Learner Therapist (52) … Fear of losing the edge
January 22, 2015
For the second time in a week I ran into a patient from a traumatised background fearing that if he recovered from his defences against the trauma he might lose his life energy, drive and motivation…that his strength would be diminished or undermined, that he would lose his edge. I remember a very similar feeling myself five decades ago when I was interrupted in my life’s progress by depressive episodes. At the time I argued (to myself of course) against finding some help with the notion that I would lose my quite clear edge in my chosen activities, while in tandem advancing the view that my worries were nothing compared to person X or Y, whose troubles were so obviously more deserving of help than mine. At the time I thought my appreciation of the needs of others was a unique moral insight. I’ve since found an enormous company of helpers and fixers espousing my mantra all on their own. Another edge dulled by normality.
This second aspect – unworthiness of help, or much of anything for that matter – is what our hyper-vigilant defences keep from our view. The edge of our defences, their energy, focus and sharpness, is sustained by a largely unconscious apprehension that it is being dulled by the engine of unworthiness. So, if we deconstruct our defences we will slide back into the sludge of unworthiness and its helpers - hopelessness and helplessness. The actual experience of trying new thoughtfeelingbehaviour is one of re-entering the traumatising world and self – a world of danger which a lifetime’s defences have been designed to prevent. The twister here is the often recognised fact of the abused re-exposing themselves to old and new abusers over the life cycle. Why? Because the defence is more comfortable than the promise of freedom from it, which can only be obtained by daring to behave in new ways!!
I think this kind of experience is especially prevalent for the “high performing” among my patients. It might be difficult for them to tell the difference between their injured self and their competent one – all the more so if their high performing self is clearly and unarguably publically acclaimed. It may appear to the therapist as ‘resistance’ to therapy in various forms. An ally of the preference for the edge is disclaiming victimhood, which is encouraged by the pop psych “move on”, “just get over it”, “changing your thinking will change your world” ideology.
The third side of the edge is an over-developed competence, which may create an unbalanced self but does not qualify for Medicare funding. A fourth cut of the edge is that it will never wholly disappear, that the wound which it expresses will always be with the wounded to some extent. It is, with respect, called character. The wearing away of our visible person into the wrinkled one of old age is one mark of our learning experiences of all kinds.
A sign of therapeutic success for trauma patients is the capacity to hear that they will never get over it in some important senses, one of which is having an edge. Another is seeing our scars as honours. That this is extremely difficult is modelled for us in daily life by the struggle of our defenders – soldiers, police, firies, paramedics… - to handle the traumas of their defence of us and the denial of their experience demonstrated by our social unpreparedness to care for them on return from our wars. Therein lies one of the most obvious sources of intergenerational violences, and around it goes again!
Those two patients I mentioned got over it. They were enough into the therapeutic work that they could acknowledge their temptation not to do the work for a tangible reason – that getting better might make them even less well, or so the loss of edge might feel to them. Their edge is among the most reliable of their feelings of being in the world, of existing, and reliable about keeping them in the world in the face of various pressures pushing or pulling them out of it!! But they are successful enough to know that their edge is now constraining their full development, usually in the relationship sides of their lives, either intimate or collegial, or both.