Soul Retrieval: Overcoming and healing complex trauma
Updated: Aug 25, 2019
An unspoken split in the field of trauma psychotherapy is between professionals who will focus on the treatment of trauma as processing “event memories”, versus a model of treatment where the focus is on transforming how disparate “parts” of the client’s personality have encoded the effects of the traumatic events and transforming the relationships between parts from ones of alienation and hatred, to those of compassion and acceptance.
The idea of a personality of “parts” or an individual as having multiple minds is controversial in some areas of mainstream psychology. Many psychological therapies view the client as a singular entity – one whole person in one whole body. However cutting-edge neuroscience has discovered that much of the brain's activity takes place
at subcortical levels, so the part that we experience as “conscious”, the “me” that comes to life on waking is really only a small piece of a much more complex machine. This understanding demonstrates a more complex multiplicity that makes a person. A person is not a single entity of a single mind: a human is built of many parts, all of which compete to steer the ship depending on who’s at the wheel.
I would argue that both an event memory model and a parts model both have value. For someone who was always taught that event “trauma processing” of explicit memories is the gold standard, I have seen clients be able to turn down the triggering volume on explicit memories of adverse life experiences that they have hold onto for decades, and this loosens strongly held underlying beliefs and starts to help the person see possibilities for dramatic change. Trauma processing modalities such as Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Trauma Focused Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) would be examples of these type of approaches, which in psychology are “evidence-based”.
In recent years, cutting-edge trauma therapies have come out of a more complex and in-depth understanding of traumatisation available through new neuroscientific research. A “parts” approach which is at the centre of Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy sees the goal of treatment as to create a sense of harmony and therefore stability where clients with fragmented parts can learn to identify different perspectives inside them, and differentiate their “self” from impulsive, shamed, or critical “parts”. In IFS, there is no singularly identified individual client, but rather an entire system (or family) of parts is the treatment target. Changing the relationships between the parts and how they communicate and interact with each other is the focus of treatment.
To this end, in Johann Hari’s book, “Lost Connections”, he argues that one of the solutions the current epidemic of depression and anxiety, is to heal the wounds of childhood trauma. Hari is a journalist, not a therapist, but he does draw a huge arrow to the means to do this pointing directly to a parts- based approach to healing. It's difficult to describe what happens in Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy because it’s always extraordinary and particular to the person. I was thumbing through the autobiography of actor, Sally Field in a shop one day last year, and I found a very short couple of paragraphs dedicated to her therapy with world renowned therapist Dr Dan Siegel. While she doesn’t actually name IFS as the therapy (maybe he didn’t call it that) what she describes is the IFS process:
One day after we met a couple of times, Dan asked me casually if I could name all the different parts of myself. “Parts or fragments or aspects or personalities, whatever feels right to you,” he continued.
“I call them pieces,” was my reply. No-one had seen me like that before, as being a divided person, and at the time, I hadn’t yet begun to see it clearly myself. But, as if it were a question I’d answered before, I immediately, without hesitation, named all the pieces of who I am. From incident to incident in my life, I could name all the parts of me that had been present, and if any others were involved. Little by little, memory by memory, I could see it, could feel the system of behaviour, the co-operation and alienation between the members of my interior family. It was something that I had known instinctually but had never pulled into the front of my awareness and certainly never articulated.
Dan urged me to talk to each of them, to visualise them in my brain like they were separate people, and, as if I were playing a game of Red Rover, to finally call each one over, to allow them to join the group, and me.
The world-renowned trauma therapist, Dr Janina Fisher refers to this process, as “soul retrieval”. In her book Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors, Dr Fisher, provides a case vignette of a client called Sarah. This case example probably illustrates both where a trauma processing model falls short and a parts based approach picks up the slack. Sarah, who previously had a successful EMDR treatment which had successfully reduced her trauma related symptomatology, while still experiencing regular bouts of extreme anxiety, particularly when she’s alone in the house or under significant stress at work. “I just want to curl up in a ball and wait for it to be over – but I’m not sure what I’m waiting for.” As the client stood up to leave, she asked Janina whether she believed in “soul retrieval”. Janina replied, “Yes I do – that’s what part of therapy is all about: retrieving the lost children inside of ourselves and bringing them to safety.”