Beyond the compromised identity

better living

By Julia Vaughan Smith

As I sit here, in the light of bigger skies in the south of France, where I have come to focus on a number of writing commitments, I am thinking of February and beyond. Imagining what might be helpful and interesting for the APECS session and how best to form a bridge between the world of traumatology and the world of coaching.

I think the connecting point is identity; how it gets compromised and expressed. To some extent all roles require an internalisation of role identity, a fusion with our self-identity. However, if our self-identity is a constructed one it becomes more friable as pressures mount, or in a hostile or challenging environment and as we get older. We rely on defensive strategies (avoidance, control, denial, distraction, dissociation, illusion, compensation) to distract ourselves from this inner pain. Surviving in this way can be exhausting leading to burnout in some cases.

So how do our identities become compromised and constructed? This is the link with the traumatised self/psyche. Does it matter if we coach the constructed identity in support of defensive strategies? That is the link with coaching.

First things first. It is probably that traumatised psyches are widely spread and common. It is not something restricted to some very unfortunate few, or to those whose emotional suffering means they are unable to hold a professional career. It could be seen as part of the human condition. However, that doesn’t mean that it is less likely to affect adversely the quality of one’s life, relationships and vitality. It can derail us; it can drive us in punitive directions (think compulsive over-work/self-sacrifice). People can be highly successful professionally and carry psycho-emotional distress.

The word trauma has so many meanings and associations that it can become confusing. Is it an event/experience, is that the trauma? Or is it the impact on the psyche? I see it as is the latter – experience which is beyond what can be coped with, causes high stress, then dissociation. In the dissociation (a psychological withdrawal from reality), the pain, terror and helplessness caused by the experience is repressed deep into the unconscious. What emerges is a survival self/care-taker self/self-care system which acts as if that hasn’t happened but whose whole existence is to create a series of defensive behaviours and a constructed self. We still have a healthy self/core self that remains but is limited by the survival strategies. There are neuroscience and endocrine explanations for what happens too, but I find the idea of ‘the split psyche’[1], as described by Professor Franz Ruppert, a useful metaphor for understanding the impact of traumatising experience.

The word trauma can bring to mind the dreadful scenes we see in the news about war, famine, multiple loss of those close to you, refugees crossing the seas in what must be unspeakable terror. Clearly, these experiences are traumatising. Alternatively the mind is often taken to sexual and physical abuse/neglect in childhood. This is shockingly frequent[2]. Van der Kolk[3] states that for every USA military person who has gone to a war zone, 10 children are terrorised in their own homes.

What is less focused on is the traumatising effect of being born to a mother and father who may already be traumatised and whose psyche is already split, maybe more than once. Repeated traumatising experiences results in further splitting, causing a whole sequence of ‘distorting mirrors’ (Kalsched[4]) within our idea of our self. Neither do we pay attention often to the traumatising impact of an unwanted pregnancy with attempted termination, or during a time of undue traumatic stress for the mother, or difficult birth or of separation from the mother immediately after birth for health or social reasons. These sets of trauma, symbiotic trauma (being mothered by someone who is traumatised and unable to consistently or at all meet the symbiotic needs of the infant) and early trauma, are even more common than is sexual or physical abuse. Unfortunately the betrayal of sexual and physical abuse often compounds the earlier symbiotic or early trauma. At the same time, those who have compounded traumas are more at risk from profound adverse effects to later traumatising experience.

So, we can be sure that many of us, and many of our clients have some form of split to the psyche. The issue is to what extent? This will depend on what modifying conditions were there in early life and the inner work we might have done on ourselves in adulthood. Most of our clients have a sense of agency, of being in control of their lives; they are high functioning people who have gained a good education and often created impressive careers. They are therefore not in the category of people whose life experience has been such that they have not been able to develop a sense of agency or a coherent enough sense of themselves. However this high functioning exterior can hide inner dynamics which cause well-hidden distress to the individual.

The dynamics of the survival self, and at times what lies beneath, play out in the coaching room, at times in ourselves and in the client. This is what we will focus on, not on finding out about, or working with, the trauma (although the ability to listen and witness is very valuable should a client wish to tell us some of their disturbing history); not on setting about on a healing journey with the client, but staying connected to their goals/intentions by being aware of their and our survival strategies.

If we don’t know who we really are other than our survival selves or a constructed self, we can’t know what we want. We certainly can’t access the inner resources to get it.

I hope you will be curious enough to join us in a discussion on this topic, so that we can share perspectives and experience. I certainly am looking forward to that exploration.

When trauma shows up in coaching
25 February 2016, 6.30–8.30pm
Space in Marylebone, 10 Daventry Street, London NW1 5NX
Members £36 inc. VAT; Non-members £42 inc. VAT

Book with Eventbrite

Image courtesy Rajarshi Mitra.


  1. Professor Franz Ruppert, Symbiosis and Autonomy, 2013, Green Balloon Publishing.  ↩
  2. 50,000-plus children are on the at-risk register each year. NSPCC estimate that for each child on the register, another 8 are suffering abuse.  ↩
  3. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 2014, Allen Lane  ↩
  4. Donald Kalsched, Trauma and the Soul, 2014  ↩

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