Love, Anxiety, Self and Sullivan – Freud and Beyond Part 2

From war to alliance – the dyad underlying the script of existence

I’d like to jump straight into this blog by considering the key theme underpinning the whole post – togetherness. Working with others to bring us contentment as a species. Some people believe we are islands. We are born alone – and we die alone. And some of you, like me, will think otherwise. Because we’re actually born (well, usually) in the womb of another person. And our primary caregivers not only tend to bring us into this world, but they also give us the tools to live in it. Without the love and attention of a mother figure, studies (illuminated in the book Freud and Beyond) have shown that we not only struggle to thrive, we fail to survive. And so it is my belief that (for a significant amount of our lives) we simply cannot live without connections – we need the company of others; we need interpersonal relations. The ego psychologists’ development of Freud’s classical approach helped to get to the root of tackling defences, while still making the unconscious conscious, and thus still finding solutions to psychological problems. They switched the focus from the id to the ego – from the repressed to the central nexus.

Ego psychology analysts realised that the patient could be a therapeutic ally in revealing unconscious conflicts – rather than someone to engage in a psychological war or battle with. By revealing the inside story on the psychic terrain, the analysis was able to tackle competing psychic claims and those crafty defensive strategies that neuroses formulate. Unlike the classical Freudian method, where the distant analyst observes the patient, tries to explicate their unconscious wishes and then interprets those feelings and images, the ego psychologists encouraged a working alliance with their patients. A ‘cure’ was still achieved by making the unconscious conscious, but now the process occurred within a dyadic context – a metaphoric partnership rather a battle. The process also helped the patient to become more self-reflective.

I really appreciate the sentiments behind the ego psychologist position – because I believe they apply to life in general. Isn’t everything better when we work together? Is the human being really an island born and dying alone – or is the very nature of humanity not dyadic? We come into this world through a mother. When we die, as far as we know, we return to the state of inertia characterised by life in the womb. And we are not alone. There are lots of good things to be said for the life of a hermit, too – but that’s for another blog. For now, I’ll just state that I believe the nature of our human being is enriched by interpersonal relations – and we should treasure the moments we spend with those people who make us happiest.

Harry Stack Sullivan and destroying love

“We have evolved into social creatures who are wired in a way that draws us into interactions with others”. This quote from Mitchell and Black sums up a key tenet of the interpersonal psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan’s analytical ethos. It seems we are drawn to one another – and yet we’re also just as good at pushing each other away! There is no doubt that people often go out of their way to wreck relationships. I’ve done it myself – and, to be honest, it’s something I’ve been pretty ashamed of. I’ve acted up/misbehaved/been vacant to the point that my partners had no choice but to end things. When in reality, I was just too cowardly/not strong enough to actually deal with the issues in question.

Mitchel and Black explore this notion of destroying love with reference to a patient of Sullivan’s, who kept investing each feminine love object in his life with rare and desirable qualities – expectations that they didn’t and couldn’t live up to. He was projecting onto them – seeing those Jungian Anima qualities when it was actually Animus evident. These inflated misrepresentations were of course manifestations from childhood. This area of thought reminds me of a classic episode of Fraiser when Niles is the only person who can’t see how overweight Daphne has become.

He’s so besotted with her – the forbidden love object he’s finally attained after such an arduous wait – that he still sees a projected image of her in a stunning red dress from an equally brilliant episode some years previously (when he realised just how much he loved her). Like Sullivan’s patient who ruins his relationships by seeing something that wasn’t there, Niles’ psyche (sort of) plays a trick on him. I’m sure many of us have been guilty of doing something similar – convincing ourselves (consciously or not) that certain things are certain ways because we simply cannot bear the truth. But what exactly is the key factor in the way we destroy love?

Anxiety – the destroyer

Sullivan explains how anxiety is key – and he insists it is not something that we create within us, but is rather brought out by other people and our interactions with them. Mitchell illuminates the example of a gay patient of Sullivan’s who was troubled by homosexual feelings – to the extent where he had (ultimately doomed) heterosexual relationships and regularly slept with women. He was actually anxious about the prospect of intimacy – and so sought out the familiar distancing conflict that would arise with ex-partners when he wouldn’t commit to them. It wasn’t sexuality motivating his actions, but an attempt to find a means of managing his anxiety about closeness and distance. Sullivan felt these anxieties had their root in childhood with the relationship to the mother figure – the caregiver who reduces the tensions that come with our various needs.

The integrating tendencies between mother and baby bring a mutual satisfaction – baby is hungry and needs breast – breast provides food, nourishment and love and, ultimately, gratification. Sullivan felt that in adulthood we repeat these complementary need exchanges or mutually satisfying integrations. But anxiety is always there lurking in the shadows – the threat from outside. “Anxiety is picked up from other people,” writes Mitchell. If the mother is anxious and fails to attend to the needs of the infant – if for some reason the breast doesn’t arrive or function properly when needed, these anxieties are passed on to the baby. The good mother attends to them – the anxious bad mother lets them down (this doesn’t literally mean they’re a bad mother!)

We are affected by the moods and behaviours of others – and Sullivan noted an empathic linkage between baby and caregiver. Thus – anxious mother = anxious baby. This must be a key part of post-natal depression and the way anxiety causes so many issues for mothers (and fathers). It’s something I’ve seen happen to good friends and it’s incredibly hard to deal with. If you know any new parents, be sure to support them as much as you can. Some people can’t help but be anxious, and this is a tension that cannot be suppressed, Sullivan tells us. Anxiety is a disintegrating tendency – it “disrupts the harmonious system of interpersonal and social mutual regulation”, according to Mitchell and Black.

The infant soon becomes attuned to those anxious and non-anxious people around them – those who smile at them and seem at ease, as opposed to those who feel uncomfortable and nervous when holding them. The good mother and the bad mother again – in a similar vein to the Kleinian position. The child also realises that certain behaviours elicit certain responses – good me and bad me. Anxiety states thus leave us feeling dissociated – those uncanny, unhomely, ‘not me’ moments. It seems that anxiety and our security operations hold us back more than perhaps we realise.

I experience this all the time in the way I behave in relation to others. I can be anxious about my own sense of vulnerability and it perhaps means I have not been as invested in romantic relationships as much as I should have been. It seems there’s no simple solution to dealing with anxiety in this manner – other than seeing a highly competent psychoanalyst! My advice would be to open up as much as you can. I realise that in the early stages of relationships this is not easy, but I’ve found that the more I try to work through the issues – even just by writing these posts – and trying to be honest with myself, the easier it gets to be more intimate with others.

Bion, Sullivan, intimacy and vibes

I just wanted to make a brief point here about how I seem to be drawn to others in relation to some thoughts inspired by Wilfred Bion and Sullivan. Once again, it’s all about complex relational events between two people – in particular Sullivan’s empathic linkage that I previously referred to. So much of what I find attractive, who I am drawn to and how I organise my sense of intimacy, revolves around “affective resonance”. This is the idea that when a baby smiles, both mother and baby experience joy; and thus intense anxiety when the baby is distressed. It’s a key feature of human intimacy and a highly adaptive survival mechanism in the relationship between parent and baby, Mitchell and Black explain. It helps us to recognise mental states before we have language to assist us. This communication between mother and baby echoes the projective identification recognised by Bion – where, Mitchel and Black tell us, the infant “projects disorganised mental content onto the mother to escape its noxious effects”. And it’s something that resonates with me.

If someone doesn’t fancy me, I often don’t feel compelled to fancy them. I can find women attractive – and sometimes overtly and dangerously sexy. But unless I feel a connection with them where I get the sense they want me too, there is always an intimacy roadblock. It might sound reasonable enough, but sex has always been the same. I need to feel wanted – and I need the other to convince me they want it, too. Which I guess is good because, as far as I’m aware, I’ve never been involved in an incident with another person where I forced them to do something they didn’t want to do. Consent and sexuality has become a hot topic in recent years – and rightly so – and I’m pretty confident that all of my sexual experiences have been with full consent on both sides. Whether it’s down to affective resonance or not, it’s definitely the case that I tend to be a bit turned off by ‘the chase’ – unlike many others, it seems.

Fromm’s existential unconscious

Of the many wonderful ideas from brilliant thinkers that Freud and Beyond throws up, this is one of my favourites to consider – Erich Fromm’s notion that we create an unconscious for social reasons. As a Marxist, humanist, existentialist, it’s probably no surprise to read that this particular psychoanalyst illuminates issues regarding our authenticity and freedom. Fromm believed that human beings fear the isolation that living in authentic freedom might bring. We need some kind of self-controlling mechanism – otherwise we can just go around doing whatever the hell we want. And that is terrifying. Nietzsche’s Superman is an aspirational ideal of sorts, sure – but is it not also essentially anti-social? Maybe if you do it wrong? I don’t know. I’m no Nietzsche expert.

Anyway, Mitchell and Black explain how Clara Thompson saw a close compatibility between Ferenczi’s emphasis on actual relationships and Sullivan’s interpersonal theory. She then added Fromm’s humanistic psychoanalysis and Freud’s psychodynamics to view our history and culture through a Marxist existentialist lens. Fromm believed that human beings develop different character types in different points in history. Different types of societies require certain types of people to perform specific socioeconomic functions. This reminds me of Jung’s archetypes and the ‘pre-existing code’ that seems to reside in the shared unconscious of humanity – like a pre-determined script, fate or destiny. Fromm noted that human beings dread isolation and have social needs. This leads to a split of unconscious and conscious.

The unconscious is thus a social creation – Mitchell and Black explain how Fromm saw it emerging from a “deep abhorrence of our own freedom and fear of expression of our authentic personal experience”. This certainly seems to ring true to a certain extent – all that Jungian Shadow stuff that is simply not compatible with a good conscience. All those embarrassing desires, inappropriate feelings and animalistic tendencies do not correlate with a successfully functioning society. Sometimes, it seems, the only way to get along is to act inauthentically. I guess we just need to be able to choose when it’s right to actually lay our cards out on the table and show our true selves.

Sullivan and the multiple self forged through interaction – we are what we meet!

Speaking of the self – Sullivan believed that it is through interactions that we contextualise our appreciation of who we are. The person one takes themselves to be is a result of a construction Sullivan terms the self-system. We experience ourselves as having a self as a quasi-object within us – we invent illusions to dispel anxieties. The human self is partially constructed through memories and anticipations in the moment – and these depend on the interpersonal context in which we we find ourselves. Mitchell and Black explain how Freud saw the self as being organised ‘vertically’ – conflictual areas buried by repression, almost like layers of the psyche.

But Sullivan insists the self is organised horizontally – where the various incompatible areas are separated through dissociative processes. The self for Sullivan is decentred, multiple and contextualised. We might experience ourselves as a singular entity, but we operate through multiple self organisations related to our experiences with others; what’s important is those interactions and the affect they have on our formation. This pastiche/collage-like view of the multiple self has strong connotations with postmodern notions of the fragmented nature of identity.

Sullivan’s ideas have echoes of many philosophical viewpoints. It draws me towards the notion of Jung’s self archetype in particular. Murray Stein tells us in his excellent book Map of the Soul how Jung saw the self as something transcendent which exists beyond the psychic realm – a non-psychological entity that transcends the time/space continuum that governs ego consciousness. The Jungian self, as something which lies beyond the psychic and subjective realms, gives the subject the ground for their commonality with the world, and thus the structures of being, according to Stein. With the Jungian self, Stein tells us, one is ‘consulting a deeper and wider reality’ than the typical practical and rational landscape that ego-consciousness presents us.

On a similar theme, this idea that the self (and its multiplicities) is influenced so pertinently by relations to others evokes thoughts of Martin Heidegger and his concept of Dasein. Heidegger explores his notion of the nature of our humanity in his ontological magnum opus Being and Time. “Life has its own kind of being – but it is essentially accessible only in Dasein,” Heidegger tell us. “Dasein is a being which I myself am, its being is in each case mine.” Dasein (German for being = Sein, and there = Da – and so, ‘being there’) is a human being’s individual existence. He explains it as ‘being there’ in terms of what he calls its “thrownness” into the world.

Dasein is essentially a replacement for consciousness and mind. The place of the human being – the ‘there’ where human beings are. A being with Dasein is a being that has the capability to be concerned about and reflect on the nature of its own being. It is in this thrownness that we encounter different selves each with their own individual experience of Dasein. Only the human self is able to truly reflect on what it means to be a self in this way – only the human being has this capacity to form a self made of such a variety of different strands of meaning and identification.

All this metaphysical pondering leads me on to my final point – which is to champion the case for my own philosophical notion of Genuinity. Anyone who has read my previous posts will have come across this idea before, but for those who haven’t, here’s a brief outline. Genuinity is the most true essence of living beings – a positive, life-affirming quality, sprinkled with feminine energy, led by the voice of one’s inner child. As the definitions suggest – Genuine: of a person = sincere. Truly what it is said to be. And Entity: being. Existence. A thing with distinct and independent existence. Genuinity is your true self in its truest, most stripped-back form. Prior to the symbolic realm, reason, knowledge, understanding. Beyond language, transcendent – even mystical, perhaps. Certainly of-itself and impossible to understand completely or properly define. But evident in love, compassion, trust, support, protection, nurturing instincts and our desire to live and keep on living.

I believe that human beings need meaningful, loving connections to survive and thrive. We crave togetherness – it’s why we expend so much psychic energy to fend off isolation. I believe that it is this Genuinity, a desire to form loving connections with others, that plays the most significant role in the way we become a self. We want to love and be loved – more than anything else. The multiple self forged through interaction is the very essence of what it means to be human – this shared Dasein/state of human being. Whether transcendent or not, the formation of a self is evidently something that owes a great debt to the other selves it encounters.

But what about isolation, loneliness and solitude? How do all these ideas relating to the self resolve with the notion of the Taoist hermit? I guess I’m not sure. But it’s another idea that I subscribe to as an important stage in humanity’s journey. The idea that the greatest peace and clarity comes when one is prepared to go it alone and be at one with nature. Perhaps that final stage of human life is a preparation for the inevitable nothingness of death? Is the meaning of life a realisation that we need others – or that we must prepare for infinite solitude of death? Or, maybe, a little bit of both? Let me know your thoughts. And thanks for reading.

24 thoughts on “Love, Anxiety, Self and Sullivan – Freud and Beyond Part 2

  1. I had never heard of Harry Stack Sullivan before reading this post. It is a great viewpoint and you put it in excellent context here. On a side note, I did a quick internet search and see that he grew up about an hour away from my hometown in Upstate New York. Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s cool! And thanks for reading. Hope all is well. I wasn’t aware of his work before reading Freud and Beyond, but there have been so many great minds professing his initial genius. Hopefully it helps someone 🙌🏻

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that we’re social creatures hence we need people around us to feel loved and accepted.
    We just need to find the right ones and hold onto them.
    Great post

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really well-written and thought provoking! Surely agree that we need others! Another thought – if we are not with others… how do we know who we really are? Isn’t it usually characterized compared to others? I don’t know 🤷‍♀️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A good point! We need others to reflect back from to help us know who we are. We also need them as a gauge to help understand the type of person we are.

      So, yes, I think that without others it would be difficult to form any complex sense of self.

      I guess that’s why it’s also to have lots of difference and variety in societies. 💜🙌🏻 thanks for the kind words


  4. I loved this part two. I have read part one and again you brough a very nice point of view. I haven’t’ heard about Harry Stack before but I really like the things I found on Google. Funny thing is I have just written a post talking about people trying to avoid affection and love.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I definitely think it is a balance between solitude and being with others. For me, solitude is a way for me to recharge. Sometimes, being around others is exhausting. As far as loneliness, couldn’t that simply be that a person is uncomfortable being without others? Maybe they haven’t explored inward how to be comfortable with themselves so they need others to distract them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I could certainly see how that would be true. The world is obviously full of my insular types, or those who just feel more comfortable in solitude. My dad was very much like that. I do however think that a beautiful side of him came out in the company of others – and so a mix of both is definitely preferable.


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