Healing the Fractured Self

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Reconciling the kinds of deep internal divisions which trauma victims may experience, acknowledging and accepting the polar opposites in their own feelings and desires, can be the task of a lifetime.

Trauma victims can have their sense of what’s real and what’s safe severely undermined, leaving them with a special kind of “cognitive dissonance.” It can also lead to deep divisions within them, creating uncertainties about themselves, their ability to cope, and the nature of their relationship with the outside world. Such internal fracturing can take many forms. Depending upon the severity of the trauma they experienced and the depth of wounds it inflicted, the internal divisions within a person can become extreme.

In “Borderline Personalities: Understanding the Fractured Self”, I wrote about borderline personalities and the relationship between trauma and disturbances of the self, but I’d like to say some more about the path to healing. Those who’ve learned to cope with unbearable pain by dissociating, splitting reality into opposing parts, compartmentalizing feelings, and sometimes living in an alternate, safer reality are difficult to truly reach, let alone help heal. And, as you might expect, trust is the major factor in trying to heal the fractured heart. The fractured soul is fundamentally a mistrusting one, unsure of what’s true and what isn’t, unsure of who’s safe and who isn’t, and perhaps most insidiously, unsure of how and what to feel. To heal, some sense of trust has to be restored. That’s no easy task.

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Hope for healing the fractured soul or heart lies in one of life’s greatest paradoxes: to put an end to self-destructive ways of coping, the trauma victim must somehow come to embrace the very feelings from which they’ve so desperately tried to escape. The fractured personality must be able to say to themselves with conviction: “Yes, I do have rage toward you for hurting me while still having need to love you;” or “Yes, I do not trust the world, but I must venture forth with some degree of faith if I’m not to wallow in the endless pain of my prison of isolation.” The fractured heart heals only when all the opposing feelings, attitudes, beliefs and perceptions are given equal say and equal acceptance. Reconciling all the polar opposites in the minds and hearts of the wounded soul can be the task of a lifetime.

A woman I knew who had experienced both emotional and sexual abuse as a child and experienced numerous psychological problems in her lifetime finally thought she’d found some peace and security in her life. (As always, details of this story have been altered to ensure anonymity.) True, her love life was not the best because it was hard for her to open up and make herself vulnerable. She went through the motions of sexual intimacy with her husband because she felt it was her duty, but she couldn’t really give herself away because it somehow never really felt safe. Then it happened, just as her instincts told her all the while that it eventually would: her husband revealed an affair he’d been having for years. Of course, at one level his explanation sounded reasonable enough: he wasn’t getting his emotional needs met, and he was desperate for affection. But on the other hand, he’d just proved why in the deepest recesses of her heart she just knew it wasn’t safe to trust him or anyone else: as she saw it, given the chance, people will cut out your heart. That’s why you have to keep it to yourself and build a wall of protection around it. It was lonely in isolation, but it was safe there. After all, you can’t betray yourself, can you?

This deeply fractured soul would have to come to terms with all of her ambivalence about life and how to cope with its ever-present dangers. She would have to come to see that in such overwhelming fear of giving oneself away you can inadvertently drive others away. In this woman’s case, her fears of abandonment become a self-fulfilling prophecy. She would have have learn to love herself enough to overcome chronically fearing the worst, and she would have to learn that even though some pain seems impossible to bear, pain is part of life. It’s the one thing we can reliably anticipate and inevitably have to learn to cope with, and if our only means of coping is to detach from it — as opposed to embracing and processing it in other, more healthy ways — we end up leading a sort of living death.

Helping a fractured heart heal is perhaps one of a therapist’s greatest challenges. Establishing trust in the therapeutic relationship is particularly challenging because of the wounded soul’s inherent and intense mistrust, coupled with their equally intense need to emotionally bond. Intimate encounters with the wounded soul can swing wildly from unhealthy emotional enmeshment to hurtful rages. As the title of a once popular book on the subject reflected, the internally divided trauma survivor often sends others the message: “I hate you, but please don’t leave me.” It’s a real bind not just for the fractured soul, but for their relationship partners. But the hope for healing lies in the therapist’s acceptance of these polar opposite feelings and desires. In every fracture, there are two pieces, each an essential part to the whole, and without acknowledgment, acceptance, and re-integration of both, there can be no spiritual mending.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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