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Witnessing trauma through the psychoanalytic lens

Trauma can sit deep in the individual and collective psyche.

Countless armed conflicts, violent crimes against individuals and groups, natural and man-made disasters, global warming, pandemics, massive displacements – all these events have been bringing a myriad of traumatising experiences to millions of people all over the world. It is claimed that it is impossible to generalise reactions to traumatic events as they are diverse and very fluid so ‘each individual brings a unique history and set of experiences to life or therapy’. However, some common features of the reactions to traumatic experiences can still be identified.

Among most common features, there is ‘the idea of repetition’ in trauma and ‘belatedness’ of the reactions. Hence, trauma or emotional response to distressing or violent events that feel threatening and overwhelming very often can be ‘belated’. So, without being acknowledged, trauma can sit deep in the individual and collective psyche as a ‘foreign body’, manifesting itself and ‘hunting’ the subject later in life.

Secondary trauma can affect the individual significantly

Furthermore, even ‘secondary trauma’ can affect the individual significantly and contribute to the sense of being physically and emotionally ‘worn out. Without being addressed appropriately, it can also have a long-lasting effect, disrupting ‘victims’ lives. Moreover, as collective trauma can be transmitted intergenerationally, secondary trauma can also be passed from generation to generation collectively and can be experienced as ‘trauma upon trauma’. Thus, I believe, the secondary collective trauma of Ukrainian diaspora members as a response on the brutal war in Ukraine, who pass their trauma to their children by maintaining narratives related to Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine today, can exemplify this well.

Ukrainian children around the world, who ‘pick up’ narratives from their significant adults very quickly, already are ‘drawing bombs and tanks’ and asking their parents whether “Russian peace’ will reach them too’. What is it if not a trauma? Can we call it ‘tertiary trauma’ or ‘trauma upon secondary trauma’? I believe, no matter how we call it, it still can have a long-lasting effect on the whole generation as well as individuals within it.    

Can trauma be ‘fully healed?

However, can trauma be ‘fully healed’? How does therapy work in relation to trauma? How can the subject ‘move forward’ with the therapist’s support?

It is claimed that it might not be often clear in therapy if the subject is talking about the event or in response to that event. In the case when ‘historical truth’ can be replaced by ‘narrative truth’, how can we speak about the subject’s traumatic event without having witnessed it then? Professor Frosh claims that the responsibility of being a ‘witness’ is to be able to imagine oneself experiencing a traumatic event or going through a situation, which we have not been through. However, such identification with the victim is risky too as the therapist can speak ‘in [victims’] names rather than letting them speak for themselves.

On the whole, the question around testimony and witnessing trauma is quite big. The general concept in psychoanalysis is that trauma often cannot be fully processed as it is very powerful and overwhelming to the psyche so it cannot be symbolised. As a result, it is very difficult to ‘digest’ the trauma or convert it into memory and coherent narrative, so to make sense of it and make it safe. However, there is an argument that ‘the failure to deal with trauma’ is, first of all, ‘the failure of listening or witnessing’. So, how can therapists listen efficiently? How can they listen ‘well enough’ in order to be able to ‘witness’ the trauma?

How can therapists listen well enough to witness the trauma?

Firstly, they can listen effectively by ensuring a safe space where the survivor of trauma can feel comfortable and safe to ‘unpack’ their history or ‘unfold’ their narrative; then, by being able to put aside all their own issues in order to put the client in the centre; by managing countertransference effectively; by being able to separate their personal material from their reactions to the client’s history, hence ensuring that countertransference does not interfere with therapeutic relationships in their work; by being aware of secondary trauma and address it appropriately if it occurs; by being aware of their own biases; by managing silences effectively in the therapy room in order to help the client process their own thoughts and feelings without interruption; by being authentic and congruent in their work; finally, by summarising efficiently and checking with the client if they have heard them right and understood fully, hence by being reflective practitioners.

When the client feels heard and empathised with, the trauma can be ‘relieved’ and ‘symbolised’ through coherent narrative or art. If the traumatic experience remains ‘unspeakable’, art helps it take some shape. This allows the client to ‘re-experience’ the past no longer as hallucinatory reproduction but as an objective memory’.

Noteworthy, it is also argued that some traumas cannot be interpreted in psychoanalytic terms, for example, those originating from social conflicts or political violence. Thus, the French philosopher Malabou claims that such traumatising experiences ‘creates’ the ‘new wounded’ people who are completely ‘cut off from their previous identities’. If this is the case, then the therapist’s task might be, rather than to help clients reconnect with their previous identity, to enable them to build a new version of themselves, more resistant and less fragmented.

An excellent blog written by Yuliia Nicholls who entered the blog competition at UKCN.


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