Article by R.C. Mandeville, MA, MACP, MFT
In last month’s article Love At Any Price, I discussed childhood attachment and the development of a ‘false self’. This week I will discuss this idea of ‘the primal wound’ as it relates to psycho-emotional healing and the quest to live an authentic life.
In order to develop a healthy ‘whole’ self, infants and children need to be adequately reflected, seen, and acknowledged by an empathic “container”, this being our family-of-origin, e.g., our original family system. It is this nurturing and reflective outer familial / social environment that allows our inner environment (our developing sense of self-hood) to flourish and continue to grow and unfold towards increasing levels of ‘self and other’ (relational) awareness and integration. In a ‘good enough’ (not perfect) familial and social container, the child feels valued, reflected, ‘held’, nurtured, understood, accepted, seen, and cared for.
When an infant or child repeatedly experiences ‘empathic breaks’ with those it is dependent on to meet its basic needs, a ‘survival personality’ develops in response to what is experienced as an uncertain, unstable, even rejecting environment. Specifically, when a child’s caregivers are unable to empathize and respond to a child’s needs, i.e., when the child is treated like an object versus a conscious human being, the child is, in a fundamental sense, dehumanized and becomes an “it.” [It should be noted that a scapegoated child suffers tremendously via this process of being dehumanized because they are not seen for who they really are – they are instead trapped in a family role that they cannot escape from. In such cases, the pain resulting from such a deep primal wound may be extreme, which is why many scapegoated children / adults suffer from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.]
Via this subtle process of dehumanization, an empathic break occurs as a consequence of the child’s developing personhood (or self-hood) being violated. As societies become increasingly individualistic and fractured, even the best intentioned parents / caregivers will have blind spots, in that no person is able to perfectly mirror the totality and innate wholeness of another – even the most loving and attentive parent is incapable of such constant and ‘perfect’ empathic nurturing.
It is this break in empathic connection that will often result in the relational trauma that constitutes the primal wound: “It is the absence of adequate attunement and responsiveness to the child’s painful emotional reactions that renders them unendurable and thus a source of traumatic states and psychopathology” (Stolorow and Atwood, 1992, p. 54)
Later in life, the primal wound will often manifest as depression, anxiety, existential angst (e.g., a sense of impending doom; a sense of meaninglessness); complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and other emotional and/or behavioral difficulties (e.g., addiction, codependency, and attachment / intimacy issues). If the primal wound goes unrecognized, a person’s sense of self, self-esteem, and self-worth may be negatively impacted throughout his or her entire life and a variety of psycho-emotional, behavioral, and relational difficulties may develop.
According to Firman and Gila from their book The Primal Wound: A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction, and Growth (1997), “a fundamental trust and connection to the universe is betrayed, and we become strangers to ourselves and others, struggling for survival in a seemingly alien world. In psychological terms, our connection to our deeper Self is wounded. In religious and philosophical terms, it is our connection to Ultimate Reality, the Ground of Being, or the Divine that is broken. No matter how we elect to describe it, the fact remains that this wounding cuts us off from the deeper roots of our existence.” [p. 2].
So how can adults heal from the experiential reality of a primal wound? When a child or adult has no access to a nurturing, accepting ‘other’, a therapist may serve as an empathic outer environment, providing an emotionally safe container for awareness, integration, and healing to take place. Therapy can act as a unique, individualized ‘holding environment’ in which a client can rediscover their woundedness and face painful realities and awarenesses so as to heal the psyche from deep within (versus running away from the pain via maladaptive or even self-destructive coping mechanisms).
Naturally it takes a good amount of commitment and courage to explore such a deep, intrapsychic wound, given that there may be an unconscious fear that the wound, if opened up and consciously looked at, may be too overwhelming for the psyche to withstand. The ego’s fear of pain must be overcome via the commitment to the therapeutic process in service of the greater good: The eventual re-emergence and integration with one’s whole, authentic Self (also referred to as the Transpersonal Self; the True Self; the Christ-Self; Buddha Nature; the Tao, etc).
While we can heal our primal wounds through the process of self-discovery work within an empathic container, the invisible scars marking the source of our original pain will remain. Yet, it is these very scars that allow us to have compassion and empathy for both ourselves and others as we each struggle imperfectly toward our own ‘Self’ healing and our ever-unfolding journey toward the experiential awareness of our own ‘unbroken’ intra-psychic wholeness.