About Identity Therapy

What is Identity Therapy?

Identity therapy is a way of exploring our sense of who we are and resolving internal contradictions that are affecting our behaviour, our interaction with others and our sense of wholeness. Identity therapy does this by focusing particularly on the formative experiences in our lives which very often happen in infancy, at a time when we have no memory.

Modern science confirms that we face many challenges as we develop from conception onwards. Some of these challenges may be traumatic, ie emotionally and physically overwhelming experiences. We manage these early traumas by a process known as psychological splitting, whereby the overwhelming experiences are split off and buried in our unconscious. This is a natural and essential process that supports our survival at that time. However, these buried experiences are silently present, influencing our way of being in the world.

In order to ensure that the painful split off experiences don’t resurface, we develop different behaviours to help keep them buried. For example workaholism or, at the other extreme, excessive sleeping. We call these patterns of behaviour ‘survival selves/strategies‘. This diagram illustrates the split selves resulting from this early trauma.

It’s often very difficult to get to these early experiences because we usually have no memory of them. Identity therapy offers a way of accessing, releasing and integrating these early experiences, thereby regaining a sense of wholeness and becoming who we really are.

Trauma of Identity and Trauma of Love

How we manage later traumas and challenges in life often has its roots in very early unconscious experiences and dynamics.

Identity therapy identifies two types of early psychological trauma – the Trauma of Identity and the Trauma of Love.

Our childhood attachments are at the heart of who we are and how we live our lives. Central to these is our connection to our mother. Our mother is our earliest source of love, security, nourishment and empathic mirroring and we are exquisitely attuned to her in order to get these needs met. However, our mother’s ability to meet these fundamental needs can be compromised by challenges in her own life – how safe and how physically and emotionally supported she feels as she supports us, and how these fundamental needs for love, security and empathic mirroring were met for her in her own childhood.

It may be that from a very early period in our lives we are forced to give up our own needs and to identify with our mother’s needs and wants in order to maintain our connection with her. This becomes a Trauma of Identity. We survive by giving up on our own autonomy in some way. Our mother needs us to be a certain way in order for her not to feel overwhelmed. As a child we unconsciously pick up on this and react and behave according to our mother’s unconscious expectations. For example, if our mother suffers from depression or anxiety we might pick up her need to be mothered, and we end up caring for her, thereby developing an identity as a ‘carer’, a compulsion to care for others, whilst at the same time neglecting to care for ourselves. Alternatively, it may be that our mother may need us to stay close and dependent on her, as a way of managing her own traumatic feelings. Then we are not able to separate ourselves from her and become a fully autonomous and independent adult.

As a result of the Trauma of Identity, our contact with our mother can become bewildering and unfulfilling, instead of clear and loving. We are not being seen and loved for who we are and how we are. This manifests as a Trauma of Love. We internalise this as an unloving or even self-loathing attitude towards ourselves. This will lead to us having difficulties maintaining a good loving relationship with ourselves and others as an adult.

In this context it is difficult to have a clear sense of who we really are, what we want for ourselves and where the choices we make as we progress through life are coming from. Identity Therapy is designed to address and resolve these issues. The Identity Therapy process creates a safe environment to explore who we are and what we really want for ourselves as an adult in the present (as opposed to the child that didn’t have that ability in the past).