Psychotherapy and the truth and reconciliation commission: the dialectic of individual and collective healing

David H. Brendel

in Trauma, Truth and Reconciliation

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print August 2006 | ISBN: 9780198569435
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754449 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Psychotherapy and the truth and reconciliation commission: the dialectic of individual and collective healing

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What is the relationship between processes of individual healing and collective healing in the wake of profound psychological trauma and unspeakable suffering? Can we attempt to understand the individual victim or perpetrator of a traumatic experience without thinking about the broader community in which he or she lives? Conversely, can we consider the needs of a traumatized community without paying careful attention to the specific experiences and needs of the individuals who comprise it? How mental health clinicians frame these questions and attempt to answer them have important implications for how we understand and try to help victims, perpetrators, and the communities in which they live. Not surprisingly, these questions do not lend themselves to an easy formulation or straightforward answer because of the complex features of particular individuals’ lives, their varying levels of resilience and vulnerability to trauma, and the historical, political, and cultural particularities of the societies in which they live. We should be cautious not to generalize about the complex relationship between individual and collective responses to emotionally traumatic experiences. Questions about the nature of this relationship ought to be addressed by paying heed to local conditions, specific circumstances, and practical considerations around the traumatic events and their consequences.

Consideration of people's responses to emotional trauma in particular individual and collective settings can help us to approach this complex set of issues. Two processes designed to address specific forms of emotional trauma—individual psychotherapy for survivors of emotional trauma, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process that occurred in the 1990s following the dismantling of the apartheid system in South Africa—illustrate that individual and collective healing cannot be understood as entirely distinct. On the contrary, the two processes suggest that individual and collective healing appear to stand in a ‘dialectical’ relationship to one another. Dialectical reasoning, which can be traced to the early nineteenth century work of German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, entails serious consideration of both sides of a conceptual dichotomy, recognition of the relevance of both sides, and active efforts to articulate the relation between them. A dialectical approach to individual and community-wide responses to trauma is a dynamic, interactive process, with considerations on both sides of the dialectic constantly informing, shaping, and responding to one another. This chapter presents the argument that the healing of emotional wounds and damaged human relationships following traumatic events depends on appropriate attention being paid to both sides of the individual/community dialectic, regardless of whether an individual or a whole society has been victimized, whether one person or a whole political group has been the perpetrator, and whether the attempts at emotional healing focus on one person participating in a private process (such as psychotherapy) or many people engaging in a public process (such as the South African TRC).

Chapter.  5445 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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