Velleda C. Ceccoli, PhD – Psychic Survival and The Packaging of the Self

We are, all of us, finely tuned complex beings. Every day in my clinical practice I am reminded of this fact. Individuals and their lives, and life solutions are never simple. Instead, each person carries within them a dense cast of internal characters and experiences which lend their voices and truths to lived experience, often determining outcome and choices. This personal theater of relationships to others and to the world is the very basis of our experience – and often that experience is housed, felt and thought about in different parts of our self, in self-states that have emerged (often out of awareness) to help us get on with the business of living.

"Ballerinas attempt to rematerialize, Knowing They Face Technical Difficulties" by Sue Williams | 303 Gallery
“Ballerinas attempt to rematerialize, Knowing They Face Technical Difficulties” by Sue Williams | 303 Gallery

Working with people who have suffered various types of traumatic experience, has highlighted for me the fact that there are often many selves, or self-states which hold different information about a person: different feelings, thoughts, experiences and memories. The degree of trauma is sometimes equivalent to the degree of psychic fragmentation and dissociation, but this is not always true. The fact is that our psyche is prone to dissociation in the service of maintaining healthy functioning and ongoing homeostasis. All of us dissociate to one degree or another in our daily lives despite our ongoing experience of being one self. And some times we rely more on one part of ourself than on others – because we need to. When trauma has touched one’s life it causes the dissociative properties of our psyche to become entrenched and take over, in order to prevent further destabilization, and this often means that self-experience becomes fragmented and held and managed by varying parts of the self.

This post is about personal marketing, about the packaging of the self and the make up of a persona who can navigate the demands of the world while protecting the truth(s) of the rest of the self, and its psychic unity and survival. This type of “packaging” is known to all survivors of trauma (regardless of the type of trauma) and usually presents a particular and personally created incarnation that is based on strength, competence and total self-reliance. The trouble is that such packaging usually comes about as the result of environmental impingement on the self. It materializes as a palpable self to help navigate difficulties and prevent further psychic disruption and destabilization while managing life’s demands. Such packaging creates a “false self” that is adept at doing what is needed while maintaining crucial emotional ties and bonds to loved ones and protecting the “true(er) self” that has been injured, trespassed and/or traumatized. Quite a complicated state of affairs.

Since such a self is meant to insure survival, it comes about via the shaping of a self that mirrors what is expected from the adult caretakers that are involved in such survival. What is crucial here is to maintain the emotional connection to others through a mirroring of their perceived needs. Their perceived needs and not the self’s (ergo the developmental impingement). Furthermore, since this packaged self is forged out of a child’s psyche, it is modeled in the rigid, inflexible, and omnipotent style that children often use in play when they emulate adults. Thus, while it may be very effective in managing ongoing life situations, it precludes the ability to contemplate other behavioral options or to develop the necessary coping skills to deal. And this is out of necessity: in order to develop social and behavioral coping skills one needs to experience the emotions and feelings associated with them so as to be able to think about them experientially. The entire purpose of  the false self or packaged personae is to avoid those feelings and get on with it. What makes such self-states false is that they are borne out of necessity for survival and do not represent the individual’s other needs; instead, they act as protective shields with a singular purpose – to avoid further psychic disruption while maintaining a crucial emotional tie. To call these self-states “false” is misleading – they are very real indeed and often contain many characteristics of the self which have rigidified and become ironclad out of necessity. Continued reliance on such “packaging” insures emotional isolation and hopelessness as the rest of the self is likely to feel misunderstood and alone, as well as at a loss as to how to proceed without the help of a much depended on part of itself. This is one of the many reasons why people enter treatment: their (protective) false self has been working overtime, its armor cracking and revealing a much more complex emotional story .

It is often the case that our defenses, whether they exhibit as full on selves, self-states or ongoing protective behaviors, come about to help maintain our psychic integrity but at the cost of keeping much of the information and feelings associated with the pain inherent in such experiences, out of our awareness. Thus, our package-like states require that we continue to act within a rigid set of behavioral alternatives (which came about out of necessity) because they are the only ones that such self-states know. Often when other alternatives become an option in treatment, they threaten the self precisely because they require new behavior and skills, which may make previous ways of functioning (and package-like states) not needed. Imagine relying on a part of yourself for most of your life and then finding out that perhaps it has been made redundant!

Psychoanalysts that work with trauma and dissociative states often address the need for integration: a kind of meeting of the self-states so that one can acknowledge the various parts of oneself, why they are needed, how they function, what they speak to, etc. Such integration rarely comes about smoothly. Instead it occurs over time and usually in relationship to an other who comes to know the self in relation to its self-states: someone who comes to understand why the packaging was and perhaps still is necessary, and who helps bring about a voice, finally initiating a dialogue that makes integration a possibility.

It is when I come to truly know and understand various patient self-states, from my experience of, and interaction, with them, that a meeting of minds can take place, and only then is it possible for my patients to consider doing things that until that point had been managed by another part of themselves, packaged to take on that particular task(s). Treatment is not necessarily about banishing these states, but about understanding their purpose and perhaps initiating a collaboration of sorts – leading to the experience and sense of unity that comes from really knowing oneself.

Velleda C. Ceccoli, PhD

First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on November 26, 2012. 

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