- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Therapy: Finding a Sense of Self
(This post is the first in a series in which I will be building foundational understandings that I hope will enable readers to more fully understand the backstory and purpose for my book—which is a narrative of both my story and journey through therapy.My purpose is to help others to understand the effects of early childhood abuse. I have been and will always be a teacher.)
My story is complicated and it is going to take a whole book to explain what happened to me, how it affected me, how I lived my life, how I came apart, and how I healed. For the purpose of this blog, suffice it to say, I had no sense of Self. That is what happens when a child’s development of Self is hijacked by abuse.
Not having a sense of Self doesn’t mean that I didn’t know who I was. I had a heritage, I had a family who provided identity, I had faith in God, I had interests, and a career. Yet, if you asked me to describe myself, I might have given you very different descriptions depending on who asked, what the context was, and my expectations for myself in that particular moment. In a very real sense, I never fully understood what it meant to be ‘me.’ This didn’t seem to be a serious problem since everyone could say, that to some degree, they are different people at various times. We all have roles we play and we are a bit different in each of those roles. This makes sense to all of us.
The IFS (Internal Family Systems) model of therapy was developed based on this idea that we are made up of multiple different roles or parts. As I began to research this model, my inability, at the beginning of therapy, to access a sense of Self became clear. This form of therapy requires accessing Self and using that sense of Self to interact with various parts of the personality.
Though the IFS model was not directly employed during my therapy, many of the principles were applied. Before my therapist and I fully understood the extent of my dissociative coping system, it seemed natural to think what we were sensing was simply different roles and parts of my personality. The stickler was that when asked to access my sense of Self, I would just stare at the corner in hopes that I might find someone to help me. Developing a clear sense of Self was absolutely essential to healing. It was a very long road.
As I have been writing about therapy, the intensity of my journey has been clear. What has not been clearly stated is the reason for the intensity. In fact, as I have read over some of my website and early blogs, it would appear that I was trying to hide—in many ways I was; but I really didn’t need to. What happened to my psyche as a result of early childhood trauma is an amazing story of how a small child coped with unspeakable pain and fear. The very tragic downside is that I never developed a clear sense of Self.
(It is important to note here for any new readers, that my abuse began at the age of three in a home day care. My parents did their best to protect me after that, but as is often the case, I became a target and my dissociative coping mechanisms prevented me from protecting myself when I grew older and it might have been possible. Explaining how this occurred is part of the purpose of my book. We need to understand how children get in this tragic cycle and how the cycle can be broken!)
One of the best descriptions I have found of how a child uses dissociative coping mechanisms addressed the IFS model of personality as ‘normal’ development and compared it to that of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder). “DID may be seen as the result of a normal personality system adapting to severe trauma in such a way that the different parts may be unaware of each other and there is no Self available to lead” (Source). That was exactly the case. I had parts of my personality whose memories were not accessible to me or to other parts. In my case, the amnesia was vertical but not horizontal. This lack of day-to-day amnesia which many suffer enabled me to be functional—most of the time.
I lived by control. I had a part of me that could walk through or do anything—and I mean anything. There are many advantages to living life with dissociative coping mechanisms. I could subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) forget anything I didn’t want to remember. I could focus in ways that seemed humanly impossible. I could make myself work non-stop for a ridiculous number of hours and not ever be distracted. I could also lose 100 pounds pretty easily because I never cheated. There were some serious advantages, but it wasn’t truly ‘me’ and there was so much joy in being human that I missed.
My true Self was buried under layers of trauma and separated in to multiple fragmented parts. During the two and a half years of therapy, my inability to remain as one Self was obvious. Finding a sense of Self out of a conglomeration of children, teens, young adults, and adults who would step in to lead (without warning when triggered) was challenging. Realizing that the splitting was based in trauma helped me search for the core memories each one held. The triggers that shifted me were embedded in the trauma and healing through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) stopped the power of the triggers.
When my tight control structures, which had helped me live my life, began to unravel, I was left with a couple dozen parts and no one was really in charge. All the ways my brain had functioned became ineffective and I literally had to create new brain pathways. Many watched me travel but few realized that it was part of how I was learning to function as a whole person. I couldn’t shift to someone who could drive; I had to drive. (There are multiple stories about this!) In many ways, the traveling helped me to access the core part of me that contained my sense of Self that had been buried under layers of trauma. I was born to explore—that core part of me helped me get up and learn to function again.
What is remarkable is the ‘me’ I found deep inside was so much like the ‘me’ I created by piecing fractured parts together. Most who have known me will not see any difference. The difference isn’t outside me; it is inside. It is the quietness of only having one conversation in my head at any particular moment. It is the peace I feel without triggers dragging me through life. It is the sense of Self that enables me to make choices that draw from a consistent knowing of who I am and what my purpose is. I do have roles I slip into when I am in various settings, but underneath, I am completely confident in knowing who I am.
That is just SO AWESOME!