Donald Kalsched: Trauma & the Informed Heart

Aug 25, 2022

Dr. Donald Kalsched, Jungian analyst, teacher, and author, discusses his acclaimed work on childhood trauma; (see www.donaldkalsched.com for upcoming programs). When there is unbearable emotional pain in childhood, archetypal defenses dismember such experience and banish parts of it to the unconscious, where it remains as unconscious suffering.  Such suffering is manifested as pathological symptoms, i.e., dysfunctional relationships, addictions, narcissism, and more. The defensive system that takes over–a ‘self-care system’–is both protective and persecutory of the innocence and vulnerability hiding in the inner fortress, and thus the trauma survivor leads a false, generic life instead of a true, personal one.  He/she is unable to feel and be fully alive in the world—especially in intimate relationships. The potential for such aliveness lies dormant, like a seed in the prima materia of unconsciousness, waiting to be awakened and restored to the ego—but against great resistances thrown up by the defensive system. Often dreams lead the way in this process of self-recovery, reconnecting the dismembered parts so that exiled aspects of ourselves can come home and wounded hearts can heal.

Here’s the dream we analyze:

“I enter my parents’ kitchen, where a group of people are ready to cook lion meat for me to eat. I’m not sure who the cooks are. They show me the different ways they can cook the lion’s meat (minced, in a stew, steak, or raw, sashimi style). Afterward, they show me a mask made of the lion’s face, which I have to wear after I eat the lion’s meat. I never get to actually eat the meat or wear the lion’s mask in the dream.” 


Donald Kalsched. The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0415123291/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_TTDKA7RX9NAHYNRGAFDJ

Donald Kalsched. Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-Spiritual Approach to Human Development and Its Interpretation. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0415681464/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_ENFCXEKS1T3FV61WRMP7?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1


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  1. LAB

    Such a great episode! Thanks for putting this together.

  2. Deborah

    Without a doubt, this is one of TJL’s finest and most comprehensive episodes: four great, original, thoughtful Jungian analysts covering everything from childhood trauma and the splitting of the psyche, through the harrowing of hell, to the archetype of the animal, and so much more. Fabulous insight into Jung and beyond; thank you so much guys, I really appreciate the work and effort that goes into the podcast.

  3. Tom

    Much appreciated. I read Don’s 1996 book “The Inner World of Trauma” and I valued his perspective of trauma isn’t what happens to us, but the defenses we create in times of overwhelming crisis, which serve as temporary protection, but become a partially unconscious feeling of “never again”, so whenever that feeling takes over, the autonomous defender takes over, and consciousness is lost for a current situation, and replaced by a narrative framework of attention that only allows a singular interpretation of threat, which can then be followed by whatever string of defenses have worked in the past to avoid the threat, but keep us locked into this frame. I appreciated the idea that this “Defender” persona may be “unteachable” so once it “takes over” (yourself or someone else), there’s no “reasoning” to argue it out of its narrative, but you have to sort of wait until the spell is done, and the “threat” is gone, before there’s a chance to try to depress an experience in a wider view.
    I long valued the Jungian perspective of “observer” without judgement, while it is still always harder to identify useful action. I can’t imagine the responsibility of a therapist, to see you can make things worse, like if you project your own “issues” onto a patient, and to not know what sort of “play” they can handle. I appreciate the idea a lot comes down to guessing, and trying things out. And there has to be some ability to see it as play, and not identify with it, or be able to de-identify when you’re done, both for self, and therapist. It kind of terrifies me, knowing certain thoughts can feel “100% true and real” in a moment or mood, and 100% unreal later, but there’s something there, and its the literal interpretions are what cause the real problems.
    My sister has diagnosed mental illness including delusions at times, like that people on TV or radio can hear us in a room or in the car, and I remember once she prefaced “I know it doesn’t make sense, but I feel like they can hear us.” And I didn’t pressure her to it, but other times I feel compelled to tell her her thoughts are off and don’t represent reality. But then I wonder about my own such thoughts that are just more subtle, in my blindspots.

    • Darby

      Thank you so much for this. I have read parts of Trauma and the Soul and listened to this podcast 3 times (lol, it’s fantastic, there will be a 4th), but I think you have convinced me to still go back and read this earlier book.

  4. Maxine McCleery Bowden

    I have owned and partially read kalsched’s first book. I had struggles with it due to being taught all dreams. One for health and wholeness. After the podcast, it all makes much more sense. I will revisit the book and order his second book. Thank you!

  5. M

    I’m a late listener to this podcast episode, but afterward, I read the Inner World of Trauma/tried to apply it to my own lived experience to even try to understand what Dr. Kalsched is saying (my own protector is very “funny” in keeping some of the content elusive to my whole understanding). Nevertheless, it occurred to me after reading the book that William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is a clear demonstration of a Protector that simultaneously sabotages and protects the life of a person who has likely experienced childhood trauma. The demon isn’t all bad. It’s defined as a demon that brought famine and locusts, yes, but one that also fought other evil spirits and was a protector. It even comes to Regan as a friend with a different name than the menacing name that is externally facing to those who try to help her. Ultimately, the demon actually saves Regan by killing the person who was likely causing her harm and, in return for protecting her, took her over completely. Through this lens, it may be also interesting to consider how those who were trying to help and protect Regan were just as invasive and against her will (the doctors poking her, the priests/men holding her down), but perhaps that is a tangent for the purposes of this comment.


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