Trauma Psychology News

Emotional Trauma & The Fragilification of Being

Robert D. Stolorow and George E. Atwood
Robert D. Stolorow and George E. Atwood

Traumatic loss strips the world of substance and solidity

“I WILL LOVE YOU FOREVER,” a lover proclaims to a beloved. Love thereby transforms the beloved into a metaphysical entity, replacing the finitude and impermanence of existence with the illusion of eternity. When a beloved dies, not only is the relationship lost; the metaphysical illusion of its permanence and indestructibility crumbles. Such crumbling of metaphysical illusion lies at the heart of emotional trauma.

The crumbling of the illusion of eternal love radically transforms the lover and their world. As Edna St. Vincent Millay poetized it, “Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell!”

But the transformation of the bereaved lover’s world entails more than the absence therein of the beloved. Traumatic loss strips the world of substance and solidity, leaving the bereaved ungrounded. This is the process we characterize as a “fragilification of Being.” As one grieving widower described the experience,“ I am thinking I feel lost and disoriented because of Katy no longer being here. She was a stabilizing force–a grounding sweetie. I dreamt I was lost in a huge unfamiliar train station, looking for someone—anyone—to tell me where I was and how to get home.”

Another dream captured the disintegration of his world: “I was wandering through a field of burned out trees and buildings–burned skeletons, the incinerated remains of animals and people who had died most horribly.”

A particularly vivid instance of traumatic fragilification is provided by “the glass delusion,” originally described regarding the experience of Charles VI, King of France. Following a series of shattering traumatic events, Charles suffered from spells in which he believed he was made of glass. Because he was convinced that one wrong move would shatter him, his clothes were reinforced with iron and he had to be bundled carefully. Such ribs of iron are analogues to the dissociative defenses that shelter the vulnerabilities left by trauma. The various forms of psychopathology can be grasped as manifestations of crumbling metaphysical illusions of indestructibility and permanence or as efforts to restore such crumbled illusions. We hope to elaborate on this formulation in future communications.

ROBERT D. STOLOROW is a Founding Faculty Member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles. He has been absorbed, with George Atwood, for more than five decades in the project of rethinking psychoanalysis as a form of phenomenological inquiry. Most recently, they coauthored The Power of Phenomenology (Routledge, 2018).

GEORGE E. ATWOOD is Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University.

Citation: Stolorow, R. D., & Atwood, G. E. (2023). Emotional trauma and the fragilification of being: Traumatic loss strips the world of substance and solidity. Trauma Psychology News, 18(3), 10-11.

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