What It Means to Have a Trauma of Identity


From Goop: “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.

A Q&A with Marta Thorsheim

How do you define trauma?

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.

Why does identity matter so much in your work?

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.”

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