Posted tagged ‘triggers’

Enactment: Problem AND Solution?

January 6, 2020

The inspiration for this post comes from my recent review of Philip Bromberg’s chapter section on enactment and self-revelation. (see Bromberg, Philip M., Awakening the Dreamer, p. 135). I have recently been very excited to explore the origins of the concept of enactment from Freud’s early work forward. More recent wonderful papers are tying in enactment with all the neuro-biological research, and my sense is we are at a crossroads in understanding how all this comes together.

In short, historically, it seems enactment is a term which attempts to describe an event or episode in the therapy process wherein some degree of unconsciousness drives some degree of acting out; in the moment, either the patient, the therapist, or both could find themselves embodying the transference-counter-transference projections and introjections constellated by the working relationship. They find themselves in the soup, together. The quality of this felt experience reflects what Jung called the participation mystique. In relationship to my mission and contributions here, I am advocating we consider opening the concept to include the unconscious in everyday life, eg: you, me, all of us; think microfractures in communication.

Back to Bromberg: What got my attention was his referencing Wilma Bucci’s work that further seemed to simplify the complexity of what I am calling the blur. For me, the radical idea is captured in the recognition of the importance of getting triggered. Our vulnerability to getting triggered informs us about our priority, or what-is-approaching-readiness-for-emergence, unfinished emotional business. Something in the present moment has evoked a response informed by an invarient organizing principle.

Bromberg opens with the observation: “Enactment is a phenomenon that is not about denial or avoidance of internal conflict; it is a part of the natural functioning of the mind that is simply doing what evolution has adapted it to do in two discrete modes of information processing.”

“One mode, the ‘subsymbolic‘ (Bucci, 1997a), is organized at the level of body experience as ‘emotion schemas‘ that make their presence known affectively, through a person’s ‘ways of being‘; the second mode, the ‘symbolic,’ is organized at the level of cognitive awareness and is communicated through verbal language.”

So here we are invited to recognize subsymbolic and symbolic as two distinct experiences of being present in relationship (both self-with-parts-of-self, self-with-parts-of-other). It seems conceptually the blur is what you get when you combine one’s ‘ways of being’ with an attitude. In line with the blur, something internal is trying to move from the subsymbolic world into the symbolic world. The trouble, no matter how troubling, is meaningful. (See my Couple Experiential State Complex as Activated Threshold discussion.)

He goes on to tie in the role of trauma in setting up the core defenses associated with the subsymbolic world: “When emotional experience is traumatic (more than the mind can bear), it remains unsymbolized cognitively, and the mind recruits the normal mental function of dissociation as a means of controlling both the triggering of unprocessed emotion schemas that were created by trauma and the release of ungovernable affect of hyperarousal that could threaten to destabilize its function.” After trying to paraphrase this sound bite, I decided just to bold it as it is a very important frame on this work.

He then states the importance of this in terms of how psychoanalysis works with enactment: “Enactment in psychoanalysis is a dyadic dissociative process through which the patient’s trauma–derived emotion schemas make themselves known and potentially available to consciousness. When enacted dissociative experience is processed relationally, internal conflict and its potential resolution increasingly become possible.” (Chuck’s bold)

From this we recognize the traumas that required splitting defenses to manage/survive at the time of the injury will have their subsymbolic component, and it is just this not yet fully conscious or integrated layer, level, or trauma complex within that sets up, or manifests in one’s ‘ways of being‘.

First, Ways of being? This is quite a descriptor. Kids being kids comes to mind. I am thinking this captures something about how we move through the world when we’re not entirely conscious. Like, when we have identified a best practice, but are happily not remembering it on the way to the coffee shop for an afternoon shot and a cookie! Or, we get triggered and upset, say things that don’t ring true, can’t not get defensive…in short, we get complexed. (Just to bring back in the distinctly Jungian!)

And second, in suggesting “When enacted dissociative experience is processed relationally, internal conflict and its potential resolution increasingly become possible,” Bromberg is inviting us to reflect on how important it is for us to establish a symbolic relationship with the subsymbolic layer. This necessitates we embrace our own subsymbolic layer, in the service of being experientially available to the patient’s subsymbolic self. This shared, co-created experience directly enables us, together, to find language to symbolize that which has been subsymbolic for important psychodynamic reasons. Working through this blur moment, consciously struggling and finding meaning and words together, helps bring it all into the symbolic mode.

Self-regulation of dissociated, and thus potentially out of control, affective experience can take place only by activating and cognitively symbolizing in the session itself what Bucci (1997a) calls subsymbolic experience that formerly could only be enacted.” Note, the self-regulation can take place only by activating and cognitively symbolizing the subsymbolic layer in the session itself. For me, this must be the origin of the observation healing only occurs in the blur.

Bromberg suggests “During the analytic process, a main part of the analyst’s job is to find words to get his own experience of enacted communication out on the table in a manner that facilitates the patient’s ability to do the same.” This is direct support for both parties, patient and therapist for focusing attentions on the rumblings of our mutually activated-activating subsymbolic felt experience, and finding words of welcome for their symbolic expression.

Here in some different language is a lengthy observation from Donald Sandner and John Beebe on this work: “…Working through any split requires not only disidentification by the ego from the more familiar pole of the complex, but also affective recognition of the contrary pole. Such recognition requires immersion in the side that has been unconscious. There is an unconscious tendency toward wholeness and relief of tension that fosters the emergence, under accepting conditions such as analysis, of the repressed pole. The consequence is that least temporary possession by unfamiliar contents is a regular part of the life and of the analytic process, an inevitable prelude to the integration of unconscious portions of the Self.”

temporary possession by unfamiliar contents seems like another way to describe the experience of subsymbolic material finding it’s way into one’s in-the-moment experience; while it may feel like being possessed by something unfamiliar, yet, so familiar, we want to bear witness together.

If I think about what is it precisely that I am most interested in getting across to you, it is that when we encounter the blur we want to understand the adaptive, evolutionary meaning, or point: counter intuitive as it may be for many, it is in this blur – feeling real threat – that we have the potential – within and only within – the good enough holding relationship – to access and transform the formerly subsymbolic, trauma complex experience.

For one last reflection, I encourage you to check out Bromberg’s description of the contemporary view of the goal of psychoanalysis being not the discovery of the egg, symbolizing unconscious fantasy which can be pieced together, but rather:

“… it is increasingly recognized that the “egg” can manifestly be brought into palpable existence by accepting that the “egg” is not buried content but the symbolization of a dissociated relational process that is not unearthed, but mutually co-created through enactment.” (my italics)

We want to notice what is palpably in the room. And, we want to respect our own contributions to the energetic field formation. Note the co-created aspect… The patient brings in their inner figures, and we lend our bodies, minds, hearts and souls to the enactment and discovery process. How amazing it is!

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