by Marcus West
Recent developments in our understanding of infant-parent interactions and trauma have thrown new light on certain clients whom psychotherapists have been struggling to understand and help for many decades. That is, those clients who have sometimes been described as ‘difficult’, or borderline or, as Freud put it, exhibited a negative therapeutic reaction and “preferred being ill to being cured” (1923: 49). This, he proposed, was due to their masochism, or their wish to prove their superiority over the analyst or, finally, the functioning of the death instinct (1937). Kleinians have similarly talked in terms of the client’s innate envy or destructiveness, or the ego-destructive superego.
Trauma and borderline states of mind
However, from the late 1980s and early 1990s certain theoreticians and researchers, such as Judith Herman, J.C. Perry and Bessel van der Kolk (1989), have been proposing, and demonstrating, the way that trauma underlies borderline states of mind. In the psychoanalytic sphere, Peter Fonagy (1991) described the disruption of the individual’s ability to think about the other person (their mentalisation and reflective functioning) in terms of their not being able to bear to think about, for example, the dislike, hatred or murderousness that the parent was feeling toward them. He went on to appreciate the effect on the child of the parent’s own capacity for mentalisation and, for example, whether they are able to think about their child as a separate person in their own right.
Contemporary trauma theory
For me, a watershed moment was reading Bessel van der Kolk’s (1996) contemporary work on trauma and appreciating that clients are not intentionally trying to defeat the therapist, to resist the process of therapy, or to forget what they do not want to remember, but rather that the powerful affective experience of trauma overwhelms and disrupts the individual’s thinking capacity and that their experiences are thus held as affective-somatic fragments, stored in bodily reactions and physical symptoms or as powerful emotional responses.
Photo credit: Gretchen Miller
Furthermore, as the person’s thinking is disrupted, there is no clear narrative about what happened in the original traumatic situation to contain and make sense of these experiences, and thus the affective-somatic fragments will be triggered by any similar experience in current-day life. Thus, they frequently form key aspects of the transference, so that the person whose mother was depressed or whose father was critical will have a powerful reaction when they experience the therapist as unresponsive or questioning their perspective.
Jung and the complex and Freud’s seduction theory
This contemporary understanding of trauma fits exactly with Jung’s (1934) conceptualisation of the complex, which he saw as a cluster of feeling-toned images and reactions that act autonomously, are not consonant with the way the individual sees themselves, and sometimes disrupt or even hijack the person’s personality entirely, making them act in ways they find distressing, inappropriate or abhorrent.
It also explains some of the phenomena which led to Freud abandoning his seduction theory, as he became suspicious of his patients’ lack of a cogent narrative, and of their powerful responses, perhaps of a sexual nature. We now know that these things are characteristic of trauma, rather than casting doubt on it. Tragically, while Freud did maintain an interest in trauma, the overwhelming bias of his theory was toward the individual’s infantile sexual responses, which has meant that people’s real-world traumatic experience was appallingly neglected, and interpreted as being due to their own sexual phantasies or destructiveness. (In fact, Freud’s theory was intrinsically flawed as there are many more things that are traumatic, in addition to sexual abuse.)
Early relational trauma
It is particularly the work of infant development researchers, such as Donnel Stern, Ed Tronick, Beatrice Beebe and Frank Lachmann, who have shown us the way that early interactions have a profound effect on the infant and on the development of their personality, and that these interactions form the blueprint for the individual’s ways of relating and seeing the world throughout life – Bowlby called them internal working models. These researchers have opened up our understanding of the early relational nature of trauma.
For example, Tronick’s work on infant-mother interactions shows how there is a continual process of rupture and repair, where either participant may try to repair the mismatch that has occurred. If the infant is successful in repairing mismatches, perhaps by cooing, gesturing or expressing distress to re-engage mother, they will experience positive emotions and establish a positive emotional core; it will increase their sense of agency and they will internalise a pattern of reaction that they will bring to others (their internal working model). However, if the infant is repeatedly unsuccessful in repairing mismatches, they come to feel hopeless and powerless, focus their behavior on self-regulation, limit their engagement with their social environment, and “establish a negative affective core” (Tronick & Gianino, 1986: 156); in other words, they will withdraw, feel bad about themselves, and expect future interactions will follow this pattern. I understand this is characteristic of the individuals I am describing here.
A contemporary Jungian perspective
So, to bring these elements together and relate them to the consulting room. In my work, as I describe in my book, Into the darkest places: Early relational trauma and borderline states of mind, I have come to see that the individual is not being willfully destructive or self-destructive (even though their reactions may have destructive effects on their lives and those of others), but rather that they are staying true to their original traumatic situation (even though they may have little alternative but to do so). I see this as being akin to the parent whose child has been murdered not being able to just ‘move on’ and ‘get over it’, but rather needing to have the ‘murder’ fully recognised, investigated and known, not only by the person themselves, but also witnessed and appreciated by another, the therapist; and trauma therapists frequently speak, meaningfully, of ‘soul murder’ (e.g., Shengold, 1989) – violation almost to the point of annihilation of the most sensitive, sacred, core self.
I have also come to really recognise the way that the patterns of relating associated with early traumatic experience are re-constructed in the therapeutic relationship in a detailed way. This means that they are co-constructed by both client and therapist, whereby the client’s early relational experience, embedded in implicit memory, sets up a reciprocal response in the therapist. This is frequently reinforced by the client’s distress and wish to avoid re-experiencing the traumatic experience (being retraumatised), which casts the therapist in the role of the original traumatising abuser.
Thus, the client whose parent was depressed and withdrawn will typically be withdrawn and unresponsive to the therapist who, over time, feeling themselves ‘killed off’, becomes less responsive to the client, who then experiences the therapist like their original unresponsive/ depressed parent. The traumatic reenactment is complete with both the client and the therapist experiencing themselves to be both traumatised/deprived and experiencing the other as traumatising/depriving.
Traumatic experiences are, by definition, unbearable for the person’s psyche at that particular moment in their development, and they remain so. Thus, we are all the time living and working on the edge of what is unbearable, unthinkable and unknowable. The person therefore frequently, understandably, longs for an idealised, conflict-free world where there would be no retraumatisation, and coming to terms with the reality of their situation and relinquishing the wish for this ideal, compensatory world inevitably plays an important role in the therapy.
It is the nature of what I have come to see as ‘unbearable reconstructions’ that gives the work with these individuals its particular character. In childhood, the person typically experienced their basic attachment needs as being aversive to their parent(s), so that their very need to be heard, to express distress and have that understood and responded to sympathetically, is rejected, often brutally. So whilst the therapist can be warm, kindly and accepting, this does not ultimately address the person’s experience that they are essentially unloveable, irritating, or unwanted, as these experiences are embedded at the core of the person’s identity, as part of the way they fundamentally see themselves. If the therapist reassures the client that, ‘they are not like that really’, or that the world is not as bleak and rejecting as they feel it to be, or even that the therapist is not like the bad, rejecting, uncaring parent, this does not fundamentally alter the client’s experience of themselves, although it may ameliorate it somewhat. More often the client will find this alienating or irritating and will feel that the therapist really doesn’t get it but, instead, lives in their own enviably comfortable world.
Ultimately the traumatic complex is only worked through when the client has frustrated the therapist’s attempts to help and, in this example, the therapist, perhaps fleetingly, or even in an established way, comes to find the client’s needs irritating and unwanted. The original trauma has again been reconstructed / co-constructed and there is an opportunity for the dynamic to be fully appreciated, understood, and lived through in the therapy relationship. The client needs to have their early experience witnessed and appreciated, but also to have taken the experience into what Winnicott called their ‘sphere of omnipotence’ and have recreated it in the context of a good-enough relationship.
We need to see the whites of the eyes of the person who finds us irritating, but also to know that the therapist can see that that is not all of us, even if it may feel that it is for a while. We can then, in turn, appreciate that it is not all of us, even if it has been a fundamental part of the way we see ourselves. Through long, hard, painful experience, for both my clients and me, I have come to learn that this is the way that these early traumatic experiences can be worked through.
The challenge for the therapeutic couple is to recognise these traumatic patterns of relationship, and to sufficiently allow and embody them, so that the traumatic experience can be borne, humanised and explored in the context of the basically benevolent therapy relationship, even though it seems paradoxical and against all that the client, and the therapist, want.
The therapist’s journey
The process of the therapy therefore goes at the pace by which this can occur, and may be held up until the therapist, or the client, is able to allow this embodiment and working through. This will usually require some measure of personal development for the analyst, if they are to successfully accompany the client and live through the original dynamic. I liken this to Orpheus’ journey through the underworld in order to rescue his wife Eurydice, which calls on the therapist’s affective attunement (Orpheus’ skill with his lyre) and faith in the process (Orpheus was entreated ‘not to look back’; West, 2016).
The abandonment of trauma theory and the concept of the complex
As van der Kolk, Weisaeth and van der Hart (1996) say of trauma, it as if there has been a curious repetition compulsion, where the appreciation of trauma is forgotten and has had to be relearnt by subsequent generations of therapists. I do not think that earlier generations were being perverse in their dismissal of trauma, but rather that they ran up against the difficulties of working through the trauma in therapy.
Because the traumatic experience is held as affective-somatic fragments, and in implicit memory, it is not immediately accessible to reason, but rather only responds fully to the affective process of living through. This can frequently frustrate the therapist and lead them to blame the client and accuse them of not wanting to get better. Furthermore, whilst Freud, and even more so Klein, came to concentrate on the client’s reactions and responses, taking these to be part of the client’s own innate disposition – their infantile sexuality, envy or destructiveness – Jung’s concept of the complex allows us to see how the reactions to trauma, and the trauma- related patterns of relationship, become embedded at the heart of the personality, often in a reversed form, that is, as an unconscious identification with the aggressor.
These talion (eye-for-an-eye) responses are usually anathema to the individual as they are associated with the traumatising bad object; because of this, the person becomes bound to ‘bad objects’ who can embody those projections. It is not until they are able to recognise their own identifications with the aggressor, and the way they act that out upon others and themselves, that the person can be free of the bad objects, and indeed protect themselves from them. In other words, we need to be able to fight fire with fire, to recognise the way we may wish to annihilate others so that we can deal with their attempted annihilation of us.
Until this can take place, these unacknowledged, ‘shadow’ aspects of the personality keep us locked into destructive ways of being, although, in the therapy, they thereby give us direct access to the foundational patterns of the individual’s personality, if, that is, the therapist can bear to accompany the client ‘into the darkest places’.
Marcus West is a Training Analyst of the Society of Analytical Psychology and is the UK Editor of the Journal of Analytical Psychology. He has written a number of papers and two previous books, one on narcissism and identity, the other on dreams. He works in private practice in Sussex, England.
Fonagy, P. (1991). Thinking about thinking: Some clinical and theoretical considerations in the treatment of a borderline patient. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 72, 639-56.
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Freud, S. (1937). Analysis terminable and interminable. S.E., 23, 209-254. London: Hogarth.
Herman, J.L., Perry, J.C., & van der Kolk, B.A. (1989). Childhood trauma in borderline personality disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 146, 490-495.
Jung, C.G. (1934). A review of the complex theory. In Collected Works Vol. 8. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Shengold, L. (1989). Soul murder. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Tronick, E.Z., & Gianino, A. (1986). Interactive mismatch and repair: Challenges to the coping infant. Zero to Three: Bulletin of the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, 5, 1-6. Reprinted in: Tronick, E.Z. (2007). The neurobehavioural and social-emotional development of infants and children. New York & London: Norton.
Van der Kolk, B. (1996). Trauma and memory. In A. C. McFarlane, L. Weisaeth, & B. van der Kolk (Eds.), Traumatic stress: The effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society (pp. 279-302). New York: Guilford Publications.
Van der Kolk, B., Weisaeth, L, & van der Hart, O. (1996). History of trauma in psychiatry. In: A. C. McFarlane, L. Weisaeth, & B. van der Kolk (Eds.), Traumatic stress: The effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society (pp. 47-76). New York: Guilford Publications.
West, M. (2016). Into the darkest places: Early relational trauma and borderline states of mind. London & New York: Karnac.
Beebe, B., & Lachmann, F. (2013). The origins of attachment: Infant research and adult treatment. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis.
Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: Norton.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. Harmonsworth: Penguin.