The miraculous survival system that is also a prison

Daniela Sieff: Your work focuses on the psychological defence system that gets set up when a child undergoes some kind of unbearable trauma. What is the essence of the system?

Donald Kalsched: If a child’s social and emotional environment is good enough then the child will develop as an integrated whole. The child’s creativity, confidence and sense of self will unfold organically, and as the child grows up s/he will learn how to protect his emotional self in a healthy way. However, when a child is abused, when his or her genuine needs are consistently unmet, or when the child is shamed, this healthy developmental process is compromised. A psychological survival system kicks in and the problem is that because the child is so young this survival system has only a very limited number of options available to it. After all, a normal reaction to unbearable pain is to withdraw from scene of injury. Because the child is highly dependent and can’t leave, a part of the self withdraws instead, and for this to happen the psyche splits. One part regresses back to a time of relative innocence, before the trauma and one part “progresses”, i.e., grows up very fast.

The essence of the child – the creative, relational, authentic spark of life which is at the very core – goes into hiding, deep in the unconscious. At the same time, another part of the child’s psyche –what Winnicott called the “false self”— grows up prematurely and becomes a rigid adaptive self, complying with outer requirements as best it can, while protecting the lost core of the self by hiding it.

The initial moment of psychological dissociation is a miraculous moment in that this defensive splitting saves the child’s psychological essence in an encapsulated state, but it is also a tragic moment because with this splitting the child steps out of the reality and vivacity of his or her life. It is a moment when the child separates from experience, goes into trance, and when the child’s capacity for genuine and trusting human relationships starts to disintegrate.

Author: Linda Turner

Coaching and Therapy Currently studying Psychotherapy , Cognitive psychology, Hypnotherapy. Qualified NLP, EMDR and CBT therapist. REIKI Master. I believe in truth, honesty and integrity! ≧◔◡◔≦

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