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Stern, S. (2019). Airless Worlds: The Traumatic Sequelae of Identification with Parental Negation. Psychoanal. Dial., 29(4):435-450.

(2019). Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 29(4):435-450

Airless Worlds: The Traumatic Sequelae of Identification with Parental Negation

Steven Stern, Psy.D.

In this paper I propose the phrase “living in an airless world” to characterize the intrapsychic situation when a child has grown up in circumstances of extreme parental negation (non-recognition). Of the two major dynamics Ferenczi identified as the sequelae of early trauma—“identification with the aggressor” and “splitting of the personality” (dissociation)—the latter has received far more attention in the relational literature than the former. I seek to correct that imbalance by examining in depth the phenomenon of identification with the other’s response to the self—especially its most toxic form, identification with parental negation. Airless world syndrome involves a kind of identificatory bondage to the internalized negating other which is disabling to the senses of self and personal agency and impairs the capacities to think, feel in an integrated way, separate and grieve. Consequently, for patients living in airless worlds, the central unconscious need and preoccupation is to convert their actual parents into true parents who will finally recognize their subjective experience and needs, thereby allowing them, for the first time, psychically to breathe. This understanding, in turn, has implications for how we think about the analytic field in relation to the patient’s developmental, parent-child field. The therapeutic implications of this model are described and illustrated with three clinical examples.

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