• We might adopt survival tactics and defence mechanisms – like anger, dissociation, anxiety - to hide parts of ourselves

  • Therapist Shirani Situnayake explores the potential of character work in her therapy practice, and her own experience

  • Therapy can support you in claiming back parts of your identity that have been hidden – find your therapist here


“To cope with hurt and control my fears, I grew a thick skin. Oh, the many names of power. I am not the frozen Snow Queen, but a flesh and blood woman with perhaps too loving a heart, one easily hurt…….A theory in the flesh means one where the physical realities of our lives – our skin colour, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings – all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity. Here, we attempt to bridge the contradictions in our experience:

We are the coloured in a white feminist movement.

We are the feminists among the people of our culture.

We are often the lesbian among the straight.

We do this bridging by naming our selves and by telling our stories in our own words”

by Michelle Cliff’ ‘Claiming and Identity they taught me to despise’

My extensive work with women clients, who sit at the edges of this society, and/or whose sense of self has been fractured and diminished by trauma, is in part described by the excerpts from the book of poems referenced above.

The necessities of a thick skin or frozen state that clients wear to protect themselves, so often end up imprisoning them, shutting down or away their essential selves. The selves no longer recognisable, lost in the various armouring they wear – often expressed through anxiety, anger, depression, addiction, self-harm, dissociation, numbness – naming some of the survival tactics.

Within my therapeutic work I try to facilitate a client’s self-empowerment and authorship, listen to their stories, as witness and ally – helping them rediscover and name themselves – “claiming the identity they have been taught to despise”. Often a consequence of domestic and sexual abuse, child abuse/sexual abuse, racism, anti-lesbianism and misogyny.

Building a bridge of trust and encouraging them to enter into engagement through the medium of art – meeting and establishing into a three-dimensional aspect, the characters that have populated their world, can be a powerful, immediate and safe way to explore what was once too terrifying. Without exception every client who has embarked on this encounter with their characters/masks/faces/shadows/aspects/identities has made immediate connections.

With one client I worked for almost one year, intermittently, meeting and fleshing out her characters – honouring their roles and purpose in navigating and surviving a difficult and traumatic life/beginnings: recognising how these characters now limit and constrain her we invited them to step aside, enabling the entry of previously hidden or obscured aspects of her to take centre stage.

Where they had been the interface of her, as an Asian Muslim queer woman, surviving, navigating the world, they had become shadows she lived behind, one dimensional and suffocating.

Initially the idea of creating a character/s of the main player/s has often been met with embarrassment, unease and stumbling entries, yet I have been unfailingly awed and humbled again and again by my clients’ resilience and determination. The spirit of each client, the face that has almost been erased, that fights to find themselves, to recover what was lost hidden or suppressed – this seems sewn into their imagination and creativity, it is the road back to their essential self/selves. A connection, a pathway that had refused to be killed off. I am always honoured to be trusted and enriched by the characters that come forth into the light, liberated in my clients’ world.

My own journey involved two main characters – ‘Shit Head and Ratarang Baba' (Sinhala for golden child) Initially I thought ‘Shit Head’ was responsible for all the trouble in my life: loud, angry, provocative and often destructive – yet I also loved this part of me, that somehow represented the outspoken and bold aspect of me that is Sri Lankan, but was in trouble so often in what felt like a moderated British environment.

It transpired that ‘Shit Head’ was protecting ‘Ratarang Baba’, from her child sexual abuse and all the vulnerability and pain she tucked away with her. But the blond haired, blue eyed, light skinned mixed race baby seemed responsible for her own traumas – and when she emerged, I initially hated her. And so, began more work of reclamation, of the sweet, loving, joyful, innocent aspect in the heart of me, to assimilate my exiled self…

Shirani Situnayake is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Nottinghamshire

Further reading

The stories we tell ourselves: do you dare change yours?

Dissociation: understanding the impact of relational trauma

An early death from within: the impact of childhood trauma

What you wear to therapy: communication, disguise, and defence

Who am I and why does it matter? A therapist's view on identity