The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defences of the Personal Spirit – Donald Kalsched

Click on the link to visit this post about Donald Kalsched’s book: The Inner World of Trauma, on Monica Cassani’s useful and resource-rich blog,

We do a lot of work at this service with people bringing traumatic experiences to therapy, and we especially resonate with these lines (and his acknowledgement at the end of how astonishing/resourceful our inward defence abilities are, in allowing us to survive at all – even if a time arrives when the fortress becomes a prison):-

‘Throughout the discussion that follows, I will be using the word trauma to mean any experience that causes the child unbearable psychic pain or anxiety. For an experience to be “unbearable” means that it overwhelms the usual defensive measures which Freud described as a “protective shield against stimuli.” Trauma of this magnitude varies from the acute, shattering experiences of child abuse so prominent in the literature today to the more “cumulative traumas” of unmet dependency-needs that mount up to devastating effect in some children’s development, including the more acute deprivations of infancy described by Winnicott as “primitive agonies,” the experience of which is “unthinkable.” The distinguishing feature of such trauma is what Heinz Kohut called “disintegration anxiety,” an unnameable dread associated with the threatened dissolution of a coherent self.”

To experience such anxiety threatens the total annihilation of the human personality, the destruction of the personal spirit. This must be avoided at all costs and so, because such trauma often occurs in early infancy before a coherent ego (and its defenses) is formed, a second line of defenses comes into play to prevent the “unthinkable” from being experienced. These defenses and their elaboration in unconscious fantasy will be the focus of my investigation. In psychoanalytic language, they are variously known as the “primitive” or “dissociative” defenses; for example, splitting, projective identification, idealization or diabolization, trance-states, switching among multiple centers of identity, depersonalization, psychic numbing, etc. Psychoanalysis has long understood that these primitive defenses both characterize severe psychopathology and also (once in place) cause it. But rarely in our contemporary literature do these defenses get any “credit,” so to speak, for having accomplished anything in the preservation of life for the person whose heart is broken by trauma. And while everyone agrees how maladaptive these defenses are in the later life of the patient, few writers have acknowledged the miraculous nature of these defenses — their life-saving sophistication or their archetypal nature and meaning.’

The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defences of the Personal Spirit – Donald Kalsched

Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter


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