Write-up – Helena Vissing

How Does Early Development Affect the Embodiment of the Clinical Encounter?

Helena Vissing, PsyD

I want to start with a statement that in the shortest – and perhaps a bit hyperbolic – way captures my take on the question of how early development affect the embodiment of the clinical encounter and the statement is this:

Everything about the body is about the maternal body

So, what do I mean by this? My approach to the question is relational, but with a particular matricentric focus. I come from a matricentric or maternal studies perspectives, which is an interdisciplinary field spanning from both “inside” psychoanalysis with the analytic thinking that actively engages with the philosophical and clinical question of maternal subjectivity, and “outside” psychoanalysis from a range of feminist and cultural studies that confront and interrogate the erasure of maternal subjectivity in all schools of thinking, including psychoanalysis. My point is that in order to make the body fully relational, we must consider maternal embodied subjectivity.

In my work I have come to discover that the matricentric or maternal studies perspective is crucial not only for the sake of mothers, but because the question of the maternal – as a philosophical, relational, and clinical question – is central to embodiment. The question of the maternal body is of obvious relevance for maternal subjects, which is justification in itself for examining it. However, I would like to explore the question not only for the sake of maternal subjects, but for a wider understanding of collective subjectivity in our time and specifically how it relates to our relationship with embodiment in the modern era.

To even speak about maternal subjectivity reveals its paradoxical nature as the maternal is an ontological preconditioner for subjectivity in the Western sense (Stone, 2012). By exploring the maternal body and its relationship to subjectivity, we unveil its role as both a site of intersubjective discovery and a contested terrain that mirrors the paradoxes of modernity. In the digitalized, Capitalocene era, the maternal body emerges as a pivotal yet overlooked terrain in the discourse on embodiment and subjectivity. The societal negation of the maternal body has led to a fragmented understanding of subjectivity, where a neo-Cartesian dualism pervades, interjecting a split between the self and the corporeal realm. This disembodiment is further entrenched by the modern dichotomy between the public and private spheres, relegating the maternal to the margins of societal value.

So, to recap: Early development is significantly shaped by how the conditions for mothering that this early development is happening in and how these conditions impact maternal embodied subjectivity. In other words, we don’t only carry the imprints from our attachment experiences in our bodies, but our bodies are formed by and in the realm of maternal embodied subjectivity. The conditions for the body selves for the mother/parents are the conditions for the development of the body selves of us all. Resistance towards the experiential body is resistance towards the maternal body, as it is the latter that inaugurates our very discovery of our embodiment.

Another statement I want to make in continuation of this: How early development affects the embodiment of the clinical encounter is always distinctly historically and culturally situated.

Not only the historical context of how the experiential body is being engaged with in more and new ways in psychotherapy due to the “turn toward embodiment” as we call it, but also in the way that our cultural and collective forms of embodiment are historically formed. In 2009, Orbach (2009) contended that contemporary “body problems” and corresponding “body solutions” reflected an “epoch of body destabilization” (p. 9) due to significant shifts in how individuals come to internalize, negotiate, and often struggle with their corporeal identities in the era of visual media and biomedical advancements that has enabled a new array of body modification practices. What Orbach saw as a wave of anxious embodiment in 2009, we continue to see in new iterations and expressions fueled by the digital and cultural developments of the Capitalocene. This anxious embodiment is coinciding with massive advances in technology and medicine over the last 50 years.

Aligned with Orbach’s analysis of anxious embodiment, Caldwell (2018) has presented the concept of bodylessness, encompassing four aspects: ignoring the body, treating it as an object, fearing the body (somatophobia), and denigrating one’s own or others’ bodies (somaticism). This phenomenon, characterized by disregarding, objectifying, or devaluing certain bodies (through the idealizing of certain other bodies or bodily characteristics), disrupts personal body identity. Combined, I believe these phenomena reflect a wider societal expression of a particular form of somatophobia related to the negation of the maternal body, where the maternal body escapes focus while simultaneously being deemed untrustworthy. This is reflected within psychoanalytic discourse though the erasure of the female-maternal body (Balsam, 2012).

So, the bodily aspects of early development and the bodily imprints of the formative years are in my view inseparable from the cultural-historical surroundings of the clients’ intersubjective formative experiences and in particular the way that cultural-historical context impacted maternal subjectivity. Subjectivity in the modern era in Western culture poses a philosophical dilemma between the longing for embodied autonomy and dependence on the maternal bodily realm for our subjectivity formation. Stone (2012) has stated that it is not just the mother that must be repudiated in the Western understanding of subjectivity formation; it’s specifically the realm of bodily relations with the mother that we all come from. Orbach (2011) has aptly pointed out that “our bodies are given to us by our mothers” (p. 391). The competent modern individual is defined by not being entangled in these bodily relations but is increasingly auto-regulated. It’s fascinating to consider this development in Western culture in light of the increasing research demonstrating our fundamental need for intersubjective relating, attunement, and coregulation. They are, indeed, foundational to subjectivity (Schore, 2021). This paradox is at the heart of our current body troubles.


Balsam, R.H. (2012). Women’s bodies in psychoanalysis. Routledge.

Caldwell, C.M. (2018). Bodyfulness. Somatic practices for presence, empowerment, and waking up in this life. Shambala.

Orbach, S. (2009). Bodies. Picador.

Orbach, S. (2011). Losing bodies. Social Research, 78(2), 387–394.

Schore, A.N. (2021). The interpersonal neurobiology of intersubjectivity. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 648616.

Stone, A. (2012). Against matricide: Rethinking subjectivity and the maternal body. Hypatia, 27(1), 118–138.