What It Means to Have a Trauma of Identity
The experience of early-childhood trauma is often defined by what you can’t consciously remember. But it’s stored in the body, which retains the memory and implicit feeling of the trauma, says therapist Marta Thorsheim. Like many other trauma therapies, her focus at the Institute for Traumawork in Norway is on finding a way to help people work through the experience of those events. Even—and especially—when its effects seem too diffuse, too far beneath the surface to actively resolve.
Developed by her colleague, German psychotherapist Franz Ruppert, the modality Thorsheim uses and teaches is called identity-oriented psychotrauma therapy. The sessions themselves are fascinating and difficult to imagine without experiencing firsthand, but they center around the idea of reclaiming your identity. “When people get the opportunity to express themselves and show exactly who they are, including their traumatized past—and be met with love and compassion—that in itself has a great effect,” she says.
If you want to learn more, Thorsheim is giving a lecture and leading several workshops—her first in the US—in Los Angeles the first weekend of February.
A Q&A with Marta Thorsheim
A psychological trauma, or psychotrauma, is the sum of the effects of an event that a person does not have the psychological capacity to deal with.
For example, stress reactions that normally function as a helpful warning system have to be blocked during a trauma situation to avoid further provoking an attacker. Figuratively speaking, that’s like having one foot on the gas pedal and one on the brake. The immediate solution to this dilemma is to relinquish the unity of body and psyche. Therefore, the main effect of trauma is disconnection from our self, which can inhibit our ability to handle stressful situations in a good way further on.
As adults, we have many triggers that result from our childhood traumas. These triggers can be opportunities to understand that we suffer from a trauma. However, those opportunities require a person to feel safe enough to look at the trauma, and someone to help guide them compassionately to help dissolve the pain behind the trauma layer by layer.
A healthy identity is the sum of all our conscious and unconscious life experiences. Including our beautiful days and our traumatizing ones. We are not denying any part of ourselves. A healthy identity means we are integrated with our senses, our feelings, our thoughts, our memories, our will, and our behaviors. It also means that we don’t lose ourselves in relationships with others. We are not sacrificing any part of our identity to anyone else.
When we’re children, so many of our early experiences are formative. In extreme situations—and even not so extreme, because as small children, we are very vulnerable—we often have to give up parts of our identity to survive. Whether it’s violence, or rejection from a bonding person at a very early stage of development, we start to give up parts of our identity to endure. That can lead us to a trauma of identity: We start to overidentify with others, and in a way our identity can become enmeshed with the identity of, say, our mother. We end up in a state of survival identity and not in a place where we really know who we are.
Identity-oriented psychotrauma therapy (IoPT) is the modality we use to help people regain a healthy identity. The goal of it is to make a person’s trauma biography conscious, to make their surviving strategies conscious, and to empower them to integrate the split-off, traumatized parts of themselves into their healthy identity. This work is done through sessions that last roughly one hour.
Most ID sessions take place among a group and consist of a process holder, resonators, and a therapist. The process holder is the person in the center of the session, and they are responsible for stating an intention. This statement is something that can be prepared long before or on the spot, and it can be a word, a sentence, a drawing, or a combination. Typically a statement that begins with “I.” Examples of intentions are “I want a good partnership” and “I want to explore my fears.” It can be whatever you want to explore on that day; the maximum amount of words or signs is seven. The process holder writes each element or word of their intention on a whiteboard and also sequentially on Post-it notes.
The process holder then takes the Post-it notes and decides whom they want to choose to resonate with each word. So for example, they’ll go up to a person in the room and ask, “Can you please resonate ‘I’ for me?” The person that’s asked can say yes or no; it’s up to them. When a every element of the intention has a resonator, the process holder steps back and tells the resonators to start with the nonverbal phase. The resonators then stand up without saying anything. They simply try intuitively to be aware of whatever comes up. After a few minutes, the process holder will ask the resonators one by one to share the emotions that are coming up for them. The therapist does their part to clarify and support the process holder in finding the realities that show up from their biography, which in most cases is trauma from childhood. As a therapist, I do my best to create the safe space that facilitates this kind of vulnerability.
Some people find it difficult to attend a group setting, so they ask for a one-on-one session. Those are similar to the group process, but instead of resonating with other people, the person steps on floor markers indicating each element and feels what comes up.
IoPT sessions work on the basis that everything we have experienced is stored in our memory. To use the metaphor of an iceberg, explicit memories are the experiences we can consciously see and remember. And below sea level is our implicit memory, which includes the memories we had to dissociate from when the trauma happened because it was too much and unbearable.
Formulating an intention is a way to delve into our implicit memory. Each word in that sentence carries information from our implicit memory. We say it’s like scanning through our biography, step by step, intention by intention. And through the process, we get the chance to update the system of our psyche. In an IoPT session, the energy and information presented by the resonator may make their surviving strategy conscious and may bring up trauma emotions in the process holder that have been suppressed all their life. The therapist supports the process holder to help them remember, to help them connect with their healthy identity and will. The aim is to process now what happened back then—what could not be dealt with when the person was a small child. Because when the person is here now, they have people around them to provide full support, and they can begin to trust and feel safe with themselves.
That’s the theory. But I don’t know fully how this works; no one knows now. I just know it works. I don’t think it adds anything for the process holder to know exactly how it works. I tend to think the resonating part of it is the same innate skill as when you’re a parent to a newborn child and you can sense what they need. We, as humans, ascend when it’s required. According to Dr. Ruppert, we do have a sense for bonding with people that works similarly to other senses like seeing or hearing, on a subcortical level. This sense is very precise. (When you meet someone, you know, you sense something.)
When the process holder has decided, “I want to go through this process, here is my intention,” something is put into motion. When people get the opportunity to express themselves and show exactly who they are, including their traumatized past—and be met with love and compassion—that in itself has a great effect.
That’s very individual. Some people know it, and they address it in their intention. More often, they don’t know exactly what their traumas are, but they know there was something. The founder of IoPT, Dr. Ruppert, says, “All we need to process is stored in our body and our psyche and appears in the IoPT sessions when we need it.”
It’s just the start of a process of integration, and of course it takes time. People are encouraged to continue to see their therapists about what came up; it’s part of a holistic approach to healing from trauma. Many feel freer to take actions they felt they could not before. Or they experience that their relationships with their partners or children aren’t as difficult. They feel more centered in themselves and more independent.
Marta Thorsheim is a therapist and the founder of the Institute for Traumawork in Norway. A former MBA, she began studying psychotherapy in the 1990s, where she came to focus on the trauma of identity. She is a coauthor with Dr. Franz Ruppert of Early Trauma and My Body, My Trauma, My I. Thorsheim integrates trauma and bonding theory and clinical work, and for the past twenty-five years, she has met with clients and workshop participants in Europe, Asia, and Australia. You can book a spot in her first US workshop here.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.