Childhood Trauma Splitting is a psychological mechanism that allows someone to tolerate difficult and overwhelming feelings. It is often seen in Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs) who suffer from Complex PTSD or childhood trauma. Having Trauma Splitting, or Structural Dissociation, means we are split into different parts, each with a different personality, feelings, and behaviour. As a result, we feel completely different from moment to moment. Since Highly sensitive people(HSP) respond to Complex Trauma more intensely, trauma splitting may create a split in your psyche, causing a myriad of confusing symptoms. Dissociation and Childhood Trauma Splitting may also be why therapy doesn’t seem to work for you.
Complex Trauma and Highly Sensitive Persons (HSPs)
Trauma affects highly sensitive and intense people more intensely.
Like any other of your reactions to stimuli, as a highly sensitive person (HSP) your trauma reactions are also more intense than most. As a result, many HSPs have used trauma splitting, or structural dissociation, as a way to cope.
Because of your receptivity, you see, hear and know what others don’t.
Your empathy means you take in more and feel more. You cannot help but be affected by toxic family dynamics, overt or covert abuse and manipulation.
Being different by default, as a child you needed extra love and support to counteract isolation, alienation and despair.
Your perceptivity and intolerance of injustice mean you are susceptible to existential depression.
Your need for emotional attunement means you are wounded by emotional neglect if your parents were cold and dismissive.
Things that do not affect your siblings or peers traumatise you.
In other words, your sensitivity and overexcitabilities make you susceptible to stronger and more lasting trauma responses.
Unfortunately, few mental health professionals understand emotional intensity and chronic childhood trauma, also known as Complex Trauma/ CPTSD. You are more likely to be over-diagnosed and medicated for mood disorders or personality disorders than to get the understanding you need.
Here, we will discuss the mechanism of childhood trauma splitting, which is a common reaction to complex trauma.
Childhood Trauma Splitting and the Highly Sensitive Persons
The usual reaction to pain is to withdraw. But, as children, you had few options, even when your parents were abusive, you could not leave. So instead of physically exiting, you psychologically withdrew. This is the mechanism of childhood trauma splitting. Like the circuit breaker in an electrical system, the split is hardwired into you to protect you.
Unfortunately, when you dissociate, you not only withdraw from external psychic injuries but also from yourself.
When Complex Trauma/ CPTSD afflicts your highly sensitive psyche, you may suffer from a form of dissociation known as ‘structural dissociation.’ This is also a core part of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), especially High Functioning Borderline Personality Disorder.
Structural dissociation is a split in your personality. It does not mean you have psychosis or suffer from schizophrenia. In structural dissociation, you are conscious of who you are, but you feel completely different from moment to moment on the inside.
Childhood trauma splitting started as a coping strategy for overwhelming experiences. When stressful events such as parents’ arguments, physical violence, verbal abuse or prolonged neglect happened, you had no choice but to cut off. Because you are highly sensitive, you may not have externalised your pain but instead, withdrawn and internalised your anger. You may even direct your anger towards yourself, turning it into self-blame and shame.
Complex Trauma/ CPTSD is different from PTSD that results from a single incident. Under normal circumstances, you would want to avoid your abuser and never go back to them. When they are family members or parents, however, you have no choice but to stay. You could not deal with the trauma in a healthy way, so instead, you created a ‘separate self’ in your mind to survive the invasion.
Taking childhood trauma splitting into adulthood, you feel an internal conflict almost daily. For instance, a part of you may be like a child that is easily hurt and acts impulsively, while another part of you manages to be a strong, competent adult. One part may dominate your home life, another your career life. When triggered, you flip from one mode of being to another, confusing both yourself and others.
To a degree, having different personas is normal. For instance, it is considered healthy to be different at work and at home. When your sensitive psyche is traumatised, however, ‘taking over’ various parts can become automatic and unmanageable. You do not know why you are triggered, but before you know it, you have reacted in ways that you later regret.
Come, said my soul,
Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)
That should I after return
Dedication, Walt Whitman
The Traumatised Part and the Apparently Normal Part in the Split
Highly sensitive persons (HSPs) who have used childhood trauma splitting to cope carry an unspeakable burden. Despite carrying a painful past, you have to maintain a facade to go on with your normal daily life. If your life now involves people who have hurt or abused you, you want to protect them. You do not want to open the pandora’s box and cannot afford to let the memories, pain and anger surge up. You carry heavy, unopened baggage wherever you go.
PTSD experts Van der Hart and colleagues (2004) labelled the parts of the personality driven by daily life’s priorities the Apparently Normal Parts, and the parts driven by your trauma the Emotional Parts. Janina Fisher calls them ‘Going on with Normal Life Parts’ and the ‘Trauma-Related Parts’.
Usually, there are more than two subpersonalities. The more severe the trauma, the more complex the childhood trauma splitting is, and the more ‘separate’ these parts feel. But for this article, we will simplify the picture and discuss these two parts.
The Apparently Normal Part navigates daily life with little or no emotions. You might feel empty and numb. In this mode, you might not recall your painful past at all, or you remember but feel as though it happened to someone else.
While the Apparently Normal Part gets on with life, the Traumatised Part holds the traumatic memories. It sometimes bursts through and catches you off guard.
Your Traumatised Part reacts to situations with the fight, flight, or freeze.
Your Traumatised Part likely carries a lot of dysfunctional schema.
Your Traumatised Part reacts disproportionately to situations and sees danger, criticisms and abandonment everywhere.
Your Traumatised Part is frozen in the time of the trauma- likely when you were a child. While in an adult body, you are reliving our childhood loneliness, fear and despair over and over again.
Your Traumatised Part is always on guard. When people come close to you, you immediately assume you will be harmed or betrayed.
When your Traumatized Part is running the show, you are filled with tension, paranoia, and avoidance.
Sometimes the Traumatised Part will intrude on the Apparently Normal Part, where you suddenly experience sensations or hear critical voices that seem to come from inside you but feel alien.
Your Apparently Normal Part dominates your mind; it is numb and appears to be in control. The Traumatised Part controls your body and emotions in ways you are not always conscious of. For instance, when you grind your teeth at night, or when you burst into an uncontrollable rage.
“Dissociation is adaptive: it allows relatively normal functioning for the duration of the traumatic event and then leaves a large part of the personality unaffected by the trauma.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk
Childhood Trauma Splitting Creates a Phobia You Carry
In childhood trauma splitting or structural dissociation, you live a life designed to avoid your traumatic memories.
Your complex trauma symptoms get worse as you mentally pair more and more ‘cues’- sound, people, certain things others say, places— with the trauma. Your already highly sensitive system becomes more prone to being overwhelmed. For instance, someone not looking into your eyes reminds you of the years of being neglected by your parents. Or, crowded places remind you of the time you were left alone in public, feeling helpless. Or, any sudden and loud noise reminds you of the door slamming at home when you were little.
In trauma splitting, you had shut out the past as a way to survive, but occasionally the trauma will breakthrough, and you suddenly become flooded with fear and pain.
To maintain your normal facade, your sensitive soul might have taken on various avoidant strategies:
You fear potential rejection or betrayal, so you avoid relationships.
You fear criticism, so you stop expressing yourself spontaneously.
You fear disappointment, so you would rather say no to hope and sabotage opportunities.
One of the most common avoidances is that of intimacy. Because you have been hurt in the past, either by your parents, siblings, or bullies, you experience any attachment to be threatening, and the fearful part of you wants to avoid becoming attached at all cost. Of course, the healthy part of you yearns for love and connection and seeks out touch and relationships. These two parts then evoke each other in a vicious cycle, resulting in what on the surface looks like confusing push-pull behaviour. One moment you are loving and giving, another moment you are fearful and numb.
When, as a highly sensitive person you experience complex trauma and trauma splitting, you may even avoid your body- and then you lose touch with your internal signals of hunger, tiredness, and stress. You even lose your passion and sex drive.
As you craft your life desperately trying to avoid your past, your life becomes increasingly restricted. In the end, you build a wall against both the outer and your inner emotional life and end up feeling empty, numb, with your life left barren.
Blocking as you have done in trauma splitting is, unfortunately, not a long term solution. Your traumatised part has a strong need to be seen and heard and sooner or later it will come back in full swing, and you will not be able to neglect it any longer.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou
Complex Trauma (C-PTSD) and Childhood Trauma Splitting Symptoms
Here are some of the symptoms of Complex Trauma and childhood trauma splitting that may interrupt your day-to-day life. These symptoms might not always be present, and only appear when certain parts of your personality take over.
Selective memory loss
You are unable to recall parts of a memory, or may know what happened intellectually but do not feel that it happened to you.
You feel empty and numb, unable to connect with yourself or anyone close to you. You have learned how to move outside of your body so you watch life events pass by in front of you without being in them. You might ‘know’ what is happening in your life, but feel as though it belongs to others. Being a detached observer comes with a cost. While you feel little pain, you also feel little joy, love, and vitality. you might also become fully identified with your intellect, distancing from your instincts, spontaneity and creativity.
In trauma splitting, you may become dissociated from your physical body. As a result, you have difficulty knowing when you are tired, hungry, thirsty, lonely or sad. You may lose the ability to self-care. You burn out as you are not able to receive signals from your body. You lose touch with your motivation, needs, desires, interests, passions and even sex drive.
Lack of motivation and stamina
Perhaps you are motivated and positive when you set a goal, but when the traumatised parts take over, you lose the mental ability to take action. Because your various parts have different motives, psychology and mental capacities, you may have trouble starting or completing actions. you may find yourself endlessly procrastinating even for something you want to do. On the other hand, you might suffer from chronic fatigue. This is because energy is expended to suppress your memories and emotions.
Counter-dependency and Isolation
You develop a self-sufficient armour and feel unable to trust or depend on anyone. You put up a wall to avoid being known by others. You avoid exposing yourself because you are fearful of rejection, abandonment and betrayal.
You develop a self-persecutory inner voice. This voice started out as a protective mechanism: ‘It’ believes that by criticising harshly, you will not venture out for love, career opportunity or abundance, so you will never be disappointed again. Not being able to feel fulfilled in your life, you resort to addictions or mind-altering drugs for stimulation or comfort. This perpetuates a cycle of shame.
How to Cope with Complex Trauma as a Highly Sensitive Person
Even though the wise healthy part of you knows the childhood trauma splitting or dissociation is no longer serving you, you might feel ambivalent about change. You are afraid of losing stability. Even if dissociation takes you to a barren, lonely place, it is what you know.
With your Apparently Normal Part, you get to shut down hunger, tiredness, and any need for anyone else. For a short while, you feel as though you are invincible. This might have led to some degree of career success and convenience, but your soul is crying for help.
You are, after all a human, not a robot or machine. Your needs and vulnerabilities, though denied, do not disappear.
The longer you stay disintegrated, the less able you are to appropriately take care of yourself in a realistic way.
The longer you stay numb and empty, the more time you spend watching your life go by without being in it.
The longer you avoid intimacy and opportunities, the longer you are delaying a full, rich life.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
― Neil Gaiman, Coraline
Why Therapy Doesn’t Work When You Have Complex Trauma
Why doesn’t therapy work for you? It might be because you and your therapist do not form a good fit, or that they have little understanding of your particular struggles. There could be multiple reasons why therapy is not working for you. The answer might be more complex than you imagine, especially if your symptoms include mood instability and complex trauma.
If you identify with traits of emotional instability, or the above description of childhood trauma splitting, you may find that your feelings are constantly shifting, or feel that you are on the verge of spiralling out of control. Such a reaction is often more than just a mood shift. You may get the feeling that you can go from being ‘normal’ one minute to feeling and acting like a completely different person the next. It is as if there are different personalities or ‘modes’ (Young, Klosko, and Weishaar, 2003) inside you. All these modes come with their own mannerisms, feelings and personalities. For instance, you can be particularly prone to anger in one mode (The Angry Child mode as defined in Schema Therapy), and feel sad and completely fragile in another (the Vulnerable Child mode). One moment you are impulsive, the next you are numb, detached, and shut down. When you are in a destructive mode, the healthier, more resourceful parts of you seem to vanish, and you are not able to bring yourself back to calm.
What makes the situation even more difficult is that sometimes the triggers for your emotional flips are not known to you. You may simply ‘wake up feeling bad’ without knowing why. This is a core issue for those who struggle with emotional regulation, and the constant mode shift also makes it difficult to hold onto a solid sense of self – as a result, you may be left with the dreadful feeling of hollowness inside.
By combining theories from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, the following section explains how this kind of sudden and drastic shift in your feelings and behaviours can happen, and why traditional therapies such as CBT may be limited when it comes to addressing these issues.
The Power Of Our Memories
Every day, we absorb information from the outside world through our five senses. As adults, we automatically connect the day-to-day information coming our way with what is already in our system, in order to make sense of what is going on. For instance, right now you are linking up the words you are reading to your knowledge about English grammar, vocabulary, and syntax that was previously stored in your memory network. In other words, your memories are the basis of your current perception, and how you respond to people and events in your life is to a large degree based on your past experiences.
In psychology, the relationship between conscious and unconscious memories is illustrated as an iceberg, with the majority of our memories remaining buried and unconscious below the waterline. Your current attitudes, emotions, and sensations are not simply reactions to a current event but are also manifestations of physiological information stored in your memory. Everything that has ever happened to you was recorded in your memory, even if you do not consciously recall it all.
According to the Adaptive Information Processing Model (Shapiro, 2007), our brains have a processing system that is naturally geared towards integration and healing. When uninterrupted, it has the ability to link up useful and restorative memories with the difficult ones, to help us maintain emotional equilibrium.
However, when we come across a particularly difficult or traumatic situation that overwhelms us, the brain’s adaptive processing is disrupted. The distressing incident will then get stored in our minds in a way that is ‘frozen in time’. It becomes a stand-alone piece of information that is disconnected from the other parts of our memory network. We may not even consciously remember it. Often, our negative behaviours and uncontrollable feelings are the results of this dysfunctionally held information (Shapiro, 2001). This is related to the ‘Traumatized Part’ in childhood trauma splitting as described above.
Complex Trauma is a Dissociated and Invisible Trauma
Much of how we relate to the world around us is learned in the first few years of our lives.
New findings in neuroscience inform us that our early attachment patterns deeply affect the way we process information throughout life. Securely attached children learn from an early age that they can trust not just the world and those around them, but also how they feel within themselves. As adults, when distress happens, they can trust their own ability to regulate and modulate their own states.
However, in other cases where the caregivers were unavailable, aggressive, unpredictable or not able to regulate emotions themselves, there would be a rupture in the child’s attachment patterns.
Children are not meant to be left on their own to deal with emotional upsets. Without a responsive caregiver to be there to mirror their feelings and to model healthy regulation, a child would not know what to do and would be overwhelmed by his/her own distress.
This is being vividly demonstrated in the Still Face Experiment (a famous psychology experiment conducted in 1975 by Edward Tronick, a short YouTube video clip can be found here.) As you can observe in the video, the emotional dysregulation caused by the mother’s lack of mirroring is so horrific that it cannot be taken in or understood by the child’s brain. It overwhelms his natural processing system, resulting in psychological trauma.
Most psychologists support the theory that BPD is a result of early traumatization (Timmerman & Emmelkamp, 2001), often of chronic, developmental and relational nature. These traumas are the result of a series of repeated, often ‘invisible’ childhood experiences of maltreatment, abuse, neglect, and situations in which the child has little or no control or perceived hope to escape. As a result, these children’s memories will be dissociated into fragments. There is a breakdown in their capacity to process or integrate their experience and their own states. Even as adults they feel ungrounded, fragmented, and unable to hold onto a solid sense of self.
Frozen Memories Might Be Why Therapy Doesn’t Work For You
During the first six years of life, we live in what is called a Delta Theta brainwave state. Before we are able to think rationally or to express ourselves, all experiences- good, bad and ugly, are recorded through the reasoning level of a child. This is particularly problematic when memory is negative because the original distressing situation will be stored in the brain in its original form, with the visceral reactions and logical reasoning of a child’s mind. For instance, even when nothing objectively disastrous may have happened, if as a five-year-old we felt unloved or rejected by the world, the memory remains within us- with all the helplessness, hopelessness, and fear of a five-year-old. The Traumaized Part in your Childhood Trauma Splitting is young and helpless.
When you go through emotional trauma, even a small one, your higher rational thinking is disconnected. When you are in shock, your brain dissociates— it tries to ‘lock up’ the incident and all the associated feelings in a drawer of your memory bank. In other words, you remain ‘stuck’ because that piece of traumatic experience is stored in isolation, unintegrated with the larger system, and therefore it is unable to link up with newer, more useful and adaptive information that promotes healing (e.g. I am an adult now and not everyone hates me).
Why Do You Regret What You Say Or Do?
Your subconscious mind works by association, so without your conscious awareness, it can be triggered by seemingly random imagery and sensory associations. Sometimes the association is so subtle and rapid that your reasoning mind is not able to catch up or make sense of it.
Whenever something occurs that the mind associates with your original upset, the memory of that bad experience is reactivated. You may suddenly feel drastically different, have certain intrusive thoughts, or act in a certain way. When you have a ‘mode flip’, it is as if you suddenly switch from being a rational adult into being a tantrum-throwing child. This is because, in a way, you are reliving the trauma at the level of a child. As a result, you may lash out at your partner, have unexplainable rage, or engage in addictive or self-sabotaging behaviour without knowing why.
While the image of the event may not come back consciously (flashback), as it would tend to do if you have actual PTSD, the negative self-talk that you consistently engage in (e.g. ‘I am no good’, ‘I am not safe’, ‘I cannot trust anyone’) is directly related to the perspective you had at the time of the original bad experience. The knot in your stomach, tightness in your chest, the feeling of fear, the shame and the powerlessness are all directly related to the original event or series of events that you experienced as a child.
We have little control over these episodes or outbursts because whenever our trauma memories are reactivated, the conscious, logical, thinking mind gets bypassed. This is a mechanism that is hardwired to protect us: Since there is a perceived threat, our fight-flight system kicks in and takes over for the purpose of survival or protection, and is given priority over reasoning and logic.
The reason we cannot easily identify our actions as responses is that we may be totally unaware of the stimulus that caused them. However, it is useful to know that when our reaction seems ‘illogical’ or ‘disproportionate’, the real stimulus is almost always a memory.
‘That’s why time doesn’t heal all wounds, and you may still feel anger, resentment, pain, sorrow, or a number of other emotions about events that took place years ago. They are frozen in time, and the unprocessed memories can become the foundation for emotional problems. … And since the memory connections happen automatically, below conscious level you may have no idea whats really running your show.’
Shapiro 2015, p. 23
Why Therapy Doesn’t Work For You
‘Why doesn’t therapy work for me?’ You might have asked this question critically many times. No matter what the real answer is, it is important to know that it is not your fault.
It is proposed that about 10-20 unprocessed memories are responsible for most of the pain and suffering in our lives (Shapiro, 2015). However, the number may be much higher for chronically neglected or bullied children.
Traditional forms of therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), may not be effective in healing the deep emotional trauma that causes your current reactive responses because most of these pre-language trauma memories are shielded from your cognitive process. Your intellectual, ‘logical’ brain gets bypassed when you are triggered. So even if you logically know that your reactions are ‘irrational, it doesn’t change your emotional reality, which still contains the feelings, perceptions and physical sensations you once felt as a child. Where CBT may teach you to suppress or argue with your negative emotions, more often than not, before your logical mind can take over, you have already acted out from your emotional brain.
CBT or other ‘intellectual’ ways of coping also assume that it is your ‘irrational’ thoughts that cause all the problems. As we have reviewed, the idea that thoughts precede emotions is not true in most cases. For emotional pain that finds its roots in developmental and attachment injuries, it is unrealistic to think that one can ‘think’ oneself into healing and integration.
Moreover, as an emotionally sensitive and intuitive individual, having a real, synergistic relationship with the person that you are working with is essential. Not only is it about trust and rapport, it is also about what your therapist emulates, and the ‘health’ of the energy in the room where healing occurs. One of the ‘roadblocks’ (Markowitz, 2005) to CBT being effective is that if the therapist focuses solely on what she considers to be ‘dysfunctional thoughts’, she neglects the fact that she is facing a multi-dimensional individual with his own unique psychological, social and biological make-up. After all, the whole point of therapy is not just to download a set of skills that you can find from self-help books, but to gain from the synergistic work between you and a therapist who has done work on him/ herself and is able to model qualities such as assertiveness and resilience from the inside-out.
Therapies that create lasting change work on a visceral and relational level. On top of the therapeutic relationship, your therapist may incorporate experiential techniques that evoke impact in an emotionally connected way. These techniques aim to produce changes on a physiological and even neurological level, bypassing the cognitive mind.
EMDR, for instance, uses a technique called ‘bilateral stimulation’ to directly evoke a healthy connection within your memory network, linking up the bad, locked up memories with the good, adaptive ones. Schema Therapy uses certain experiential strategies and the therapeutic relationship to promote healing on an emotional level. Other body-based techniques such as Somatic Experiential are also effective in creating changes from the ‘bottom-up’, rather than ‘top-down.
Ideas concerning which therapies are most effective have changed in recent years. The newest research challenges the old assumption that long-term intensive treatment is essential for good outcomes, as it was found that therapies with various integrative modalities can have equally, if not more positive outcomes. If you had felt ‘stuck in talking therapy or were frustrated with constantly arguing with your own mind, it may be worth exploring these alternatives. Do give yourself the time and opportunity to look around, as this is an important investment in yourself. The real therapeutic work comes from honouring your specific needs as an emotionally sensitive and intense individual.
Healing from Childhood Complex Trauma by Summoning Your Wise Part
Apart from the Apparently Normal Part and the Traumatised Part discussed by the trauma experts, you must also acknowledge something in the matrix of your Complex Trauma/ CPTSD psyche: Your inner wise part, or your healthy part. No matter how traumatised you are, how hidden this part is, it is there. It is your innate driving force towards wholeness and health, and it has been with you since day one.
Your wise part is the key to healing from childhood trauma and childhood trauma splitting.
This wise part absorbs love from the people who have supported you; it tells you we are worthy.
Your wise part downloads knowledge and wisdom from books, resources and teachers, and acts as the guiding light within you.
Though the cloud of trauma and chaos very often shields your wise part, it is there, pulling you back up from setbacks and nudging you to take the next step.
It is the part of you that pushes you to go to therapy, to look online and to seek out support.
It is the part of you that reads poetry, makes a painting and sings a song to express your unspeakable pain.
It is the part of you that loves the truth, seeks justice, and searches for insights.
In our work towards integration, you must find and reinforce this part of you.
Healing is to integrate, to have all your parts talk to each other, and to respect and harness the strengths of all of them.
Healing is to bring all the elements of yourself together, rather than living a disintegrated life with little control.
Resilience is being able to tell the past from the present, rather than emotionally reliving the past again and again.
It is frightening when you first begin to drop dissociation as a protective shield.
However, there is nothing to fear- you are merely going home.
As you take small risks, as you gently open, you become extra delicate, sensitised to both pain and beauty.
The breaking down of your armour comes with force and pain- but that pain is an honourable one.
Your Complex Trauma/ CPTSD, when given an opportunity, becomes your door to a sense of belonging- one so sincere that it connects you to not only your intimate partner and neighbour, but the rest of humanity, nature, and the universe. This growing pain is a small price to pay, as compared to the deadliness of being an empty shell.
Beyond trauma, it is in your power to take the next step.
Step by step, you can re-open as a human and re-emerge as a soul.
Your life is waiting for you.
“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.”
― William W. Purkey