Into the Darkest Places – Early Relational Trauma and Borderline States of Mind

Marcus West

We live in fascinating times where recent advances in trauma theory, attachment theory, relational psychoanalysis, and infant research not only allow us, but require us, to revisit and reconsider the fundamental tenets of our theory and practice.

In the series of three talks I am giving at the SAP (see below), and in the book from which they are drawn, I look at the way that the clinical phenomena with which psychoanalysis has struggled for the last century – of narcissistic and borderline experience, of breakdown, self-destructiveness, and suicide – can be seen directly in terms of early relational experience and early relational trauma. Jung’s concept of the complex stands at the heart of such a revisioning.

Of course, trauma, and early trauma in particular, has been central to psychoanalytic theorising since its inception, however, for differing reasons the primary theorists – Freud, Jung and Klein – moved away from real world trauma to focus on the patient’s inner drives, whether those were due to infantile sexuality, for Freud, envy and destructiveness, for Klein, or an interest in the archetypal world that is exposed through trauma, for Jung.

The heart of my talks, and the book, looks at how a developed conceptualisation of the complex can help us understand how these early traumatic experiences, and our primitive responses to them, become embedded at the heart of our personalities in ways that direct and determine our life experience. These form the heart of the conflicts with which each of us struggle in different ways, and which prevent us from being able to achieve full and satisfying lives. Recognising and appreciating the way these complexes function, allows us to work through our traumatic experience, appreciating the role it continues to play in our lives, and moving toward self-acceptance and wholeness.

This work has been borne out of clinical experience that has made me appreciate the importance of ongoing, primitive, emotional and somatic reactions, as well as unrecognised patterns of relationship within the individual (what Bowlby called our internal working models), which continue to ‘call the shots’. Rather than seeing this as the inherent destructiveness of the individual, they can be seen as these early experiences pressing for recognition, acknowledgement and working through.

As well as these theoretical concerns, these matters have important personal, societal and clinical consequences.

On the personal level, they encourage us to reconsider how we see ourselves, who we think we are, and what feels ‘natural’ to us – relating to Jung’s idea of each of us having our own personal myth. Looking at the early traumatic complexes gives us a way of considering and working through deep-seated beliefs and ways of thinking about ourselves and our lives, for example, as worthless, bad, or unlovable.

On the societal level, I describe a masochisto-sadistic dynamic where individuals and societies get caught in cycles of re-enacting the traumatic experiences they experienced upon others, justifying them by their own experience of woundedness.  Such wounding and re-wounding can lead to decades and even centuries-long cycles of war, horror, and tragedy.

And clinically, drawing on Jung’s work on the analytic relationship and the work of relational psychoanalysis, there has been a paradigm shift in considering what goes on in the consulting room, not in terms of a wooden relationship between analyst and patient, but rather as a relationship which co-constructs and re-presents early patterns of relating that otherwise remain unknown and unknowable. Rather than pathologising the patient, or implicitly blaming them for their ‘destructiveness’, they can be helped to recognise, acknowledge and integrate experiences, and their primitive reactions to those experiences, that have previously felt truly unbearable. The pressures in the analysis which have previously led to impasse, or the failure or breakdown of the analysis, can be more clearly understood, and safely and compassionately addressed.

The first talk is on July 2nd this year in Cambridge, where I will be focusing on the overall picture I have outlined above. The second talk / workshop will be at the SAP in London on January 28th 2017 and will focus on the challenges and pressures on the analyst of working with unbearable states of mind. The third talk will be at the SAP on June 3rd 2017, as part of the SAP’s Open House Day (the talk will be free), where I will be exploring the most profound experiences of breakdown, annihilation, suicide, shame, and the subjective experience of dying, which I will be relating to the primitive collapse response. I hope you might join us at one or more of these events.

If you would like to buy a copy of the book you can do so through the publishers, Karnac, or Amazon. If you use the following code at Karnac before the end of May you will get a 15% discount on the price: DARKEST2016

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