Into the Darkest Places: Early Relational Trauma and Borderline States of Mind, by Marcus West

How early traumatic experiences, and our primitive responses to them, become embedded in our personalities

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We live in fascinating times, where recent advances in trauma theory, attachment theory, relational psychoanalysis, and infant research not only allow us, but require us, to revisit and reconsider the fundamental tenets of our theory and practice.

In my latest book, Into the Darkest Places: Early Relational Trauma and Borderline States of Mind, I look at the way that the clinical phenomena with which psychoanalysis has struggled for the last century – narcissistic and borderline experience, breakdown, self-destructiveness, and suicide – can be seen directly in terms of early relational experience and early relational trauma. Jung’s concept of the complex stands at the heart of such an understanding.

Of course, trauma, and early trauma in particular, has been central to psychoanalytic theorising since its inception. However, for differing reasons, the primary theorists – Freud, Jung and Klein – moved away from real world trauma to focus on the patient’s inner drives, whether those were due to the centrality of infantile sexuality for Freud, envy and destructiveness for Klein, or an interest in the ‘unexpected visions of a world beyond’ that is exposed through trauma for Jung.


“the primacy of the interpersonal field allows us to re-envisage the relational aspect of trauma”

In reading analytic papers, there has frequently been a disjunction between the appreciation that early trauma lies behind ‘this particular syndrome’, whatever that may be, and a real recognition of how the early experience underlies, is embedded in, and continues to deeply affect and determine our experience. My analytic work has required me to understand and address ever more primitive states of mind, and somatic and affective fragments of experience. Trauma theory sheds important light on these phenomena. In addition, recognising the primacy of the interpersonal field allows us to re-envisage the relational aspect of trauma.

Yet the accommodation between psychoanalysis and trauma work has been at best uneasy and at worst conflicting, with sometimes radically different attitudes and methods being adopted. I believe these conflicts follow from the very real difficulties of working with states of mind that frequently feel impossible to bear, for both patient and analyst.

As a result of these issues I started exploring, researching, and finally writing, what came to be Into the Darkest Places. Whilst it was not my intention when I started writing the book, it offers an integration of analytic theory, trauma theory, and relational theory, yet represents a critique of each. First, it critically revisions analytic understanding, attitudes, and techniques in the light of a trauma perspective, offering, in particular, a different view of borderline and narcissistic states of mind.

Second, it argues that working with the extreme states of mind consequent upon traumatic experience requires an analytic attitude in order to safely and fully address the individual’s early traumatic experience as it has come to be embodied and elaborated in their personality and ways of being with others.

traumavisualnotes2 (2)Third, it provides an understanding of the pressures and dynamics in the analytic relationship which challenges some relational models of analysis, suggesting that the analytic task may precisely require the working through of what feel like “inhuman” (although, in fact, only too human) experiences, thereby properly accompanying the patient “into the darkest of places”. I have come to realise just how radical and contentious the book is – there is something to challenge, or offend, most practitioners, depending on their turn of mind.

The heart of the book describes a developed conceptualisation of the complex, which can help us understand how early traumatic experiences, and our primitive responses to them, become embedded at the heart of our personalities. These responses and counter-responses form conflicts which, in addition to the disruption due to the original trauma, make it difficult to form a coherent identity and effective ego-functioning. These conflicts lead to the kinds of phenomena that are intimately related to borderline states of mind. Recognising and appreciating the way that complexes function allows us to work through the traumatic experience, allowing the individual to begin to emerge from their personal hell.

dark-room-1Drawing on Jung’s work on the analytic relationship and the work of relational psychoanalysis, there has been a paradigm shift in considering what goes on in the consulting room, in terms of a relationship which is co-constructed, by both patient and analyst, and re-presents early patterns of relating that otherwise remain unknown and unknowable. This requires a constant balancing between the analyst using themselves, recognising implicit pressures toward reenactment, and maintaining an analytic attitude. It also requires the analyst’s expansion of their own capacities and the range of experiences that they can accommodate, as I explore in the book.

And, further, rather than pathologising the patient, or implicitly blaming them for their “destructiveness”, the exploration of both their original experiences and their primitive reactions to those experiences, can allow the individual to approach, bear, and integrate experiences that have previously felt unbearable, and to which they remain true. The pressures in the analysis which have previously led to impasse, or the failure or breakdown of the analysis, can be more clearly understood, and safely and compassionately addressed.

On the personal level, these ideas encourage us to reconsider how we see ourselves, who we think we are, and what feels “natural” to us. This takes up Jung’s idea of each of us having our own personal myth and Bowlby’s understanding of internal working models. Looking at the early trauma-related complexes gives us a way of considering and working through deep-seated beliefs and ways of thinking about ourselves, as, for example, worthless, bad, or unlovable.

On the societal level, the book explores the masochisto-sadistic dynamic where individuals and societies get caught in cycles of re-enacting the traumatic experiences that they experienced upon others, justifying them by their own experience of woundedness. Such wounding and re-wounding can lead to decades- and sometimes centuries-long cycles of war, horror, and tragedy.

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“Such wounding and re-wounding can lead to decades- and sometimes centuries-long cycles of war, horror, and tragedy”

As you may have gleaned from what I have written above, these ideas represent a subtle but profound shift in analytic attitude, which allows the analyst to more safely accompany the patient through the darkest places, and on into self-understanding and self-acceptance, and thereby more satisfying and fulfilling ways of being. This journey, for both patient and analyst, is arduous but necessary; as Winnicott wrote in his paper on breakdown, “there is no end unless the bottom of the trough has been reached, unless the thing feared has been experienced”.

Marcus West is a Training Analyst of the Society of Analytical Psychology in private practice in Sussex, England. He is the author of a number of papers, one of which was joint winner of the Michael Fordham Prize 2004. He is on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Analytical Psychology and is currently Chair of Psychotherapy Sussex. He is author of three books: Feeling, Being and the Sense of SelfUnderstanding Dreams in Clinical Practice, and his latest book, Into the Darkest Places, published this week by Karnac.

The author will also be presenting the AGIP (Association for Group and Individual Psychotherapy) Annual Lecture in London on 14th May 2016 (on ‘Orpheus’ journey to reclaim Eurydice from the Underworld’), as well as giving talks for the Society of Analytical Psychology, Cambridge (2nd July 2016) and the IAAP (International Association of Analytical Psychology) Congress in Japan (August 28th – September 2nd 2016), based on the book.

Reviews and Endorsements

35131 (1)‘Those of us working in the field of extreme abuse and trauma have slowly become aware of the paradigm shift such work demands. Different concepts or diagnoses of mental illness become less satisfactory when looked at through a trauma and relational lens. Coming from a Jungian base, Marcus West masterfully explores Jungian, Freudian, Kleinian and Winnicottian theories, as well as American object relations and current international trauma theory, both biological and clinical, in a compelling and respectful way. He uses the myth of Orpheus most beautifully to show how it is the affective response of the analyst that is needed to enter the darkest places, and in doing so he sheds emotional and academic light.’
Valerie Sinason, editor of Trauma, Dissociation and Multiplicity: Working on Identity and Selves

‘Marcus West has written a book of profound insight into the internal workings of trauma within the psyche and its impact on all interpersonal relationships. This is a book that should be read by every psychotherapist who works with people suffering from early traumatic wounding to the self. It is a book thoroughly grounded in Jungian theory and importantly advances its practical applications.’
Murray Stein, author of Soul: Treatment and Recovery

‘To shine a much-needed light on analytic practice with borderline states of mind, Marcus West comprehensively brings together neuroscience, infant research and trauma theory along with Jungian and psychoanalytic perspectives. He gives us a critique of salient historical ideas and methods as a launch pad for his own creative understanding and work with those suffering early relational trauma, known as “hidden” trauma. West is a skilful and talented analyst who has bravely sifted through the literature and developed his own in-depth approach grounded in his many years in the trenches.’
Linda Carter, former US editor-in-chief of the Journal of Analytical Psychology


‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ by Roelant Savery (1610-15)

‘In this impressive and scholarly book, Marcus West offers a thoughtful reappraisal and integration of analytic theory, trauma theory, and relational theory. West draws on a wide range of research to argue that Jung’s concept of the complex is central to understanding trauma, in that it embodies both trauma-related internal working models, primitive responses to the trauma, and narcissistic defences. West suggests that the analytic relationship is the essential site for the reconstruction of early relational traumas, which are repeatedly experienced between analyst and patient in direct and reversed forms, and that the analytic attitude offers the best opportunity for the traumatic complex to be worked through and integrated.’
Dr Jean Knox, Associate Professor, Clinical and Doctorate Programme, University of Exeter


One thought on “Into the Darkest Places: Early Relational Trauma and Borderline States of Mind, by Marcus West

  1. Pingback: The Language of Distress: Understanding a Child’s Behaviour, by A.H. Brafman |

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