A few months ago I had the opportunity to read and publicly respond to an essay by Tatiana Grigorieva, Julia Solomonik, and Maria Joubert entitled, “Symbols in Restoring Moral Self-Awareness in Trauma Psychotherapy” (EMCAPP Journal available here, article begins on p. 145, my response on page 161). Those interested in using art in trauma recovery and/or observing how another culture (Russian) might engage trauma ought to check out the essay.
The essence of the essay addresses the problem of “skins” and “shifts”– unhealthy and healthy coverings used to deal with dissociation. The authors describe an art project intervention where clients symbolic “shifts” or healthy coverings. What I am most interested in hearing from readers is how they might react to the fairy tale used to illustrate the skin/shift concept. As with many fairy tales, it is a rather grim and grotesque story of Prince Lindworm, born as a serpent, rejected, and aggressively eating young women offered to him as wives. The Prince is rescued from his sorry state by one virtuous maiden. I’ll leave the details to those who wish to read the story in the above link.
My question: Do you find this story to be helpful? Potentially triggering for those who experience deep shame? Is it necessary to have such a vivid illustration in order to connect with the depth of pain trauma survivors experience? I personally like the artistic activities but wonder, as noted in my comments on p. 161, at what point in treatment should this kind of thing be undertaken?
One response to “Symbolic representations of shame and recovery: Art and Story-telling in Russia”
I can only speak from personal experience, but your questions reveal a thought process that is closer to the truth I have experienced. I have always been drawn to the symbolic, of a sense of both content and meaning that lies just hidden beneath the surface. Perhaps this is simply a personality-driven interest, but from my understanding, dissociation often results from early childhood trauma, a time when symbols would be easiest to use as memory and emotion keepers. Thus, one would think it would make symbolic thinking more, and not less, likely. One might even make an argument for DID as a form of using symbolic representations of the self in the form of different identities to cope with different aspects of one’s life experiences.
I do agree with the study that using mythology and symbolism is an excellent way to reach those with dissociative tendencies, but I also wonder at the authors’ logic in using symbolism to reach a population whom they believed to have limited capacity to engage in symbolic thinking?
Symbolic representation turns the ethereal concrete, creating boundaries that allow for safe observation and contemplation of what might otherwise remain unsearchable.
Personally, it would feel like re-victimization to be asked to identify myself with Lindworm, who was only capable of evil. It is true we are saved utterly by Christ alone, but I would not imply that dissociation is an evil response to traumatic circumstances. I would find it healthier to acknowledge the amazing capacity that God created within us to respond to a situation that demanded a response and all we had to respond with was what we could find within. Then it would be safe to explore how that God-given capacity has also become fallen and dysfunctional.
-CMHC student, Regent University