How trauma works: by destroying the inner other (revised, 7/12)

How Trauma Happens

B00007701. Throughout our lives we need an inner other. We need someone with whom we can carry on an internal dialogue. An inner other is different from an internal object.

Unlike Melanie Klein’s internal object, the inner other is not a projection of innate love and hate, subsequently modified by the real world, before being reintrojected. The inner other reflects the need to be understood. The inner other is created in interaction with others. It is always already a relationship. In this regard it comes closer to John Bowlby’s “internal working model.” The inner other is a relationship, and a relationship takes two.

Unlike Heinz Kohut’s selfobject, the inner other is separate from the self. The inner other is not experienced, even as a young child, “as nonautonomous components of the self,” which exist to serve the self’s need to be mirrored. Nor does the inner other exist in order to be idealized. It exists in order to draw the child into the world. Without the otherness of the inner object the world would be empty of value and joy. See the quote from Daniel Stern below (number 3). The same principle applies to adults.

2. A key difficulty for my assertions regarding the inner other arises from the issue addressed in my first post (Crazy Like Us, January 18, 2015). If the diagnosis of PTSD does not apply in a traditional culture, it is because inner and outer seem to have traded places. If, as Fernando argues, Sri Lankans experienced the trauma of the tsunami as one which damaged their ability to participate in and fulfill the real relationships that marked their culture, then has not the inner other become less inner, more other?

This is an empirical issue, and cannot be decided in advance. Suffice to say that all humans presumably require an inner other. Since, as argued below, the inner other originates in actual relationships, there is reason to believe there would be less need to internalize the other in traditional cultures. This in itself is neither bad nor good. While it seems as though it would make traditional cultures more vulnerable to trauma (because the inner other is so exposed), empirically this does not seem to be the case. It may be easier to rebuild traditional real relationships than mental images of them. This would be particularly true if the real relationship is experienced as a social role, which may be filled by multiple persons.

3. The inner other is not inborn, though our need for it stems from human incompleteness.

When we are young, someone else must perform the function of the inner other. Its emergence is best characterized in terms of what the developmental psychoanalyst Daniel Stern calls attunement. Stern puts words to four-and-a-half month old Joey’s feelings, as he imagines them.

“Mother’s smile becomes a light breeze that reaches across to touch me. It caresses me.” In reaching across to touch him, her smile exerts its natural evocative powers and sets in motion its contagiousness. Her smile triggers a smile in him and breathes a vitality into him. It makes him resonate with the animation she feels and shows. His joy rises. Her smile pulls it out of him. (p. 65)

At this stage, the inner other does not yet exist; it is being created through experiences of attunement.

4. Massive trauma appears to destroy the inner other. Dori Laub puts it this way.

Reality, therefore, can be grasped only in a condition of affective attunement with oneself. Massive psychic trauma, however, is a deadly assault, both on the external and the internal “other,” the “thou” of every dialogic relationship . . . . The “other,” the “thou,” who is empathically in tune and responsive to one’s needs, ceases to exist and faith in the possibility of communication itself dies. There is no longer a “thou,” either outside or inside oneself, a thou whom one can address. An empathic dyad no longer exists in one’s internal world representation. (p 41)

5. In fact, the inner other is never destroyed in trauma. Rather, it goes into hiding so as not to be obliterated. In this respect, and in this respect alone, the inner other has the quality of what Winnicott calls the true self, a source of spontaneity and vitality in living that can never be known, lest it become merely reactive. The difference is that the inner other is created in interaction with others, and retains something of its origins. At its best, the inner other is a sympathetic respondent to the self, a good listener, but it is not self’s double. Incorporation of the other into the self would be tantamount to the death of the world. The value of the inner other depends on its separateness.

6. Because of its origin in interaction with valued others, the inner other can be reawakened and strengthened by interaction with sympathetic other people: therapists, lovers, friends. In fact, the only way therapy can help is when it can reach an inner other which is already present and entice it back to life. Therapy cannot create an inner other de novo.

7. The absence of the inner other explains the symptoms that have become associated with PTSD, particularly the tendency to relive rather than recall, associated with flashbacks and emotional numbing. One relives instead of recalling until one’s inner other is able to emerge and listen. This can take a long time. Sometimes it never happens.

8. The inner other protects itself, even at the cost of the self, because it carries the legacy of all our important relationships. The inner other goes into hiding because it is the source of everything valuable: relationships to people, ideas, and the natural world. The self may be traumatized. Compared to the inner other, the self is a poor relative who may be set upon at any time by the empire of might, as Simone Weil called it.

9. The tendency of the inner other to protect itself at any price explains the paradox of trauma described by Cathy Caruth. “Traumatic experience . . . suggests a certain paradox: that the most direct seeing of a violent event may occur as an absolute inability to know it.” One cannot know what one sees or feels because knowledge of an experience requires the ability to tell it to the inner other, and massive trauma separates the self from its vulnerable connection to the inner other.

10. The inner other explains how massive trauma damages the self without resorting to undeveloped neuroscientific theories, including the assumption that trauma is somehow engraved on the psyche. (See June 2015 post on neuoimaging.)

Trauma afflicts because it sends our values into hiding, and replaces them with symptoms. Seeing trauma in this way helps us avoid simply treating symptoms (EMDR, exposure therapy), while reminding us that the road back is long and often lonely. Recovery is not just about coping, but the restoration of self’s ability to find value in the world. The inner other represents this value in relationship to the self.


John Bowlby, A Secure Base. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Gaithri Fernando, Assessing mental health and psychosocial status in communities exposed to traumatic events: Sri Lanka as an example. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 2008, vol. 78 (pp.229-239).

Melanie Klein, Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. In Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963. New York: The Free Press, 2002. (original 1946).

Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self. University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Dori Laub, Traumatic shutdown of narrative and symbolization: a death instinct derivative? In Lost in Transmission: Studies in Trauma across Generations. London: Karnac, 2012.

Daniel Stern, Diary of a Baby: What Your Child Sees, Feels, and Experiences. New York: Basic Books, 1992.



Comments (2)

  1. James

    This is a deep and interesting analysis. What of those who experienced trauma in early childhood? What if instead of the smile, Joey only got a frown from his mother? Instead of a hug, only a spanking? Instead of encouragement, only reprimand? Would the inner other have a chance to develop, and what kind of other would it be?

    Also, does it not appear a little deterministic to paint the picture this way, suggesting that there is no likelihood of anyone ever developing an inner other without “proper” parenting? Is it not possible that even the contra-Joey I have attempted to describe can build an inner other “de novo” from a later encounter with a life-affirming world?


      James, yours is a challenging comment.
      Albert Camus defined absurdity as the silence of the world to humanity’s cry that it answer us. It need not be a nice answer, just an answer, a response. The inner other is the legacy of a world that once answered and recognized us, as Joey’s mother did. The inner other is the alternative to absurdity, the human alternative. I might have idealized this inner other in my post. The other need not respond as we wish, it need not respond as Joey’s mother does. It just needs to respond.

      Even a troubled upbringing, bad parents, and all the rest can provide the foundation for an inner other. The most toxic response is no response at all. The problem of the inner other in real life, as far as I can tell, is that hurt, pain, shame, and anger lead us to hide the inner other along with these experiences, leaving us to live life entirely on the surface, terrified of being alone, equally terrified of our need for others.

      Life without access to one’s inner other is an absurd life, essentially meaningless, for one’s experiences cannot be narrated to oneself. I suspect that a lot of people live their whole lives in this condition. That’s the bad news. The good news is that relatively few people completely lack an inner other. There is almost always something to build on, and many people seem to do it on their own, finding others on whom to remodel an inner other. A therapist may be helpful in some cases, but lots of other people can help if we let them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *