Worlds Apart: Dissociation and Traumatic Temporality

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D.

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D.

Coined by Pierre Janet in his investigations of hysteria, the term dissociation has taken on a variety of not-always-compatible meanings and usages in contemporary psychoanalytic theory and practice. Donnel Stern (1997), for example, defines dissociation as a “refusal to interpret” (p. xii) experience, a defensive “avoidance of verbal [symbolic] articulation” (p. 114)—a formulation that, interestingly, comes very close to the way Atwood and I (Stolorow and Atwood, 1992) conceive of the process of repression. Bromberg (2003), in contrast, views dissociation as “a defense against trauma … [that] reduces what is in front of someone’s eyes to a narrow band of perceptual reality…. Its key quality is its ability to retain the adaptational protection afforded by the hypnoid separateness of incompatible self-states, so that each can continue to play its own role, unimpeded by awareness of the others” (p. 561). Bromberg’s conception of dissociation bears a similarity to Kohut’s (1971) description of a “vertical split in the psyche” (p. 176). Like Bromberg, I think of defensive dissociation phenomenologically as a kind of “tunnel vision”—a narrowing of one’s experiential horizons so as to exclude the terrifying, the prohibited, and the emotionally unbearable. Unlike Bromberg, however, I would emphasize the keeping apart not just of incompatible self-states but, more broadly, of incommensurable emotional worlds. I have sought to rethink the concept ofdissociation in terms of the devastating impact of emotional trauma on our experience of temporality [1]. Dissociation, I have tried to show, is traumatic temporality, and traumatic temporality is the condition for the possibility of the defensive use of dissociation (Stolorow, 2011).

Trauma devastatingly disrupts the ordinary, average-everyday linearity and unity of temporality, the sense of stretching-along from the past to an open future. Experiences of emotional trauma become freeze-framed into an eternal present in which one remains forever trapped, or to which one is condemned to be perpetually returned by what I call portkeys to trauma (Stolorow, 2010). In the region of trauma all duration or stretching along collapses, the traumatic past becomes present, and future loses all meaning other than endless repetition. Because trauma so profoundly modifies the universal or shared structure of temporality, the traumatized person quite literally lives in another kind of reality, an experiential world felt to be incommensurable with those of others. This felt incommensurability, in turn, contributes to the sense of alienation and estrangement from other human beings that typically haunts the traumatized person.

The relentlesss recurrence of emotional trauma is ensured by the finitude[2] of our existence and the finitude of all those we love. Authentic temporality, insofar as it owns up to human finitude, is traumatic temporality. “Trauma recovery” is an oxymoron—human finitude with its traumatizing impact is not an illness from which one can recover. “Recovery” is a misnomer for the constitution of an expanded emotional world that coexists alongside the absence of the one that has been shattered by trauma. The expanded world and the absent shattered world may be more or less integrated or dissociated, depending on the degree to which the unbearable emotional pain evoked by the traumatic shattering has become integrated or remains dissociated defensively, which depends in turn on the extent to which such pain has found a relational home—a context of emotional understanding—in which it could be held. This is the essential fracturing at the heart of traumatic temporality.

When emotional trauma becomes integrated within a holding relational home, nothing disappears. Rather, such integration is felt as a relative ease of passage between the two worlds that had been kept apart by dissociation. In the therapeutic situation, such a relational home is constituted through a comportment that I call emotional dwelling(Stolorow, 2014). In dwelling, one does not merely seek empathically to understand the other’s emotional pain from the other’s perspective. One does that, but much more. In dwelling, one leans into the other’s emotional pain and participates in it, perhaps with aid of one’s own analogous experiences of pain. I have found that this active, engaged, participatory comportment is especially important in the therapeutic approach to emotional trauma. The language that one uses to address another’s experience of emotional trauma meets the trauma head-on, articulating the unbearable and the unendurable, saying the unsayable, unmitigated by any efforts to soothe, comfort, encourage, or reassure—such efforts invariably being experienced by the other as a shunning or turning away from his or her traumatized state. If we are to be an understanding relational home for a traumatized person, we must tolerate, even draw upon, our own emotional vulnerabilities so that we can dwell unflinchingly with his or her unbearable and recurring emotional pain. When we dwell with others’ unendurable pain, their shattered emotional worlds are enabled to shine with a kind of sacredness that calls forth an understanding and caring engagement within which traumatized states can be gradually transformed into bearable painful feelings. Emotional pain and vulnerability that find a hospitable relational home can be seamlessly and constitutively integrated into whom one experiences oneself as being.


Bromberg, P. M. (2003). Something wicked this way comes: Trauma, dissociation, and conflict. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 20(3), 558-574.

Kohut, H. (1971). The analysis of the self. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

Stern, D. B. (1997). Unformulated experience: From dissociation to imagination in psychoanalysis. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Stolorow, R. D. (2010). Heidegger’s Nietzsche, the doctrine of eternal return, and the phenomenology of human finitude. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 41(1), 106-114.

Stolorow, R. D. (2011). World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis. New York & London: Routledge.

Stolorow, R. D. (2014). Undergoing the situation: Emotional dwelling is more  than empathic understanding. International Journal of Psychoanalytic Self Psychology9(1), 80-83.

Stolorow, R. D. & Atwood, G. E. (1992). Contexts of being: The intersubjective foundations of psychological life. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Robert D. Stolorow is a Founding Faculty Member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles, and at the Institute for the Psychoanalytic Study of Subjectivity, New York. Absorbed for more than four decades in the project of rethinking psychoanalysis as a form of phenomenological inquiry, he is the author of World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis(Routledge, 2011) and Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections(Routledge, 2007) and coauthor of nineother books. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Harvard in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Riverside in 2007.

[1]Temporality is the lived experience of time.

[2]Finitude is the term used by philosophers to refer to dimensions of human limitedness, especially mortality, but also powerlessness, vulnerability, and uncertainty.