In 1996, Joseph E. LeDoux, Ph.D., neuroscientist at New York University, wrote a seminal book in the field of psychotraumatology: The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. (Simon and Schuster). (Link to purchase on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Brain-Mysterious-Underpinnings-Life/dp/0684836599)
In this book, LeDoux provides extensive neurological and psychological evidence for two long-term memory systems:
- An explicit memory system that is more conscious, cognitive and verbal, and,
- An implicit memory system that is more unconscious, emotional and non-verbal.
He explains that emotional information is largely subcortically mediated by the amygdala in responses engineered for survival—fast, largely automatic, and unconscious. In contrast, cortical responding is slower, conscious, and allows for mental flexibility, decision-making, and execution of one’s will in choosing how to respond… thought based in logic!
LeDoux’s research reveals that implicit, unconscious memory of pain and fear “may represent an indelible form of learning” (1996, p. 204). In post-traumatic responses, “stimuli associated with the danger or trauma become learned triggers that unleash emotional reactions in us” (p. 150). LeDoux calls this form of classical conditioning “fear conditioning”.
LeDoux explains that much emotional learning, especially fear conditioning, “operates independently of consciousness—it is part of what we called the emotional unconscious” (p. 128). Furthermore, the largely unconscious “emotional system” more strongly effects the conscious cognitive system than vice versa. Thus, “people normally do all sorts of things for reasons they are not consciously aware of (because the behavior is produced by brain systems that operate unconsciously)” (p. 33); “…we are often in the dark about why we feel the way we do” (pp. 52-53).
The theory of Structural Dissociation, set forth by Onno van der Hart, Ellert Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele, in The Haunted self: Structural dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization (Norton, 2006) dovetails neatly with LeDoux’s model of fear conditioning. In the Structural Dissociation model, Emotional Parts of the psyche (EPs) have a very limited sense of self largely restricted to re-experiencing trauma. They store amygdala-mediated emotional and sensorimotor memories of terror and perceived threat and are often fixated in past trauma with little awareness of passage of time. In contrast, Apparently Normal Parts of the psyche (ANPs) interface more with the present and are capable of a more cognitive focus. However, the noxious emotional and somatic states in the subconscious implicit memory system of trauma-bearing EPs have significant leakage into the consciously-experienced emotions, sensations, thoughts, impulses, and behaviors of ANP(s). Yet, ANPs often remain largely “in the dark” about the derivation of these noxious responses that originate in the trauma and the subjective experience of the EPs.
I like to use a metaphor of two trains on separate tracks to describe how these systems operate:
- On one track is a passenger train with “fronting” (ANP) self-states who use standard logic and cognition, and,
- On a parallel track is a freight train that carries the “trauma baggage,” the subjective experiences of EPs, who use “emotional logic,” who carry self-blame and self-hatred, who are stuck in trauma time and space, etc.; the freight train is longer, heavier, and has more inertia.
The trains do not communicate well with each other because they are on separate tracks. Thus, ANPs’s efforts to convince EPs on the other track that “it was not safe then, but it is safe now,” that they are not to blame, that the abusers were cruel and that they were innocent children, etc., often cannot reach The EPs on the freight train.
Deep healing occurs when the folks on the passenger train listen to the folks on the freight train.
The trauma-bearing parts need to express everything. They need to express their self-blame and self-hatred, whether internalized from the hatred, abuse, and words of their abusers, rooted in the unacceptability of their helplessness, rooted in a need to believe that abusive or neglectful parents loved them, etc. They need to express their terror, their heartbreak.
Therapists need to say: “I know you are afraid they will hurt you; I know how scary they were; I know you were absolutely terrified,” even when therapists wish they could jump to: “They are gone, dead,” “You are safe now,” etc.
The trauma-bearing parts (EPs) of the psyche need to “feel felt” for some time, to receive compassion and empathy, to be acknowledged for how awful their abuse was, etc., before they can consider the present-day, logic-based perspectives of the “adult” self and the therapist.
Daniel Siegel, M.D., helps us understand the necessity to attune emotionally to children in distress before parents (and others) can help children realize that they are okay, before we can guide them on how to manage their feelings, before engaging reason. See: The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Survive Everyday Parenting Struggles, and Help Your Family Thrive, by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.: https://drdansiegel.com/book/the-whole-brain-child/
Siegel’s model of emotional attunement can be applied to bringing support and healing to inner abused children, the trauma-bearing parts of the psyche.
In therapy, when adult parts of the psyche (ANPs) extend compassion to trauma-bearing parts (EPs), “connect” and attune, a beautiful thing often spontaneously occurs. The adult self expresses pure empathy, no “reason”, just compassion, for five minutes or more. While attuning, the adult can sense what the trauma-bearing parts need… understanding. The adult self can sense that logic must be suspended for the moment. The street must be one way for a while. I.e., the trauma-bearing parts need to express themselves, to be understood, before the adult self can share her/his present-day, logic-based perspective. This connection, being heard, “feeling felt,” is what begins to allow trauma-bearing parts to develop an awareness of the present. It is subtle rather than direct. The grounding in the present happens by way of the relationship, by way of the connection. I believe that relational grounding is the most powerful form of grounding to the present, much more effective than grounding to sensory stimuli.
In many cases, too-early efforts to share reason, e.g., “safe now,” etc., evoke a strong negative, even angry, response in trauma-bearing parts of the psyche. They may feel not known, invalidated, alone, judged as dumb, immoral, etc.
The power of emotional attunement to trauma-bearing self-states is beautifully described by Jean Wehner in her book: Walking with Aletheia. In this book, Jean describes her long journey of leaning into the fears, feelings, self-blame, etc., of her trauma-bearing self-states, no matter how disturbing, abhorrent, or illogical. She needed to know them before they could know her or learn that they were now safe. Here is my review of her book that describes this more fully: