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Thursday, February 1, 2024

The death of the self in posttraumatic experience

Dorothy, J., & Hughes, E. (2023).
Philosophical Psychology, 1–21.


Survivors of trauma commonly report feeling as though a part of themselves has died. This article provides a theoretical interpretation of this phenomenon, drawing on Waldenfels' notion of the split self. We argue that trauma gives rise to an explicit tension between the lived and corporeal body which is so profoundly distressing that it can be experienced by survivors as the death of part of oneself. We explore the ways in which this is manifest in the posttraumatic phenomena of dissociation; indescribability; and the fragmentation and repetition of time. Acknowledging that the traumatic loss of part of oneself involves significant grief, we then consider whether the bereavement literature might be helpfully applied. We focus specifically upon the continuing bonds model, which emphasizes an ongoing and meaningful relationship with the deceased through an active process of memorializing. In considering how this might be appropriated to the death of the self in trauma, we suggest that the development of an intrapersonal relationship between parts lost and living might, over time, offer a unique way in which to adapt to loss and approach the future.

Here is my summary:

The article argues that the feeling of a "death of the self" commonly reported by trauma survivors isn't just a metaphor, but a profound rupture in their sense of being. Drawing on philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels' concept of the "split self," the authors explain how trauma can create a stark disconnect between the lived experience of the body and the pre-trauma sense of self. This can manifest in dissociative symptoms, feelings of unreality, and disruptions in one's understanding of time. They argue that this "death of the self" lies at the core of several posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, particularly the tension between hyperarousal and detachment. The article ultimately suggests that recognizing this experience of self-death could be crucial for developing more effective trauma interventions.

Here are some additional key points:
  • The article emphasizes the subjective and embodied nature of trauma, rather than viewing it solely as a psychological event.
  • It highlights the importance of understanding the complexities of dissociation in trauma survivors.
  • The article challenges traditional notions of PTSD by suggesting that self-death might be a more accurate description of the central trauma experience.
  • It offers therapeutic implications for treating trauma by focusing on integrating the fragmented pieces of the self.
Our moral self, the set of deeply held values and beliefs that guide our actions and judgments, lays the foundation for our lived experience. It shapes how we make sense of the world, navigate relationships, and interact with others. This moral compass provides a sense of coherence and belonging, anchoring us in a broader community of shared values.

However, when we experience trauma, this foundation can be severely shaken. Traumatic events, especially those that violate our core values or sense of justice, can shatter the very beliefs that once structured our lives. This can lead to a fracturing of the moral self.

Despite the profound rupture trauma can cause, the human capacity for healing and growth is remarkable. Even from the ashes of fractured morality, post-traumatic growth can emerge. This process involves integrating the fragmented pieces of the moral self with an expanded understanding of oneself and the world.