Trauma Work and Scenes

Trauma work and scenes
Don’t get stuck looking for meaning. Let your client tell you what’s going on.

Heidi from Finland asked me if I could give another example of noticing a scene playing out,  and how I worked with that. ‘What’s the relationship between trauma work and scenes?’ she asks. Perhaps I can answer her question and at the same time say something about how I regard working in the transference, why I believe it is so important to work in the present as much as possible, and something about why I find theory helpful.

Imagine a child growing up with a number of siblings. She develops a relationship with her parents where they come to depend on her helping them communicate. She has a difficult relationship with her siblings, who find her controlling,  secretive and somehow, as one of them put it when they spoke as adults, ‘in a different place’.

Thirty years later, when I first worked with Christina, it wasn’t hard to find traces of these early relational dynamics playing out in her life. The work we did underlined for me the important relationship between trauma work and scenes.

What would you do? Let’s forget about trauma work and scenes for a moment and think about what your job as a therapist might be.

Part of your job as a therapist , if you come to work with a person like Christina, is to be as sensitive as possible to the dynamics you might get to know through you relationship with her, which might tell you about what she experienced in her early life. Thinking psychoanalytically that would involve considering the transference, and you own countertransference feelings (although I tend to conflate the two into the transference relationship). Other therapeutic modalities will have their own ways of doing something similar.

Using your intuition, rooted in your emotional relationship with your client, you will then need to help her identify the situations where the traces of her early life seem to be playing out, and to get to the conflicts and emotional struggles she is facing.  The behaviour represented by the ‘scene’ you discover is symptomatic of the way she tried to cope in her early life, and how this affected her.

Don’t be seduced by the obvious scenes. She may well, as Christina was, be a manager at a large company and have developed separate relationships with two senior figures, and be distrusted by the people she manages, who also find her distant. I’ve found various scenes active in people’s lives.

We need to locate the scenes with the most affect – the ones that lie most directly upon the fault-line of her early life trauma (to use a phrase I would like to think about in great detail somewhere else), rather than ‘satellite scenes’, which have something in common with Freud’s ‘screen memories’.

In her relationships your client may also, as Christine was, be very close two two of her children and her husband might end up occupying originally played by her siblings. Scenes can be played in so many different ways. Take these two, with Tom Hiddlestone and Laurence Olivier.

Your job is then to hold in mind the early life behaviour while you explore the current scene with your client, reacting and acting out of all your imagined familiarity with the woman’s past even if you don’t take her there. Try to stay in the present and see what presents itself: where do her associations take you both? What do her feelings suggest? You could ask her, for example, what the sensation she notices inside her, when she describes the current scene in her life you are exploring, seems to say about her.

If that’s difficult try finding a creative way of getting to what a client’s beliefs about themselves, held in their feelings might be.

I remember asking Christine what it would be like to imagine her feelings, the sensation she had noticed, as an animal. What would it be like? It turned out to be an imaginary animal, the nature of what helped Christine subtly describe how she felt. We imagined what would happen if someone else was given the animal: what would it bring with it as a magical spell to cast upon its owner? What would that owner say about themselves once the spell took hold? ‘I am too overbearing,’ she said – and Christine found herself describing, very emotionally, how she felt she was too overbearing, and what she did to cope with this.

I never mentioned Christine’s childhood. She made a number of connections herself, most of which would have been beyond me; or if I had made them they would have horribly over-simplified the situation.

A conscious awareness of the past, even if it was a reconstruction of the kind of tableaux I used to love seeing as a child at the British museum, resided in me throughout this work. The anchor to the present resided in the client. Between us we found a way of working through something that connected the two.

I intended this as a short note, so I shall end it here. Almost.

Trauma work and scenes … something isn’t finished.

A thought that comes to me having written this relates to the need for a psychotherapist to understand something about theory even if they never talk theoretically with their client or their colleagues. The best psychotherapists and counsellors I know talk about the theory I know only as much as they would their favourite novels or films.

I’m thinking of a printing engineer I used to know who, when called to the site of a problem, would spend some time listening to the machine that seemed to be malfunctioning. This man knew how the machines worked in extraordinary detail. Not only that, he understood the process of printing inside out; and even of publishing. If you spoke to him he could give you a history of a book (from its life as a part of a tree to its place on a shelf in a bookshop) that was so entertaining, and so particular, taking into account the subject of the book, the place in the world it was made, the time it was written, the political circumstances, the kind of transport systems available … and so on. The engineer loved his work.

My point is that when he arrived to mend a machine, all the engineer had to do was listen and he usually had the problem solved quickly. Sometimes he didn’t even have to take the machine apart: the problem lay in the way it was being operated. He knew his theory, and he loved his work, and he could fix a printing machine without once looking at  a circuitry diagram, an operating manual or a service history.

I prefer to work with people like him. Trauma work and scenes: think of yourself as an actor trying to convey the trauma in a play. How would you play a scene? The best actors seem to know a lot about how theatre or cinema work … and if as a psychotherapist you can’t conceive of yourself as playing a part in your client’s dramas, the scene of the psychotherapy, you may be missing a lot. You may even be playing your part without realising it (although I have to say there’s some of this in every psychotherapy I can remember, which I have only been able to get in touch with after the event; and probably some I will never know about).

Trauma work and scenes: I wonder sometimes about my need for repetition.

Leave a Reply