On Being *With* a Traumatized Subject

Alterity in Trauma Therapy: The concept of HINENI with Emmanuel Levinas


  • Magdalena Sedmak University of Vienna



In On Being *with* a Traumatized Subject the fundamental human condition of feeling alone and alien in the world if not shown otherwise, is explored as part of the experience of “trauma” as the phenomenon of dissociation or depersonalization.

Research Question

How can trauma therapy facilitate re- sociation and re-personalization after experiencing dissociation through a traumatic event? –How and Why? Arguably, it is one that focuses on relationship- building, starting with the therapeutical relation as pillar. The therapeutical relation can be a supportive opportunity to reconnect with the subject’s inner (emotional, cognitive, imaginative) world and the outer (intersubjective) world. This relation must be grounded in empathetic understanding which has many layers (cognitive, imaginative, emotive, somatic,...). Since dissociation from trauma comes with the loss of the ability to actively express oneself, therapist and patient must enter into an existential dialogue and therapeutical alliance that allows them to relate to each other through a way of understanding one another that moves beyond words or active communication. Here Emmanuel Levinas’ understanding of the ethical relation grounded on the self lived as hineni (“Here I am”) shall be explored. The concept touches on this sense of being alien (“Other”) in the world, or rather the world and the vis-á-vis being “Other” -- the phenomenological idea of Alterity. It describes the going into an

encounter (in this case the therapeutical relation) with an attitude of “Here I am”; fully present. What can Levinas’ philosophy contribute to our understanding of psychotherapy, and handling of traumatized patients?


By going through different journals of psychotherapy, and -analysis, it becomes clear that Levinas’ approach is one that touches on the “movement of the soul” (Goodman/Grover 2008, 32), going beneath analysis, narrative, and verbal communication. As different layers of hineni will be explored — spiritual and somatic — , the phenomenon of traumatization and, in turn, dissociation are elucidated, and somatic-based therapies introduced as those approaches that allow reconnection to oneself (re-personalization), and, in turn, re-socialization. I try to show that scientifically grounded/technologically advanced therapies (such as EDMRI or SE) can be enhanced by a ethico-spiritual attitude such as the idea of a therapeutic self to be lived as hineni with Levinas to give space to the “Other”, that which is alien and secret. This approach may, too, be relevant in transcultural trauma work.


[1] L. J. Kirmayer., “Empathy and Alterity in Cultural Psychiatry,” Ethos vol. 36 no. 4 pp. 457–474, 2008.
[2] D. M. Goodman, and S. F. Grover., “Hineni and Transference: The Remembering and Forgetting of the Other.” Pastoral Psychology, vol. 56, no. 6, pp. 561–71, 2008.

[3] B. A. van der Kolk. “The Body Keeps the Score Brain, Mind, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Penguin Books Ldt. 2019