You know those times when you can’t escape a particular person, place, thing, or idea? Everywhere you go, you hear about a certain F-list celebrity, you see a travel destination all over social media out of nowhere, you can’t avoid the whatever-doodle of the week when you’re running errands, or… you’re concurrently reading like three different books, and they’re all talking about the same thing at the same point of progress.
Okay, that last example is me right now. To be fair, I’m not usually reading this many things at once, please do not be impressed. This past week has been a bit of a catch-up as far as consuming materials for the show. Did you know, people… have sent me their books recently? Kind of neat. Misguided on their part, but neat for me. And I need to do a "resources" episode soon to detail them.
But one of the books I was sent by trauma author Byrdie Lynn mentions the ways she had to cope with her abusive father growing up - by splitting his image into two. The doting father and the violent one. One day later, I was jumping into the Fragmented Selves book by Janina Fisher and hear… to survive trauma, we have to fragment our views of ourselves into two - the good and the bad one. Less than twelve hours after that, I picked up a book by John Welwood called Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationship to deal with some of my relationship misgivings and… there it is again. We fraction our views of our parents early on - into, yep, good and bad versions - and this pattern continues into adulthood as we interact with friends, family, and romantic partners.
All three talking about this nice person, terrible person judgement that we have to make. This perspective that we have to adopt to keep our heads straight in the moment... but that ultimately causes a lot of trouble down the road.
And, okay. Not only is this perfect timing, based on the prior introductory conversation about fragmented personalities... but also because you Fuckers seem to really like failed relationship reports. And, lastly, because something about these conversations made my whole world click into sense-making mode.
I guess I really needed to hear about the ways we project these black and white views onto significant others in romantic relationships to better grasp this idea. I mean, I feel nothing more viscerally than my failed experiments in love and self-judgements about how I fucked them up, so I guess that adds up.
From what I've learned so far, turns out that fragmented personality and dissociative identity are kind of "cusp" topics to explain a lot of other shittery, which we will definitely be talking about in greater and greater detail as I move through these dissociative identity books.
But for today, here I am, my morning hijacked by angels and devils perched on either shoulder. Looks like I’m writing about polarized views of self and others today. Thinking about the ways a strictly black and white perception messes with our own identities, our family and adult relationships, and attachment styles.
Let’s just do it.
Quickly: What's the problem with a fragmented identity?
Alright, so, obviously, this one relates to personality fragmentation… because I already told you I was reading the literal book on it when the topic came up. Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma by Janina Fisher.
Get it. It's a great book and I think it's up there on the trauma must-read list. It'll come up many times in the future of this podcast effort, including a straight-up book report I've been working on. I mean, this has given me so much insight on... my life... in the first two and a half chapters I've been seeing the whole world differently. It also got me crying within the first thirty minutes, and I thought I was past the point of relatability breaking me into happy tears after all this time. We'll come back to it very soon.
Anyways, Fisher talks about the ways that parts therapy has been used to help her complex trauma clients heal... and how they wound up with so many compartmentalized pieces of themselves floating around inside, in the first place.
And here's why this talk is important. Which, you know, I should have mentioned last time but with all the baffling new parts talk, I wasn't with-it enough to realize that until a week later.
Last time I mentioned my own experience - that it emotionally sucks to dissociate into not-yourself after you realize you've been observing your own life instead of living it, but there's a lot more to it. We deal with this issue on a much larger scale. As in, fragmented self is a gateway drug to shame, self-abuse, other-abuse, failure to thrive, career destruction, relationship dysfunction, and overall life dissatisfaction - because you're living it from limited survivally-driven portions of your consciousness, not "yourself."
It's also a roadblock to successful therapy, because we're carrying "parts" inside of ourselves that we fail to integrate and treat. Instead, we play whack-a-mole trying to work out issues in one part over here that's presenting today and that portion over there that emerges next week.
One part might work through the processing and emotional reckonings necessary for a traumatic event release, but there could be three more that continue to hold similar baggage. We fail to right every piece of ourselves and perpetually drag along our wounded inner selves, because we don't even know that they exist, our therapists don't know they exist, and we try to get through counseling the same way we get through life - white knuckling that shit, trying to respond like "normal" folks would, faking it but never making it. And assuming that we're the reason intervention isn't working. Because we always need a little more shame.
Then, the therapy "slash" living situation gets even more challenging when you start moving into dissociative identity disorders. Depending on the degree of dissociated identity development, you might even have diverse full-blown personalities inside that see your experiences differently from one another and are inaccessible to each other. You can only express one dominant personality at a time, which may come with blackouts or memory lapse. How do you think those therapy efforts play out?
Anyways, that is part of that big DID talk that I don't want to get into yet, because it makes me go "oh bitch, you ain't ready to pretend you know."
So, let's just leave it at, "even with a fragmented self, not a full DID diagnosis, we suffer in several important, recovery-stunting ways."
I'm sure many of us have had a similar sensation of being so rooted in your experiences that turning a corner feels like a one foot forward, other foot stuck in cement process. Or, looked at ourselves at various points in life and been forced to assign everything the boiled down title of "phases we went through" or "shitty ways we reacted in the past." Or, had the lovely sensation of imposter syndrome when we can hold shit together perfectly in one area of life, while everything falls into disarray in others. Not to mention, all the times loved ones and family members have accused us (if you didn't also accuse yourself) of being a fake ass motherfucker, because we have quiet, kind, and docile sides... mixed with reactive, rageful, and cruel tinges... and sad, doubtful, victimy notions that come creeping in, too.
These are symptoms of a fragmented self. Tiny splinters off your natural personality brought about by survival functions that haven't been fully interwoven with your view of you, or targeted to for healing in therapy. They make us uncomfortable and self-judgey. They make others confused and suspicious. They make life feel like an infuriating red light start-stop experience. They make us doubtful about ourselves and unsure how to live like real, working, cohesive, well-balanced adults. They make therapy ineffective and full of backslides.
We tend to pinball around, unsure which direction to go and bouncing off various triggers that immediately change our course again. Our trauma is never fully integrated. We never fully heal. And we probably re-traumatize ourselves with all the assumptions we make about our failed progress.
Fragmented selves in a nutshell, to be expanded on another day.
Okay, getting that relevancy issue out of the way... let's get to the meat of this post. Let's talk about good versus bad.
Splitting ourselves and our families into good and bad.
Mechanisms of fragmented identity, here we go one more time.
What happens when little kids receive unfair or uncaring treatment via the people who have to keep them alive from a young age? Well, they have to decide why. They can’t possibly go through life believing that their caretaker is also their abuser with a cohesive mentality; that is way too challenging, even for adult brains to consider. More on that later. Instead, they simplify the story, much like you would expect a child (or a human, or any other animal) to do.
We need simple rules to live by and rapid judgements to direct our actions in a moment by moment basis and keep us alive in the face of danger. So. You make one.
Someone is good and someone is bad.
You are treated badly when you are bad. You are treated well when you are good. People treat you badly when they are bad. People treat you well when they are good.
Watch out, and keep yourself on two feet.
Fisher says this is the moment that the initial personality fragmentation takes place. In order to keep a cohesive view of the world, the brain creates incohesive appraisals of self and other. At whatever point you experienced a traumatic event, your self split into good and bad pieces. The good part that existed before the event and the bad part that clearly brought on the trauma and is tainted by the occurrence ever since.
At the same time, other people are consciously or subconsciously categorized into the two available camps and assessed from that survival standpoint during traumatic events, as well. As in, you can’t call mom an abusive monster today and accept her chocolate chip pancakes tomorrow without assuming they’re poisoned.
Unless, you have two views of mom. One dominant perspective that sees her as the wonderful creature that keeps you alive. The other perspective of her aggressive characteristic that stays somewhat hidden and less accessible so you can keep sleeping under her roof.
So your brain has two schemes when assessing your parent. There’s the bad mom you try not to think about - the one who lashes out, shames you, and resorts to corporal punishment. And then there’s the good mom we want to exclusively acknowledge. The one who… makes you fucking pancakes.
The problem being, of course, all of this fragmentation includes a heavy hand of victim blaming and dishonoring ourselves. But also, that people are not inherently good or bad. They are messy, complicated, duplicitous… people. Not infallible angels or devils. Nothing on this planet is strictly good or bad.
Except, maybe, dogs as a species? Dogs are good. We all agree. Case closed.
Because of this caveat that… well… your rule can’t actually be a rule, because people will always surprise you with their capacity for both amazing and terrible things, you wind up with a program error. This logic isn’t strong. You can't see people as entirely good or bad in a cohesive way - your brain feels stressed and activated when you try to push them into ONE area or the other because it has conflicting information, somewhere, that doesn't align - so, instead, you flippantly give them labels of good or bad depending on the moment.
Your brain basically forms stereotypical character tropes that amount to Jekyll and Hyde. Everyone has a shadow side. People can switch between good or bad personalities in an instant. But when they do, you see them only for the state that they’re in at that moment and appraise them, overall, as such. You adaptively react to the role they’ve assumed and can't access the full library of other experiences you've had with them. Your survival brain isn’t taking the time to consider those pancakes from last week so it can operate from a holistic perspective.
And this view of others might all be a lot easier to standardize if we had any stable view of ourselves... but unfortunately, meanwhile, you've been doing the same thing with yourself.
YOU also have good and bad parts. You split off these views of your own self as you’re exposed to trauma, connecting ways you must have been to the experiences you had - the abuses you were enduring. There had to be an antecedent to the beating, and it only makes sense if that trigger was something about my inexcusable personality to cause such a consequence.
You start bogging yourself down with feelings of shame and accusation towards your own identity. You are a troublemaker. You don’t listen. You can’t behave. You asked for it. You don't do anything right. You are bad.
And which side of ourselves do you think we focus on, by default?
Yep. The “bad” side. It's, again, a very "human child" way to think. But, don’t worry, this narrative will only stick with you for the next forever.
Why do we hate ourselves so badly? Why are we so hard on ourselves? Why do we only see the bad, while other people enthusiastically insist there is an assortment of good?
Because we labeled ourselves as “the problem” decades ago, and assume that we always are to this day.
But… the story is more challenging than that. Because somewhere, deep down, we also recognize the inherent ability of ourselves to be good.
Maybe we can’t look in the mirror right now and state that we’re innocent, adoring, universally kind human beings… but we have the feeling that at some point, we definitely were. We have old memories of being a child, still somewhat open to new ideas and living moment-by-moment at times, and we recall that we were loving, caring, sensitive little souls (overly, so, they said). It was somewhere after that when the bad times came and our personalities changed with our perspective, catalyzed by loss of innocence.
So, we feel capable of being good, theoretically. But we also have told ourselves that being bad is our steady state, because here we've been for twenty years... with bad things occurring all around us. Like, all the fucking time.
We’re preoccupied with the traumatic events that rocked our early worlds, we tend to blame ourselves for them taking place, and we imagine that the same goes for every negative event in the present. Plus, please don’t forget the existence of negativity bias and emotional-cognitive slant. Our negative emotions are magnetic and they skew all of your thoughts towards negative cognitions… So as long as we’re entrenched in shitty feelings, we're always going to assess ourselves with shitty verbiage.
We aren't the good-natured critters just trying to survive unwelcome events. We are the problem. We brought this on ourselves. We have immoral bones in these bodies and we deserve what we get.
But, also, we were once young, sweet, and unshapen by men’s hands. We wanted to make a difference. We set out to make others feel better. We were so purely good-intentioned. And, sometimes, we can still tap into this personality. Maybe not for long. Maybe for a day or an hour at a time, before something sets us back into traumatized brain mode.
The back and forth is neck breaking. Good or bad? Innocent or immoral? What are we? Who are we?
I'm wondering if this is also what trauma experts talk about when they discuss the idea of a “trauma self.” A subset of the personality that is firmly rooted in the traumatic experiences and subsequent physiological changes. A resistant identity that doesn’t feel capable or worthy of going back to being a “good” self, because it has become much more comfortable (read: familiar) with being “bad.” The "self" that shuts down recovery and roots us in dysfunction. We'll be talking about that more in another episode on trauma self, dissociation, shame, and relationships.
But, for now. Just hear that if your assessment of your own identity is built on shame, you’re little more than a character scripted by ruminating on all the ways you’re horrible and you’ve done everything wrong. Well, at some point this view is so thoroughly accepted that you probably stop acknowledging the times of innocence before the change took place - if you can even remember them, at all.
Why do we put ourselves through the bad-blaming ringer like this? Same reason as usual with these lazy brains. To simplify things. To stop having push-pull feelings about your life. To spare yourself from the incongruous perspectives that would otherwise cause you to think deeply about your traumatic experiences. To keep safely away from the holistic views that would likely drum up sympathy and sadness for yourself, as well as confusion about the nonsensically cruel world.
It’s always easier to punish ourselves and take on more blame than reality would suggest, than it is to acknowledge the more heartbreaking truths of being shaped this way through no fault of our own. Actually, through the heartbreaking truths of others’ lives.
So. Focus on the ways you could have caused this whole mess and it’ll make more sense than trying to comprehend the generational trauma and personality disorders of your kin. Shame yourself day and night as a punishment to decrease the likelihood that you behave the same way again. After enough repetition, eventually just take on this reductive, black and white personality trope as you never escape the childhood logic trap, and subsequently see more and more proof of your “bad” personality over time.
Boom. We don’t know who we are. But we definitely hate whoever this dildo is. We're baffled about the varying degrees of maturity and asshole-ishness that seem to live inside of us.
And, please, don't even get us started when we start trying to understand the relative safety or danger of others as it relates to this huge problem. We don't know where we stand with ourselves, let alone how we feel about other parties. Who is the threat? Them or us?
So, what happens when we, as in all the "we's" of our "selves" play with others?
Why relationships are threatening - someone MUST be “bad.”
And this is where John Welwood exploded my head wide open.
Keeping this all in mind; we’re difficult, we’re the cause of other people’s abusive behaviors, we’re “bad.” WHY DO YOU THINK RELATIONSHIPS DON’T GO WELL FOR US?!
Yes, I am typing in all caps and slamming the keyboard, as if “yell-typing” was a thing. Sometimes these thoughts really rile me up, when difficult issues suddenly turn out to be so sickeningly simple.
So, as discussed, our options in life have been narrowed down to: Assessing everyone else as immoral, evil, and dangerous, or… assessing ourselves as such. Or both. I’ve definitely felt both hatred for all of humanity with myself as the despicable exemplary blueprint before.
And. What chance does this leave us for healthy relationships?
We fluctuate between thinking we're okay or we're catastrophes, which calls into question if our partner is the best and the worst. And neither view is a realistic or cute look.
Welwood discusses the ways that when we get triggered, our impressions of our significant others rapidly shift from good to bad. We have such unstable views of ourselves and the people we interact with, built on our childhood social logic confusion, that in about half a second we can apply the same villifying projection onto our current day loved ones as we felt towards mom and dad growing up.
In one moment, your partner goes from a loving, trustworthy anchor in your life to the embodiment of danger and cruelty. You felt great about the relationship five minutes ago and now you find it terrifyingly imprisoning. You feel on edge, ready for combat around your significant other. You estimate that they are really no different from (insert prior abuser here). You magically forget all the times they've demonstrated that they are.
Basically, when we think they’re baddies in the moment, we can’t feel safe, protected, or cared for by them in a broader sense. We assume that they’re out to get us, overall. They do everything purposely to mess with our heads. They go out of their way to upset us. They are the enemy. Which, uh, is a challenging perspective to take when you’re dating, living, or raising children with someone. I bet some of us have been in this position before.
Alternatively, when we love our partners and think the world of them… this might sound preferable, but it kind of isn’t.
Because on the other hand, if they’re good, by our own reductive brain's definition, that means we have to be bad. There always has to be someone to blame for any negativity or missteps in the relationship; that’s what your all-or-nothing thinking patterned brain insists on. That’s how it worked with your parents growing up, your teachers in school, and your boss at the chain store. Something bad happened, because someone was bad.
Let’s go ahead and throw in a note here about overly authoritative parents and instructors lazily labelling kids and behaviors as such, instead of ever explaining to us why something is off-limits or punishable. I’m sure I'm not the only one who’s household was operated by the governing rule “because I said so,” rather than trying to explain why this is what we do or don’t do. Instead, you were called naughty, careless, or stupid and everyone moved on. Do you think that helped with the good and bad assignment?
Anyways. Take this “unwanted event means someone was BAD,” pattern that was instilled through repetition young in life, and the consider it (for instance) in the context of an early-stage romantic relationship when you’re head over heels. There’s no baggage yet. Just warm and fuzzy feelings towards your new partner. You're with them for a reason, because they are amazing.
Then, there's a bump. You need to figure out what happened and why. First, you make a snap judgement. And, of course, afterwards your brain is happy to ruminate about it to seal in the stabby feelings.
Now, if it’s not them who’s a rotten apple, because at this point you’re still assessing them with rose-colored googly eyes and seeing a superhero whenever they bring you a cup of coffee… that means it’s you who's filled with maggots and stanking up the place. If anything goes wrong, YOU’RE the “bad” one, because they are the good one.
This means, you don’t deserve them. And let me guess... You don’t deserve anyone. You’re broken and too damaged for anyone to love. You might as well just give up and spare everyone.
Early in the partnership, when you think so highly of the other human, black and white thinking means it always comes back to this fact. You think lowly of yourself. You're bad.
And why do you think that trauma sufferers report being more stressed out and anxious every time they get into relationships?
Ha. Ha. Ha. Oh, do you think that maybe it’s because thanks to our good versus bad brain patterning, relationships essentially necessitate us to hate ourselves by loving someone else? There must be a ying to the yang. Antimatter to matter. Bad to good. They are good, so I am shit.
Anyone else just feel something inside of themselves shift in a major way? Or am I just blowing my own life wide open right now? Maybe other people feel good about themselves and securely know their own merit... but for me... I'm going back to yell-typing in all caps.
WHY ARE RELATIONSHIPS SO THREATENING? Because they make - at least me - feel good about myself for about a month and a half, before any minor issue reminds me that I'm a terror to this earth who doesn’t deserve acceptance, love, or affection. I'm doomed to be alone, by nature. I'm a phony and this partner just hasn’t realized it yet. I'm waiting for that other shoe, Motherfucker. Whenever it drops, I'll be immediately crushed beneath it, like the cockroach I truly am.
Oh, and if anything goes wrong with the relationship to the extent that it dissolves in this early-bird stage, THEN what’s going to happen? Let’s say you get ghosted or someone gets cold feet and makes a rapid retreat to singledom. Will we use that as even more solid evidence of being “bad,” blame ourselves entirely, and carry the failure with us as another pocket of shame for the rest of our lives? Will it even become proof of our necessarily isolated living? Will we develop new avoidant techniques in our social lives to save everyone the pain?
Oh, yeah, that’s it. The other party was infallible, and therefore the fault lies in me.
Well, a lot of my love life has just been explained.
Why do I want romance AND implicitly hate it every time a relationship shows up? Because, as I’ve said before, they make me an anxiously-imbalanced and negative person. Why? Because I think I’m bad and everyone else is good when given even the slightest reason to draw such sweeping reviews, and that means I’m going to be discovered and disposed of as soon as they figure it out, too. It's a straight shot from getting into the relationship to fearing abandonment for being a dirt human.
And, long-term, I don't know how to feel about any part of it.
Which brings us to...
Disorganized attachment, explained?
You know what this all sounds A LOT LIKE? The disorganized attachment that conquers my adult life.
If you can’t decide if someone else is good or bad… if you can’t decide if you’re good or bad… how do you develop a stable, predictable relationship pattern with them.
You don’t! You fucking fluctuate back and forth between the extremes of “I need you every moment or I’m going to die,” … “but I don’t deserve you, and you’d be better off without me.”
OR “get away from me, I’ve never been so happy to be alone and no one should have to deal with your shit,” … “except, me, because I’m not worthy of anything better.”
Or both. Which is the confusing planet that I live on whenever I start dating someone.
There’s that handful of glorious weeks when I’m a tiny bit sure that we’re both trustworthy and it’s a perfect match. Then, eventually, I don’t know if they’re trustworthy and I need to be removed from the equation for their own good, as the nightmare I know I am. Or, actually, if the real story is that they’re an antagonist and I’m being innocently pushed and pulled into these difficult circumstances.
Let’s not forget the most terrifying situation of all - when the good-bad polarity rule escapes my head and I eventually decide we’re BOTH bad. We like each other because our levels of evil are similar. And neither one of us should be allowed out of our cages.
Long story short - I just have no idea! I don’t know who to trust or how to see either person. Or myself. And the result is… vacillating back and forth between all of these possible plotlines.
Sometimes I love you, sometimes I hate you. Sometimes I trust you and the relationship, sometimes I think it’s all a game to break me down and control me. Sometimes I think it's just going to disappear one day without warning. Sometimes I think my existence is valid, sometimes I’m the root of all evil, you should just beat me like a dog, and leave me itching in the streets.
I don’t know how I feel about myself and all the things that have happened in the past, so I don’t know how I feel about you and all the things happening in the present.
Be with me, get away from me, you love me, you hate me, I need you, I don’t need you, we’re perfect for each other, we’re better off alone, I deserve better, you deserve better, we both deserve the misery of each other… all of these things cycle through my head within the course of about… an average day?
So, why can I be the best girlfriend - so affectionate, thoughtful, devoted, and caring… but also the worst girlfriend - full of rage, mistrust, resentment, and flighty attempts at leaving?
Why can I SEE that this relationship is doomed and I need to move on... but also feel like I've fucked it all up. So, if I work harder on bettering myself, maybe things will work?
This is why. This exhaustingly confused brain that doesn't know what's up or down. What is normal and what is unhealthy. Where responsibility starts and stops for everyone. Who is trustworthy and who isn't, self included.
I change my mind every five minutes about everyone’s identity and implicit intentions when I get a new piece of data from them or from myself. But every time I make my assessment, I’m focused on tiny, fragmented pieces of the puzzle and calling them the entire picture. I never see either human as the full, complex, dynamic, good AND bad specimen that they are over time.
I can only focus on one behavior at a time, look at the way that it triggers me at the time, have one black and white narrative at a time, and call it good or bad one judgement at a time. And then extrapolate that one moment into a story about every moment, from here to infirmary. You're just a monster and I gotta get out of here.
But then... Leave me alone for a few more minutes, and my brain will flip everything on its head to see the complete opposite scenario. I'm the monster.
Clearly, the two views are incompatible. It can only be one or the other - good or bad. There is no brain program that lets me access the gray tones that contain a balance of light and dark. So I’m just jumping back and forth between both courts, whipping my head back and forth as I try to point a finger at one of us.
Do I want to be in this relationship or not? I don’t know. Depends on who I’m vilifying at the moment.
But, I can tell you that if you give me enough time, I’ll always make myself into the bad guy. Remove the relationship triggers that are making me see your behaviors as my parents' behavioral patterns, and I’ll eventually default to blaming my own disgusting identity for whatever has happened to cause tension every time.
This is when I end up getting back together with my partners, even after they’ve been unquestionably horrible across many clear-cut examples of character failure or I was dead-certain that the relationship was bad for everyone based on 3 years of observations.
This is when I end up redacting all my “git fucks” and trying to find middle ground in an abusive relationship. This is how I give other people second and third chances they don't deserve. This is how I wind up in partnerships that go on and on and on, even after I’ve decided that they need to end and felt certain about it. And this is how I'll hate myself as being a broken, problematic child the entire time.
I’ll doubt myself somewhere along the line, when the old familiar shame creeps in and I’m triggered into remembering that I’m difficult, I’m too emotional, I’m reactive, and I’m bad. I’m the problem, I always have been. And I need to make things right with them, as a tiny step towards making up for all the wrongs I’ve committed.
Annnnd now we’re dating for another six terrible months, with many attempts at leaving dispersed throughout. Attempts when one part of me was dead fucking certain that this was a done deal, until another part of me gets insecure and self-shaming enough to give it another try.
So. That’s enlightening. This feels like a much more comprehensive way to think of disorganized attachment in my life than I’ve ever found in the psychology literature. It even explains my friendships and family connections, through and through.
In a weird way, this understanding of my lack of understanding makes me feel better, besides feeling completely ridiculous. And, I guess that’s what to talk about lastly.
How to USE this idea of split selves for good
So, sure, it feels good to recognize there are unfairly reductive rules in your life that don’t apply to reality, and to have a new way to understand your baffling goddamn behavior. I feel that deep in my bones. BUT, how else does it help, besides adding an ounce of personal reckoning to your world?
How about adding a little personal acceptance?
In my dumb trauma recovery or management (or whatever you want to call it) experience, getting off my own ass has been a change that allows a majority of my progress to take place. If you always think that you’re always a terror, you aren’t going to slip out of the shame shimmies long enough to get any inner or outer work done. I’m sure I don’t need to explain this any further. You can probably imagine the sensation of shame washing over you, and I bet it doesn’t make you motivated to… anything good.
But if we can acknowledge that there are pieces of ourselves we want to admire and protect, and other survival-based pieces that - yep - exist without us feeling super stoked about them… with a holistic, inclusive lens that recognizes both conditions exist in one system… We actually have a shot at seeing ourselves wholly and living like real humans.
And this self-appraising shift is probably where a majority of my trauma-brain busting success has spawned from, though I had no idea I was working with my fragmented parts. Just learning to see the bad parts of myself realistically, accepting that they exist, and understanding why without hurting myself more than the original wounds has been really useful. Plus, laughing at them a lot is highly cathartic, because they are generally dramatic and absurd with all the black and white oscillations.
Now, some folks will talk about healing your inner child as a means to accessing the pieces of yourself that you don’t hate. Your younger personalities that are buried deep down, under layers of bullshit. I get it. I think it’s a useful tool. But I also think it’s a little difficult for most of us to hear, “connect with and reparent your inner child,” and have the reaction of, “sounds totally NOT a crock of shit at all.”
I think it’s the language of the concept being so soft, out of our realm of experience, and frankly, inaccessible for our shitty brain infrastructure. There is no thinking architecture inside of us that can entertain these self-compassionate words.
Instead, I think it helps me to approach things Four Agreements style. Read that book, if you haven’t before.
Essentially, consider who you were, by nature, when you came slip-sliding onto this planet, before all your social connections had the opportunity to impact the person you would become. Try to give him or her credit for doing their best through highly generalized memories of your upbringing. And try your best to feel that other person you used to be in your chest and stomach.
So I think back to being highly emotional, caring, inquisitive, thoughtful, and excited about the existence of other people. Amped up about the potential life I might lead. Enthusiastic to go have adventures, see what opportunities came my way, and who I would love and be loved by.
This is my baseline “self.” The consciousness bouncing around in my brain-organ, responding and interacting with the environment according to the biological constraints of the organism that it fills. The energy that, if kept in a closed environment, probably would have spent 80 years playing with animals, reading, and making crafts without a single negative thought about anyone.
When I feel it, it's a lightness in my chest and a knowing, grounding feeling in my stomach. A release and a clear feeling. I try to tap into that. To remember being that human. To see that little ginger kiddo from an outside perspective. To feel however I feel about her. Which is, difficult to hate. She’s just a dumb kid with a weird preoccupation for squirrels.
Then, I think about - broadly - the fact that a lot of shit happened. I don’t go deep into the details. I’m not trying to trigger myself. I just remember that I grew up in a violent and tumultuous home, had limited options for socializing, got battered in public school, and had a lot of unpredictable chaos mark my early years.
From an outsider view looking in, would I expect this little kid character to just be unaffected by the aforementioned events? No. So, should I expect myself to be unaffected? No. Would I blame the kid for anything that took place? No. So, should I be blaming myself? No. Would I see that kid as the sum of their trauma responses? No. So, should I assess myself by the survival adaptations that my brain made? No. Is there any way to call that kid "bad"? Hellll no.
Can I see myself more honestly now, operating from a place of these continual reminders that innocent, impressionable children have to bend to their circumstances? Yes.
Am I quick to react in negative ways at times? Yes. Do I have a temper? Yep. Can I be awkward and avoidant? Mhm. Am I full of quirks? Yes. Underneath it all, am I often operating from a place of fear and self-preservation? Ho yeah. Almost always. Those are some of my parts.
But underneath all of THAT, is there still a kind little girl who just wanted to talk to animals, make rock soup, and live alone in the woods like a fairy? Yep. And is that really too much to ask? When I was a teenager, did I really just want to have the stability necessary to live like my peers and to find acceptance among friends? Yep. Were both of these younger selves ultimately truncated by unpleasant situations, too big to be ineffectual? Yep.
Are these more accurate views of myself as a whole, instead of individual parts? Yes.
I really recommend that you try this, if you feel like you can. We'll talk a lot more about parts therapy in the future, but for now, just broadly seeing yourself as an innocent kid, recognizing your adaptive powers, and being forgiving about taking on the culmination of the events inside of you is actually pretty huge.
When I started doing these thinking experiments, this was probably the most fair and comprehensive view I’d taken of myself in years. And it’s where I’ve managed to find any self-forgiveness, awareness, or understanding. I’m not just my traumatized parts. I’m not just my angelic, naïve ones, either. I’m both. Neither is inherently good or bad. Both are adaptive, both are functions of circumstance, both are… the best I could do with the situations presented. Can I comprehend and forgive my nasty parts? Can I appreciate and strengthen my shiny ones?
That really helps. And it’s one of the ways clinicians can help patients to heal. Literally, by trying to treat their subconsciously preserved younger parts. More on that in another episode. Because I have no professional experience outside - just my own accidental parts work.
But I’m sure you get the gist. This "reparenting" for reintegration thing doesn't have to be such a fluffy sounding impossibility. You can get started, in a basic way, now.
See the pieces of your personality that you judge and the pieces that you honor. Dig around and try to place them in your past. Do what you can to mesh the diverse components together in the same way that you would appraise an abused animal - not capable of being inherently bad, just programmed in challenging ways by fearful adaptation. And let go of the judgements.
You know how else recognition of this rainbow of dichotomous influences can be useful? When you apply it to other people.
Quit villainizing others, quit terrorizing yourself
Thinking back to the relationship debauchery I described earlier - the hot and cold attachment styles that we fall into based on our approximations of good versus evil - don’t you think this clarified view of yourself could be a massive help? You aren’t the victim or the perpetrator. You aren’t solely causing or receiving the issues. You aren’t perfectly innocent or guilty in any relationship event.
You’re a complicated series of impulsive responses, memory recollections, and biochemical reactions - developed over the past (insert your age here), interacting with another sack of molecules operating under similar and differing software.
And, that being said, don’t you think push-pull relationship dynamics and resentment could be circumvented by taking a similarly accurate look at the other party? We’re programmed by nature to think people are good or bad, but what if we could finally see them for everything in between?
They emerged on this earth as X, through environmental interactions they adapted to become more Y and Z. You definitely don’t want to throw S at them, or they will intrinsically give back T. They are just as puzzled about your Q as you are, especially when it presents as V.
Maybe breaking them down into parts, but acknowledging that there is a wide array of discrepant characteristics, can help. They are wonderful and caring to you, but they also respond badly to whatever. They love you deeply, but they get stressed out and snippy when such and such.
Now, don't take this and turn it into an abuse green light. As in, don't make excuses for them. Don't focus only on the good parts. Don't let the presence of a few good characteristics outweigh all the bad. But if you actually asses all the pieces separately, what do you see? If you stack up the good versus bad, how do they relate? If you look, full picture, at how you've felt in the relationship, how do you appraise it? Is this a good match for you, with the entire animal considered in more detail than sucky or not sucky?
Learn to navigate the parts with animal to animal understanding, learn to see them cohesively over time by incorporating the variability of their good and bad days, learn to navigate the animal. Learn to see people as wholes and stop panicking so much with momentary judgements that get immediately transformed into lifelong stories.
No one is all good. No one is all bad. We’re all just a series of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors which are adaptive functions of our experiences. We're capable of kindness and aggression, we're triggered by circumstances into behaviors we like and hate, and we can't be measured by a single point in time without looking at the full historical context.
It’s more complicated to take this perspective and it requires a lot of difficult brain exercise, rather than lazily throwing everything into one of two categories. But so is life. Black and white is inaccurate. You don’t always get what you deserve. You can’t judge an entire person by highly specific, fragmented parts under extreme conditions. Only by taking your time to assess the whole animal over a lifetime of adaptation. Self-included.
And that’s where I’m ending today. Just writing about what I’m thinking; smaller pieces of several much larger conversations, clarified by a new way of looking at them.
I am NECK DEEP in fragmented personality and dissociative identity learning right now, and I'm loving it. Especially when it turns out that parts theory is so intricately linked to a variety of complex trauma problems.
Is any of this helpful for you to think about? Because, as abstract and fluffy as it feels sometimes, it’s already been really helpful for me.
And it’s super helpful when author A and B say something that makes a good deal of sense, but then author C comes in and nails that shit in a way that opens the door to ten thousand life realizations. Not to say that A and B failed to do their jobs in any way, just that I’m best able to absorb lessons when they’re in the context of my effects on other humans, rather than other humans' effects on me. Again, I’m always ready to blame myself above all other options.
How have other people made me doubt the goodness of myself? Eh, Iunno.
How does good versus bad thinking make ME a nightmare to others? Oh, now that’s something I’m able to sink my teeth into. I'm the asshole here? Suddenly everything is so clear. I can see for miles. That fits perfectly into my existing brain structures.
Same old same old.
So, consider this part two of fragmented personality and dissociative disorders, wrapped. When will I be back to talk about it again? I'm not sure. I have a lot of information to get out, but haven't decided on my ordering. I also want people to slip into thinking about fragmented personality slowly, based on how reactive my brain and body have been to the ideas. So forgive me if you're already educated and this topic moves a bit slowly for you - I think it's potential overwhelm territory for the rest.
Who are we? A lot of people, built by survival necessities! Isn't the easiest information to analyze and integrate. So don't dive in head first if it's going to demolish your skull.
Lastly, if you're interested in the books I mentioned earlier, let me list them again:
Through the Storm of Early Trauma by Birdie Lynn, which is her story of childhood abuse.
Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma by Janina Fisher, which is... everything.
Perfect Love, Imperf