I’ll Be With You When the Deal Goes Down

Emotional trauma needs a welcoming relational home.

Posted Mar 03, 2013

In his late essay, “Poetically Man Dwells,” existential philosopher Martin Heidegger claims that dwelling is the basic character of authentic human existing—an existing that faces up to the transience and finitude of all things human. In this essay I wish to flesh out Heidegger’s claim in terms of a kind of emotional understanding that we need from another person when we have been traumatized.

During the 22 years since I experienced a devastating traumatic loss, I have, in a series of articles culminating in two books—Trauma and Human Existence (Routledge, 2007) and World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2011)—been seeking to grasp the essence of emotional trauma. Two central, interweaving themes have crystallized in the course of this work. One pertains to the context-embeddedness of emotional life in general and of the experience of emotional trauma in particular. Emotional experience is inseparable from the contexts of attunement and malattunement in which it is felt. Painful emotional experiences become enduringly traumatic in the absence of a relational home or context of human understanding within which they can be held and integrated. The second theme, which draws on Heidegger’s existential philosophy, pertains to the recognition that emotional trauma is built into the basic constitution of human existence. In virtue of our finitude and the finitude of all those we love, the possibility of emotional trauma constantly impends and is ever present. We are always already anticipating trauma, to the degree that we exist non-evasively, outside the sheltering illusions supplied by our culture.

Picture a continuum of emotional pain stretching from mild to traumatic. Where a particular painful state falls along this continuum will depend on contextual factors, including the extent to which there is an available relational home for the painful emotion in which it can be held and integrated. In a sense, in the context of an understanding, holding relational home, traumatized states can cease to be traumatic, or at least cease to be enduringly so. Within such a relational home, traumatized states are in a process of becoming less severely traumatic—i.e., of becoming less overwhelming and more bearable—thus making dissociative and other evasive defenses less necessary. Thus, within a holding relational home, the traumatized person may become able to move toward more authentic (non-evasive) existing. Authentic existing presupposes a capacity to dwell in the emotional pain (grief, terror, horror, existential anxiety, etc.) that accompanies a non-evasive recognition of finitude, and this capacity, in turn, requires that such pain find a relational context in which it can be held.

What makes the finding of such an understanding context possible? An answer to this question can be found in a relational dimension of the experience of finitude itself. Just as finitude is fundamental to our existential constitution, so too is it constitutive of our existence that we meet each other as siblings in the same darkness, deeply connected with one another in virtue of our common finitude. Thus, although the possibility of emotional trauma is ever present, so too is the possibility of forming bonds of deep emotional understanding within which devastating emotional pain can be held, rendered more tolerable, and eventually integrated. Our existential kinship-in-the-same-darkness is the condition for the possibility both of the profound contextuality of emotional trauma and of the mutative power of human understanding.

The implication of the foregoing formulations is that the proper therapeutic comportment toward another’s emotional trauma may be characterized as a kind of dwelling. We must not turn away from another’s experience of trauma by offering false reassurances about time healing all wounds or empty platitudes about letting go and moving on. We offer such reassurances and platitudes when another’s traumatized state confronts us with our own finitude and existential vulnerability, and so we turn evasively away. If we are to be a holding relational home for a traumatized person, we must tolerate our own existential vulnerabilities so that we can dwell unflinchingly with his or her unbearable and recurring emotional pain. When we dwell with others’ unendurable pain, their shattered emotional worlds are enabled to shine with a kind of sacredness that calls forth an understanding and caring engagement within which traumatized states can be gradually transformed into bearable painful feelings.

The attitude of dwelling in the pain of human finitude is captured poetically in Bob Dylan’s mournful song, “When the Deal Goes Down.” Here’s a link to a video of him performing it: youtube.com

Copyright Robert Stolorow