The children’s story, ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,’ by Michael Rosen, offers a good metaphor for the journey we take towards healing. In this article, I use this classic piece of children’s literature to illustrate the internal conflict within our minds that often trips us up.
In the story, four children go on a bear hunt. ‘What a beautiful day!’ they declare. ‘We’re not scared.’ On their journey to find the bear, they are faced with a number of dilemmas. Thick, oozy mud, a big dark forest, a deep cold river. Each time they encounter a problem, they realise there is no way around it. The only way to go forward is to go through.
In 2016, I was introduced to a book by the German author and psychology professor, Dr Franz Ruppert, in which he puts forward a model to show how the mind survives trauma. It struck me with both its simplicity and its complexity, and it helps to elucidate the uneven nature of the therapy terrain and the obstacles we encounter.
Ruppert explains the psyche's response to trauma by showing how the mind splits in order to cope. When we are touched by a traumatic experience, we hold within us sensory and bodily memories, feelings and perceptions. This is our 'traumatised part,' and it threatens to overwhelm us. It threatens our survival.
Distinguishing four types of trauma, Ruppert defines the triggers for our traumatic experience as follows. 1/ Loss trauma, whereby early separation and loss has inflicted on us unbearable psychic pain. 2/ Existential trauma, whereby a life threatening experience beyond our control, such as an operation, violent attack or accident, has caused us physical pain and suffering. 3/ Bonding trauma, whereby we were unable to develop a secure attachment to our caregivers. 4/ Bonding system trauma, whereby parental trauma is passed and felt through the generations, also known as intergenerational trauma.
In order to protect us from further pain, this traumatised part needs to be isolated and bordered up in the recesses of our mind. Our psyches are remarkably adept at keeping watch over this traumatised part. Like an internal militia, our ‘survival part’ is on high alert for any experience that might trigger our original trauma. This is essential for our survival. It is how we cope.
The problem with our survival self, is that it comes at a psychological price. This inner militia demands that we make huge sacrifices to keep our traumatised self safe. So it may tell us to avoid intimate relationships, steering us away from feelings, such as hurt and abandonment, which live on in the protective bunker of our mind. It may tell us to have just one more drink, to prevent uncomfortable feelings emerging. It may require us to send our pain out into others, to protect us from the pain cooped up in our psychic cave. Relationships, health, jobs and wellbeing are all at risk of sacrifice for the sake of our traumatised self.
How then, can we heal? Besides the traumatised part and the survival part of our mind, Ruppert tells us, resides our ‘healthy part.’ This is the self that can feel, empathise, love and mourn. This is the part that leads us towards health, psychological healing and growth.
Yet this is why the path to healing can feel rocky. Remember, that inner militia, our survival self, is hyper-alert to our pain and fully invested in protecting us from experiencing it. When we enter therapy, our survival parts and healthy parts are in conflict. The former claws at us to retreat and submit to its protective ways.
When we enter therapy and begin to explore our difficulties, we are likely to be faced with some painful feelings, thoughts, memories or perceptions. We may feel confused or uncertain. We may struggle to see the way ahead. This is the mud, the dark forest, the cold, deep river of our minds.
Like the children in the story,
we look for ways around...
You can read my full article here on The Counsellors Cafe.
Rosen, M. (1989) We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Walker Books Ltd.
Ruppert, F. (2014) Trauma, Fear & Love. How the Constellation of the Intention Supports Healthy Autonomy. Green Balloon Publishing.