Psychic Trauma

Blame the parents, a simplistic way to think about adult psychopathology. On the one hand, we can all agree that childhood sets the stage for adulthood in which relationships are formed, leading to happiness and fulfillment, and/or pain and suffering. That relationships in childhood, that is, those with the caretakers, create a paradigm for how relationships should be, create an imprint which can be growth-promoting and/or psychologically destructive is the premise behind the “blame the parents” approach. Some psychoanalysts reframe the “blame the parents” with the language of “psychic trauma”. Clearly, on a broader level, there are multiple layers of psychic functioning and “psychic trauma” only affects one layer. Siphoning out this layer to teach about “mental schemas” does not mean that there are not biological factors which impact resilience such as IQ and temperament.

Brett, fifty-two, comes to mind. He is lonely, unemployed and burdened by the care of his disabled brother. He states that he cannot form relationships with women because he is “sure” they are going to hurt him, so what is the point? Where does this certainty come from? I wonder. It stands to reason that Brett’s saying “sure” means that historically speaking, women have hurt him terribly and he, in his mind, was not able to mend that wound. Does this mean that his mother did not respond to him, in the way that he needed to be responded to, and hence now, in middle age he is lonely and depressed? Maybe, but that is not the whole story. It does not mean that Brett’s mother is “bad” or unempathic, but it could mean that the fit between mother and child was poor, meaning that Brett’s mother did not tune into his needs in a “good enough” way, as per Winnicott. Maybe, at a tender age, Brett had a relationship with a woman that “traumatized him for life,” as some people might say, but in fact, if every relationship brings up prior relationships, then we can assume that “traumatized for life” implies a lack of resiliency, making me as a therapist, think about his early relationships.

So, can we “blame the parents” and forgive them at the same time? This is the option that each patient has, that understanding one’s needs, and perhaps the lack of attention to those needs, does not necessarily make the patient angry at his caretaker, but often, the patient becomes compassionate for how hard it is to take care of a child, who has needs that are demanding a deep and wide skill set of compassion, empathy and patience. In essence, psychic trauma is inevitable in childhood. The issue is how that trauma becomes integrated into the mental state of the adult. Does the trauma inhibit the ability to work and love, as Freud would ask, or does the trauma deepen one’s commitment to work and love in a meaningful way?