Integral developmental trauma therapy
Developmental trauma therapy
Developmental trauma therapy aims at establishing emotional maturity and emotional self-regulation, which I have written about here.
These are the stages of emotional development until adulthood:
While it is theoretically possible that people acquire their developmental trauma later in childhood, I have effectively never met anyone who didn’t need to start at the beginning, having to go back to his unfulfilled symbiotic needs.
In my experience, the time from gestation to the second year of age are the decisive years that boggle down a healthy development down the line, when things go wrong.
When I started to understand the necessity to work through an unfulfilled symbiosis, I would have clients start at gestation and work their way up. However, that didn’t lead to the results that I was expecting to see. While an unfulfilled symbiotic stage acts akin to a black hole in the emotional life of people, it can’t be worked on right away. Too painful are the memories, which is why they are often deeply suppressed. Also, they are formed at a time in which the person affected doesn’t even have a brain. There is no way for a fetus to go through his affects, reactions, and emotions with discernment. In therapy, this would play out in two ways: Either, the client would simply not be able to access painful memories. Or, the client would go through the motions but without achieving deep healing and reintegration of split-off ego parts.
This is when I understood that I couldn’t work strictly chronologically if I wanted to promote emotional maturity. I would have to go to the moment in the person’s development first when symbiosis is terminated naturally, which is at the age of 3 or 4 years. At this moment, a person becomes aware of being a separate person from their mother for the first time. I realized that I needed to facilitate what I now call “personal autonomy” before I could work on the deep stuff. Through personal autonomy, the client will develop the ability to be a witness to what he is going through, which in turn allows him not to get lost in overwhelming pain. In other words: the witness capacity comes with certain control and discernment crucial to resolve the effects of an unfulfilled symbiosis.
Therefore, the order in which dissociated ego parts need to be integrated is as such:
First, the witness capacity is established. Second, unfulfilled symbiotic needs are worked through. Third, one works the way up again from gestation integrating all necessary ego parts in more or less chronological order. I am saying more or less because it turned out that the stages of development (such as “Competence” or “Caring” in the first chart) are decisive and need to be worked through in chronological order, but not the ego parts themselves. This means that the client may integrate a 5-year-old ego part before he integrates a 3-year-old ego part.
Integrating dissociated ego parts
It is important to understand that the goal of any trauma therapy is to integrate or to reintegrate dissociated ego parts. Please refer to the chart for details on how dissociation of ego parts occurs:
What will bring about deep healing of developmental trauma is not the abreaction of emotions or impulses like fight, flight, or freeze. It is the reconnection to the child part from the perspective of the self, which is already an adult. Doing so will automatically also heal the affects and emotions that occurred during the time of the split. While enabling any form of discharge in the client will not automatically lead to integration. Treating emotions and overwhelming affects in therapy may bring relief, but never integration.
However, reconnection may be impossible, if overwhelming emotions and affects are in the way. It is them that are effectively blocking the automatic reconnection in form of self-healing. This is where the witness capacity becomes crucial. The adult needs to want to reconnect to his child parts while the child parts need to be allowed to hand over their pain to the adult who can then work through them without being overwhelmed by them. This process equals the healing of attachment disruption by which the client learns to connect to others by first connecting to himself.
In order to facilitate integration, the trauma therapy that I have developed offers the client many tools that activate neurological circuits that can act as internal resources for this process to avoid retraumatizing situations during therapy.
Tools that encourage autonomy to grow between sessions
I find it very important to self-empower clients outside of therapy and in their daily lives.
They will learn certain breathing techniques as well as other tools that help them to connect to themselves.
A very helpful tool are so-called “silent affirmations”. Those are affirmations recorded by the client that have been technically remastered to be played at a high sound frequency that can’t be consciously heard by the human ear. Other than loud affirmations, silent affirmations enter the subconscious a lot more effectively and are therefore able to catalyze change quickly. While trauma therapy can be seen more as a deprogramming device, silent affirmations are more of a reprogramming device. While trauma equals unintentional programming, the client is now called to take his destiny into his own hands by deciding what to program his mind with.
How to measure progress in developmental trauma therapy
Over the years, I have been able to make sure whether the therapy is working for the particular client.
In the course of therapy, his ability to hold paradoxes, to digest emotions without needing a therapist and the ability to connect to others in a healthy fashion should increase. Also, the body of the client should become his friend and be treated with the respect it deserves.
I developed the following chart with milestones of emotional maturity that adults should reach while they work their way up through the stages of development until they reach adulthood not only cognitively, but in an embodied way:
I have matched the individual stages of development with the collective stages of evolution according to Spiral Dynamics (see here) because the abilities that are acquired through therapeutic work would also reflect the client’s social ability.
I have also made the experience that mono trauma like an accident or sexual abuse should best be treated after the completion of emotional maturity. While mono trauma may show up in the process of healing developmental trauma, it will often not be healed simultaneously. Sexual abuse in early childhood, for example, will reflect on the clients sexuality that developed in his teenage years. While the child understands that something horrible is happening, it will not understand what is happening exactly. That understanding requires a perspective that is only developed in a later stage in which the client developed his own sexuality. Especially when the perpetrator of the sexual abuse was in the family, developmental trauma needs to heal first. Even if none of the family members was the perpetrator, the child will unconsciously feel betrayed by his parent’s inability to protect him. This betrayal needs to be healed first for the client to be able to deal with the actual sexual abuse.
Image sources: Canva, own work