It is difficult to understand why people suffer from traumatic events to such varying degrees. While there is no complete explanation for this, psychologists and therapists suggest that everyone’s psyche is made up a little differently by a combination of both nature and nurture creating subtle differences in the way we experience and process life.
Trauma is more prevalent than one might think. We tend to think of it in terms of the extremes such as war, disasters, major accidents and abuse. However, day to day emotional difficulties, which are harder to identify and aren’t’ validated or even acknowledged by the person who experienced them can ultimately have a defining influence over our personality, relationships, and everyday lives.
To consider the impact of trauma we need to start from the most difficult moment of life – birth. From that point onward, everything in theory becomes easier to deal with as we become less helpless by accruing resources from our environment to help us cope with the harsh realities of the world. A carer nurtures her baby and provides food, safety and love. Eventually language is learned, equipping the toddler to request more specifically, with words, what it needs. Toys are imbued with meaning and coveted as belonging to the individual and are felt as part of the self, enabling play in the world. This is both a real and imaginary world that can be returned to and played in time after time. These real and imaginary objects are the threads that comprise the fabric of the psyche, giving it integrity to support experiences. We cannot control what is encountered in our lives. Experiences of terror, the unexpected, the unfortunate and the unthinkable are ineluctable aspects of reality. When traumatic events take place however, the moment itself seems to stand apart from daily life. Some say that time “stands still.” These moments are beyond comprehension. Emotions and the words that represent them such as terror, anger, and fear may be present in these moments but are not consciously felt or experienced. – or as Bion stated experienced as the “nameless dread.”
Theorists such as Freud and Klein focused on love and hate as central components to our developmental self. The World War One veteran, and influential psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion added knowledge, particularly the inability to know. The inability to know results from the failure to have found someone, generally in early life, willing and able to contain unbearable feelings, feelings that cannot be put into words, but have more the quality of fragments of feelings. It is only by encountering another mind willing and able to hold these unbearable pieces of feeling that one can learn to put them together for oneself.
Uncontained emotional experiences result not just in our inability to know these experiences, but in the attempt to destroy connections between our associations, creating isolated islands of knowledge that cannot be connected in thoughts or sentences. Attacks on linking are an attack on the associations between thoughts that make knowledge possible.
Bion’s use of the term ‘Nameless dread is simply a placeholder for an indescribable feeling that takes place during a traumatic event and plays a critical role in the development of a person. If an event cannot be woven into the fabric of the psyche, something harmful happens. Unconsciously, a promise is made with the self. You will never have to feel nameless dread ever again but in return you will give up part of yourself. This promise however, comes at a great cost. The edges of spontaneity, vulnerability, creativity, openness to explore, learn, and take in what is new will be compromised.
Therapy might offer the opportunity to safely explore our experiences, associations, fantasies and feelings. Perhaps in time, we may find a way to assimilate these cut off aspects of the self, and live a fuller more authentic life.