Content Warning: This article will discuss (although not in detail) trauma, sexual assault, and rape culture. If you struggle with any of the issues raised in this article, please visit mind.org.uk for support.
In their books My Body Keeps Your Secrets and The Way We Survive, Lucia Osborne-Crowley and Catriona Morton explore the idea of the ‘false self’ created through trauma.
Trauma, as described in Morton’s book, can be caused by many things including racism, family, bullying, accidents, and grief, but in society today it is more commonly associated with violence or abuse. As discussed in both books, no trauma should be compared to another and the aftereffects of trauma can vary from person to person regardless of how ‘serious’ the legal system or society might deem the catalytic experience or experiences.
When speaking to Osborne-Crowley at Blackwell’s ‘Surviving Trauma’ event, she explained that a psychoanalyst once told her that it doesn’t actually matter what the inciting event is when it comes to trauma. It doesn’t matter what has happened to you – if your brain interprets something as frightening, or if you feel trapped or if you feel afraid, that can cause a traumatic response in the brain.
This in turn leads to the body going into a survival response of ‘fight, flight, freeze or appease’. Trauma is a spectrum and the idea that we must undergo something incredibly serious or life-changing in order to experience trauma is false. Any experience of trauma is valid.
Osborne-Crowley writes about the false self being the identity we create when we conceal our pain, shame or vulnerability from the world around us. People who have experienced trauma may use secrecy as a form of self-preservation, trying to prevent this from becoming a defining feature about themselves. The more often we see institutional evidence of the frequent mistreatment of people with trauma, the more likely we are to conceal our symptoms rather than seek help. We might feel unable to speak out because of the way in which we see how others who have spoken out are shamed by society.
It is shame which compels us to keep secrets. We seek solace through dissociation from ourselves and we curate ourselves into a false self in order to only present to the world what we want them to see. This way we hide our ‘ugly’ or ‘damaged’ parts.
In her book, Osborne-Crowley writes that what made her suffer the most was not her experience of rape itself but the fact she felt compelled to hide what had happened to her because she felt she was at fault. In her research on the aftermath of trauma, Osborne-Crowley found that although everyone’s story is different, the impact on their individual lives afterwards remains mostly the same.
This idea of the false self that Osborne-Crowley talks about, is from a book by John Bradshaw called Healing the Shame that Binds You in which Bradshaw says that when our lives are overtaken by shame, we create a false self. As the false self is formed, the authentic self goes into hiding. Our mind is trying to protect us from the trauma and the only way we know how to handle this unexplained memory fog is by creating an alternative version of ourselves where this trauma didn’t happen at all: the false self.
Maintaining this false self is exhausting and can often feel deceitful in many ways, however, the false self that survivors create isn’t a lie because often, as a result of trauma, we cannot retrieve the memories that are causing us to get startled, breakdown, panic or act out in what might appear to be unusual times and situations. What Osborne-Crowley discovered is that our body is a canvas. The body tells the secrets that we are trying to keep. These bodily reactions we experience after trauma is our body telling us to address these secrets.
Survivors often make adaptations in their lives in order to exist in the same world that left them hurt. These adaptations make survivors more resilient and provide the tools to process situations in ways that those who have experienced trauma can’t. These survival techniques created out of trauma can be seen as both a blessing and a curse and in her book, The Way We Survive, Catriona Morton explores the oscillation between the two.
In language, survivors sometimes avoid the words ‘rape’ or ‘assault’, replacing them with phrases such as ‘the incident’ or ‘that difficult time’ and this can be because of a myriad of reasons including feeling ashamed or wanting to protect those around them from hearing the brutal details of reality. In any case, changing the language we use following trauma is a way that survivors adapt and is a completely legitimate response.
After experiencing a trauma, our brains are essentially rewired which changes the way we deal with emotion, memory and reasoning. These books helped me, and I’m sure they can help others, in regards to validating personal responses to trauma. Both My Body Keeps Your Secrets and The Way We Survive are also valuable in showing the range of different effects trauma can have.
If the content of this article has caused you any distress or discomfort, please reach out to friends or family, a local health service or a specialised trauma service for support. All trauma is valid.