psychological wound is no different than physical wound, it needs time. Therefore healing can happen when we are ready, it involves our readiness to acknowledge the trauma, to face it and to feel it. When you can prioritise and take yourself seriously then you able to be with the wounded inner parts and a deep journey can begin. It involves our readiness to open up and dive deep into the essence of who we really are and take steps toward a better life. And for that to happen we need a lot of courage, openness and kindness toward the self. Sounds simple, however in reality it takes a lot of energy, commitment and perseverance. We need a courage to let go of the old stories, old patterns and old ways of doing things. The past patterns or coping strategies, whatever we call it: addiction, depression, exhausting relationships, loneliness, lack, not feeling enough, etc., have a survival function, however we know deep inside that it is not a long term solution and we may feel that we live in kind of inner prison. That’s why we need openness to see the reality and the truth. And the truth is not always beautiful or comfortable, it can be very painful as it requires us to take off many masks over and over again. The last ingredients are kindness and self-compassion, the ‘medicine‘ for shame which appears under many guises during our healing process, which I call the process of birthing yourself.

What are triggers?

Trigger is an emotional reaction to a current situation however it often calls our attention to look into a deeper issue that happened in the past. Triggers can feel highly uncomfortable and set us on an emotional roller coaster for long periods of time, causing a variety of high stress related inner states and emotions, such as anxiety, anger,  insomnia, exhaustion, overeating, migraines, physical pain, etc. The truth is that challenges and difficult situations are part of life and they are often beyond our control, however we can find resources and learn how to navigate through them. Triggers may also point at the aspects of our lives where we are not free yet, not healed yet or pointing at a certain, often repeating pattern that need our awareness and action. Therefore triggers can be seen as messengers and catalysts for inner healing and growth.

What are the steps towards healing trauma?

  • The first most important step is to take yourself and your trauma seriously, which may sound absurd however often we prioritise work, money or other people instead of our own life and wellbeing
  • Listening and taking care of the deepest psychological, emotional and physical aches and pains. Asking yourself: Am I ready and open to receive help from others? Can I allow myself to be vulnerable and authentic with myself and other people?
  • Identifying the type of support and resources needed to heal. What kind of therapy and therapist do I need?
  • Commitment, consistency and compassion to yourself and your healing path
  • Allowing time for integration and taking break from therapy sessions when you need it
  • Self-care and finding the best resources for yourself, such as nourishing friendships, safe spaces, supportive and safe connections

Why trauma can be a gift? 

It may be difficult to see any gifts in something that you would rather want to forget and erase from your life, however once we start touching the deep wounds and processing them, trauma can contribute greatly to our wisdom, maturity, decision-making, lifestyle and relational aspects. Even when we reach that moment of realisation that we survived and can still live is a gift. But there is more, when we contact the traumatised parts we can discover and learn about ourselves, our needs and wants that help us toward the recovery of our true identity and the development of healthy boundaries, safety, clarity, autonomy and self-trust. From such space we are able to make better decisions and choices that are aligned with our personal truth and to create reality that we want.

“Depending on how our identity develops and how severely we have been traumatised, we humans can be loving and constructive beings or become unfeeling monsters.”

Prof Dr Franz Ruppert - founder of IoPT