Self Psychology Page 

The Phenomenology of Trauma
and the Absolutisms of Everyday Life:
A Personal Journey

Robert D. Stolorow, PhD

Los Angeles

Originally published in Psychoanalytic Psychology, 1999, vol. 16, pp. 464-468

[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]

This article chronicles a six-year journey of understanding in which the author strove to comprehend the profound sense of estrangement and isolation that was a central feature of his own personal experience of psychological trauma.

When the book Contexts of Being (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992) was first published, an initial batch of copies was sent "hot-off-the-press" to the display table at a conference where I was a panelist. I picked up a copy and looked around excitedly for my late wife, Daphne, who would be so pleased and happy to see it. She was, of course, nowhere to be found, having died some eighteen months earlier. I had awakened one morning to find her lying dead across our bed, four weeks after her cancer had been diagnosed. I spent the remainder of that conference in 1992 remembering and grieving, consumed with feelings of horror and sorrow over what had happened to Daphne and to me.

There was a dinner at that conference for all the panelists, many of whom were my old and good friends and close colleagues. Yet, as I looked around the ballroom, they all seemed like strange and alien beings to me. Or more accurately, I seemed like a strange and alien being--not of this world. The others seemed so vitalized, engaged with one another in a lively manner. I, in contrast, felt deadened and broken, a shell of the man I had once been. An unbridgeable gulf seemed to open up, separating me forever from my friends and colleagues. They could never even begin to fathom my experience, I thought to myself, because we now lived in altogether different worlds.

In the years following that painful occasion, I have been trying to understand and conceptualize the dreadful sense of estrangement and isolation that seems to me to be inherent to the experience of psychological trauma. I have become aware that this sense of alienation and aloneness appears as a common theme in the trauma literature (e.g., Herman, 1992), and I have been able to hear about it from many of my patients who have experienced severe traumatization. One such young man, who had suffered multiple losses of beloved family members during his childhood and adulthood, told me that the world was divided into two groups--the normals and the traumatized ones. There was no possibility, he said, for a normal to ever grasp the experience of a traumatized one. I remembered how important it had been to me to believe that the analyst I saw after Daphne's death was also a person who had known devastating loss, and how I implored her not to say anything that could disabuse me of my belief.

How was this experiential chasm separating the traumatized person from other human beings to be understood? In the chapter on trauma in Contexts of Being, we had proposed that the essence of psychological trauma lay in the experience of unbearable affect. The intolerability of an affect state, we further argued, could not be explained solely, or even primarily, on the basis of the quantity or intensity of the painful feelings evoked by an injurious event. Developmentally, traumatic affect states had to be understood in terms of the relational systems in which they took form. Painful or frightening affect became traumatic, we contended, when the attunement that the child needed from the surround to assist in its tolerance, containment, modulation, and integration was profoundly absent.

In my experience, this conceptualization of developmental trauma as a relational process involving massive malattunement to painful affect has proven to be of enormous clinical value in the treatment of traumatized patients. Yet, as I began to recognize at that conference dinner, our formulation failed to distinguish between an attunement that cannot be supplied by others and an attunement that cannot be felt by the traumatized person, because of the profound sense of singularity built in to the experience of trauma itself. A beginning comprehension of this isolating estrangement came from an unexpected sourc--the philosophical hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer.

Concerned as it is with the nature of understanding, philosophical hermeneutics has immediate relevance for the profound despair about having one's experience understood that lies at the heart of psychological trauma. Axiomatic for Gadamer (1975) is the proposition that all understanding involves interpretation. Interpretation, in turn, can only be from a perspective embedded in the historical matrix of the interpreter's own traditions. Understanding, therefore, is always from a perspective whose horizons are delimited by the historicity of the interpreter's organizing principles, by the fabric of preconceptions that Gadamer calls "prejudice." Gadamer illustrates his hermeneutical philosophy by applying it to the anthropological problem of attempting to understand an alien culture in which the forms of social life, the horizons of experience, are incommensurable with those of the investigator.

At some point while studying Gadamer's work, I recalled my feeling at the conference dinner as though I were an alien to the normals around me. In Gadamer's terms, I was certain that the horizons of their experience could never encompass mine, and this conviction was the source of my alienation and solitude, of the unbridgeable gulf separating me from their understanding. It is not just that the traumatized ones and the normals live in different worlds; it is that these discrepant worlds are felt to be essentially and ineradicably incommensurable.

Some six years after the conference dinner I heard something in a lecture delivered by my friend George Atwood that helped me to comprehend further the nature of this incommensurability. In the course of discussing the clinical implications of an intersubjective contextualism from which Cartesian objectivism had been expunged, Atwood offered a nonobjectivist, dialogic definition of psychotic delusions: "Delusions are ideas whose validity is not open for discussion." This definition fit well with a proposal we had made a dozen years earlier that, when a child's perceptual and emotional experiences meet with massive and consistent invalidation, then his or her belief in the reality of such experiences will remain unsteady and vulnerable to dissolution, and further, that under such predisposing circumstances delusional ideas may develop that "serve to dramatize and reify [an] endangered psychic reality ... restoring [the] vanishing belief in its validity" (Stolorow, Brandchaft, & Atwood, 1987, p. 133). Delusional ideas were understood as a form of absolutism--a radical decontextualization serving vital restorative and defensive functions. Experiences that are insulated from dialogue cannot be challenged or invalidated.

After hearing Atwood's presentation, I began to think about the role such absolutisms unconsciously play in everyday life. When a person says to a friend, "I'll see you later," or a parent says to a child at bedtime, "I'11 see you in the morning," these are statements, like delusions, whose validity is not open for discussion. Such absolutisms are the basis for a kind of naive realism and optimism that allow one to function in the world, experienced as stable and predictable. It is in the essence of psychological trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one's sense of being-in-the-world. Massive deconstruction of the absolutisms of everyday life exposes the inescapable contingency of existence on a universe that is random and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Trauma thereby exposes "the unbearable embeddedness of being" (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992, p. 22). As a result, the traumatized person cannot help but perceive aspects of existence that lie well outside the absolutized horizons of normal everydayness. It is in this sense that the worlds of traumatized persons are fundamentally incommensurable with those of others, the deep chasm in which an anguished sense of estrangement and solitude takes form.

A patient of mine who had tried to cope with a long string of traumatic violations, shocks, and losses by using dissociative processes left her young son at a pastry shop on the way to my office. As she was about to enter my building, she heard the sound of screeching tires, and in the session she was visibly terrified that her son had been struck by a car and killed. "Yes," I said, with a matter-of-factness that can only come from first-hand experience, "this is the legacy of your experiences with terrible trauma. You know that at any moment those you love can be struck down by a senseless, random event. Most people don't really know that." My patient relaxed into a state of calm and, with obvious allusion to the transference, began to muse about her lifelong yearning for a soulmate with whom she could share her experiences of trauma and thereby come to feel like less of a strange and alien being. It is here, I believe, that we find the deeper meaning of Kohut's (1984) concept of twinship.

Two final thoughts: 1. If trauma can have such a devastating impact on a middle-aged man like myself, how can we begin to comprehend its impact on a small child for whom the sustaining absolutisms of everyday life are just in the process of forming? 2. Does the role of absolutism in everyday life and of its deconstruction in psychological trauma shed light on the aversive reactions of analysts to ideas that seek to deabsolutize and contextualize (Orange, Atwood, & Stolorow, 1997) metapsychological doctrines they hold so dear?

To be continued. Maybe.


Gadamer, H. (1975). Truth and method, trans. J. Weisheimer & D. Marshall, 2nd ed. New York: Crossroads, 1991.

Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Kohut, H. (1984). How does analysis cure? Ed. A. Goldberg & P. Stepansky. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Orange, D., Atwood, G. & Stolorow, R. (1997). Working intersubjectively: Contextualism in psychoanalytic practice. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Stolorow, R. & Atwood, G. (1992). Contexts of being: The intersubjective foundations of psychological life. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Stolorow, R., Brandchaft, B., & Atwood, G. (1987). Psychoanalytic treatment: An intersubjective approach. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.


[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]

1999, 2002
All Rights Reserved
Published 2002 by 3b