The inner world of trauma

The following excerpt is the first three paragraphs to the introduction of The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defences of the Personal Spirit, by Donald Kalsched. I started reading it yesterday. The experience I have reading it is similar to when I read some of the books I experienced as formative in my early adulthood. Being swept up like this is wonderful. Wow! I’ve not happened upon a book like this in a long time. What was even more delicious is that I came upon the book in a highly synchronistic way, in the home of someone for which I’m cat sitting. It felt like it was handed to me at the very moment I needed it.

trauma“This is a book about the inner world of trauma as it has been revealed to me in the dreams, fantasies, and interpersonal struggles of patients involved in the psychoanalytic process. By focusing on the “inner world” of trauma I hope to illustrate how the psyche responds inwardly to overwhelming life events. What happens in the inner world, for example, when life in the outer world becomes unbearable? What do dreams tell us about the inner “object-images” of the psyche? And how do these “inner objects” compensate for the catastrophic experience with “outer objects”? What patterns of unconscious fantasy provide an inner meaning to the trauma victim when life-shattering events destroy outer meaning altogether? Finally, what do these inner images and fantasy structures tell us about the miraculous life-saving defenses that assure the survival of the human spirit when it is threatened by the annihilating blow of trauma? These are some of the questions I will attempt to answer in the following pages.

Throughout the discussion that follows, I will be using the word trauma to mean any experience that causes the child unbearable psychic pain or anxiety. For an experience to be “unbearable” means that it overwhelms the usual defensive measures which Freud described as a “protective shield against stimuli.” Trauma of this magnitude varies from the acute, shattering experiences of child abuse so prominent in the literature today to the more “cumulative traumas” of unmet dependency-needs that mount up to devastating effect in some children’s development, including the more acute deprivations of infancy described by Winnicott as “primitive agonies,” the experience of which is “unthinkable.” The distinguishing feature of such trauma is what Heinz Kohut called “disintegration anxiety,” an unnameable dread associated with the threatened dissolution of a coherent self.”

To experience such anxiety threatens the total annihilation of the human personality, the destruction of the personal spirit. This must be avoided at all costs and so, because such trauma often occurs in early infancy before a coherent ego (and its defenses) is formed, a second line of defenses comes into play to prevent the “unthinkable” from being experienced. These defenses and their elaboration in unconscious fantasy will be the focus of my investigation. In psychoanalytic language, they are variously known as the “primitive” or “dissociative” defenses; for example, splitting, projective identification, idealization or diabolization, trance-states, switching among multiple centers of identity, depersonalization, psychic numbing, etc. Psychoanalysis has long understood that these primitive defenses both characterize severe psychopathology and also (once in place) cause it. But rarely in our contemporary literature do these defenses get any “credit,” so to speak, for having accomplished anything in the preservation of life for the person whose heart is broken by trauma. And while everyone agrees how maladaptive these defenses are in the later life of the patient, few writers have acknowledged the miraculous nature of these defenses — their life-saving sophistication or their archetypal nature and meaning. — from, The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defences of the Personal Spirit, by Donald Kalsched

Okay that is a little taste from the introduction of the book. Perhaps once it’s been digested I’ll write more about it.

More on topic: Trauma and PTSD collected info, commentary and links

About Monica Cassani

Author/Editor Beyond Meds: Everything Matters