Interview with Julia Vaughan Smith

The ‘Sentence of Intention’: An Approach For Working With Psycho-Trauma

Julia Vaughan SmithIn this article, Nadia Sajadi-Rosen from The Practice Rooms interviews the psychotherapist Julia Vaughan Smith about her experience in working with trauma.

NSR: Please tell us about your background. How did your work lead to an interest in trauma? 

Julia Vaughan Smith:   I have had a varied career in organisational & leadership development and have practised as an executive coach for 23 years. 18 years ago I began training as a psychotherapist, gaining an MA in Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy and have been in practice for 15 years. For the past 7 years I have been working with Professor Franz Ruppert and Vivian Broughton on Professor Ruppert’s theory and practice concerning multi-generational psycho-traumatology.

NSR:   Trauma is a strong word. Most people associate it with deeply disturbing life events. Or is it the case that trauma shouldn’t only be reserved for extreme events but can – to a certain extent – be a part of everyone’s life?

JVS:     You are right; trauma is often associated with a major life event, or used as a description for something much lower key such as ‘I was traumatized the queues were so long!’ It is a word that causes confusion and for some, great anxiety. When talking about trauma, I talk about its impact on the psyche, that is the splitting and creating of a survival self and the repression of trauma feelings.  The trauma is therefore internal, like a physical wound, and not the events themselves. Environments that cause this psycho-trauma are traumatising. Such environments can start very early: in-utero, during birth and in the post-natal period.

 NSR:   What different types of trauma do you deal with in your work?

Prof. Franz RuppertJVS:     Professor Ruppert distinguishes three categories of trauma. Early trauma is where there are birth complications or early separation or loss due to illness or birth complications for the mother or the baby. Distinct from this is trauma of love, where the mother is traumatised herself and unable to be fully available to her infant. She may not want to be pregnant or finds herself in a situation where the pregnancy feels dangerous (for example in a war zone, in an area of conflict, or in a violent partnership). Trauma of love is where the symbiotic needs for love, recognition, reassurance, food, warmth and bodily contact are withheld or inconsistent. Others refer to this as attachment trauma, but often fail to recognise the link with the trauma in the mother. A third type of trauma is the bonding system trauma’, where there is repeated trauma of love throughout the generations, resulting in survival strategies which are very damaging to others, including repeated perpetration, sexual and physical abuse or neglect, and perhaps repeated substance abuse.

NSR:   Which would you say are the most common types of trauma?

JVS:     The most common are trauma of love and early trauma. The level of psychological trauma resulting in the infant of course varies, as there are other factors at play. It is the view of Professor Ruppert that those with psychological trauma resulting from trauma of love or early trauma can be more at risk from subsequent psycho-trauma resulting from existential events (car accidents, stranger attacks, war…) and sexual and physical abuse (childhood abuse/abusive adult relationships). When exposed to such experience the psyche splits again, so that the individual has a complex internal-psyche.

NSR:   How does the infant respond and develop when affected by love or early trauma?

Split SelfJVS:     The psyche splits, creating this survival self to help push the traumatised self and feelings deep into the unconscious and out of contact. This enables the infant to survive. The same can happen in relation to existential trauma later in life. This survival self develops a range of survival strategies which impact ultimately on the ability to make and sustain healthy relationships with oneself, others and with one’s work in life. One of the things that also happens is ‘identity trauma’ where the splitting affects the sense of self and the idea of ‘who am I?’. This has long lasting effects in our lives in all kinds of ways: in relationships, in our choices, in our well-being and in our vitality and passion within life and work.

NSR:   How can one test the authenticity of one’s sense of identity?

JVS:     The questions for all of us are ‘who am I?’ and ‘what do I want?’ If we do not have contact with ourselves and a clear sense of our own identity and not that which we have constructed via attributions from others (you’re this or that) or through identification with others we end up in various cul-de-sacs and can make unhealthy decisions for our lives.

NSR:   Is there a way of evaluating the percentage of people affected with identity trauma (as opposed to depression, for example, or other mental health conditions)?

JVS:     I think psychological trauma, that is, splitting of the psyche, is quite common as many are born to traumatised mothers (and fathers); many infants are born into environments which are relationally traumatising. However, as I said, the variables are many in relation to the depth of impact it has on our lives. I would say that trauma of love, early trauma or bonding system trauma, and the resulting identity trauma, is behind many other forms of emotional/psychological conditions in childhood and in adults. There is no hard evidence for this so it is a view only, based on Professor Ruppert’s and other practitioners’ many years of experience working in this field. I would also suggest – again no hard evidence –  that bonding system trauma (generation after generation carrying and acting out from a traumatised psyche) is behind many forms of more profound and chaotic psychological disturbances including dissociative personality disorder. So it is hard to quantify and measure.

NSR:   As regard the multigenerational transmission of trauma, how can one deal with trauma if the causes are totally unknown to us, or if they’ve been hidden or silenced?

JVS:     Past events affecting our mothers, and to some extent our fathers/co-parents, affect the infant through the trauma of love. That is, the trauma the infant experiences. The mother’s own psychological trauma may also be the result of a trauma of love, together with other existential or relational traumas. Since trauma of love and early trauma can happen from conception onwards, the memories are implicit, held in the right hemisphere and body. Memory before the age of around 2, pre-language, is implicit. Which means that we have no cognitive recall, we cannot bring an event back from memory into the present. However, the body does remember, and triggers other associations. Many processes for working with psychological trauma involve working with the body and metaphor as a way of accessing information. 

In many families, things are held secret. Sometimes it becomes clear that the individual needs to find out some facts from those who are still alive who may know the secrets. One of the things that helps free us from the prison of the split self is being able to face the truth and walk our own path. As regards multi-generational transmission, the personal work individuals need to do is on themselves. We cannot re-run or reorganise the past. We need to differentiate ourselves from any identification we have made with our mother’s internalised traumatised self and her survival strategies. We may have taken them on as ours to keep us close to her. The way to find out what is ours and what isn’t is to do the work, and to find ourselves.

NSR:   Could you tell us more about your approach to trauma involving the body and metaphor?

JVS:     The approach developed by Professor Ruppert is that of working with a ‘statement of intention’ using the resonance of representation. This is to some extent related to the ‘constellations process’ where, in a group setting, members of the group are used to resonate as a representative.  This approach ensures the client is in control of what they want to explore in the process, and through the resonance, aspects of the unconscious dynamics within the client/individual can be expressed. What becomes clearer are the survival strategies and some possibilities of what gave rise to them. It has to be a slow process, small step by small step, as we are dealing with a traumatised self and we need to be careful.

NSR:   Could you describe what the ‘the sentence of intention methodology’ as developed by Professor Franz Ruppert and his colleagues consists of, in format and in substance?

JVS:     The ‘sentence of intention’ is whatever the individual wants to use the process for; it is for them to decide and formulate. There is no right or wrong statement; it is whatever is meaningful for the individual. In a group setting, the individual chooses which word, from their sentence, to start with and invites one of the group members to come into the space with them (we usually sit in a large circle and the work happens in the middle) and resonate with that word and with the individual. This is a phenomenological experience. It is not a logical brain directed activity; it is being able to tune into our body and experience and speak from that place. For most people this happens readily and doesn’t need any previous experience or knowledge. Gradually, other words are added in and group members come in to resonate with them and each other. The important process factor is to trust the resonance, even if the experience is to feel nothing, as that is useful information about aspects of the individual’s psyche.

I have participated in hundreds of constellations / processes of resonance over the last 8 years, and I have seen the power of this experience and in its value. My understanding is that it is right hemisphere communication between client and resonator, so it isn’t magic or from some knowing field ‘out there’ but comes from the power of communication from the right hemisphere.  The skill in the facilitation is to stay doing very little, not to intervene, to offer observations to the individual only and if they add to support the individual in making sense of what is happening. It is up to the individual to decide what to take from the work and what sense they wish to make of it. Repeating the process allows the statements of intention to evolve, over time, as the individual becomes more aware of their inner processes and moves towards integration.

NSR:   How are such /Identity Oriented Psycho-Traumatology groups organised from a practical perspective?

JVS:     Individuals can have one to one sessions using this process (we use floor markers and the individual steps onto the different words) and there are the groups. Like all deep work this is not a quick fix and I recommend people participate in a number of groups over time. Being involved in the work of others is very helpful to our own work as well, as is observing the work of others.

Groups tend to run for a day. Each individual process usually runs for 60 – 90 minutes. It is up to the individual how often they wish to participate in a group. Working in this way can complement other therapy work if the individual chooses. People wanting to do this deep work need supportive systems around them of friends and family, as any trauma work brings up issues that may be disturbing, that is part of the healing process. Each piece of work takes time to process. As it is body work and not from the logical part of our thinking brain, it takes a while for the meaning to become fully apparent on different levels. Most people find they need a break of around 4 or so weeks, sometimes longer, between groups. It is up to the individual and how they want to take their deep personal development forward.

NSR:   From a wider perspective, what are the different ways of approaching trauma?  

JVS:     There are many different approaches to dealing with trauma, depending on what ‘trauma’ is considered to be and how it is seen to impact the individual. Recently here has been a focus on working with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in relation to service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. This is a different approach to the one I have been talking about, but of course has a very important place in the wide trauma field. There is increasing awareness of its nature and new methods have been developed for helping individuals address the deep distress it causes and find ways of not being destroyed by it. Advances in neuroscience and neurochemistry have enhanced the understanding of all working in this field. Pioneers in working through the body to access implicit memory and the traumatised self include Babette Rothschild (The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. New York: Norton, 2000.) and Bessel van de Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking, 2014.). Peter Levine also works with the body and somatic experiencing. Others, for example Daniel Siegel (Mindsight. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.) are leading the way using mindfulness, psycho-education and dialogic therapy. And there are others coming from a Jungian perspective, such as Donald Kalsched (Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-Spiritual Approach to Human Development and Its Interruption. London: Routledge, 2013.). Allan Schore has also written about the neuroscience and bonding trauma. I am influenced by all their work, and I see their connections with my approach and understanding, differently described and attributed but similar. What I think Franz Ruppert has brought to the field is the acknowledgement of the trauma of love, where our symbiotic needs cannot be met due to the mother’s psyche being split.

NSR:   For practitioners of holistic/complementary therapies and others in the caring professions, are there any pointers to identifying that a client needs some help with trauma? Can you give any advice on how to handle such cases?

JVS:     My view would be that holistic therapists and others in the caring professions need to find out about their own psychological trauma as part of their own CPD. This would help them be open to the potentiality for traumatisation within their clients. The trauma in the client is met through their survival strategies mostly, including dissociation, control, unhealthy life choices, and how they hook into our survival strategies too (including our need to rescue). Clearly if someone exhibits a retraumatisation (dissociation, shaking, coldness, distress), then appropriate action is needed to bring them safely back into the present.  While it doesn’t happen often, a retraumatisation can be provoked by simple things, and, the individual is taken into the traumatised self which is caught up with the emotions and terror at the time of the experience. They are not ‘in the present’.

NSR:   What projects are you currently working on?

JVS:  I am running a closed group using the Sentence of The Intention approach in Exeter, from 5th March. Information is on my website  I am also hosting a discussion group on ‘What has coaching got to do with trauma and visa versa’ in London on February 25th, this is being run by the Association of Professional Executive Coaches and Coach Supervisors. Information is on their website.

I am currently writing about Trauma, Soul and Spirituality in preparation for a presentation I am making in April at Dartington Great Hall, an event organised by the Limbus Critical Psychotherapy organisation (see The main speaker is Dr Iain McGilchrist (The Master and His Emissary: The Divided   Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009.) The other speaker is Dr Farhad Dalal. The title of the conference is Neuroscience, Psychotherapy and Soul – Soul Searching, Soul Making and Soul Breaking. I am doing the ‘Soul Breaking’ slot. I am also writing about Identity Trauma and Working Life/Choices. This forms part of a book I hope to complete by the middle of 2016. I am also speaking at the international conference on Identity Orientation Psych-Trauma hosted by Prof Franz Ruppert in October 2016.

In between I am also writing about health coaching and working with patients who suffer from chronic health conditions, many of whom are carrying a psychological trauma. The focus is to support doctors and nurses in enabling such people to find their self-confidence, a healthy autonomy and greater well-being.

January 2016


Perspectives, January 2016 – Links to other articles in this issue

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Twitter BeginnerFor The Twitter Beginner: A Guide To What It’s All About & How To Use It: this article is addressed to those who are still reluctant to explore Twitter and considers how practitioners of talking and holistic therapies might use it today in a worthwhile manner. Read More…