Role theory as a way to explain trauma
The consequences of traumatic experiences can be explained by different concepts. For instance, some trauma-therapy approaches focus on the neurobiological changes
in the brain (EMDR, Brainspotting). Others focus more on the frozen energy within the nervous system (Somatic Experiencing). As TSM is rooted in psychodrama it draws on role theory to explain the
consequences of trauma. The TSM elucidates how trauma causes specific changes within the personality structure.
Generally speaking, role theory describes how our personality structure is set up by different inner parts, so-called roles. Depending on the situation we feel and act from a specific role - giving it our individual expression. Examples for common roles might be partner, friend, father/mother, employee, boss, etc. Whenever we take on a role we experience its specific expectations, feelings, thoughts etc.
If a person is being traumatized by an experience, different feelings, thoughts, and expectations stay stuck within the person. They are going to influence that person's future more or less strongly. In order to elucidate this process the TSM has defined four specific roles which become embedded into the personality structure after trauma. These trauma based roles hold the different aspects of those frozen feelings, thoughts, and expectations.
The wounded child or the wounded adult is that inner part that holds the primary fear, helplessness, and despair. Those are the
feelings and sensations that we develop naturally when being victim of an overwhelming and horrible experience. This part is often called the victim, but in TSM we prefer to call it the wounded
child as this helps to find empathy and caring for it.
The defense roles have created a kind of protective barrier around the wounded child. This is to protect us from the devastating intensity of its feelings. The defense roles can manifest as emotional numbness, dissociation, regression, depression, addiction, workaholic, co-dependency, helper syndrome, people pleaser and many more. Often, these are the symptoms that bring people to therapy.
In TSM all these defense mechanisms are being honored as only they enabled the person to live through the traumatic experience or to continue with life afterwards.
The abandoning authority is a very important and often overlooked part. This part holds the feeling of being left alone when the trauma had happened. No one came to protect and rescue. Everyone who could have helped (parents, neighbors, teachers, police, etc.) looked away and pretended as if everything was ok. If anyone had taken action then the trauma could not have happened. We call this particular aspect of a traumatizing experience the abandoning authority and it creates a feeling of not being worthy. In later life this can manifest as great difficulties with self-worth and self-care.
The internalized perpetrator is that part of the personality structure that holds the violence of the traumatic event. When trauma had happened the violence came from outside. During later years, this violence becomes internalized and it can manifest as self hatred, intense self criticism or the urge to hurt oneself or someone else. In its most intense form the internalized perpetrator can lead to suicidal tendencies or the impuls to want to kill other people.
These four internalized and trauma based roles are stuck in the past. For them the events that had happened back then are still happening right now. That is why people affected by trauma easily slip from a healthy adult role into one of those trauma based roles. During such moments they experience the very intense feelings and body sensations of the respective roles, e.g. helplessness, emotional numbness, self-hatred, or fear.
The TSiRA (Trauma Survivors intrapsychic Role Atom) is one of the cornerstones of TSM. It displays very nicely, how those trauma based roles become embedded into the personality structure. In addition, it shows which other roles need to be supported and strengthened. In TSM we call these roles the "prescriptive roles" as only they provide the safety and containment which are so important for working with trauma.
TSiRA - click to enlarge
How can the consequences of trauma be healed?
In contrast to other "regular" issues that people are facing and that may be challenging, with trauma issues it is not enough to mentally understand the dynamics and patterns, and to feel the associated feelings and sensations. Usually, the destructive trauma dynamics stay in place.
From working with many trauma survivors, in TSM we have established a clear sequence of experiential steps, that build upon one another and that help to heal the destructive dynamics of the four trauma based roles.
To begin with we support the client a) to experience himself from his healthy, adult inner parts and b) to establish his supporting agents (like personal talents, supportive people, transpersonal support). It is crucial for him to stay anchored in his adult inner parts while slowly and consciously interacting with his trauma based roles. In a group setting the other supporting agents (prescriptive roles) are being played by other group participants while the client is in his adult-self role. Together with his prescriptive roles (this time he is not meant to confront his perpetrator alone) and from an adult inner place he now can confront the perpetrator and say and experience a loud and clear: STOP! This means that it is not (!) about feeling the the helplessness and fear of the wounded child, or the self-hatred of the internalized perpetrator, or the damaged self-worth and neglect of the abandoning authority. Rather, he is supported to experience himself as capable of acting when facing the perpetrator and to find and express his righteous anger. As a result he now can resolve the shock and freezing from the trauma.
This time not alone:
The wounded child surrounded, rescued,
and protected by his adult supporters.
Next, we support him to rescue his wounded child from the trauma scene. Again, it is crucial (!) that he does this from an inner adult part and with his prescriptive roles, not being overwhelmed by the feelings of his wounded child and regressing into it. His frightened and shocked wounded child does not need another fearful wounded child next to him - rather it needs a clear and strong adult who is capable of taking action, who stops the perpetrator, and who holds him in his arms giving him the chance to finally cry those deep tears that he never had a chance to cry; an adult that explains to him that is was not his fault and that he is a wonderful child. For a trauma survivor to hold his own wounded child from an adult inner place is a deeply healing experience.
Only after the client has experienced and integrated these steps we think it is therapeutically healing to now (consciously chosen) go into the role of the wounded child, and to feel his fear and sadness. However, it is mandatory that his prescriptive roles (played by other group participants) are readily instructed to rescue him in his wounded child role from the trauma scene. It is never up to the wounded child to rescue himself! Instead, to experience being rescued heals an even deeper layer of the the complex trauma dynamic that had become embedded into the personality structure.
This sequence of healing steps allows people affected by trauma to release deeply buried feelings in a safe and contained way without being re-traumatized, and to experience developmental repair. Step-by-step the destructive and painful trauma dynamic can be healed and new, healthy ways of relating and acting in the world come into existence.