Sunday, October 11, 2009

Traumas Big and Small but Mostly Small

By Kevin Murphy MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

I was reading a study on the impact of trauma on refugees from Chechnya recently and how the fact of other people knowing about the trauma makes a big difference in terms of recovery. Obviously the people of Chechnya underwent severe and real trauma. The report outlines the various traumas suffered and an extensive list includes such things as bombardment, execution, massacre, torture, forced breakup of families, rape, illness without access to care, malnutrition and robbery. The main finding of the study* was a negative correlation between social acknowledgement of trauma and post traumatic stress disorder, concluding that social acknowledgment of trauma could promote recovery from it.
That’s why the reconciliation efforts in South Africa and Northern Ireland have had to base so much of their work on simply acknowledging the traumatic reality of what had taken place for all sides in those conflicts.
Obviously there is no mistaking trauma when it occurs during war or civil unrest. A bomb or a murder is unmistakable in terms of the consequences it can have for people.
But we can be mistaken if we tend to think of trauma as exclusively belonging to these incidents.
Psychoanalysis sees trauma – broadly defined as an unpleasant experience that we feel overwhelmed by, that often takes us unawares, that has no obvious meaning to it and that we are unable to do anything to defend against – in these terms too.
But there is another form of trauma that is far less dramatic or noticeable. Freud in his early theorizing wanted to know what it was that turned relatively healthy people into neurotics whose lives became unmanageable. His first idea was that some trauma had occurred that had effected them badly.
He postulated that it must have been sexual trauma of some kind. He eventually moved away from this notion because it was simply unsustainable to believe that everyone with a problem had been sexually abused. But what he did discover was that trauma, under the definition above, was possible during normal human development, in almost inconsequential ways, especially when we are infants.
The nature of unexpected or unwanted things happening to us at an early age, such as the necessary absence of our primary care giver for however short a period of time, can be mildly traumatic on us. Hunger, weaning, the arrival of a new sibling, unexpected frights, the dark, and later moving on to all sorts of fears that young children have about monsters under the bed, worries about their parents and so on.
Each of these mini-traumas have two features: they teach us how to cope and adapt to the nature of absences of comfort, or security, or food and so on, so that we can learn to develop as more mature functioning beings.
Secondly, they can often leave miniscule traces of fear behind that linger within us until triggered later by real experiences in life. Very often, part of the negative impact of larger traumas is that they can reinforce a pattern already laid down by these early traumas and make it very difficult for a person to ‘get over’ them.
If we don’t overcome or only partially overcome a particular ‘mini-trauma’, say coping with the temporary and necessary absence of our primary care giver, we can grow up unable to let anyone dear to us out of our sight or suffer greatly at any form of separation from a significant other.
Or if, say, as young children we react instinctively to a fright or any form of unpleasantness by 'freezing' until the threat has receded, it can lead us to an adult life where we use denial, or a refusal to communicate, or emotional paralysis when faced with a new threat.
Freud said famously that the earliest traumas that we undergo as infants are simply not noticed by our conscious mind. Or, as he put it in a 1917 lecture ‘The Paths to Symptom Formation’, “The significance of infantile experiences should not be totally neglected, as people like doing… They are all the more momentous because they occur in times of incomplete development and are for that very reason liable to have traumatic effects.”
This is the context in which I am talking about what we might call ordinary trauma, as opposed to the direct, blunt trauma of war, sexual abuse or violence in general.
Often you find in therapy that people are looking for the direct, blunt trauma, the ‘incident’ somewhere in their lives, that will throw light on why they are the way they are.
But very often there is no big incident. The ‘trauma’ is buried in the smallest of details within the particular experiences of their lives. Sometimes it is buried in even the most trivial of things.
This is not to say that people are somehow misguided in looking for the big ‘incident’. As I said, Freud himself was convinced of this line of thinking for a period in his own life.
Undoubtedly some people will have had horrendous real events that have happened to them. Others will have found their experiences so normal that it is only when they talk them out and hear themselves say it, that they begin to get a sense of how unusual they might have been.
And still others believe that because there has been no big ‘incident’ in their lives that they are being self-indulgent in feeling the way they do. But this latter group falls directly into the category around which so much of psychoanalytic theory revolves. The ordinary business of living can be traumatic by itself and can leave traces that echo and repeat throughout peoples’ lives.
The study about Chechnya confirms something that psychoanalysis has been saying since the late 19th century: acknowledgement of trauma by a single other or many others can promote recovery.

* ‘Is Acknowledgment of Trauma a Protective Factor? The Sample Case of Refugees from Chechnya’: (in) European Psychologist, Official Organ of the European Federation of Psychologists’ Associations (EFPA); Vol 14, No 3, 2009. pp 249-254.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Men Who'd Like to Be Don Juan

By Kevin Murphy MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Do all men who approach women with the intention of having a sexual relationship act from a position of confidence? I know we’d like to think so. There is an inherent allure in the notion that men are some kind of switched-on sexual hunters that are driven by a relentless desire to win over and conquer as many women as possible. And that they are unaffected by any concerns of self consciousness, lack of confidence, or questions about their desirability or sexual ability. Oh, and that they never fail in their quest.
Certainly there are men like this but they are far from being in the majority. That is to say, of those men who are seeking a partner only a certain element, it could even be a minority, see it as a serial occupation that is both a continuous and seemingly effortless exercise.
When you take into account the broad spectrum of men within any given population seeking female partners, the majority settle, after the traditional process of trial and error, for one woman.
How then does the Don Juan* image have such a hold over not just women’s general perceptions of men, but also men’s perception of themselves?
I suppose I ask that question because I was talking to a number of men recently on the subject of sex. It was interesting for a number of reasons. Two had female partners that they did not want to have sex with, instead preferring online porn as a way of finding satisfaction. One of them liked it that way and was going to have difficulty changing. The other didn’t want to live that way and wanted to change.
Another man had just finished a long term relationship with a woman who had dictated the terms of the relationship and when they could have sex together. He loved this woman very much but she was so dominant that he became overwhelmed by her constant rules and demands and eventually had to end the relationship.
A fourth man was more Don Juan-ish and he had no difficulty finding women, they seemed to come out of the woodwork for him, as we say in Ireland. But he had a fear of them when it came to being intimate and was unable to engage in sex. The fifth man had no difficulty finding women either but while he had no difficulty engaging in the sex act, he was unable to reach orgasm.
Five very different approaches to the issue of sex, sexuality and, I suppose we could say, gender identity. By gender identity I do not mean that these heterosexual men had an issue around whether they were gay or not. Gay and lesbian issues tend to dominate when it comes to considering gender identity, for understandable reasons, but we often forget a more obvious question that arises in this area. Each of these men had, in their own unique way, a question around what it meant to be a man.
It’s very difficult to find consensus as to what it means to be a man. Everyone has a different definition. Some believe it is about being tough and having muscles. Some believe it is about being strong but fair, protective and understanding. Others see it in terms of physical prowess and we could include sexual prowess here, and still others see it in terms of bravery and courage in the face of adversity.
If we were to look for a common element we could simply say that having a penis is perhaps the baseline for being a man. That and perhaps being able to sire children. But not everyone who has a penis either feels like a man or acts along the lines of the male stereotypes set out above. Nor is a male who cannot sire children any less of a man because of it. So you see how difficult it becomes to find an absolute benchmark for what it is to be a man.
French psychoanalyst Dr Jacques Lacan, following in a long tradition within psychoanalysis, says that one’s biological makeup is no guarantee of gender. Biology is not it. Rather he postulates that the decision is made at the level of the unconscious and that we each take up either a male or female position as a result of the infinitely detailed and almost inconsequential experiences of our lives from infancy onward.
You can trace this line of thinking back to Plato. In his play The Symposium, one of the characters explains how the Greeks believed that once upon a time people were both male and female but that the gods split us in two, hence making men and women. This is the origin of the idea that we eternally seek our other half.
So, where does that leave us in terms of the Don Juan notion? Some analysts see the fictitious womanizer as someone engaged in a pathological quest for the perfect other, the other female person who will satisfy all desire and stop us yearning. Yet it is a quest that is at once both pitiful and doomed to fail because the thing that quells all desire can never be found. It is the act of searching to which he is addicted and in every new woman he hopes to find the answer.
If you accept this version of things, then consider how attractive the mythic concept of Don Juan is for many, many men. Some are drawn to it to the point of living out either dominant or partial elements in their lives. Others who are less confident in their abilities with women see it as an ideal to which they aspire and a standard against which they rebuke themselves if they believe they fall short.
Not every man is an accomplished lover but that does not make someone a failure in the game of love either. And yet a mythic concept operates at an unconscious level against which men measure themselves. A myth based on a fictitious figure endeavouring to satisfy what could well be a pathological need to be loved.
* Among the best known versions of the Don Juan myth are Moliere’s play 'Dom Juan ou le Festin de pierre'(1665); Byron’s epic poem 'Don Juan' (1821) and most famously ‘Don Giovanni’, the opera by Mozart.