In my work as a psychoanalyst, I often think that none of us can avoid the fingerprints of our early history, the particulars of who our parent(s) and/or caretakers were and how their distinct elements shaped us, the specific interactions that molded our relational self. We cannot avoid it, nor would we want to. Our parental legacy and its early progression, shapes who we are and who we become. That relational history is ours and ours alone – much like a fingerprint. Such fingerprints make us a particular character; an individual with our own emotional twists and turns. Fingerprints are uniquely ours. They are one of our distinctive, identifying characteristics. They are emblems that capture our individuality, like a birthmark that is singularly ours. Thinking of such physical imprints has helped me consider psychic experience, and particularly the experience of psychic pain in a similar fashion. Psychically, fingerprints consist of multiple, early interactions with significant others, each shaping parts of our identity, creating our particular curves, lines and dents. They cannot be avoided. Bruises and scars are to be avoided, but not fingerprints.
Consider the differences. Bruises are contusions and discolorations that come about as the result of an injury. They may or may not be indicative of the degree of physical trauma on the inside, but they are signs that something has caused harm. They are often sore to the touch and cause us, and others, to take notice. To move with care. They may be minor and disappear quickly, or quite profound and deep.
Then there are scars. Scars come about as the result of a wound. They provide physical evidence that an injury has occurred, a laceration, a gash, an abrasion that leaves a mark on the body. They are the evidence of trauma. Obvious to the eye and painful to the touch, they keep us from engaging freely in our daily lives. While they may diminish over time, they never go away. They fade and are survived but not forgotten.
Fingerprints are part of our identity. Scars and bruises are evidence of trauma. Big difference. While the way that we bruise, and our particular scars, also become part of our identities and who we are, (re)shaping our experience of ourselves, they are evidence of our run-ins with life and its circumstances, of external events and people and their effect on us, of the impact and potential damage that we are capable of inflicting on one another. Take for example, the scars of incest and sexual abuse. Or the way that violence becomes written on the body, coming to life in the bruises and scars it leaves behind. Our psyche contains bruises and scars that may not be evident to the eye but instead, take hold of our senses and are experienced as painful and destabilizing areas, which like physical lesions, are tender to the touch and reactivate the pain associated with them.
The parallel between psychic suffering and physical suffering is similar in other ways too. Imagine if our psychic wounds were visible to the eye – if our personal lacerations were evident to all, much in the same way that scars and bruises are. Talk about the walking wounded! Perhaps we would take better care, take heed of the others’ pain. Hold a door open, offer up our seats, respond from our own understanding and experience of injury and pain. Respond with compassion. But I digress. The point is that psychic experience is embodied in our physical envelope and vice versa, and this has a powerful influence on how we move in the world, what parts of our bodies are free and which are frozen. What parts of us are open to new experience and what parts of us are closed to it. What parts of us are bruised and scarred. The psyche impacts the nature of our illnesses and ailments. It speaks through our symptoms, giving physicality to our suffering.
It is the nature of pain that it defies words and language and speaks through felt experience. Perhaps that is why when we can see that someone is injured physically we take heed, we hold the door and give up our seat on the bus. But what of the scars and bruises that cannot be seen? When we are able to be present with another, and open ourselves to experiencing them, we become aware of their psychic nevus. We can sense it and feel it. Pain, and particularly psychic pain cries out for such a felt understanding and only then is potentially represented in language- a language co-created in mutual experience. Psychic bruises and scars come about in relationship(s) and require relationship(s) to be processed, understood and perhaps healed. Much of the language of the psyche, as well as that of the soma, is experiential, and thus does not translate so easily to words. Thus the value of relationships and our need for them. Human connection at its best, with all of its multitude of individual fingerprints.
First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on March 13, 2013.