In my work as a psychoanalyst I spend much of my time in areas of experience that tend to be de-stabilizing to our sense of personal integrity and unity. I am speaking here of those times when emotion overwhelms us, disrupting our sense of being oneself and ushering in feeling states that cause a disturbance at the very core of who we are, altering our sense of self and our very reality. Literally breaking apart our ability to think clearly and undermining our sense of stability. Think of them as personal earthquakes, shaking up the structure of who we know ourselves to be and through their reverberations, ushering in parts of ourselves that belong to our personal history and the relationships that make up that history. Seismic activity that resonates with implicit knowledge that continues to reverberate within us and comes to the surface under specific circumstances that trigger it anew. What is this dark magic?
We are talking here of emotional experience that remains unprocessed yet is known to us in its felt reality and may come about through our interactions with others, often particular others that speak the language of those particular emotions and re-mobilize them in interaction with us. As a psychoanalyst I have many words for such experiences: regression, transference, countertransference, enactments- to name a few. Such words make it simpler to identify those moments in treatment but they do not help in the actual processing of the experience. That has to happen relationally. At those times both my patient and I are surfing in the heart of a massive wave, negotiating it together on our surfboard, or more to the point- on the couch. Today’s post is about the experience of being overwhelmed and flooded by emotional information that remains at the core of who we are yet cannot be processed in its original relationship or interaction- it requires a new relational experience that offers a potential new outcome. In my book, this is what psychotherapy is all about.
The experience of personal de-stabilization is now well documented in the neuropsychological literature. Particular emotions mobilize specific neuro-transmitters in our brain, re-activating psychic solutions that are aimed at optimizing survival and re-stabilizing us. From a neurobiological viewpoint it is all about the return to homeostasis. However, from a psychological point of view emotional stability (and our sense of oneness) requires that we connect the emotions we are feeling to the knowledge that we have accumulated, bridging the divide created by the original emotional upheaval. It requires that we experience a different outcome within a relationship. This is because emotions are encoded relationally and can only be understood, processed and integrated interactively – through an ongoing negotiation with another.
In order for emotions and affect to be contained, understood and processed, mutual emotional regulation is needed- something that begins with our caretakers and continues throughout our lifetime in our relationships to others. To be able to self-regulate we must first have the opportunity to interact with another that helps us to process affective experience and wards off potential overload while engaging with us, or at least helps to mediate such overload. In childhood, what is potentially traumatic involves developmental milestones and their concomitant emotions and how they are negotiated (or not) in the parent/child dyad. Self -regulation is a process that is initiated dyadically and assimilated and internalized as the result of such ongoing dyadic interactions. Where such dyadic mediation has failed, because of parental limitations, absence, neglect, or abuse, affect resides in its raw experiential form and can therefore return with potent aftershocks. And all of this shapes our brain and nervous system, which then impacts our ability to negotiate relationships and intimacy in our life.
The language of affect resides in implicit memory. That part of us that knows, senses, intuits and responds from the inside. The part of us that responds from what is known, but yet to be processed by thought and language. Yet to be integrated into consciousness. But there. Much like the rumblings of an earthquake rearranging the grounding plates and creating seismic activity, that language can be activated by tone of voice, a particular look or movement, a familiar smell, a sound, or a specific interaction or circumstance. All triggers that set off our internal alarm system as we experience the internal quake. It can feel like a personal disaster. Hit 9 on the Richter scale. Yet it also creates the opportunity for change.
And for reparation.
First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on February 11, 2013.