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Trauma is the experience of being treated like an object.

— David Spiegel

Dorothy's art

The purpose of the True Self Project (TSP) is to address the often-unrecognized damage of developmental trauma. This is the trauma of the early years of life before explicit memory is operative. This is the trauma provoked by the adults in a child’s life through the adults’ own unmet needs, losses, and pain. It visits upon the child the parent’s unresolved life issues. Since human babies cannot escape their environment, the children are part and parcel of what their caretakers provide. They do not realize who they become in order to survive the vicissitudes of their early life. Most of us do not recognize that much of what we do is a reaction to past events rather than response to now. The feeling of emptiness and defectiveness is often a part of the felt life, but there is no understanding as to why or what to do — no recognition of True Self.


The True Self Project sorts out what forms of trauma we have experienced in our lives, how that trauma has affected us, and what we can do to heal from the experience. TSP is essentially a method of self-discovery that is based on creativity, joy, and positive connection to others. The project’s theoretical foundation is known as “attachment theory” (Bowlby and Ainsworth), which explains individual differences in how people think, feel, and behave and are the result of the experiences they had as children. Attachment theory utilizes brain research to explain the physiological and psychological damage from developmental trauma. It structures and sequences learning through concepts of True and False Self (Winnicott).

There are many forms of trauma. Some are universally recognized: the ravages of war and nature. Others, well recognized, are more often colored by relational experience: the devastation of sexual abuse, emotional and physical cruelty, abandonment, and loss. And there is developmental trauma that may not be recognized as such, even by those who have been the victim of contempt, derision, sarcasm, ridicule, disdain, neglect, or indifference.


In essence, trauma is the experience of “being treated like an object” (David Spiegel). All forms of trauma have an immediate and disorganizing effect changing the structure and chemistry of the brain and changing the attitudes and perceptions of the mind. Is it safe to be our Self in this world? These traumas affect the trajectory of our lives — especially when experienced as children. The True Self Project aims to elucidate these changes in ourselves by searching out who we were meant to be and who we have become.


This is a four-step program based on the inherent human need to be touched, to be seen, to be heard, to be understood, and to be valued for who we really are.

The problems to be addressed are:

  • Who is our True Self?

  • What have we experienced that caused our protective False Self?

  • What are the markers of our True Self?

  • What are the behaviors that indicated protective False Self, the essence?


The most pernicious consequence of trauma is that it moves us away from our True Self into protective False Self patterns of behavior and thought that we recognize, but mistake to be the True Self. We often believe True Self to be impaired and therefore spend time hiding our True Self behind our protective False Self. Or, if we know our True Self is intact despite its having been abused physically or emotionally, we deliberately hide that True Self to keep it safe from any more abuse or disregard. Either way, our True Self is a prisoner to our past and our fears.


In this project, the first step is to identify the True Self — the innate, unique individual we are, the Self that is confident, curious, and calm. This entails discovering what gives us joy in the moment, in the being or in the doing. What really stirs our curiosity? What is it we always wanted to do that we avoided out of fear? Of what? Why? We believe we can find our True Self through what excites our awe — it is our vitality. This search requires hard work, courage, and honesty.

Starting with very small events we begin to define our unique Self, noticing the ways we share joy with others and the ways we delineate our very uniqueness. This is primarily integration: the left hemisphere brain (specific, language, sequencing, logic, rhythm) is getting in touch with the right hemisphere brain (holistic, musicality, patterning, intuition). “I think about who I am.” The True Self thus motivates intrinsic curiosity and the desire to be understood, and it gives us the direction for personal creativity. This process of finding our True Self needs to be symbolized in some form. In this project we chose hands-on art, but any creative form would work. As a group, we met and discussed our thoughts and feelings about our art and supported each other through the process.


The second step is to replace judgment with curiosity (Lynn Nottage) about why we may be motivated out of fear rather than joy. What were the experiences that frightened us into shame and withdrawal, or panic and clinging? What has caused us to either minimize or maximize the significance of these events? Why are some of us tight, emotionally rigid and aggressively controlling, while others of us are loose, emotionally labile, and passively controlling? We must investigate our past since it lives in us in the present through every protective False Self defense we manifest. How do we symbolize this past pain, the trauma?


Third, once we understand the meaning we have given the past, especially what the past means about us, we are ready to dismantle our protective False Self. What thoughts and actions are the protective False Self not truly us, the defenses we had to develop in order to survive our form of trauma? These defenses become fixed patterns of behavior. They become our unconscious strategy for dealing with our relationships. Do we take care of others at our expense, or do we make excuses and blame everyone else? What addictive fixed action patterns do we fall into every time we feel fear? Could it be avoidance, withdrawal, denial, procrastination, sabotage, or insistence, stubbornness, violence, aggression, phoniness, sarcasm? These behaviors no longer serve us. They are generated out of predictions almost always no longer viable. They make it difficult to be true, collaborative, and coherent (Main and Hesse). In the process of re-living the past, day by day, we damage True Self. Through art we create a symbol of protective False Self behaviors.


The fourth step is to put in writing an explanation of the symbols of True Self, the impact of the trauma and protective False Self. This fourth step again requires use of left hemisphere narrative and right hemisphere creativity. The left gives verbal meaning, the right experiential meaning, re-integrating all facets of ourself and healing the trauma. This step follows Hadamark’s recognition that after epiphany must come “precising” in words. We are courageously facing the pain in our psyche and body, the life “we have put together with all means available.” (Pierre Janet)

This project actually normalizes the emergence of many behaviors that cause us trouble. If as children the demand of the environment was that we respond “well” to abuse or neglect, we learned to do so. We all feel pain and we all adopt patterns of avoidance. For each of us, it is not the fact of response but rather the nature and degree of response that differs. Knowing this helps reduce the stigma of our protective False Self.


Critical to the success of these four steps is the recognition of the fact that relationship with others is fundamental to our being — our inherent relational Self. Accordingly, the project is necessarily done in concert with others. This is a group endeavor, learning about our Self, through collaboration and play with others.


By reaching out with joy and interest (Schore) to you, the artist risks sharing their Self.

You are invited to question who your True Self is. How does your True Self hide underneath False Self? What behaviors do you realize to be protective False Self? Why has False Self been necessary? Is it still necessary? Please come be with us.

 Marythelma Ransom


The vicissitudes of faith involve the struggle not only to know but in some way to be one’s true self, to take up the journey with all that one is and may become, and to encounter through oneself the ground of one’s being.

 Michael Eigen


Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. ‘I am no such thing,’ it would say, ‘I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.’

 William James

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