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*psycho/analytic corner* Early relational Trauma and the Self Care System

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

" Memory is a gulf, which a word can move to its lowest depths"



From a Jungian standpoint, dreams are images that give form to unconscious affects and hence are agents of one’s evolving consciousness.

Trauma-related imagery tends to appear in therapy when a traumatic affect is being remembered, or repeated in the transference. We might say that dreams function as a transitional space for experiencing affects linked to a traumatic memory that is too painful to remember .

The idea of ‘Self Care System ’ refers to a self-regulatory system of defences with inner/outer mediational functions, and represents one possible way of understanding some phenomena that arise in response to trauma.

At an early stage of life, our experience of reality is psychosomatic: negative affects tend to fragment the baby’s psyche-some unit, whereas positive ones integrate these fragments. our ability to symbolise emerges gradually within the context of a reasonable primary relationship, which functions as a metabolizing organ.

Development can thus be imagined as as a process organized by archaic and typical mechanisms that, activated by the environment, gradually provide psychosomatic affects with a symbolic representation.

In the presence of traumatogenic early relationships, the raw data of existential experience cannot be transformed into a psychological experience and the inflation of negative affects becomes a threat to the child’s ability to ‘feel real’. Implicit to this is a distinguishing feature of trauma: it disrupts the our capacity for mentalization.

The psyche’s defence against trauma is usually dissociation, which distributes the affect/state to different parts of the psyche/soma: this way, unbearable affects and states don’t acquire mental representation, and the internal world is formed around archaic affects and related objects that remain permanently disconnected from personal meanings of significance.

The idea of trauma leading to a dissociated system of states of mind persisting through life is well established in the psychodynamic tradition.

In the early 1900s, Ferenczi (1932) hypothesized that early trauma leaves the immature psyche divided between regressed and progressed states of mind. He postulated that trauma-induced dissociation entails several fragments: one relates to a ‘regressed Self’, which behaves “like a child who has fainted, completely unaware of itself” (Ibid. p.10). The second, or ‘progressed Self’, “plays the role of guardian angel … producing wish-fulfilling hallucinations” that will kill the pain by “squeezing the entire psychic life out of the inhumanely suffering human body.” The third fragment is the “soul-less part, the ashes of earlier mental suffering,’ (p. 10) whose disintegration is not perceived at all.

Later on, Winnicott (1960) described the inner division in terms of True and False Self, the latter identified with the mind and designed to safeguard the former; whereas Fairbain (1981) envisioned a simultaneous internalization of the infant self and its neglectful caregivers as a victim and perpetrator complex.

Common to all these theories is the idea that the inner division resulting from trauma “accomplishes a partial cure, enough so that life continues, despite dissociation and its effects in limiting a person’s full potential” (Kalsched, 2010, p.281).

The result is a defensive structure, where the coexistence of infantile needs/vulnerability and tyrannical rage leads to the formation of a world of severed internal objects, which swing between being protective and persecutory.

This division replicates in life through patterns that, in object relation language, might be understood in terms of internal working models (Stern 1985 pp.104-135; Knox 2003) based on distance regulation as a way of keeping distressing affects at a safe distance from consciousness.

The Self Care system (SCS) constellates around themes of failed dependency and the related affects are amplified by the psyche’s mythopoeic dynamism.

Usually, the dissociated system of inner objects that form the SCS appears in dreams as a figure, which threatens to destroy the connections between the dream ego and its images of vulnerability as these emerge in response to transference feeli

Constellation of the Self Care System

Kalsched hypothesizes that the SCS is an archaic and typical structure, as well as the organizing principle behind dissociation.

By severing the links between affect and image, its function is to preserve the centre of psychological essence (Kalsched, 1996). This concept might be assimilated to Winnicott’s idea of “true self” and refers to the pre-traumatic part of the self that remains foreclosed from entering reality, while the SCS constellates experience and acts as an imprimatur of subsequent ones.

As the SCS continues to operate through life, all the relations with the outer world are screened according to the original assumption that reaching out beyond a closed system of certainty will expose the true self to further experiences of failed dependency. To prevent that, the SCS defends the person against dangerous stimulation from the outer world, but also from needs and longings that arise in the internal environment. This way, ‘What was intended to be a defence against further trauma becomes a major resistance to all unguarded spontaneous expressions of self in the world’ (Kalsched, 1996, p. 4).

In my opinion, implicit to the idea of the SCS as an archetypal structure should be the one of trauma as an archetypal experience that, along with its accompanying affects, forms a readiness to experience based on broad lines already laid down in the psyche.

The relationship between archetypes and experience is indeed a feedback system, and ‘Repeated experiences leave residual psychic structures that become archetypal structures. But these structures exert an influence on experience, tending to organise it according to the pre-existing patterns’ (Samuels, 1985, p. 26).

Although Kalsched never clarifies his views on the origin of the SCS, he seems indeed to “suggest an innate image, existing before individual experience and waiting to be activated under certain conditions” (Knox, 2003, p.132) that resonate with an theme around which the experience is organized.

This links with Jung’s idea of an universal tendency for the psyche to fragment, under the pressure of a strong affect, into subsidiary egos or complexes, each holding a part of the original experience that was intolerable (trauma) or incompatible (conflict) with the central ego.

We might imagine the individual experience of the SCS as organized around an un-integrated affect that remains unconscious and that, constellated, acts as the epicentre of a magnetic field, assimilating into itself everything that has any resonance.

Not only does this inner process exert a powerful organizing influence on the individual whilst remaining unconscious but, also, it en-acts itself: this way, it attracts, co-opts and subsumes other parts of the environment, both inner and outer, into itself.

As the SCS is organized around themes of failed dependency, it constellates when vulnerable needs start to emerge in a relationship. An un-symbolised affect charges the psyche, forming a dissociative gap between selfhood and the ‘me’ experienced at that given moment: this leads to a state of consciousness in which aggression operates internally to defend against disowned needs of dependency, and externally to attack the links with a significant other, unconsciously perceived as dangerous.

In the analytic situation, the analyst’s distance and technique are likely to resonate with parental indifference and emotional dis-attunement, so that the resulting symptoms are designed to keep the ego from feeling its own needs whilst attacking the links with the analyst (Bion, 1959).

Internal objects and dreams

Various authors have linked this dynamic to the coincidence of a vulnerable, innocent internal object and its violent Protector/persecutor: Fairbain (1981) referred to the ‘internal saboteur’, whereas Bion (1955) described it in terms of a ‘sadistic superego’.

The SCS features the same schism, where the progressed part of the Self oversees the regressed one but, also, turns persecutory to keep the pre-traumatic Self out of consciousness.

Object relation theorists understand ‘internal objects’ as mental representations resulting only from the internalization of outer relationship patterns, implying that there is nothing in the psyche, which is not first in the outer world.

In other words, traumatized children internalize their experiences with ‘bad objects’ in order to control them: the resulting inner system of part-objects replicates outer object-relations and transforms them into psychic structures, whose relationships are portrayed in dreams and fantasies (Fairbain, 1981, p.99). By considering the internal world as mostly persecutory, this type of approach places all the focus on the defensive nature of dissociative imagery.

By contrast, the idea of an archetypal structure presupposes the one of trauma as the activator of a dissociative imagery that is innate, rather than emergent.

From Kalsched’s point of view, the SCS’s internal objects are typical of the way in which the (traumatized) psyche splits along certain (transpersonal) lines: when the outer mediation provided by the primary relationship breaks down, archetypal mediation takes over producing defences that the psyche, through mythopoyesis, re-shapes in the forms of dream-images.

Further, from a Jungian standpoint, dreams portray affects, rather than relationships: the psyche personifies its affects around pre-existing form-giving structures that are constellated by –but not limited to- personal experience.

This is why, for example, the ‘child’ image often encountered in dreams is both personal and representative of everything that ‘the child’ has ever represented in culture.

With this in mind, we might hypothesize that the traumatized psyche personifies its inner division through images belonging simultaneously to the personal and archetypal worlds and that, in Jungian language, might be described as daimonic.

Like complexes, the daimonic is bi-polar, and considers both creativity on one side, and destructiveness on the other side, as coming from the same source (May, 1969).

Made of images rather than concepts, the daimonic is portrayed in dreams in the forms of personified images that, in their plural form, personify un-integrated aspects of the unconscious operating at the margins of the ego, mediating between personal and transpersonal experiences.

In Kalsched’s view, the personified images encountered in dreams of traumatized patients refer to an archetypal “dissociative agent whose [..] attacking energy dismembers the psyche from within” (Kalsched, 2013). The author names it Dis, whose etymology means “twofold”, and describes it as an inner figure that swings between being protective and being persecutory towards the dream-ego.

Kalsched’s argument of trauma as the activator of innate archetypal defences has been criticized in light of developmental research (Knox, 2003, p. 129), which suggests that dissociative imagery should be considered as emergent, rather than innate. Although I did not discuss this argument, I believe that considering archetypal imagery as an aspect of the individual psyche that interfaces with the collective unconscious does not invalidate a developmental account.

To the contrary, it offers creative ways to explore that transitional space between the ego and unconscious that is “the inner mirror image of the outer transitional space” (Kalsched, 2003, p.151) between infant and mother, as well as patient and analyst.

The inner protector/persecutor can easily morph into a figure that is both personal and representative of the collective imagery.

As I will explore in other posts, there are many examples of stories in which the presences that haunt the inner world of dissociation emerge and personify.

A literary example could be Hugo’s Les Miserables, in its portrayal of the relationship between Valjean and his child; the former ‘guilty’ of carrying a wound (a tattoo, symbolizing an early mistake) that was inflicted upon him at a time of spiritual weakness, from which the latter has to be protected at all costs.

Surrounding the two is a policeman, Javert, a figure of rigid principles and values that carries with it a comfortable illusion of control. As an embodiment of single-minded compliance to what has been deemed right by authority, Javert’s presence keeps Valjean unable to integrate his wound until, through the loving energies and positive life-potentials of a third character, the tension resolves and Javert sacrifices his life.

Another point that I did not discuss relates to whether and how the SCS operates as a cultural complex at a group level: the dynamics described by Kalsched may come alive in the traumatized group psyche as well as in the private horror of a traumatized individual. A traumatized group may develop a cohort of protector/persecutor leaders designed to protect the ‘injured child’ of the group identity, as well as to protect the group "ego" from a terrifying sense of imminent annihilation.


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