Thoughts From The Couch – The lost self

I am always aware when clients first come to therapy that they bring with them the ways they have learnt to survive in the world, as a result of their upbringing and life experiences. So often, I see clients who are living with the consequences of having lost the ability to trust themselves and their reality. Clients who have been gaslit, as children, by their caregivers, and who, in order to be loved and cared for, had to disregard their own perceptions, ideas and experiences about themselves and accept their caregiver’s version. Gone are their own needs, hopes and dreams, as they have learnt to believe that they are deeply flawed and not entitled, even to their own minds. Their real self starts to hide away as they become on guard, always looking for the right thing to do or say, accepting someone else’s explanation of their reality. “Without a clear connection to our instincts and feelings, we cannot feel our connection and sense of belonging to this earth, to a family, or anything else.” (Levine, 1997:266).

As children we are totally dependent on our primary caregivers for survival. We are constantly looking into their faces for a sense of the world and who we are. All the power is bestowed on our caregivers, and from there we interpret our experiences and events. Through our early years we accept whatever is happening in our household to be normal, and learn to mould ourselves into the type of child that our parents want us to be, in search of their love. As a child whose brain and emotions are still developing, we don’t have the ability to see our parents behaviour as abusive. By the time we do, it is often too late as the patterns of behaviour and coping skills are deeply ingrained.

Gaslighting is a term used to describe a form of psychological abuse which is relatively common in dysfunctional families. It is, perhaps, the most appalling form of child abuse, as it can make a child feel as if they are crazy. When a person is gaslighting they use mind games often telling their victim that what they have seen, experienced or felt is not the truth. It is usually accompanied by aggression, either passive or overt and so fear becomes a regular companion. A lifetime of damage often occurs as children who have been gaslit, grow into adulthood with no real sense of who they are. They have no internal sense of self, their minds and sometimes their bodies controlled by someone else. They hold the secret of their lost self and often have a deep shame of their existence, with no place where they feel safe or people they can trust.

As a result of being manipulated into believing things that weren’t true, along with having to adapt to accept someone else’s narrative, they start to disconnect from their real self as they learn that the price in holding on to themselves is too great. They start to feel as if they are losing their mind, become submissive, and with no one to protect or support them, the journey into the dark pit of shame and loneliness begins.The vibrant, alive and trusting child they are born as, hides away believing itself to be deeply flawed. The very essence of who they are, shattered by those who are meant to embrace and inspire them to be all that they can be. They feel themselves slipping towards a world that no one else knows in order to keep safe, and what is left is a facade. The world carries on and no one notices that part of them has faded away. They become compliant or rebellious in order to hide their lost self, and become masters at fooling others, as well as themselves, into believing that they are okay. Although now protected from abuse they now struggle to survive emotionally, as in the darkest part of their being, it feels as if they are watching life from a distance and no one can reach them.

Taking the first step and coming to therapy requires enormous courage. Clients are facing their biggest fears. That their story won’t be believed. That the world is unsafe, and that no one is trustworthy. At their nethermost level they fear that they are forever lost. Their history has been one of betrayal, anguish and pain, with the roots of their problems running deep, and all the way back to childhood. Their relationship with their therapist is of paramount importance as, it is with this, that they hope to re acquaint with the part of themselves that retreated in order to survive. 

Clients talk of their real self living behind doors, in dark prisons or cages. Mostly physically dirty, dressed in rags and no longer verbal as they have withdrawn more and more into themselves. The therapist requires patience and a deep sense of compassion as the hidden self emerges to tell her story. Often feral she is on high alert, watching for anything that will prove to her that she is unsafe. My aim throughout is to be consistent, attentive, curious, congruent and respect my clients need to look for safety.

This work takes time as the journey is one of transformation. Moving from a traumatic state to a peaceful, integrated state requires repeated practise. As a result, I am often deeply moved as I have the privilege of observing my client recognise the indelible imprint of time gone by. By starting to re-connect with the suppressed feelings of fear, anger, shame and pain in the presence of another, and have them validated allows my client to cherish her hard won moments of intimacy. By slowly changing long entrenched patterns of behaviour she is able to emerge back into her life fully. She starts to experience life with a developing sense of trust and with the courage to shine brighter and brighter. “To resolve trauma we must learn to move fluidly between instinct, emotion and rational thought. When these three sources are in harmony, communicating sensation, feeling and cognition, our organisms operate as they were designed to.” (Levine, 1997:265).

I believe her every word.  

Levine, P. (1997). Waking The Tiger. California. North Atlantic Books.

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