The Riggs Blog

Dignity: Part 2 of 3 – Engaging Negative Emotion as a Dignifying Action

At the recent American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) conference in New York City, Gerard Fromm, Ph.D., Senior Consultant to the Erikson Institute for Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center, gave a stirring presentation on Dignity. This series of blog posts will examine dignity as it relates to the clinical work carried out here at Riggs and beyond.

The notion of “examined living” in the open setting at Riggs ensures that the patient’s emotions both negative and positive are engaged in the service of the interpersonal health of the community and of, within the psychotherapy, understanding the meaning within those emotions. Integrating W. H. Auden’s poem, In Memory of Sigmund Freud, into his reflections, Fromm observes that listening, really listening to the whole patient from a psychoanalytic stance, “dignifies both the recital and the faltering.  It rests on the ‘good faith’ assumption that the patient is doing his or her best and that, at the place of faltering, curiosity rather than judgment is the provision.” In other words, hearing, engaging and accepting what the patient has split out of his or her discourse – so often the negative spectrum of painful emotion - dignifies the patient as a whole person, and recognizes that these emotions too are felt for a reason that actually makes sense within the life history and developmental struggles of the patient..

Fromm notes that the patient is often an unconscious representative of the negative emotions of a traumatized family; that is, “to the degree that the traumatized person cannot contain his experience, it is lived out in one way or another in his or her family.” Absent an ability to metabolize traumatic experience, parents necessarily live it out to some degree in relation to those around them, who may take on and internalize the family’s trauma themselves.  Fromm goes on to observe that “surviving these emotions, making them something one can be curious about often leads to important learning for the patient and for the family.”  In this way, through the treatment model at Riggs, negative emotions associated with family trauma can be revealed, spoken and understood.

In summarizing the space dignity occupies at Riggs, Fromm says, “dignity is an embedded provision in this program, a ‘corrective emotional’ structure and point of view about people, available as a counter-weight to the patient’s original system.” By engaging negative emotion in the open setting, without judgment, we acknowledge that all of the patient is worthy or respect and understanding.

Check back next week for the third and final part of this series: The Application of Dignifying Principles Beyond Riggs.

Here is a link to the earlier blog post in this series:

Dignity: Part 1 of 3 - Dignity as a Clinical Provision 

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