In the afternoon of Saturday, January 9, 2010, Robert Stolorow, PhD spoke to the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society, Inc on “Contextual and Existential Dimensions of Trauma,” allowing us to experience why he is sometimes called ‘the prince of darkness.’ In his talk, Stolorow noted the contextuality and embeddedness of emotional life, and of emotional trauma, in particular.
A child requires affective attunement from another to assist in tolerance of emotion. Affect tolerance, then, is a property of a relational system. In fact, intolerance of an affect state or of a trauma is unrelated to the quantity or intensity of that affect or trauma, but instead it is the absence of emotional attunement that renders affects or traumas unassimilatable.
Painful emotional experience becomes enduringly traumatic in the absence of emotional attunement, i.e. trauma is context sensitive. Death, and finitude (our limitations), are constitutively relational. It is “the incomparable power of understanding” (George Atwood) that mitigates the finitude of relationality.
Existentially, trauma shatters absolutisms and exposes the fragility of illusions of invulnerability with which we move through the world. Unassimilated trauma leads one to feel dreadful alienation and estrangement and exposes us to the randomness and unpredictability of life. Stolorow expands what Heidegger wrote about the authentic being toward death by adding being toward loss.
He noted that, while trauma produces feelings, there also exist feelings about these trauma-induced feelings. Clinically, it is the secondary feelings that often must be explored first, as patients may feel shame about exposing the trauma-induced feelings. Retraumatization may occur when an experience closely replicates the original trauma; when it confirms the organizing principles established by the traumatic experience; or when there is loss of the bond that served to counteract the trauma.
Lycia Alexander-Guerra, MD
photo by John Lambert, LCSW