“All the things that happen in our lives are tied to the unconscious. This is because it is, more than anything, the matrix of our repetitions.”
Welcome to the latest series of Being & Niceness blogs. Over the course of seven posts I plan to discuss a variety of themes plucked from Freud and Beyond, a thoroughly entertaining and engaging book by psychoanalytic gurus Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret J. Black, which gives an overview of the key ideas in psychoanalysis – from its inception with Sigmund Freud up to the most innovative contemporary thinkers working in the discipline today. After taking my blogging style in a new direction with my previous series based on Map of the Soul (a book exploring Carl Jung’s key ideas by Murray Stein), I have decided to proceed in a similar vein.
Therefore, I intend to explicate a number of little nuggets of thought that the book has thrown up from various analysts and thinkers and their wonderful concepts. Hopefully I can add a little something here and there, or at least make you, dear reader, aware of some new and interesting psychoanalytic notions that perhaps you hadn’t previously come across. I firmly believe that psychoanalysis can really help humanity – to feel happier, to understand ourselves more comprehensively and to understand our world more clearly – and I hope this psychoanalytic journey helps you in some way, too.
My repetition compulsion oddities
Let’s get straight in with the good stuff – repetition and obsessive compulsion disorder. Mitchell and Black illuminate the famous example of Freud’s patient Gloria when discussing this area of inquiry. She had a variety of psychological issues – particularly a troubled relationship with sex and her sexuality. She was obsessed with turning on and off hot and cold taps – and Freud believed the taps represented Gloria’s attempt to gain mastery over her troubled sexual urges. These endless repetitions are a quest for closure/finality.
I’ve been burdened by these repetitive compulsions my whole life – I have so many I struggle to remember them all. I used to turn lights on and off endlessly before I went to bed as a child, I continue to go over and over the particular letters/characters when writing until I’m satisfied nothing bad will happen and I can’t drink a can of Coke without clearing the excess Coke/spittle from the edge of the lip before taking each sip. But where does this ridiculous behaviour (of which I’m now well aware) emanate from? Inner conflicts over wishes from ‘forgotten’ infantile sexuality? I certainly do believe the origin of these defensive actions are linked to my childhood experience and my relationships with my parents.
I’d need a proper analyst to get to the root of them, but I had the feeling that if I didn’t do the lights, bad things would happen to my loved ones. I can imagine there must be some kind of Oedipal guilt root to such anxiety. Trying to cope with conflicted feelings of wishing to kill my father and have my mother, perhaps? As I say, I’m sure a decent analyst would figure it out quickly. But I guess it’s good to be aware of what you’re doing – and then really explore your feelings to try to address the issues. Do you have any obsessive compulsive ticks that you can’t shake? Where do you think they come from? Let me know in the comments section.
Civilisation and its Discontents
Can we ever actually be truly happy? Is civilisation destined to always fall short of genuine contentment? Are we forever going to be searching for something more – that little bit extra? These are themes that crop up continually in my blogs – and more often than not I’ll assume that balance is the key to the best form of contentment our species can achieve. And I do stand by that sentiment – although I can’t deny the power of our unconscious wishes, desires and need for gratification. If we can’t always get what we want, surely we’re always going to be a little bit dissatisfied?
Freud saw repression as a form of social control which saves people from themselves – without it, we’d essentially be perpetually killing and exploiting one another (well, even more than we already do). For Freud, ideal mental health is thus not an absence of repression, Mitchell and Black tell us, but “modulated repression that allows gratification while at the same preventing primitive sexual and aggressive instincts taking over”. So, would I actually be any happier if I could experience more gratification in my life generally? Or would it always just become more sanitised? Would I always just be wanting more – and more and more…? Faust’s dilemma certainly is a puzzler. And I’m not sure I have an answer to this nugget. Am I happier, with my loving family, nice job and good friends, than a rich and famous person who has all those things – and MORE? Hmmmm. I guess it’s impossible to know. All you can do is appreciate what you DO have and try to enjoy your life as best you can.
The complex defensive distortion of the ego
There is a really interesting story (which is also a bit heartbreaking) in Freud and Beyond about a scientist who essentially derails his own promising career because he convinces himself his best ideas are plagiarised from a friend. It turns out that the situation is actually reversed – he is the one who came up with all the bright ideas and his ‘friend’ published them as his. Because of ego complex issues based on his infantile appreciation of his father (who seemed to perpetually fail in his career despite showing promise), the scientist basically continued to trip himself up. What a sad situation. Cheers, unconscious!
It got me thinking about occasions where my mind has played tricks on me. Have I ever put up roadblocks to curtail my own progress and development – professionally/personally/whatever? I often think about my adolescence and my continual failures in education. I was often told how bright I was as a young kid, but I was also chastised regularly for not applying myself. As a sixth former, it was this attitude that perhaps prevented me from going to a university with a better reputation (I did creative writing and cultural studies – and I bloody loved it!). I only managed to complete two A-level qualifications (rather than three or four) and I didn’t even do particularly well in those. I ended up at Bath Spa (then University College) and had such an amazing time learning from some incredible teachers of philosophy, so it worked out after all.
In terms of my working life now, I feel quite resistant to training and learning new things (like, say, video editing) – am I becoming set in my ways for some reason? What is the psychological root of this? Fear of failure? I used to dream ceaselessly about having exams I hadn’t prepared for. Even long after I finished uni. Is it a fear of not being ready/prepared? Or not having enough time? Maybe it’s a fear of death/mortality generally? Or possibly a fear of not achieving my potential/expectations of me? Whatever it is, at least I’m conscious of the issue – if not the cause. I hope it’s something I can work through. You only get one life – there’s no point dwelling in regret and being hampered by unnecessary psychological roadblocks.
Persona non grata: ego psychology with Anna Freud, Heinz Hartmann and Rene Spitz
I was thoroughly interested to read about the positive steps made in helping people by the post-Freudian ego psychologists. By paying more attention to the ego specifically, analysts were able take to Sigmund Freud’s initial ideas further (notably his daughter Anna) to help more and more sufferers with psychological troubles. It’s not all about the unconscious, you see – the surface needs a bit of repair work, too! Although it is fascinating to think about what is going on beneath the surface of the people we know. And how the surface often struggles to withhold and contain those darker impulses, wishes and drives.
When I think about my own Persona, and how I am perhaps not as true to myself as I could be, I sometimes find it disgusts me a little bit. Sometimes my aggressive impulses do the same. But I also know that I need that Persona to do that ‘dishonest dirty work’ – because we probably couldn’t cope with full-blown honesty and sharing our true feelings all the time. It’s that Chandler-Bing-sucking-up-to-his-annoying-boss-in-Friends thing that gets me – wearing a mask that we actually despise. I don’t mind the idea that I have to wear it – I just wish it wasn’t so ugly. And lying to oneself feels like an anti-existentialist act of Bad Faith. No-one of true character takes joy in behaving inauthentically.
Poor Stanley and the lack of safe milieu
There is a case study in Freud and Beyond (among many intriguing, and heartbreaking, examples) which explores the severe psychological difficulties faced by a psychotic child who struggles to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t. Margaret Mahler, using Spitz’s emphasis on the crucial role of early relationships to explore severe disturbances, analysed a child called Stanley who couldn’t differentiate images at the age of six. A child in a crib and a panda in a cage were interchangeable for him. Mahler saw this as a failure in the formation of the self. Spitz believed that our identity develops out of the crucial early merger experience with a mother figure – and that failures early on could explain disturbances in identity formation. The infant needs the mother to provide a safe anchorage to pleasure.
His mother wasn’t able to tend to his needs effectively (she force-fed Stanley to appease him/shut him up) and this lack of a safe milieu led to Stanley feeling himself “physically and listlessly disappearing”. Evidently, a lack of safety and comfort from the mother in the early stages of development can cause major psychological difficulties later in life. And for that reason I’m so glad my mother gave me the anchorage I needed in my childhood. It’s why me and Pru have tried to do the same for Sammy – and will continue to do so. “The mother’s care contains his fragile psyche in much the same manner as her body contained his foetal development,” writes Margaret J. Black. If you take anything from reading this post, please remember how vital it is that you give your children the love, attention and protection they need – without the anchorage of a loving parent, their future can become terribly bleak.
I’m a big believer in the impact our parents have on our future romantic love objects. I’ve always had a thing for dark curly haired women – just like my mum had when I was a baby. It’s not just physical manifestations, of course – there are personality traits, tendencies to particular emotional responses and empathic likenesses which often seem to correlate; many people don’t even recognise these similarities – or, rather, don’t want to. Lucky we’ve got those ego defences, eh?! The ego psychologists place a great deal of emphasis on the way a baby emerges out of its symbiotic union with their mother.
Martin Bergmann believed that we tended towards an “episodic return” to this symbiotic fusion that characterises some of the deepest aspects of mature romantic love. Ernst Kris believed that the creative freedom of artists reflected a regression to less structured preoedipal states in service of the ego. Those early stages of infancy clearly have a telling impact on the people we become and the other people we are drawn to. Do you think your romantic life has been influenced greatly by your infancy? Does your partner share traits with either of your primary caregivers? Or, alternatively, have you made a conscious effort to find a romantic connection who wasn’t anything like your parents? Let me know!
Merger fantasies and my intimacy issues
The ego psychologists refer to merger fantasies – the infant wishing for symbiotic totality with their mother – and the idea that this continues throughout our lives. Fusion fantasies can be dangerous – the notion of a regressive pull towards psychic dissolution. It’s in a similar vein to aggressive types, who end up picking fights in order to achieve “greater psychic clarity”, according to Mitchell and Black – pre-Oedipal disturbances that affect developmental processes. The difficulty of maintaining a reliable sense of individual identity in adult life without safe anchorage from the primary caregivers. It makes me wonder if my own intimacy issues might be related to some kind of Oedipal/pre-Oedipal anxiety. I’m quite a tactile person generally, but I’ve always struggled with more intense emotional intimacy with those I really care about. Even silly little things like giving my wife a massage or hugging or kissing my mother and father make me uncomfortable.
Could this be the result of some remnant of thought – a fear of what might happen if my psyche gets the merger fulfilment it seeks? I expect these issues are entirely normal and common, but I do feel stifled by them. And I do wonder where they come from. It feels like a fear of rejection/not being wanted. But maybe it’s actually a fear of getting what I want that terrifies me. Maybe the burden of superego guilt which hovers around the merger fantasy is what causes me this psychological unrest? It’s strange – because I really do love a kiss and a cuddle. I love the closeness. And yet I also struggle with it. Do you ever feel uneasy in intimate situations? Why do you think that is?
Sammy the nursery kid pusher
Ego psychologists believe that aggression needs to be available in a manageable form to establish boundaries. In a similar vein to the position of Melanie Klein’s paranoid-schizoid ideas, the idea is that we need to be able to hold simultaneous good and bad feelings for others – we need to be gratified, satisfied and occasionally disappointed in infancy to give us the capacity to develop this more rounded perspective. And we need to be able to tolerate separateness. I often wonder if this what my son Sammy has been struggling with at nursery. He has finally settled again in a new class after crying his eyes out at drop-off for months on end. We’ve also had reports from his carers of Sammy pushing other children. It’s not nice to hear – and it’s also puzzling. Because Sammy is such a loving child. He cuddles me and his mum all the time and regularly gives us kisses on the cheek when we ask for them.
He’s already showing signs of empathy and kindness and I couldn’t be prouder of him. So when we were told that he has been pushing other kids and taking their toys, we were a bit surprised. Having said that, he’s not even two yet. I do appreciate he’s just a kid and this is what they do. Even so, we’ve been asked to reinforce the need to be nice, kind and friendly to his classmates. Maybe this aggressive streak is just what his psyche has to go through – developing an idea of boundaries in terms of others, their personal space and his behaviour and conduct towards them? We all have this aggressive wellspring within us – I guess we just need to develop the social skills to channel those energies in appropriate ways.
Mega the Punisher, Angela’s wall and teaching
I thought I might finish this post the way I began – with some good old-fashioned superego guilt. There is a fascinating case study in Freud and Beyond on Angela, a patient of Edith Jacobson, who experiences sadomasochist fantasies at the hands of a tormentor called Mega. This allows her to cope with an inability to be intimate with others. Mega represents her superego presence – curbing and prohibiting. Angela attempts to construct a barrier against the threat of a disintegrating merger and psychic disillusion – known as her wall. Her psychosis is similar in nature to Stanley, who I mentioned earlier.
Mitchell and Black tell us of her sadomasochist fantasies – where her vagina was poked with red hot pokers under the guise of an aggressor-tormentor she called Mega: the punisher. Angela was also prone to self-harm. And these fantasies reminded her of her mother’s forceful, aggressive ways. Jacobson correctly predicted that this contributed powerfully in the formation of a superego presence. She also had fantasies where her peers, whose parents were far more caring and loving towards them, were hit by cars and struck down by other tragedies. This then actually happened to one of them and Angela’s conscience went into overdrive as her self-mutilation ramped up.
Now, this is obviously quite an extreme example of superego guilt. But it’s something we all experience. Well, those of us who have consciences anyway. I often feel the presence of this God-like omnipotence judging my every move; an internalisation of my parental values that regulates all of my actions, behaviours and decisions. It makes me think about when I used to teach primary school children – and a technique I found particularly useful. When certain children were behaving badly – and by certain children, I mean those who refused to be reasoned with or accept particular incentives to improve their behaviour – my go-to line was this: “What would your mum and dad think about this?” And it really did work.
I appreciate that some people will feel that’s a bit of low blow in behaviour management terms, but I was a pretty ropey teacher at times, so forgive me. It’s interesting though, to observe just how important this is to most people – what our parents think of us. We want to make them proud. We want them to appreciate us. We want them to approve of us. We want them to be excited by our achievements. And, generally speaking, we don’t want to disappoint them. Because, more often than not, they’re the most important people in our lives, in the terms of the way those lives have developed. Well, maybe until you have your own kids. But then you have to be that pillar of love, strength and judgment for them. You have to be the role model that they look to for guidance, advice and support in the journey of life. Whether you’re a parent or not, do what you can to be an example for others – of goodness, niceness, kindness. And perhaps, together, we can alleviate some of those inner conflicts that cause all of us so much strife.