I wish that, earlier in my life, someone had told me something like this.
You know how there are people who love talking about trauma? How everyone has, like, public school trauma, or gym class trauma, or trauma from their first bad breakup, and stuff like that? I know it seems silly. First of all, trauma is a concept you associate, reasonably, with people who have had horrific personal experiences of violence. Secondly, it all smacks of proud victimhood and stolen valor—everyone being fascinated by their own pain, wearing it as a badge of honor, potentially so that they can resign themselves to life-as-healing-journey, rather than doing something less navel-gazey.
You might have a point! But there’s something there, actually. They are pointing to something real. And it could benefit you to examine it with an open mind. What they’re calling “trauma” is something you actually do have a bit of—not a lot, maybe, in absolute terms, but enough that if you took care of it, you would have a nicer existence.
Maybe the word “trauma” is too loaded for this discussion. Let’s stick to another word, “splitting” which I think is more precise and less contentious.
It’s important to remember that suffering is relative. Nothing determines what real suffering is except your mind; there is no other test. Sometimes you might feel as if you don’t have a right to call your suffering “suffering”, because you’re not a former child soldier, and you aren’t in extreme poverty. That’s not how it works. Relatively privileged people who commit suicide have real despair and die in real life.
No matter who you are, there are experiences and emotions that can fuck you up a bit—enough that you don’t want to think of them, enough that they’re marked as off-limits in your consciousness. They’re humiliating, intensely tragic, too much to take. They are not part of the self-image you’d like to have, the unblemished, heroic version of you that seems like a good object to pin self-esteem on. So you do what you can to not think about them. You put them over there in your mind, in a dusty corner. The experiences become partially severed from your day-to-day thoughts, fragmented from the main channel of your experience.
That’s all we’re talking about, that’s splitting: you split certain painful things off.
Now, off-limits doesn’t literally mean that you can’t think of this material. You’re just disincentivized because it feels bad to touch. It can feel bad in different ways. Sometimes there’s a somatic response: you think of it and shudder, or flinch, or tremble. Sometimes you freeze up, or go into a daze, or get irritated for a bit, or pick a fight with someone. It’s essentially memory stored with a “feels really bad” tag on it.
This mechanism leads directly to a lot of what they call repression. On one level, repression is just the stack ranking of your inner world. Like, we can imagine a list of all the things you could have in your mind, in order of your preference. At the top: feelings of reciprocated love, the sound of your favorite song, a line of poetry that makes the world reasonable. At the bottom, somewhat below the most horrifying thing you’ve ever seen on the internet: everything you split off from yourself.
Not all experiences that feel bad get stored this way. Most of the time, you metabolize bad experiences as they happen, or get over them in due course. But sometimes that doesn’t occur, and bad experiences just sit there, half-chewed.
Interestingly, the experiences that persist in this way are not necessarily the most superficially severe. The experiences that persist are just the ones that weren’t fully processed at the time, the experiences you didn’t have the time, space, or tools to get over contemporaneously. A personal example of this: I’ve been mugged twice, once by people explicitly threatening to kill me, and getting over that was easy, whereas most of my split-off material was composed of relatively banal moments of personal embarrassment.
Also, sometimes even superficially good, or neutral, experiences can get split off, if they’re divergent enough from your default view of yourself. One example of this could be a kind of pleasure you’ve indulged in but aren’t comfortable with. Another could be an element of your personality that’s enjoyable to inhabit but that you’re scared to acknowledge––whatever your equivalent of a “dark side” is.
Research has shown that there’s a lot of individual variation here. People vary in their fears, and thus vary in which situations register as overwhelming. Some people just get over the past more easily, either due to temperament or learned emotional skills. Also, it’s much easier to get over things in company: people who can mourn their losses in community, or confide in others about their embarrassments, tend to get over them more fully. Someone else confirming that you’re still a safe, non-disgusting, approved-of human being, despite unfortunate events, can help you digest the past more completely. (There are a lot of cultures where collective mourning, open crying, and regular confession is part of the cultural machinery—yours isn’t one, which is interesting.)
But, okay, we’re getting kind of in the weeds here. Why is this so bad, this splitting thing? Maybe this doesn’t sound like a bad strategy. Like, why not just forget about the things you’d rather forget about, rather than process them?
Well, the answer is that splitting is not so bad, in some ways. In fact, it’s often a great survival mechanism. If you’re, say, stuck in an abusive relationship, or in a shitty childhood, you would be overwhelmed if you were constantly mourning everything, constantly in touch with the intensity of it. Better to quickly index it and shove it to the side, put off the processing until later. Dissociation, either from your present or your past, can be a really solid coping mechanism at times.
The only problem is that it’s imperfect. The human mind can’t completely repress stuff. You can’t just forget your pain, and you’re not supposed to be able to. Your mind is built for survival, not comfort. It would be bad if you forgot that snakes were dangerous, so you’re going to remember that snakebite. And, in practical terms, snakebite is often less dangerous than the threat of social isolation or abandonment. So you’re not going to forget moments when you felt deeply humiliated either.
Thus, you have two choices with pain: feel it now, or keep it hidden until you’re ready to feel it later. And, unfortunately, keeping it hidden can be a lot of work, since life is always ready to remind you of past tragedy. Like: maybe your promising new relationship, so full of joy and excitement, also carries painful reminders of how intimacy went wrong for you previously.
So, if you’re keeping your pain hidden, you have another two choices, broadly speaking, and they’re not good ones. Either spend a lot of time recoiling in horror at your regrets and embarrassment—just walk around in a triggered state a bunch—or, structure your life and mind around avoiding the parts of yourself you don’t care to look at. Most people do a mix of both.
The constant pain is obviously a bad way to go. But the avoidance is potentially worse: to the extent that your life is organized around avoiding things, you will reduce your capacity to think and feel fully, since you will be spending all of your time trying not to touch all of these invisible electric fences. If you want to effectively disown any one facet of yourself, a couple of other nearby facets will have to go, too.
There is also the fact that if you’re going around repressing difficult emotions, it will impair your decision-making ability, since decisions are usually based on emotion. We are all just trying to feel good. “Feeling good” can mean a lot of things, like being intellectually stimulated, or knowing that you’ve made a contribution to a cause that matters, or something like that. But it all bottoms out at emotional signals: you’re good or you’re not. And if you can’t look at the full range of your emotions, past and present, you will be making incorrect readings of what actually makes you happy and unhappy. The classic stereotype of the person who pursues a prestigious but unfulfilling career in a doomed effort to finally win the love of a cold parent is, for sure, a tiresome stereotype, but there’s a lot of painful truth in it too.
The good news is that the splitting can be mended. The high-level pitch is that what seems to work, broadly, is restoring your connection to the split-off material. You disowned parts of you: now you’ve got to own them again. This isn’t always easily accomplished, since most of the time, if you touch split-off content, you’re just reminded of how bad it was, which reinforces the original split. You need to be in a space of psychological safety, where your mind has enough capacity that it can pull off full contact with the aversive mental material, such that you can fully, lovingly experience the original pain/embarrassment/heartache/rage, and thus bring it into the present and own it as part of your life story, rather than keeping it in the past. As well, beyond the feeling dimension, reintegration often has a narrative component. It can be helpful—and sometimes it’s crucial—to craft a more generous version of your previous self-narrative that can include what you’d previously denied about your experiences.
The problem is that nobody actually knows exactly how this integration process works yet, like on a neurological/physiological level. People who think about splitting will tell you a ton of interesting facts about memory storage, the limbic system, the vagus nerve, maybe even the psoas muscle, and so on. And these are probably real pieces of the puzzle. But nobody really has a complete theory for what is mechanically going on in your body/mind when you heal splitting. Resultantly/relatedly, there are a million different healing techniques, all with very fuzzy stories about how exactly they’re supposed to be effective. Frustratingly, some will work for you and some won’t, and it’s hard to know what will work in advance.
Classic talk therapy can work, at times, but not always. I’d recommend looking into therapists and coaches who are trained in some newer modalities that have emerged in the last few decades, modalities that are specifically based on trying to integrate split-off material. Some people like mental techniques that look like a cross between meditation and therapy, like Internal Family Systems, Focusing, or Byron Katie’s work. Weirdly enough, doing funny eye movements is wildly effective for some people. Others like body-focused practices which give you new tools for working with emotions on a physical level, like the Realization Process. Some people do weirder practices, like art therapy of various kinds: this book is full of ideas. As well, drugs can work as accelerants here; MDMA, for example, is certainly not perfect—it’s not risk-free, and it can be hard on the body—but it can be a powerful adjunct to a lot of these methods.
Sometimes, if you engage with these techniques, you will find yourself developing “mental motions” for integrating your split-off parts that are not, precisely, what is described in the instruction for any particular technique. This is to be expected. The self-relationship of any given mind is highly individual and hard to explain, and how you interact with your memory/emotions/narratives will feel/be different from somebody else’s process.
Regardless of what technique works for you, the good news is that when you stumble on something that does it for you, the results can be really good. Things that bugged you for years can become no big deal in a few weeks, or a few afternoons. Sometimes these reintegration experiences are legitimately psychoactive: you will feel emotions you didn’t know you could feel, and, when you release your inner tension, your mental experience might feel strikingly different, better, clearer. I know you’ve done drugs before and had feelings of pharmacologically-enabled insight that were powerful. Me too, and I’m here to tell you that some experiences of self-alignment I’ve had when stone-cold sober were as powerful, or maybe more powerful.
This isn’t literally everyone’s experience. But a lot of people are mentally punching themselves in the head all the time because they’ve developed an adversarial relationship to parts of their mind. It’s not unlikely that you have some baggage, if you haven’t decided to explore your baggage before. And, anyway, the cost of exploring that hypothesis is low, while the potential rewards are high.
Maybe this idea bugs you a lot. In fact, young Sasha, I know that this idea, bugs you, specifically, a lot; you’ve gotten very angry at people for suggesting that you try looking at your pain, or even suggesting that you have it. Your first girlfriend told you that you had emotional problems and you didn’t even really manage to hear it, you just thought she was crazy, or trying to hurt you. Let’s examine that for a second.
Note that people, in general, do not like letting go of their conditioning—it is painful and confusing to let go of your conditioning. Like if you’ve been brought up in a culture that tells you that gay people will go to hell, and then you make a gay friend who you don’t feel should be tortured eternally, this is going to be horribly confusing. With your old authority figures called into question, it’s not going to be clear who’s right or who’s wrong anymore, and it will thus be harder to figure out how to live.
This same dynamic can also be true of psychological conditioning—your ideas about who you are, and why you suffer. If you have been living, to some degree, as a stranger to yourself, or an enemy to yourself, that’s the safe place for you, that’s the condition to which you are accustomed. And perhaps you bristle at the idea of healing this divide because you feel like it would be dangerous to be other than you are, like your life would fall apart if you weren’t contained by your fears and fixations.
I can’t resolve that dilemma for you, nor is it my place to, although I will make a few passing remarks in response. First: people, in general, have a status quo bias, and categorically underestimate how adaptable they are. Second, I notice that, when I look around myself, the people who seem like they’re living the richest, most satisfying, most interesting lives do not seem to be people laden with inner conflict and self-contempt, and I wonder if you notice the same thing.
So, again, if you have an instant, hostile reaction to the idea that you could feel better—why is that?
This piece was thoroughly informed by conversations with Mark Estefanos, who also provided helpful editorial feedback. Cate Hall also improved this piece.
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Duuuude. Beautiful, precise, clear. So many gems in there - i.e. "your mind was built for survival, not comfort." Thank you!
1. I thought the phenomena you describe here -- in which one avoids thinking about something negative from the past and so cannot get used to it -- already had a name, "repression".
2. I've sometimes heard trauma described as projecting past negative patterns onto the current situation, even when it's not what's happening now. It seems like that phenomena happens, and the phenomena you describe here, repression, also happens, and they're both often categorized under "trauma". Is the word trauma useful as an umbrella term?
3. I've often wondered what processing is. It sounds like what you call processing can also be called "getting used to it" or "getting over it". But those terms make it sound automatic and it's unhelpful as advice. A friend of mine pointed out that the word "processing" was probably invented for a large bucket of specific helpful pieces of advice to "get used to/over it" actively, so that it would be more helpful. Does that make sense from your perspective?
4. I haven't read The Body Keeps The Score yet. Do you recommend it? And is its treatment of the concept compatible with the one you present here?