As we think about trauma here—I’m referring to my most recent two blog posts in which I’ve talked about the split-off self, the deadened self, and the challenge this poses in therapy, it makes sense to think about the question what does treatment offer?
We can look back to early life, to infanthood and childhood to gain perspective. The important British psychoanalyst, theoretician, and pediatrician, D. W. Winnicott, wrote about the centrality of the maternal-infant relationship. In his work, he stressed what we might call its stillness: the mother provides a continuity of being for her child, holding the infant in an environment of her making that facilitates growth by taking care to both protect her infant against unmanageable distress and to stimulate and prepare him in the development of his own functioning ego activity.
Winnicott called this comprehensive mother the ‘environment’ mother because for the infant, she is the complete environment! Current thinking about maternal-infant relations adds to this by suggesting the mother is more than just a good object; she is, indeed also a process; a process marked by the infant’s internal and external transformations that have to do with altering and enhancing self experience. If we understand maturation to be the development of the self, then we can see how the mother participates in the process of the unfolding infant self, transforming it from unformulated and un-integrated, to formulated and coming into being. Thus, the mother is understood by the infant as a process having to do with transformation and indeed, with metamorphoses of the self as it comes into being.
In adult life, and perhaps even more acutely for the traumatized individual, we continue to be engaged in an ongoing search for the transformational object in order to remember and re-experience a relationship that was identified with powerful metamorphoses of being. We look to art, theatre, and nature in the search of the transformative experience. Some develop faith in a god as part of this ongoing search. And indeed, we can also enter psychoanalysis, often simply called psychoanalytic treatment. The hope here is to reconnect with “something” lost and longed for—we might call this “something” the profound experience of coming into being—which may or may not feel complete, as of yet, but which holds out the promise of repeating and even continuing an experience of metamorphoses of self, or coming more completely into being, of experiencing transformation in the move toward growth, integration, solidity, consolidation, and the authentic experience of the felt self.
This is, notably, a difficult topic to write clearly about, and a difficult topic to fully grasp. And yet, each and every one of us has likely had an experience of deep personal meaning and possibly transformation, even if brief or fleeting. . . an encounter with a teacher or spiritual leader, a view in nature of remarkable beauty, the sound of a piece of music that transports us, the gaze of a loved one, the weight and surprise of sorrow or loss. Each experience brings us closely into contact with something real inside of us, possibly including the sense of transformation of the self that is continuing to come more fully into being.
Where the self has been thwarted by trauma or developmental impediments, the search for transformational experience is part of healing. Psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, and indeed, the analyst herself, becomes the transformational object, a fiction in the sense that the therapist is not the original maternal figure, but can become, in the treatment, an adequate and satisfying substitute, available for use by the patient as he or she grapples with trauma, deprivation and ultimately, with healing.