Feeling, Relating, Existing
On emotion and the human dimension
by Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D.
Posts from a blog by Robert Stolorow, Ph.D., originally published on the 'Psychology Today' website. You can read the full archive of this blog and subscribe to the RSS feed at www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-relating-existing
Because trauma so profoundly modifies the universal or shared structure of temporality, the traumatized person quite literally lives in another kind of reality, an experiential world felt to be incommensurable with those of others. This felt incommensurability contributes to a profound sense of alienation and estrangement from other human beings.
Loss - especially traumatic or tragic loss - creates a dark region in our world that will always be there.
Vulnerability is constitutive of our finite existing.
Heartbreak is the signature emotion of authentic existence.
Whether a therapist's expression of emotional understanding will produce therapeutic or counter-therapeutic effects will depend on the emotional meanings that such expressions have for the patient.
People often remain endlessly in unhappy, abusive, or depriving relationships by blaming their suffering on their own shortcomings, their not having "gotten it right" yet. Such an interpretive pattern can keep someone futilely trying to get it right forever.
Existential honesty owns up to the inevitable heartbreak of loss.
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 that can be seamlessly and constitutively integrated into whom one experiences oneself as being.
Sarah Stark's novel, "Out There," contains rich and valuable descriptions of the essential features of emotional trauma in general and of combat-related trauma in particular - the shattering of innocence, the disruption of temporality, the alienation and estrangement, and the longing for a sibling in the same darkness.
In the course of describing his experience of grief, Julian Barnes fleshes out in excruciating detail how traumatic loss entails the collapse of one's world, a reconfiguring of time and space, a sense of profound estrangement from those who are not grief-stricken, and the dread of a second loss that impends with the passage of time - the fading of memory of the lost beloved.
In perceptual accommodation, I see myself (and you) the way you see me (and yourself), in order to secure a needed bond with you. My subjective reality is unconsciously surrendered and is usurped by yours.
Traumatic loss shatters one's emotional world, and, insofar as one dwells in the region of such loss, one feels eradicated.
In the experiencing of authentic temporality, the whole structure of human existence has to be brought into view - namely, that it is authentically intelligible only in terms of its stretching along between birth and the possibility of death, between two abysses of nothingness.
For both Martin Heidegger and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the purpose of philosophical concepts is to point us toward the path of transformation rather than to explain. Both philosophers seek to expose the illusions, sedimented in linguistic practices, that cover up our finitude and context-embeddedness.
The enormity and everlastingness of the grief following a traumatic loss are not manifestations of psychopathology; they are a measure of the depth of love for the lost beloved.
My aim is to show how Heidegger's existential philosophy enriches contemporary psychoanalysis and how contemporary psychoanalysis enriches Heidegger's existential philosophy.
Throughout the rest of their lives, those who have been traumatized encounter what I call "portkeys" that transport them again and again back to the original experiences of trauma, so that time is felt to be circular rather than linear.
It is from the horror of the doomsday scenario posed by climate change that the minimizers and scoffers turn away. Ironically, in turning away from the extreme dangers of climate change, we contribute to the coming to be of the horrifying catastrophe we are evading. We must face up to our apocalyptic anxiety before it is too late for the survival of future generations.
Denise Levertov's poem, "Talking to Grief," captures beautifully the process whereby grief (and other traumatic emotions), in finding a welcoming home in which to dwell, can become truly one's own - i.e., can become seamlessly and constitutively woven into the fabric of whom one experiences oneself as being.
The valorization of shame in the name of social awareness and socialization is all too often a rationalization for emotionally abusing young children.
In feeling ashamed we feel exposed as inherently flawed or defective before the gaze of a viewing, judging other. In shame, we are held hostage by the eyes of others; we belong, not to ourselves, but to them. In that sense, shame is indicative of an inauthentic or unowned way of existing.
"Death takes from us not only some particular life within the world, some moment that belongs to us, but, each time, without limit, someone through whom the world, and first of all our own world, will have opened up."
Experiences of emotional trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which we remain forever trapped, or to which we are condemned to be perpetually returned through the portkeys supplied by life's slings and arrows.
Although the possibility of emotional trauma is ever present, so too is the possibility of forming bonds of deep emotional understanding within which the devastating emotional pain built in to our finite human existing can be held, endured, and eventually integrated.
Being the remainder of an emotional world shattered by trauma is a source of the uncanny sense of estrangement and isolation from the world of everydayness that is experienced by traumatized persons.
"Every generation of poets and thinkers attempts to make sense of the enigmatic, unfathomable face of life, with its laughing mouth and mournful eyes. This will remain an unending task." - Wilhelm Dilthey
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.
It is my view that the lamentable, endlessly recurring cycle of atrocity and counter-atrocity that has been so characteristic of human history derives significantly from the turning to metaphysical illusion in the effort to evade the tragedy of human finitude.
A tragedy like the shooting spree at and near Santa Monica College brings us face-to-face with our existential vulnerabilities - vulnerabilities to harm, death, and loss - and the existential vulnerability of all those we love and, perhaps worst of all, the limitedness of our ability to protect them.
William Shakespeare well understood the importance of bringing grief into language.
The Boston Marathon bombing is a collective trauma for all of us, bringing us face-to-face with our existential vulnerabilities - vulnerabilities to harm, death, and loss - and the existential vulnerability of all those we love and, perhaps worst of all, the limitedness or our ability to protect them.
Like its analogue, "secure attachment," "trauma recovery" is an oxymoron - human finitude with its traumatizing impact is not an illness from which one can or should recover. A felt requirement to recover from, or become immune to, the circling back to emotional trauma can be a source of intense shame and self-loathing when, inevitably, it cannot be achieved.
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. We must not turn away.
The message I hope you will take away from viewing this gripping video is this: When you encounter devastating grief in yourself or someone else, never turn away.
The loss of a loved one shatters our evasive illusions and confronts us with our finiteness and transience and with the finiteness and transience of all those we love. When our emotional world becomes shattered in this way, we need to find a context of human understanding, a "relational home," in which our traumatic emotional pain can be held and borne.
Following the death of a loved one, we typically both grieve the person who has been lost and preserve the bond with the lost person within our own being. This dialectic of loss and continuance is beautifully captured by the song, "Out to Sea," written by Stephanie Stolorow to commemorate the scattering of her grandmother's ashes in the waters of Monterey Bay.
The nature of a loss experience will depend complexly on the forms or dimensions of love that had constituted the lost relationship. If you, or someone you care about, ever experience a traumatic loss, never think or utter the words, "You have to let it go and move on." Do not turn away.
If we can help one another bear the darkness rather than evade it, perhaps one day we will be able to see the light.
Painful emotional states become unbearable when they cannot find a "relational home" - that is, a context of human understanding - in which they can be shared and held. Severe emotional pain that has to be experienced alone becomes lastingly traumatic and usually succumbs to some form of emotional numbing.
A poignantly beautiful and inspiring song gives testimony to the power of friendship - what the ancient Greeks called Philia - in the face of terrible tragedy.
Our ability to protect those we love from tragedies like mass killings is severely limited. We must be able pursue gun control without embarking upon a "War on Guns" to evade traumatic feelings and vulnerabilities that we need to own and face.
A renewal of humanistic values and practices is taking place in contemporary psychotherapy, embodying a move away from formulaic and manualized techniques and toward engaged empathic-introspective inquiry and emotional understanding.
Following a traumatic loss, the significance of our everyday world collapses, and we feel painfully alienated and estranged from other human beings.
Schuyler Iona's musical tribute to those who died on September 11, 2001 is a gift to all of us, giving us extraordinary access to an experience of world-shattering trauma and a courageous effort to emerge from it.
Apocalyptic anxiety anticipates the collapse of human civilization itself and of all meaningfulness. And it is from apocalyptic anxiety that we turn away when we deny the extreme perils of climate change.
Witnessing the instant deaths of more than 3,000 civilians, Americans were forced to recognize that they are just as vulnerable to assault, destruction, death, and loss as any other people on earth.
The relentless circling back to experiences of emotional trauma is ensured by the finiteness of our existence and the finiteness of all those whom we love.
Obama could no more miraculously save us from the cumulative consequences of many years of economic foolishness than Bush's holy war against the "forces of evil" could resurrect our lost illusions of grandiose invincibility.
- IAPSP Interviews
Interview with Xin Li
- Feeling, Relating, Existing
A blog by Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D.
Conference Panel Summaries:
- The Pilgrim's Progress: A Therapist and Patient Journey to London
by Jeffrey Stern, Joye Weisel-Barth, Steven Stern & Hazel Ipp
- The Analyst's Subjectivity: A Double-Edged Sword
by Sarah Mendelsohn, Nancy VanDerHeide & Steven Kuchuk
The IAPSP eForum is the online forum of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology. Edited by Doris Brothers, Ph.D.
- Editor's Introduction
by Doris Brothers
- Letter from the President
by Eldad Iddan
- Sadomasochism Contextualized
by Andrew Lagomasino, Psy.D.
- "A Plea from the Public Square"
by Flora Lazar, Ph.D., L.S.W
- Our Leadership Dilemma
by Harry Paul, Ph.D. &
George Hagman, L.C.S.W.
- Literary Criticism, Psychoanalysis and the New Politics of Otherness
by Flora Lazar, Ph.D., L.S.W
If you are interested in contributing to the eForum, please
The views and ideas expressed in these articles may not be shared or endorsed by the governing body of IAPSP and its members. Any opinion written in the eForum is solely that of the author of the article.