Integrating Emotional Trauma

Trauma recovery is an oxymoron.

Posted Mar 24, 2013

As I chronicled in my last blog post (, two central, interweaving themes have crystallized in the course of my ongoing efforts to grasp the essence of emotional trauma. One pertains to trauma’s context-embeddedness-–painful emotional experiences become enduringly traumatic in the absence of a welcoming relational home or context of human understanding within which they can be held and integrated. The second theme pertains to trauma’s existential significance—emotional trauma plunges us into the devastating recognition that, in virtue of our finitude and the finitude of all those we love, the possibility of emotional trauma constantly impends and is ever present. I also suggested that in the context of an understanding, holding relational home, traumatized states can cease to be traumatic, or at least cease to be as severely and enduringly so.

Now, however, I wish to add an existential qualifier to that last claim. Like its analogue, “secure attachment,” "trauma recovery” is an oxymoron—human finitude with its traumatizing impact is not an illness from which one can or should recover. A felt requirement to recover from, or become immune to, the circling back to emotional trauma can be a source of intense shame and self-loathing when, as is inevitably the case, it cannot be achieved. As I spelled out in my book, World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2011;, “recovery” is a misnomer for the constitution of an expanded emotional world that coexists alongside the absence of the one that has been shattered by trauma. The expanded world and the absent shattered world may be more or less integrated or dissociated, depending on the degree to which the unbearable emotional pain evoked by the traumatic shattering has become integrated or remains dissociated defensively, which depends in turn on the extent to which such pain found a relational home in which it could be held. This is the essential fracturing at the heart of traumatic temporality and the dark foreboding that is its signature emotion.

Copyright Robert Stolorow