Trauma as Disconnection with Self

Healing what was lost.

Posted Jul 03, 2018

What Is Trauma?

While I have specialized in the psychological care of people who have been deeply traumatized by overwhelming life experiences, it has been difficult to grasp an operational definition of exactly what the trauma means. The problem is often focusing on the event, what we refer to as the traumatic stressor. We are often asked why the same kind of event stressor debilitates one person, and leaves the other seemingly unharmed, or even in some cases stronger psychologically. The issue is we must look within the person to make sense of this question. I am reminded of my undergraduate psychology course many years ago which described psychology as the study of individual differences. 

Trauma as Disconnection with Self

I recently discovered the works of Gabor Maté, M.D., an author who writes eloquently about how trauma represents an event which disconnects one with oneself. Maté has written several books based on his work with addiction, trauma, and parenting. He talks about how he had to sacrifice self-connection as a child to remain in relationship with his mother during the Nazi occupation of his country and how this played out during his adult life as a pervasive pattern of self-sacrifice. His daughter-in-law, Tanya Maté, N.D., stated in an interview her view that trauma is not what happened but the disconnection from self that happened as a result of whatever the stressor was. 

I heard of a billionaire who was once the richest man in his country. He killed himself when his net worth sank to make him number two. His sense of self rested on being number one. The choice for him was be number one or die. Dr. Maté would make sense of this through the lens of early childhood trauma that required the creation of a false self whose value depended on what others thought of him.

Loss of Self in Childhood

Often children who are dealing with overwhelmed and pre-occupied parents are faced with a horrible developmental decision. Focus all their being on the needs of the parent and sacrifice their connection with self which is necessary to remain in relationship to the parent, or remain true to inner connection and sacrifice connection to the parent. The first case results in loss of a sense of self that can carry through life as psychological pain resulting from a habitual pattern of sacrificing inner connection with self, i.e., self-betrayal. Often children really have no choice because without connection with the parent they cannot imagine survival. Alice Miller talks about these dynamics in Drama of the Gifted Child.  Many other psychoanalytic writers have described the dynamic as well, but Maté brings fresh clarity to the problem. 

How to Reconnect with Self

The core of self-healing begins with awareness and recognition that there is inner discord that has perhaps sounded from the beginning of one’s existence.  Simply understanding how the separation from self may have resulted can bring a sense of relief. Learning to recognize and validate one’s own needs is a huge step towards self-healing. Accepting that it is your responsibility to care for yourself is a process that can require a lifetime of inner work. Finding ways to nurture yourself can be a delicious journey to a sense of wholeness that many have been lost in early childhood.  But you must give yourself permission.  Validation can only be given and felt from within. Terms such as the authentic self or essential self are vital to explore in this inner journey to self-discovery, self-repair, and re-connection.