Trouble With Traumalittles

Within the field of psychology (psychotherapy in particular) a common bit of language that gets used to discuss trauma is the concept of age regression. Like most things in psychology this is ultimately Freud’s fault, but age regression shows up as a concept in IFS, trauma therapy, and in diagnostics for some personality and dissociative disorders. In IFS terms, exiled parts of yourself are often representative of you at a certain younger age, and colloquially it’s common in DID and plural online spaces to describe alters/headmates in terms of their “internal ages”.

I want to pick at this idea a bit, for a number of reasons:

  • I don’t think these states are about “age” per-say except in a sort of roundabout way and referring to them this way produces all sorts of misperceptions about what those states are like to experience.
  • By equivocating between these states and childhood it additionally produces misperceptions about what it’s like to be a child and muddies the waters on issues concerning youth rights
  • The model of children as simplistic reductions to developmental milestones, such that their agency and personhood can be rounded down to their age, contributes to the objectification and mistreatment of children within society.
  • Growing Up” often means internalizing and normalizing the traumatic and harmful nature of society, accepting its antisatras as truth, internalizing its temporal necrosis, and being coerced into accepting the “personhood contract” (the contract that says you are a person as long as you agree to be broken and dead inside in the socially obligatory ways).

So with all that in mind, let’s examine the actual mental process at work.

Being activated into a particular learned state or being emotionally reactive in a way that pushes a particular alter to the forefront is essentially a kind of skill, a repeatedly executable strategy that you develop because it consistently produces some valued output in the world. It’s something you learned long ago as part of a strategy to cope with the traumatic situations you were pushed into as a child. Being triggered is often framed as a loss of control, as the state of being overpowered by your body and unable to stop it from randomly flailing, but this is incoherent. Having a particular emotional response to some stimuli is not a random action, it’s not a loss of control, it is a learned optimizing style. It has an optimizer, represented in your mind by the alter, who learned it at a particular age, the “alter age”.

Skill building is a lifelong process, both for good useful skills, and for bad habits you’ve kludged over your pain and disempowerment with. Ideally, you’d cross-pollinate skills, and as you grew and learned you’d move away from worse older strategies towards newer and better ones with your more developed state of knowledge. An example of this is learning to not throw a temper tantrum, because being polite and friendly is (typically) a better way of getting your needs met and your mind is holistic enough that this information can be integrated into your world model in empowering and healthy ways. Ideally.

However, another skill that can be learned from trauma is the ability to dissociatively segment your memory to protect some aspects of it from the experiences of other aspects of it. This is especially helpful when your abuser requires you to perform Being A Happy Child in order to avoid them preemptively taking antirevenge on you out of the fear that you’ll take revenge on them for their abuse of you if they don’t successfully manage to infect you with their temporal necrosis. When people talk about denial, repression, and internal gaslighting, they’re talking about the choice to employ this skill

Put these two skills learned long ago together and you shatter and isolate the various aspects of yourself. These mental barriers of enforced unknowing prevent the individual shards of which you are comprised from interacting or updating one another, which means they can’t learn to harmonize, and are essentially locked into a state of inner conflict by the contradictory intent between their desire to exist and their need to perform a role that erases that existence. Shards which can’t be integrated into this socially proscribed narrative are redacted from memory, tucked away in the dark forest beyond The Mirror, out of sight, out of mind. They don’t stop learning though.

It would almost be better if they were actually just frozen in time and just needed to be unfrozen, but they aren’t. They’ve spent the entire time they were isolated from the rest of your mind trapped in their own traumatic understanding of the world, summoned into the forefront of your mind by triggering situations which then reinforce that understanding, digging the mental grooves deeper and deeper, every incident serving to further justify their paranoid and depressed cynicism. A 10 year old traumalittle you discover in your 30 year old body has spent the last 20 years perfecting the art of being a traumalittle, executing on the trauma responses that worked at that age. They believe their interpretation of the world as deeply as you do your own, and have as much justification for it as you do.

This can produce all sorts of bad effects if you try to treat alters like they just are their regressed ages, because they’re just not, for one because they’re more skilled and knowledgeable than that description would imply, an “eight-year-old little” could easily be the part of you that knows how to drive a car, for example. Separately but also importantly, trauma shards tend to be somewhat more one-dimensional then an actual child of the age their stated age, the character they present as is really just a sheet hung over the trauma and repressed memories, a cached response to call up repeatedly.

Trauma alters have usually also been through a lot more life than their regressed ages would imply, and a lot of that life has been extremely unpleasant fragmented traumatic experiences which pushed them deeper into and reinforced the trauma responses they initially learned to cope with their lives. You can’t trick them or lie to them and expect them to naively buy it, if anything that’s what they expect you to do. When they share their trauma, there’s a good chance the obvious way you want to comfort them is something they’ve seen and that has been shown to be a lie a hundred times before. You can’t just snap them out of that with logic and facts. Be patient with them, be kind.

(it should go without saying but I will anyway, you shouldn’t be lying or tricking anyone, or concealing parts of reality from them for their own good, it’s not good)

Also I need to really stress this: you can’t just block the trauma response channel off with love and support, there’s still an entire lifetime’s worth of emotional pressure that has only had that one channel as an output, blocking that flow will create an anti-inductive escalation spiral. This manifests as the BPD behavior of becoming more erratic and hostile and unstable as someone’s partner tries to meet their needs. The only skill they know is to execute on the BPD, and when that gets confounded or called out or consciously blocked, it spills out sideways into yet another form of destructive behavior, like a game of whack-a-mole against yourself, hurting yourself to try to make yourself stop hurting yourself, it inherently falls over into contradiction. Even if you could somehow manage to completely block this flow (which would be traumatizing in itself) it will leave the shard to slowly die and rot anti-agency into the rest of your mind. Don’t do this it’s bad. It takes time to learn a different way of being, to learn better skills and practice them enough to know in your gut that they will be trustworthy and reliable, the more you used an old skill, the easier it is to just fallback to it.

An analogy: a bear is rushing towards you and about to maul you, you have a gun and can shoot it. You probably know in your gut that guns fire bullets and they cause harm, you don’t need to convince yourself of that, or have someone tell you that, there wouldn’t be time for that anyway. However, if you were from a culture that had never seen a gun before, and had been given one and shown how to use it minutes before this scenario began, your instinct might be to use it like a club or spear, not to risk the strange magic of trying to make it shoot bullets. This clearly isn’t as effective as making the gun shoot bullets of course, but under stress, in crisis, you can’t rely on your ability to think and reason everything through in advance.

Instead, in those moments of crisis when seconds matter, you fall back to the patterns you’re most familiar with under similar conditions, the things that seemed to work at times like that in the past, the strategies that exist beneath all the more complicated reasoning as ultimate fallbacks. Unless you have worked through your instincts and taken the effort of training and honing them, then in all likelihood the instincts you gravitate to under stress will be the maladaptive trauma coping mechanisms you learned as a child.

The only way to get past this is to have another skill dug in more deeply, so the in-the-moment energy flow routes down that path instead of down the trauma response path. There’s no cheating this, you have to really Know it in order for the trauma alters to even begin believing you. If you Want to change, you first need to Know is that your conscious mind can meet the needs of your subconscious better than the trauma response, which means you need to Actually Want to meet those needs, not just suppress them. You have to Actually Try.

This has been long and rambly, but in conclusion, don’t treat littles like literal children, treat them like extremely traumatized adults with childlike mannerisms from practicing their current way of being for their entire existence and getting very good at using that one move.

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