The Inner World of Trauma

Below is an intro to a book that I have found profoundly helpful. Coming to recognize and understand what Donald Kalsched speaks about in The Inner World of Trauma has been one of the now many pivotal points in my own healing process. Understanding the complex he talks about in this book has allowed me to integrate and heal parts of my being I had, prior to digesting the material he shares, been at a loss with how to proceed. I was well aware of the complex from meditation and mindful observation but didn’t know how to interpret it. For me, this has been a largely contemplative and somatic healing process and not one I pursued through psychoanalysis, which is, of course, what the author recommends.

I have friends, both professional and lay people, who have found the book extraordinarily helpful as well so I’m sharing the introduction again so that others who might find it useful might benefit too. It’s such a wonderful source of insight and validation about the inner world of those traumatized (particularly in infancy) that I want to share more from the introduction.

The following excerpt is a good part of the introduction of The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defences of the Personal Spirit, by Donald Kalsched. The experience I had reading it is similar to when I read some of the books I experienced as formative in my early adulthood. Being swept up like that is wonderful and the phase of healing it ushered in, even more wonderful. Something even more delicious is that I came upon the book in a highly synchronistic way. It felt like it was handed to me by some loving force at the very moment I needed it.

I want to express great gratitude to Donald Kalsched for articulating his brilliant and sensitive observations.

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.


The self-care system performs the self-regulatory and inner/outer mediational functions that, under normal conditions, are performed by the person’s functioning ego. Here is where a problem arises. Once the trauma defense is organized, all relations with the outer world are “screened” by the self-care system. What was intended to be a defense against further trauma becomes a major resistance to all unguarded spontaneous expressions of self in the world The person survives but cannot live creatively. Psychotherapy becomes necessary.

However, psychotherapy with the victims of early trauma is not easy, either for the patient or the therapist. The resistance thrown up by the self-care system in the treatment of trauma victims is legendary. As early as 1920, Freud was shaken by the extent to which a “daimonic” force in some patients resisted change and made the usual work of analysis impossible. So pessimistic was he about this “repetition compulsion” that he attributed its origin to an instinctive aim in all life towards death. Subsequently, clinicians working with the victims of trauma or abuse have readily recognized the “daimonic” figure or forces to which Freud alludes. Fairbairn described it as an “Internal Saboteur” and Guntrip as the “anti-libidinal ego” attacking the “libidinal ago.” Melanie Klein described the child’s fantasies of a cruel, attacking, “bad breast;” Jung described the “negative Animus” and more recently, Jeffrey Seinfeld has written about an internal structured called simply the “Bad Object.”

Most contemporary analytic writers are inclined to see this attacking figure as an internalized version of the actual perpetrator of the trauma, who has “possessed” the inner world of the trauma victim. But this popularized view is only half correct. The diabolical inner figure is often far more sadistic and brutal than any outer perpetrator, indicating that we are dealing here with a psychological factor set loose in the inner world by trauma — an archetypal traumatogenic agency within the psyche itself.

No matter how frighting his or her brutality, the function of this ambivalent caretaker always seems to be the protection of the traumatized remainder of the personal spirit and its isolation from reality. It functions, if we can imagine its inner rationale, as a kind of inner “Jewish Defense League” (whose slogan, after the Holocaust, reads “never Again!”). “Never again,” says our tyrannical caretaker, will the traumatized personal spirit of this child suffer this badly! Never again will it be this helpless in the face of cruel reality….before this happens I will disperse it into fragments [dissociation], or encapsulate it and soothe it with fantasy [schizoid withdrawal], or numb it with intoxicating substances [addiction], or persecute it to keep it from hoping for life in this world [depression]….In this way I will preserve what is left of this prematurely amputated childhood — of an innocence that has suffered too much too soon!”

Despite the otherwise well-intentioned nature of our Protector/Persecutor, there is a tragedy lurking in these archetypal defenses. And here we come to the crux of the problem for the traumatized individual and simultaneously the crux of the problem for the psychotherapist trying to help. This incipient tragedy results from the fact that the Protector/Persecutor is not educable. The primitive defense does not learn anything about realistic danger as the child grows up. It functions on the magical level of consciousness with the same level of awareness it had when the original trauma or traumas occurred. Each new life opportunity is mistakenly seen as a dangerous threat of re-traumatization and is therefore attacked. In this way, the archaic defenses become anti-life forces which Freud understandably thought of as part of the death instinct.

These discoveries made by exploring the inner world help us to explain two of the most disturbing findings in the literature about trauma. The first of these finding is that the traumatized psyche is self-traumatizing. Trauma doesn’t end with the cessation of outer violation, but continues unabated in the inner world of the trauma victim, whose dreams are often haunted by persecutory inner figures. The second finding is the seemingly perverse fact that the victim of psychological trauma continually finds himself or herself in life situations where he or she is retraumatized. As much as he or she wants to change, as hard as he or she tries to improve life or relationships, something more powerful than the ego continually undermines progress and destroys hope. It is as though the persecutory inner world somehow finds its outer mirror in repeated self-defeating “re-enactments” — almost as if the individual were possessed by some diabolical power or pursued by a malignant fate. – Donald Kalsched, The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defences of the Personal Spirit,

There are many ways to heal from this fate and we see those who’ve had lives marred by trauma recover in a myriad number of ways, as it is wont for human beings to do. There are as many paths to wellness as there are human beings. Psychoanalysis, which is the stance of this book, is only one window and one way to go about healing.

My path seems to be one in which I visit numerous frames and methods to heal the body/mind/spirit/psyche. In so doing I understand my experience from numerous perspectives which is sometimes confusing to people. For me, all that I do  is a devotion to healing. Healing is, simply put, about learning to live well. At this point, given the chaos on the planet I see no other way of moving forward.

I love seeing things from as many perspectives as possible. For me that is very helpful. It seems to be my path that I might heal myself and in the process contribute to the healing of humanity and the planet. We all need to get busy doing that if we want to assure life on planet earth continues beyond this generation.

I’ve learned that everything we do, everything we think matters and learning deeply about that is my path and it is the crux of what I share on this blog. In profoundly knowing that everything matters I also know that I cannot possibly know what is right for another human being. Everything they have encountered in their lives will be forever out of my reach. There will always be a unique configuration of influences in each individual life. This is why we must all learn to trust our own internal guidance while learning to trust that others can do that for themselves as well. Then we learn from each other by sharing experience in a non-coercive manner.

For me understanding the psychodynamic of the above complex has been as important as understanding my body’s need for particular healing foods by finding (also evolving and changing) diet that supports my psycho/social wellbeing. This diet is particular to me. We are all different in a myriad number of ways, including what an optimal diet is. I point this out only because our holistic natures are fascinating to me. The psychodynamics of the above complex and diet…understanding both (and much more) has been critical as well as deeply intertwined.

More on topicTRAUMA and PTS(D) 

I question the idea that sensitives who are most certainly challenged by trauma are actually disordered. That said common parlance includes that word and sometimes I use it for communication purposes. 

These links includes many different perspectives including body and somatic oriented understandings.


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