The 4 Levels of Trauma Defenses

by Steven Kessler, MFT,  EFT Expert & Trainer
© 2011


Any journey is easier if you have a map that shows you where you are and how to get to your destination. This is especially true on the journey of psychological healing, since some of the territory you must navigate is buried in the unconscious. Whether you are healing yourself or guiding someone else, having a good map is often essential to your success.

For complete psychological healing, we must heal not only the original core wounds, but also all the defense mechanisms that the person has created to protect themselves from feeling those core wounds. The defense mechanisms can be quite complicated. They are often organized in layers, with each layer imperfectly solving the problems created by the layer just beneath it and leaving problems to be solved by the layer above it, or not solved at all.

It is those remaining problems, the ones not solved at all, that show at the surface. Those are what people are typically aware of when they buy a self help book or come to therapy. They think that all they need to do is resolve the surface issue and their problems will be over. When that doesn’t work, they feel disappointed. But if you have a map, you can tell by looking at the surface problem where to dig for the core wounds and what types of defense layers you may encounter along the way.

I have created a simple map that shows how the various layers of defense mechanisms are laid down, each one on top of the layer before it. Starting with the earliest and simplest at the bottom and building up to the most complex at the top, the layering looks like this:

4. trauma + self-negation –> self-defeating behavior

3. trauma + numbing habit –> addiction

2. big or repeated hurts –> defense is ego syntonic –> trauma

1. an isolated hurt –> defense is ego dystonic –> phobia

I hasten to point out that in real life the different layers are not always so distinct, and one level may blur into another. The map is simplified so that what’s important stands out, but real life is rarely so simple. The map is useful, but the map is not the territory. Keeping that in mind, let’s go through the layers one at a time and unpack each one.


The 1st Level — Phobias

The simplest kind of wound is a single, isolated hurt. Up to that time, the person’s life has been basically okay, at least in the area of this latest hurt. So the problem that the client presents is relatively small and simple, within the context of an otherwise functional life.

For instance, suppose the client is an adult who used to do all the usual adult things, including driving her car on bridges. But then something happened. Since then, she becomes anxious every time she drives over a bridge. She begins to sweat; her hands shake. She tells herself there is no reason to feel this way, this is childish, it’s ‘not me’. But it continues. To avoid feeling this way, she now avoids bridges.

She has developed a phobia, a fear of a particular situation. She can feel the fear and name the situation that arouses it. She knows what she does to avoid the feeling, and she considers the feeling to be uncharacteristic of her. In psychological jargon, the feeling is ‘ego dystonic’. She has not identified with this feeling or the avoidance behavior and they have not become part of her personality or identity. She will say things like “I know I shouldn’t feel this way” or “This just isn’t me.”

This is the simplest kind of wounding. The hurt and the attempts to avoid it are close to the surface. The person experiences little or no secondary gain from the feelings or behaviors, so ending them brings uncomplicated relief.

Because phobias are structurally so simple, they can be fairly easy to heal, if you have a tool such as EFT (emotional freedom technique) to dissolve the trauma. It was in healing phobias that EFT got it’s reputation for “one minute wonders”. Using EFT, all you need to do is find the core incident that created the phobia and collapse it, testing your work thoroughly to make sure you’ve cleared all of its aspects. When there is only one core incident, this is usually easy to do.


The 2nd Level — Trauma

The next, more complicated level is what we typically call trauma. Here the wounding incidents are so big and/or repeated that they have re-organized the person’s relationship with the world. The person’s whole life may now be organized around making sure ‘that’ never happens again. And they feel justified in feeling the way they do; the feeling is ‘ego syntonic’. If they have been coping with this wound for a long time, it usually has become an identity structure, so that now they identify themselves by referring to it, as in “I’m an incest survivor” or “I’m an adult child of an alcoholic.”

A deep healing of the core wounding incidents will usually dissolve that identity structure, leading to a spontaneous shift in how the person identifies them self. For instance, a client who had been repeatedly molested by her father and who had believed since childhood that she must have been bad to have deserved such treatment, paused during an EFT session to reflect on it all and then stated, “You know, this had nothing to do with me. I was a wonderful little girl. He was a sick man.” Her whole psyche had just spontaneously re-organized itself.

What differentiates this second level from the first level is the relative size of the trauma and it’s defense and the extent of identification with it. In the first level, the trauma and defense are smaller than the rest of the person’s life, which is free of this feeling and behavior. In most of their life, they are okay, but in certain situations, they “have a feeling.” In the second level, the feeling has them. The feeling and defense are so large that they color and organize the person’s entire life, becoming part of their identity and causing them to say things like “That’s just who I am.”


The 3rd Level — Addiction

At the third level, the level of addiction, we have all the trauma and defenses of the second level, but they are now buried under an additional layer of defense, an habitual behavior that serves to numb the person to the pain and anxiety of the core trauma. Here, the person’s solution to the underlying problem has itself become a problem. Usually, people come for help with stopping the addictive behavior, completely unaware that it is their medicine for a deeper wound, and that we must heal that deeper wound to really cure the addiction.

The numbing agent may be anything. Some of the favorites are alcohol, drugs, food, sex, work, money, success, and popularity, but any substance or activity can be used, as long as it works well enough to dull the feelings from the trauma. However, all addictive behavior is ultimately unsuccessful because “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” If what you really want is to feel loved, there is no substitute that will give you that feeling. If what you really want is healing for the original hurt, there is no amount of anesthesia that will work. Sooner or later, the numbness wears off and the hurt returns.

This extra layer of defenses makes the healing process that much more complicated. In addition to healing the original core wound and the feelings, beliefs and identity arising from it, the addictive behavior itself must be addressed. Typically the addictive behavior has several components, including the craving for the drug of choice, the situations that trigger the craving, the habit of self-medication for the craving, and chronic psychological reversal (this is a term from energy psychology, referring to a situation in which the healthy flow of energy in the body is so disrupted that perception gets confused. In this state, what is bad for the body can actually feel good.) All of these parts of the addiction are interwoven and mutually re-enforcing, which makes them that much harder to untangle and dissolve.


The 4th Level — Self-Defeating Behavior

The 4th level is the deepest and most difficult to change, because here a deeper and more effective numbing process has been added to the usual layers of trauma defenses (and there may be active addiction, as well.) This additional layer of defense is an unconscious, automatic habit of self-negation.

Self-negation is a much deeper and more damaging habit than addiction, because while addiction tries to bury the pain, self-negation tries to bury the self. It does this by stifling all the expressions of the self and assertions of personal will, such as initiating actions and having preferences and desires.

Why would anyone adopt a habit of negating their own impulses, of preventing their own self-expression? Like all defense mechanisms, it was the best solution the child could find for the problems it faced. In this case, the problem was a parent who could not tolerate the child’s developing sense of separateness, autonomy and will. To prevent this development, the parent set out to break the child’s will by actively punishing the child’s expressions of his own separateness, autonomy and will.

Today, such actions may seem unusual or even bizarre, but during the 1800’s and early 1900’s, this practice was the norm. Most books on child-rearing from that era state that a child is a wild animal and it is the parents’ duty to break the child’s will in order to civilize it. Although the instructions in child-rearing manuals have changed, there are still many parents who were brought up this way or who, for some reason, were not able to psychologically separate themselves and therefore cannot tolerate the development of a separate self in their child.

The core wounding usually happens something like this: around the age of two, the child naturally becomes aware of it’s separateness and begins to express its will as different from the parent’s. Instead of supporting the child’s budding autonomy, the parent opposes it, using guilt, shame, manipulation, over-control, or outright violence. At first the child fights back, asserting his own will in opposition to the parent’s. But the parent is bigger and stronger and willing to escalate the punishments as far as it takes to force the child’s compliance. Time after time, the child loses the fight. Eventually, he concludes that “I can never win, and any assertion of my own will only brings more punishment.”

So the child does the only thing that will stop the pain — he turns its own will against himself and stops himself from feeling or expressing his own impulses and desires and autonomy. He learns to automatically defeat himself before the parent can defeat him. This is the habit of self-negation. This habit organizes the child’s psyche so deeply that the behavior persists long after he has grown up and left home. Even as an adult, impulses and desires are derailed before they reach the surface and find expression. Projects are begun, but somehow never completed. Situations that would draw attention or praise are avoided, since those were the moments that brought humiliation. Little is desired or accomplished.

These are the clients who have a reputation for defeating their therapists by refusing to change, even though they want to change. Being successful can be terrifying, since any act of self-assertion re-awakens the old fears of punishment and humiliation. They have never gotten what they wanted before, so why expect to get it now? For them, the only way to avoid losing big is to continue losing small. And underneath the self-negation there is an ocean of pain and rage at the way they were treated. But the act of self-negation protects them from experiencing all those overwhelming feelings. It is their medicine, their drug of choice.

How, then, do we help someone who is stuck at this level? First, we need to recognize early on that self-negation is present so that we don’t play into the try-and-fail pattern and end up re-enforcing it. Instead, we need to recognize the need to refuse to change and give it a voice. Within EFT, Carol Look has beautifully laid out one way to do this in her Refusal Technique. This technique is very effective, both to break the logjam and to confirm that self-negation is the issue. When it is, doing the Refusal Technique will cause the client to become more animated. In fact, they often break into peals of laughter at this permission to finally say out loud what they have felt in silence for so long. This release can continue for a long time as they vent the pressure they’ve been carrying inside for years. And you may need to return to the Refusal Technique repeatedly, each time the logjam re-appears.

Since these clients are profoundly psychologically reversed, I suggest also applying the EFT un-reversal technique early and often. Their system is accustomed to being reversed, and you must help it gradually re-orient to being in alignment.

As you penetrate the layer of self-negation (even temporarily), you can begin to address the underlying specific incidents (traumas) that led them to resort to self-negation in the first place. Their identification with being the loser must also be named and dissolved. If addictions are present, you will have to address them at some point as well, although this will be much easier if you can collapse the underlying traumas first.

It will likely be a long and twisting road, but if you understand the function of self-negation in their psychic economy, you will make real progress.

Looking back over these four levels of trauma defenses, we can see how they are laid down, each one on top of the one below, each layer trying to solve the problems left by the previous layer. With this map in mind, I hope you will find it much easier to understand and heal the various traumas you encounter.

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