Psychic pain, Psychic Insult and grief


See also Kurt Schneider’s publication:
The Social Significance of Soul Pain

The negative BASIC sensomotor feelings

In addition to the sensomotor  basic feelings, I also count the intestinal basic feelings of hunger, disgust, nausea and vomiting to those negative feelings. Depending on the degree of socialization they manifest themselves in quite different psychological forms. They cause extremely effective behaviors like immaterial hunger or sexual hunger, secondary disgust and psychic nausea or contempt and disgust, shame and guilt. For the sake of clarity I will refrain from describing them in detail.

Sensomotor feelings like pain in which consciousness and vigilance increase markedly are predominantly mediated by the dopaminergic-sympathicotonic fight-or-flight processes.

Intestinal feeling however are triggered by parasympathetic mechanisms with a drop in blood pressure and slowing of the pulse: a diffuse queasy feeling is spreading; the sense of balance is disturbed, attention wanes and looms to evaporate in the sense of a blackout.

Psychic Pain 

Life as it is imposed on us is too hard for us; it brings us pain, disappointment, insoluble tasks. To endure it, we cannot spare easements … distraction, … compensatory gratification …, intoxicants …

The physical pain of bodily injury as a starting point

As a highly effective signal for life-threatening bodily processes, pain, or at least a pain-like form of perception, can be detected even in very primitive creatures including plants. Typically, it is related to damage to the body tissues, be it due to external mechanical effects or due to a damaging process inside the organism.

Everywhere in the body, with the exception of the brain, so-called nociceptive receptors, i.e. extremely sensitive sensors to transmit local tissue damage via peripheral nerves to the thalamus and on to the gray cortex of the brain, are found – especially pronounced in the area of interfaces such as the skin and mucous membranes.

The slower running gamma fibers have an intensifying effect on pain sensation compared with the faster conducting alpha fibers. The immediate effects correspond to activation of the sympathetic autonomic nervous system: pulse, blood pressure and muscle tension, as well as catecholamine levels (dopamine and others) increase. 

Though pain is perceived as negative it has a very positive, life-sustaining meaning; properly understood, it is a key signpost toward healing. It urges swift action. Only when it is not possible to change the damaging initial situation, pain, now chronic, has a paralyzing effect on the whole organism. In the longer term, especially in chronic pain, there are severe mental disorders. (In 30-60% of affective disorders – especially depression – pain is involved.)

The same is true for psychic pain. What makes it especially complex is the fact that very early sensations are perceived precognitively; that is, not pictorially in the neocortex, but tactile-kinesthetically held in the body. They therefore have a very different quality, they are deeper, more immediate and thus more threatening, and at the same time hardly comprehensible to the mind, which is accustomed to visual and possibly analytically processed memories. These early negative experiences (of the primary self) I call psychic primary pain

The psychic primary pain is always physically experienced and held as an engram in the body. The consequences: Muscles tense up (which include involuntary intestinal and vascular muscles as well as skeletal muscles); blood flow decreases and so does oxygen tension in the tissues. This is the physiological response to the experience of love deprivation, which in early childhood is experienced as unspecifically life-threatening.

Even as adults we unconsciously experience this pain as overwhelming. When the adult is confronted with a current physical injury, in addition to the physical here-and-now experience, with the more or less conscious memory of previous injuries, a mixture of immediate physical pain as well as remembered psychological primary, possibly also psychic secondary pain (if similar injuries have already been experienced in the conscious secondary self-state.)

Psychic and physical pain as a socialization aid

Neurobiologist GERALD HÜTHER sees the sense for belonging that characterizes attachment love to parents as the decisive cultural advantage of Homo sapiens. It was the prolonged socialization contact that enabled the intensification of neocortical abilities, which gave us decisive advantages over other creatures (including especially “less early bonding nomadic hordes”).

HÜTHER demonstrates that, in addition to the classic model of struggle for existence DARWIN mentioned the importance of moral qualities, especially “love and the excitation of sympathy, which is different from it,” as at least equally decisive motivators for human development.

Here it is apparently the “love for parents” and not the experience of pain which leads to cognitive superiority. But once we recognize this “love” as purposeful love, the socialization – necessarily associated with love deprivation – does emerge. The production of pain through the withdrawal of love has always proved to be an extremely effective “educational” tool.

The first painful experience of love deprivation for many infants is the early separation from the mother, as the “hygienic necessity” of birth clinics managed for decades to present itself as progressive.

Circumcision – early childhood physical injury with significant psychological effects

Under the same pretext, especially among members of the upper classes, circumcision of non-Jewish infants was standardized in hospitals, particularly in the USA and the UK (ALDEEB).

In the early sixties I myself circumcised as an assistant in an obstetrics department in America dutifully, without batting an eye, such pathetically screaming newborns routinely. In England this custom disappeared under the cost-cutting measures of state medicine. However, in the USA, notwithstanding all the knowledge now gained from infant research, this operation is still performed on about 60% of all male infants; according to VAN HOWE only one in five obstetricians used the possibilities of anesthesia. With the gynecologists under thirty-four years it was even only 4% (1994!).

As SAMI ALDEEB responsible for Arab and Muslim law at the “Institut suisse de droit comparé” in Lausanne notes, “this is a flagrant early childhood bodily injury whose psychological effects are significant. Unlike circumcisions performed as part of initiation ceremonies of older children, the socializing intent is less obvious here.

As part of puberty rites, physical pain has been and continues to be used purposefully in numerous traditional cultures. These contexts prove delicate at that stage of the young child’s development when his or her immediate interests are no longer the only benchmark for the behavior of caregivers. When educators align their teaching goals with the interests of society or their own advantages. 

The fatal link between pain and memory/intelligence 

Astonishingly not only higher animals but also plants respond in multiple ways to mechanical and chemical damage. Not only do they remember (if given enough time) an injury in the sense of a long-term memory. They are also able to pass this experience on to members of the same species over greater distances (KERNER and KERNER).

Even plants seem to possess the ability to respond to potential injury from humans (who have otherwise behaved violently towards plants). Speculatively, this could be said to be a precursor to what I call secondary pain in humans. 

The presence of memories in the context of damaging painful influences points to a phenomenon we encountered when discussing purposeful love: Early stressful experiences are quite crucial for the post-maturation of the brain in infants and thus for the development of human intelligence. Painful experiences seem to stick particularly intensively in the memory, that is, both in the neuronal networks of the central nervous system, and even more archaically, in the muscles as well as in the digestive system (“gut brain!”).

These physiological prerequisites apparently result in the possibility of learning, that is the ability to develop strategies from unpleasant experiences that help to avoid similarly unpleasant experiences in the future.

Preliminary stages and smooth transitions to psychic pain

If we restrict ourselves to the sensation of pain in humans, a tremendous variety and a bewildering lawlessness is revealed with respect to the individual and situational ability to perceive pain, respectively to perceive something as “painful”. In highly dramatic situations, e.g. war injuries or traffic accidents, severely mutilating injuries are not noticed for the time being, even when the injured person is fully conscious. This fact shows that in the processing of pain psychic influences are important. 

As we proceed we will repeatedly come across a central phenomenon which, in my view has received too little attention in the whole discussion of feelings: it concerns the difference between a feeling triggered directly via the body’s receptors and one based on the imagination. (I.e. retrieved via a cognitively remembered process and perceived as presently real: psychic pain sensation.) 

In other words, it is a question of whether I live entirely in the present and am therefore incapable of imagining anything “besides the present” (i.e. of feeling any psychic pain and accordingly of building myself up into an actual panic state via an intensification of these imaginations). Or even more grave, whether on top of everything else, I imagine “in memory of a threatening situation” a worse future scene and accelerate this process as a self-reinforcing resonance loop until it comes to the collapse of the whole nervous system.

This risk is especially great when sensitive people, that is people who fantasize easily and thus are gifted with overwhelming imagination, find themselves in a threatening stressful situation that unsettles their assessment of everyday reality. 

The transition to psychic overlapping is fluid; it is in this grey area that many of the millions of people operate who take pain pills daily. The fact that it is possible in other cultures to alleviate or even “dissolve” pain without medication, either through mental training as practiced by fakirs or through intensive physical attention, shows that not only physical-chemical processes are involved.

Pain amplifiers such as stress or tension as well as the fact that pain can be “eliminated” via hypnosis-like imagination exercises make us think of the criteria of being love: open and eutonic, harmoniously pulsating respectively their negative; which means pain as an indication, not only of gross physical damage but also of the disruption of soul homeostasis.

The extent to which cerebral processing by means of imaginations is involved in the perception of pain is shown in experimental studies: Students had to go to the pain limit in the cold pain test by diving their arm in a cold bath. This revealed the surprising fact that those who were instructed to think of a sexually arousing scene at the same time perceived pain later and even less pronouncedly. 

A similar phenomenon directed by mental ideas could even be captured in the picture by nuclear spin tomographic examinations of the brain: It was demonstrated that already the expectation of pain puts certain brain areas responsible for pain perception on heightened alert, especially in the case of chronic pain, so that real pain signals are felt more intensely. In other words, chronic pain seems to be learnable. This unpleasant “ability” can also be reprogrammed with appropriate techniques, “unlearned” into its opposite.

In a different direction points the effectiveness of antidepressants points in the case of painful withdrawal symptoms in smoking cessation or in the case of unbearable rheumatic complaints in the so-called fibromyalgic syndrome, which cannot be influenced by analgesics. It reinforces the known connection between depression and pain.

In those people who, as a result of inherited analgesia, are incapable of feeling pain and who correspondingly are highly vulnerable to the consequences of injury in ordinary daily life the situation is fundamentally different.

Primary psychic pain (Urschmerz)
psychic pain as existential basic experience of the “Condition Humaine”

Individualization as a consequence of socialization leads to separation from the whole and thus to splitting off from being love. This psychic separation wound triggers the psychic primordial pain, the psychic primary pain and at the same time leads to the loss of primordial trustfulness.

Knowledge and conscience place man in agonizing opposition to the blissful feeling of unity in being love. Via manifold constructs man has tried to explain this break, this being outcast : with the expulsion from paradise, via karmic entanglements or, more modernly, on the basis of inherited behavior patterns. 

In the course of socialization every human being undergoes again and again this “cognition” process, in which the holistic primary self is replaced by the acquired secondary self. The price for this progress is paid by the individual who feels separated from the whole, with the loss of the delightful self-perception in the state of being love, which increasingly is replaced by purposeful love. Consequence is the loss of primordial trustfulness; we feel the wound of separation in primordial pain.

As adults – when confronted with existentially distressing pain – we may encounter these early traumatic experiences again. If we are lucky they point us to the healing core of existentially shocking pain, which seeks to connect us to something that is happening or has happened, at the core of the self. It is this kind of pain that wants to make us aware of something, in a spiritual sense: to awaken us. 

OSHO says about this:
The pain should not make you sad, remember that. This lesson is always misunderstood. The pain is there to make you awake. People wake up only when the arrow goes deep into the heart and wounds them. Otherwise, people don’t wake up. If life is easy, comfortable, and hassle-free, who bothers? Who wants to wake up?

When a friend dies, it’s possible. When your wife leaves you – those dark nights; you’re lonely. You loved this woman so much and you put everything on the line and then one day she’s suddenly gone. When you cry in your loneliness – those are the opportunities you can use to become conscious. The arrow hurts, but you can use it.” 

A similarly healing process describes RÜDIGER SAFRANSKI for the self in the story of Hiob’s suffering in the Old Testament: Against all logical attempts to explain, against the crushing injustice of his experiences, he clings to an unfathomable God, “because he does not want to give up himself – his passion for God.

The idea of a just world has been destroyed already. But if he were to turn away from God he would also destroy himself, and that ‘self’ which is defined that it does not belong to itself. A self that can transcend and only there finds in it its richness, the humanly possible. Hiob refuses to give it away, he refuses to commit the treason of transcendence. … Hiob resists the temptation of self-betrayal.

In this existential situation we encounter the possibility of meeting our core (our actual self) – thanks to the hardly enduring psychologically painful borderline experience. In everyday language “not to commit transcendence betrayal” means not to betray myself, to remain true to myself

If in that sense we look at my extended model of transactional analysis, it becomes obvious why it takes an extremely painful suffering to take this step: It is necessary to consciously pierce the thick partition wall of socialization that separates the secondary self/ego from the primary self. Per aspera ad astra – over rough paths to the stars, as shamans, mystics and ascetics have exemplified over thousands of years. 

The reference to the psychic causes of this pain, as well as to the ego to which we “owe” a special form of psychic pain, leads us to secondary psychic pain

Secondary psychic pain 

Once the cognitive memory function is developed, painful situations can be recalled more or less consciously. Often those memories will be accompanied by its physical symptoms. In this case I speak of secondary mental pain.

When the secondary self is confronted with an immediate painful physical experience in the here and now, the dilemma will be how to decide whether we turn our attention entirely to the present or whether it might be beneficial to ponder over similar past experiences. 

What makes it even more difficult to decide in a given situation is the fact that, in addition to conscious, cognitive memories (secondary pain) precognitive memories (unconscious psychic primary pain) may also resonate. This will impair an adequate response as its influence can hardly be ascertained.

Unexpected experiences at the level of the secondary self that bring us into contact with our vulnerability – with psychic wounds and ultimately with death – may happen to individuals who dare to engage in deep bodily experiences, for example in the context of tantric meditative love practices.

Triggered by inconspicuous external influences – just when everything is so ecstatically beautiful, deeply painful feelings can overshadow everything like lightning out of a clear sky. Too-unpleasant repressed experiences (which had been suppressed by tensions that usually act as resistances against its emerging into our consciousness) have been released.

Psychic Insult (Kränkung)

In addition to secondary psychic pain associated with remembered bodily injury, a form not directly related to the body proves particularly significant psychic insult. It is a psychic pain produced by violation of the ego, when we feel rejected or inadequately acknowledged for what we like to be seen by the environment. A current injury to the ego is linked to similar experiences (concepts stored in the cerebrum), former psychic pain is activated. 

The significance of this psychic insult – the ego injury – for our psychic household as well as its destructive consequences are clearly expressed in the following quotation from BERND NITZSCHKE:
In the anarchic underworld of emotional life which links people together, relationships are being formed – thus also conflicts – and eventually also psychic insults which perceptibly culminate in the disease which leads to the decline of the soul, if the adequate remedy, the retribution, the satisfied revenge is missing. The pain of defamation, which is felt as rage and as a desire for revenge, is often far stronger than the pain which has been created by a wound actually inflicted.” 

When the pain of a psychic injury is not admitted and we deny the rage generated (when we do not want to acknowledge it or react in compensatory ways instead, e.g. pride) the dark side of this seemingly successful overcoming of pain can reveal itself:
It often manifests in a hardly comprehensible, unconscious attachment to the very person we seem to have left behind, because we do not want to acknowledge the grievance generated by him/her. This person remains connected to us, at least as long as we cannot admit that we have been offended by him/her or that we have been feeling that way. 

If we persist in our attitude, psychic insult adds to psychic insult, the repressed anger potentiates and we may lapse into a depressive reaction. Or, our repressed, our unconscious “forces us” to retreat into illness. What offends makes ill and thus lays the foundation for psychosomatic illnesses. (Kränkung in german language means “to make sick”.) An analogous mechanism can also cause us to have accidents, to unconsciously inflict self-injury on ourselves, in order to get the long-missed attention. 

If instead we succeed of establishing contact in an old matter i.e. by “talking with this person”, a solution may reveal itself. Beforehand, it is worthwhile to clarify – quite silently – which part of the offending energy really has to do with this person, respectively which part of the hurt originates from my past and what was projected onto him/her. 

This step of becoming aware, of being aware of inner correlations, requires a self-overcoming. The admission that in reality only a minimal part of the violation comes from this person, while the real pain comes from my past – and may have been caused by a much loved one – further offends. 

As primary offending I refer to a specially malignant form of insulting which can be observed in very early disorders surrounding autism and borderline syndrome. Admittedly, this involves a presocialized and precognitive stage of development. Nevertheless, typical signs of the presence of secondary psychological influences are found, possibly as a mirroring or via unconscious influences of familial entanglements (HELLINGER). 

From these very early psychic insults, often a great deal of energy flows into the sense of justice, especially when I am not only defending myself for personal injustices suffered or appearing to have been suffered, but generally standing up to injustice.

In the situation of these very early psychic insults it is worthwhile – similar to the situation of pride – to not take the victim part. Neither to react aggressively or “to fight against windmills” but to consider one’s own motives as consciously as possible. With demonstratively lived self-righteousness we often forfeit the right to the company of the “unrighteous”. Primary psychic insults are even more difficult to address than ego insults and often require professional help.

Psychosomatic symptoms 

Psychic pain has a dual effect. On the one hand, it ceaselessly reminds us of something unfinished, something painful (derived from Latin pena = punishment, penance, torment of hell, torture).

On the other hand, precisely because the attempt to address this unfinished business is virtually always associated with pain, it keeps us from delving into it any further.

How arduous the causal therapy of the roots can be – especially in the presence of pain symptomatology – is shown by a therapy case of HEIDI BALTINGER. She reports in the context of family constellations about a patient who suffered from chronic polyarthritis with severe pain in a knee massively affected by arthritic degeneration.

In the course of the psychotherapeutic process, an aspect that had already become visible during the family constellation came to the fore:
The mother was not available for the daughter’s love, because her love was (unconsciously) directed towards her deceased father and her brother, who had also died. As long as the patient rebelled against accepting this fact, stiffness and pain persisted on her bodily level.

Only when she agreed to all the parts: the deep longing and love for her mother; her being tied to the destinies in her family and her unavailability to them, as well as the need to do without a deep and fulfilling acceptance of her love of her mother… there was a decrease in the pain in the knee.

When she was noticeably better, her mother actually told her in a real-life contact, “If you keep getting better and better, I’m going to kill myself.

The complex inner processes already completed formed a viable network to withstand this sentence from the mother, to leave it with the mother and to continue to draw the line herself. 

This example gives an idea of how complex systemic entanglements can be and how elaborate therapeutic processes are if we really want to use our physical pain to wake up

Mourning as an expression of secondary psychic pain

Although grief is presented as a specific basic emotion by both, MACHLEIDT and DORNES (sadness), the connection of grief to secondary pain is unmistakable. A characteristic of secondary psychic pain is the specific time reference, i.e., the memory of a grievance that is still felt as continuing.

Mourning is fed by the same source but with the difference that resignative moments play the decisive role, whereas according to MACHLEIDT the classical feeling of pain (by which he probably means the physical pain that has not been cognitively processed) urges immediate reaction into action.

In contrast to the passive basic mood of depression, grief contains a processual, viable and self-healing dynamic. However, the condition for this self-healing is that mourning work is done in the sense of saying good-bye and letting go. Then it is possible to free oneself from clinging to a past that can no longer be changed, to perceive new possibilities as chances and to shift energies accordingly.

It proves to be of a healing effect when we allow the pain which is inflicted by the loss of a loved one. The fact that this seems often difficult is due related to the simultaneous activation of childhood pain (which resulted from early deprivation of love to the actual loss).

In the process of becoming aware it proves necessary to also become aware of the reality of “existential aloneness“. In the last consequence this means to question the secondary self, which has been built up exhaustingly with an enormous personal effort. How difficult and painful it is to confront this reality stored in the body and in the neocortex is proven by the multiple strategies we have at our disposal to avoid engaging into this process. 

To accept all these realities is even more difficult if we have experienced and repressed very painful loss situations in the past. Or – even more difficult for the adult mind – if we could never experience the intimacy of an early mother-child relationship at all. 

“Being sad” as a prevailing mood without a clear apparent trigger may also be a typical cover emotion (Deckgefühl) for rage. In particular women are prone to fall into this passive, ultimately depressive behavior, since a woman is not allowed to contain any anger. In this regard men have an easier time, since male aggressiveness is socially accepted. 

Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider
Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider