Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. — Rainer Maria Rilke
Integration, healing, wholeness, unity. Many people equate the removal of divisions with the attainment of spiritual enlightenment. Integration can also mean acceptance, coordination, working well together, as when we integrate someone into a team. Integration is held out as the holy grail of trauma healing, both integrating trauma memories into narrative memory, and integrating younger parts into a fully functional adult.
Integration can be invited, but not forced. It happens along the way as part of healing, but cannot be rushed. It is a surrender to the truth of our experiences.
Separation as a circuit breaker
Parts fracture away to contain experiences, emotions, or impulses that are unmanageably overwhelming, like a circuit breaker interrupting a circuit to keep the wires from melting. None of those parts are disposable or unimportant, even if we sometimes want to discard the experiences they hold.
Every September, Sveta gets anxious and depressed. She thinks of those 30 days as a terrifying gauntlet she has to run every year, gritting her teeth through each moment and relaxing with relief on the first of October. She knows not everyone experiences September that way, but it feels like an inescapable fact of being herself, like her physical height.
Her Septembers are a combination of flashback and emergency mode, a set of seasonal triggers that bring up frozen-in-time memories of abuse at school long ago. As long as the part holding those memories is only around at that time of year, and she is hunkered down in survival mode, her Septembers will continue unchanged.
The separation of responsibilities allowed Sveta to survive the abuse. One part knows only abuse, only terror and hunkering down. Other parts kept going to class and doing homework and answering, “Fine!” when people asked how she’s doing.
Pushing pain away
When a part causes us pain or embarrassment, our first thought is to push it away as much as possible. Those pesky child parts with their ungovernable emotions and behaviors remind us that the abuse really happened.
It is uncomfortable to think and talk about abuse. People reflexively defend the abuser (“I took a class from him, and I never had a problem!”), criticize us (“Why didn’t you tell anyone at the time?”), or treat us like damaged goods.
We come out of dissociation the way we went in. How we respond to the prospect of integration is part of the process itself. Self-hatred might bubble up, or fury, or a belief that nothing and no one will ever help. We push the idea of integration away just as we originally pushed the trauma away, until one day something shifts.
Agreeing to get closer
Many people hope that integration will erase trauma and make them “normal“. In contrast, true integration is inclusive, not exclusive. Nothing is lost, erased, or made less important, which might reassure child parts fighting against an adult part’s agenda.
Integrating a part requires willingness to know and feel everything the part knows and feels. We might know a part’s story, but knowing that something happened is like standing on shore contemplating a swim in a mountain lake. Integration is immersion in icy water.
Sveta starts on the path of integration when she approaches her experience with genuine curiosity and acceptance. “I wonder why I get so scared in September,” and, “It gets to be that way for as long as that’s so.” Another way to invite integration is to say out loud, “I’m willing to know what this is about.”
Trauma and abuse are terrifying, enraging, miserable experiences. We push them away for good reason. When we agree to allow them closer, we experience physical and emotional echoes.
For Sveta, agreeing to let her younger part nearer means no sharp dividing line of relief on October 1st. It means not just knowing that she was abused, but feeling it happen, feeling nausea, pain, the smallness of her body then. “This happened to me.” At the same time, she is aware of her present size and safety. Disturbing images overlay everyday life. She feels old terror and shame, framed by present awareness that all she has to do is breathe and let the feelings pass through her.
The deep processing of integration might make her spacy, distracted, tired, and irritable. She might want a lot of quiet time alone, or more time with kind friends than usual.
During integration, make space for raggedness, reduced functioning, having a hard time. Bring in as much nurturing support as you can. Allow yourself to mourn for any support you lack now, as well as back then. Allow yourself to celebrate the differences between present and past.
After a while, integration is also coming out of that icy lake, drying off, and relaxing in the sun. The integrated part gets to experience present safety in addition to sharing difficult past memories. The shift might be sudden (“Wait, it wasn’t my fault!”) or gradual. The painful part of the process does come to an end.
Integration can lead to the unexpected revival of old interests and skills, like painting, or hiking, depending on what the fractured part carried away.
The divisions between parts are maintained with physical tension, blocking out awareness of different parts of the body. With integration, long held tension can release, leading to more comfort and ease of motion.
Completed integration can feel like putting down a weight, both emotionally and physically. The energy caught up in a wall between parts is available for daily life. Triggered reactions feel less overwhelming and happen less often.
It makes sense to wish the abuse never happened, and to want to be someone it never happened to. At the same time, there is deep healing when we invite a younger part closer and say, “You matter. Your experience matters. Your truth matters.”
Sveta’s October of integration was hard, but each September after that was easier. The abuse at school became one of many past stories that weave together into who she is today.
Thoughts on the Radical Acceptance of Everything: A New Perspective on the Nature of Good, Evil, the Soul, and Human Existence by Laurence Letich describes how Focusing can help the “Central I” integrate different parts of our experience, and asserts that both unity and separation, expansion and contraction, are necessary.