"What is the proper therapeutic stance toward such trauma and vulnerability? How can a therapeutic relationship be constituted wherein the therapist can serve as a relational home for unbearable emotional pain and existential vulnerability? Recently, I have been moving toward a more active, relationally engaged form of therapeutic comportment that I call emotional dwelling. In dwelling, one does not merely seek empathically to understand the other’s emotional pain from the other’s perspective. One does that, but much more. In dwelling, one leans into the other’s emotional pain and participates in it, perhaps with aid of one’s own analogous experiences of pain.
I have found that this active, engaged, participatory comportment is especially important in the therapeutic approach to emotional trauma. The language that one uses to address another’s experience of emotional trauma meets the trauma head-on, articulating the unbearable and the unendurable, saying the unsayable, unmitigated by any efforts to soothe, comfort, encourage, or reassure—such efforts invariably being experienced by the other as a shunning or turning away from his or her traumatized state. Let me give an example of emotional dwelling and the sort of language it employs from my own personal life.
My father suffered a terrible trauma when he was 10 years old. He was sitting in class, the kid sitting in front of him was horsing around, the teacher threw a book at the kid, the kid ducked, and the book took my dad’s eye out on the spot. For the rest of his life, he lived in terror of blindness—a terror that I remember pervaded our household when I was growing up. Sixty years after that terrible trauma, he was to have cataract surgery on his remaining eye, and his optic nerve was vulnerable to being knocked out in virtue of the glaucoma medication he had been using for decades.
When I went to see him just prior to the surgery, I found him in a massively (re)traumatized state—terrified, fragmented, disorganized, and deeply ashamed of the state he was in. Family members tried to offer him reassurance: “I’m sure it will be fine.” Really? Such platitudes only demonstrated to him that no one wanted to be close to him in his traumatized state. Having gone through my own experience of devastating trauma, I knew what he needed instead. I said, “Dad, you have been terrified of blindness for nearly your entire life, and there’s a good chance that this surgery will blind you! You are going to be a fucking maniac until you find out whether the surgery blinds you! You’re going to be psychotic; you’re going to be climbing the walls!” In response to my dwelling with his terror, my dad came together right before my eyes and, as was our custom, we had a couple of martinis together. The surgery was successful and did not blind him.
If we are to be an understanding relational home for a traumatized person, we must tolerate, even draw upon, our own existential vulnerabilities so that we can dwell unflinchingly with his or her unbearable and recurring emotional pain. When we dwell with others’ unendurable pain, their shattered emotional worlds are enabled to shine with a kind of sacredness that calls forth an understanding and caring engagement within which traumatized states can be gradually transformed into bearable painful feelings. Emotional pain and existential vulnerability that find a hospitable relational home can be seamlessly and constitutively integrated into whom one experiences oneself as being.
Absorbed for nearly four decades in the project of rethinking psychoanalysis as a form of phenomenological inquiry, Robert D. Stolorow, PhD, is the author of World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2011) and Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections (Routledge, 2007) and coauthor of eight other books.Website: http://robertdstolorow.googlepages.com