[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]
I am attempting here to help find a cure for the feeling of self-blame and alienation we get from society because of childhood traumas, including those that cause C-PTSD. My hope is that when we see our unity with healthy people–that is, our shared experiences of suffering and struggle with those of the healthy (they may experience such problems on a far lesser scale, but they experience them all the same)–we’ll feel less isolated, less ashamed of ourselves for our struggles, and more accepted. This can help our healing.
My attempt at finding this cure will involve the creation of a new theory of personality. When we see our own position in the context of this personality theory, and see our position thus in relation to the positions of everyone else, my hope is that we will not feel there’s such an insuperable barrier between us and all the ‘normal’ people out there. People suffering from PTSD and C-PTSD often feel hopelessly different from other people; I’m hoping in this post to contribute to a feeling of not seeming so separate.
In previous posts, I’ve shown how the relative health and ill health of human psychology can be compared to all the different points along the body of the ouroboros, a unifying symbol I use to represent a circular continuum, with the polar extremes meeting where the coiled serpent’s head is seen biting its tail up in the top centre, and the length of its body representing all the intermediate points of the continuum.
Let’s imagine a large plus sign drawn over the ouroboros of the personality, with the vertical line crossing where the head bites the tail at the top (at 12:00), and crossing the middle of its body at the bottom (at 6:00); and with the horizontal line crossing the serpent’s body (at 3:00 and 9:00) where the first and last quarters of its body are above (towards the head and tail, respectively), and where the second and third quarters are below (towards the middle of its body, bisected by the vertical line).
Going clockwise from the head, we’d see the first quarter representing the highest levels of mental health (though at the neck and back of the head, one is a little ‘too healthy’, for in this area of stratospheric self-esteem, the potential of narcissism lies). The second quarter represents moderate mental health, the third moderately ill health, and the fourth severe ill mental health and neurosis, especially where we reach the bitten tail, where fragmentation, disintegration, and psychosis begin.
(In two posts where I discussed how the ouroboros can symbolize political and economic ideologies, I characterized the third quarter as the left-libertarian ideal, the fourth–approaching the bitten tail–as a temporarily necessary authoritarian communism, the second quarter as the neoliberal/libertarian right, and the first as the authoritarian right, approaching the fascist biting head. In other words, political health moves in the opposite direction of individual mental health; for resorting to fascism is the misguided attempt of mentally ill people to cure themselves through destructive politics, moving–so to speak–from 11:00 to 1:00 on the clock of the ouroboros. We can’t cure our ills by projecting them onto hated racial or ethnic minorities; we must cure them by facing what’s wrong inside ourselves, as Weiss‘s Sade advised us.)
As I said above, up at the head/neck of the ouroboros (at 1:00) is where those people who are ‘a little too healthy’ reside. Here are those who, for example, were spoiled as children, and not punished enough; those whose infantile grandiosity wasn’t let down in bearable, phase-appropriate ways. At the mild end of the narcissistic spectrum, these ones tend to have a sense of entitlement, so when bad things happen to them, they tend to fly into rages. If they’re not problematic in that way, they’re more like Ferris Bueller, totally believing in themselves, yet also sometimes taking advantage of overly-doting parents, and in danger of going too far.
Just behind the neck in the first quarter are those in a more or less ideal state of mental health (at 2:00-3:00). Calm, confident, and easy-going, these types can deal with life’s problems with patience and level-headedness.
Downhill from there, moving clockwise along the length of the ouroboros’s body to the middle, we cross the second quarter (from 3:00-6:00); here’s where people are moderately healthy, with some emotional issues of a significant sort (like Ferris Bueller’s mopey sister), but their issues are generally manageable without therapy; this is because, while their parents were flawed in notable ways, they were also nonetheless good enough parents. The same assessment goes for the environment (the neighbourhood, school, etc.) that these moderately healthy people grew up in.
Everyone experiences every point of health or ill health on the body of the ouroboros, at one point or another of his or her life; where one’s general mental health lies depends on where one finds oneself predominantly lingering on the circular continuum.
In the third quarter, we find people of moderately ill mental health: here, as well as in the second quarter, we seem to find most of the world’s population, though I suspect that more and more people have been inhabiting this third quarter over the past thirty years, given the rise of neoliberal politics and their attendant alienation. Here, parents and the general environment are bad to grow up with, but it isn’t bad on the pathological, malignant level we find in the fourth quarter, approaching the bitten tail of the serpent.
The fourth quarter is the realm of trauma, where sufferers of a variety of psychological disturbances reside. These include sufferers of PTSD, C-PTSD, anxiety, and depression, from mild to severe forms of them (depending on how awful the father of Cameron, Ferris’s uptight friend, is, Cameron’s either in this quarter or in the third). I suspect sufferers of BPD are also around here (11:00–12:00), though I also suspect that people with Cluster B personality disorders are more at the biting head than at the bitten tail.
Remember that I’m doing a lot of simplifying here, and my generalizations shouldn’t make you ignore the wide variety in all the different disorders and reactions to trauma. I just want to place everyone on a continuum to suggest the relationships between all the differing groups, so we not only see where we belong among everyone else, but also so we see that we belong; there’s no wall separating the traumatized from the rest of the world. We needn’t feel as lonely as we all too often do.
Also, I’m concerned with mental health issues resulting from trauma and environmental factors, not with biological and hereditary factors, such as those causing autism, schizophrenia, etc., which are far too complex for me to put on my simple continuum.
Finally, remember that I’m no authority on psychology or psychiatry. I just dabble in psychoanalysis and write my amateur opinions here, which you should take with a generous grain of salt.
The bitten tail is where psychological fragmentation occurs, the fear of disintegration, and the need to dissociate to protect oneself. Repeated exposure to stress in early life results in disturbances in, or sensitization of, the HPA axis, causing such problems as depression, anxiety, or emotional dysregulation. In this last case, feelings, during wildly emotional episodes, can be confused with rational thought, leading–if left unchecked–to delusional thinking and psychosis.
We sufferers of C-PTSD can be vulnerable to the effects of emotional dysregulation, so we have to be careful not to let our feelings lead, or take precedence over, our ability to reason and think in the needed self-critical way. We can take hope, however, in the fact that we needn’t feel trapped in a life of insanity; for as Freud noted, psychopathological thinking is on a continuum with normal thinking. I agree with that, hence my use of the ouroboros as a symbol for a circular continuum on which all mental states can be placed.
With my ouroboros schema of the human personality, I wish to give hope to all of us sufferers of C-PTSD, PTSD, anxiety, depression, etc., that we aren’t so walled off from the rest of the world; that with effort, we can move along the length of the serpent’s body, counter-clockwise towards its head, to greater and greater mental health.
We must start by acknowledging where we are now, in our state of ill health. We must face our pain. We have to feel it if we’re going to heal it. We can start by writing about our everyday feelings, using adjectives that go from the general to the more and more specific. Then, in our writing, we can explore where those feelings came from, what traumas in our memories caused them.
Richard Grannon created this idea, ‘Emotional Literacy’, so I must give full credit to him. He can explain how to do this writing of your emotions far better than I can, so I suggest finding his videos on YouTube, as well as his ‘Silence the Inner Critic‘ course.
[While Grannon has the formal training in psychology that I lack (I merely read a lot of books on psychoanalysis, especially those of the object relations school, and learn whatever I can about narcissistic abuse), he also endorses neurolinguistic programming (NLP), a popular self-help idea from back in the 1970s and 1980s, but one now–at best–lacking in sufficient empirical evidence to give it scientific validation, and at worst, a discredited pseudoscience. I wouldn’t go so far as to say NLP is of 0% worth (I imagine one can take a few ideas, here and there, from it and mix them with other ideas); I would say, though, that NLP–as much as my own ideas–should be taken with a big dose of salt.]
Another thing you should do, if your harsh inner critic comes from a family of narcissists (as did mine), you’ll need to replace those bad object relations with good ones. The inner critic is formed from a harsh superego, an internalized parental imago, or image of your censuring Mom and/or Dad that lives in your unconscious mind as a ghost would haunt a house. That inner critic is NOT you: it’s like a virus that has infected you, a foreign entity, and it has to be removed. I compare mine to Pazuzu, the demon that entered Regan MacNeil‘s body in The Exorcist; it must be cast out.
I wrote up meditations/auto-hypnoses at the ends of these blog posts; you can use them to visualize new, loving, accepting, and supportive parents to replace your inner critic. Imagine all the good, admirable qualities such parents would have, and visualize your ‘new parents’ embodying and demonstrating those virtues. Add to this a visualization of your abusive parents/siblings being removed from your life (I’m assuming you’re currently at least physically removed from them, as I am; if you aren’t, I hope you can get away from them if they are as traumatizing as I found my family in Canada to be).
I imagine those five people I grew up with being whisked up into the sky, gone from my life forever. I know such an image may seem harsh to you, Dear Reader, but if you’ve had a family as oppressive as mine was, you’d understand why I do such a visualization. You could try visualizing your tormentors, be they family, ex-spouses, or ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends, being removed in a gentler way, if you so wish.
In those posts I mentioned two paragraphs above, as well as in other posts, I also related my ouroboros conception of the personality to the personality structures of Freud and Fairbairn, as well as to concepts from Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, and Heinz Kohut, to show that the ouroboros of the personality isn’t just some figment of my imagination; it’s grounded in well-established psychoanalytic concepts.
As I said above, where the serpent’s teeth are biting into the tail is where people with Cluster B personality disorders reside, including narcissists. As Kohut noted, these latter people are split between grandiosity (biting head) and toxic shame (bitten tail), as well as idealizing a parent (biting head) and feeling traumatically disappointed in, or having lost, a parent (bitten tail). Furthermore, as Otto Kernberg has observed, narcissism is a defence against fragmentation and BPD; it’s a maintaining of oneself at the head (12:00-1:00) to avoid sliding over to the bitten tail (11:00).
Kohut’s narcissistic transference was designed first to indulge, temporarily, the narcissistic patient’s grandiosity, then to recreate the optimal frustrations that should have occurred in childhood, the bringing down of infantile grandiosity and parental idealizing to tolerable, socially acceptable levels of narcissism. This, according to my design, is a move from the pathological biting head (12:00-1:00) to the serpent’s neck and upper body (2:00-3:00); still in the optimal first quarter, but not in ‘too much’ health.
That move from the ouroboros’s head to its neck/upper body is also reflected in Klein’s move from the paranoid-schizoid to depressive positions; the former indicating splitting (head biting tail) seen in its extreme form in BPD sufferers, with an inability to integrate the good and bad in people; and the latter position being a reconciling, an integration, of good and bad objects (i.e., loved and hated people as internalized in the unconscious), a healthy ambivalence.
As for us sufferers of complex trauma, though, a clockwise move from bitten tail to biting head (11:00-12:00), then to the neck (12:00-1:00), would be a harrowing of fragmentary Hell; As I said above, those who embrace fascism, projecting their personality problems onto others, seem to do this. A counter-clockwise movement from the fourth quarter to the third, then to the second, and finally to the first, is the wise direction to take.
So, to recap, the bitten tail area represents the inner critic, Freud’s shaming superego, the realm of trauma, disintegration, Klein’s paranoid-schizoid position, Fairbairn’s Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (as described in previous posts–see above for links), Kohut’s toxic shame and fear of fragmentation, and Lacan’s traumatizing Real Order. The biting head area symbolizes Freud’s pleasure-seeking id, Fairbairn’s Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object, Winnicott‘s False Self, Kohut’s grandiose self, and Lacan’s narcissistic Imaginary Order, with its Ideal-ego gazing into its mirror reflection and seeing an illusory unified self, a defence against fragmentation, as Kernberg called it above. The length of the serpent’s body, from its healthy neck to a nearing of that hurting tail, is the realm of reality, Freud’s ego, Klein’s depressive position, reparation, and acceptance of ambivalence, Fairbairn’s Central Ego/Ideal Object, Winnicott’s True Self, Kohut’s optimal frustration and transmuting internalization leading to a cohesive Self, and Lacan’s Symbolic Order, where language and symbols connect us with the laws and customs of our community, thus linking us with other people and ending our feelings of isolation. (The mysteries of the entire circle of the ouroboros, I believe, can be related to Wilfred Bion‘s ineffable O.)
Going back to Lacan’s Symbolic Order, while looking askance at his postmodernist, structuralist over-obsession with language (i.e., take it with a grain of salt), I can see a limited validity in how he saw language as part of the therapeutic cure, since our shared symbols (i.e., signifiers) link us with society; so, improving our skills at communication with others will be crucial in healing ourselves. Part of our healing from C-PTSD, anxiety, and depression will come from learning how to verbalize how we are feeling, in as vivid language as we can muster, over and over again. So, to move counter-clockwise along the body of the ouroboros, from the tail up to that first quarter, just by the neck at about 2:00, we should write our pain away, as I have done in all my blog posts on my family.
Whatever you do, don’t conceive of your trauma, vs. mental health, as a dichotomy cutting you and other sufferers off from ‘normal’ people; that will only make you feel worse. Remember that you’re on a circular continuum with everyone else, and you can slide along that snake-skin in the direction of healing and inner peace…if you work at it.
And with the end of internal fragmentation, you can move on to ending feelings of social alienation. Feel your sadness phase dialectically into happiness, the Unity of Action. Be happy in having gone beyond the pairs of opposites.
Recall in the meditations/self-hypnoses I wrote of above (click on the links given), that you should imagine yourself as part of the water of an infinite ocean, your cohesive Self being–as it were–Atman connected to the Brahman of everyone and everything around you, the Unity of Space. Imagine those gentle, slow-moving waves as they undulate from your left, across where your body is (remember: you are the water at that spot), and to your right. You are at one with that water, connected with all life around you. Maintain your psychological state in that sense of peace for as long as you can, focused on the present moment, the eternal NOW, the Unity of Time, feel the vibrations of oneness within and without you, and feel yourself no longer lonely.