Welcome to the fourth instalment of this psychoanalytic blog series. If you’ve read any of the previous posts, I hope you’ve enjoyed them. And if not, I hope you enjoy my latest exploration of themes inspired by the book Freud and Beyond by Stephen A. Mitchell and Margret J. Black. I’d like to begin this time by considering the significance of our life force/sex drive – the libido – and how it is so vital to the connections we make that sustain human life. This is in part what my notion of Genuinity is also concerned with, and I will continue to reference my own ideas throughout this post. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs in this series, it is clear we need others to thrive. It isn’t just a Darwinian survival instinct that keeps us going. Or a Jungian incest-wish desire to adapt and make culture. The manner in which we attach our libido to external objects and actual people in the interpersonal world seems to me to be one of the main goals of humanity and the journey of human life.
The Scottish psychoanalyst WD Fairbairn was one of the key figures in object relations theory – and he saw the libido not as pleasure-seeking but object-seeking. Fairbairn shifted the focus of our motivation from Freudian notions of gratification and tension reduction to seeking connections with others. This notion is something I align strongly to my ideas on Genuinity – the life-affirming, feminine, childish essence of our true self that yearns to connect with and build loving relationships with others. Fairbairn made this quest for connections an end in itself and suggested the infant comes pre-wired for interaction with the human environment.
Pleasure is thus not just about relieving tension or satisfying some biological urge – instead, Mitchell and Black tell us, it becomes “the most wonderful form of connection with others”. Again, I refer to my own ideas on Genuinity here – it is all about attempting to achieve that pleasure, and contentment, that comes with compassion, kindness, Niceness and love. The only way to discover this true happiness is through the deep and meaningful connections that Genuinity makes possible. Of course, life isn’t just about seeking pleasure, or experiencing solely good things. From Fairbairn’s perspective, abused children might seek pain as a form of connection – this opens up new possibilities to explain the likes of sadism and masochism.
As with most other psychoanalytic notions, the idea is that in adulthood we endeavour to find the kind of connection we had in childhood. Children become powerfully attached to their caregivers through those early interactions – and this affects the ‘chemistry’ in our romantic exchanges in adulthood. It turns out that this chemistry is not due to the obvious pleasure-giving potential of the other, but instead their “resonance with attachments to old objects, avenues and tones of interaction laid down in childhood”, according to Mitchell and Black. Fairbairn believes these are the basic paradigms of love.
Dark curly hair – my Achilles heel
So is Fairbairn right? How much of the romantic chemistry that we experience in adulthood might actually be remnants of early childhood experiences? Well, I seem to have an affinity for a particular look. Women with black curly hair. Don’t get me wrong – I fancy loads of different types of women. But there’s just something about that type that really knocks me sideways. And I think it’s because that’s what my mum looked like when I was a baby. The idea of this might make some of you uncomfortable, dear readers, but I’ve long since come to terms with this side of my Freudian being.
It makes me think about what other things romantically stimulate me that might relate to my childhood. As mentioned in the last blog, I am drawn to affection from others – and if I feel like I am not wanted, that’s a major turn-off for me. I also have an affinity for strong, intelligent women. And kind women. And I think these are all traits my mother embodies. This leads me on to thinking about my son Sammy and how me and my wife Pru can try to take some kind of responsibility for our role as a libidinal object for him. He’s almost two as I write this, so I suppose it’s probably too late to be considering this sort of thing, but here goes… I think it’s important first and foremost to show your children you love them whenever you can. Whether it’s kisses or cuddles, general affection or simply bodily contact, positive reinforcement of these things is clearly important.
Children need to be comfortable and contented with tactility, while also being made aware of appropriate boundaries. I believe that we have a responsibility as parents to demonstrate what it means to be in a loving couple. I know some people aren’t into the touchy-feely stuff, and I’m actually more cagey over intimacy than it might seem from reading these posts. But I think it’s good to kiss and cuddle your partner. Show your baby how much you love them, too. The infant needs to see that your partner brings a smile to your face – that they have the capacity to make you contented. I’m obviously no expert on any of this stuff – it’s just my opinion. But I really do believe it’s important to be a libidinal object that radiates warmth, love and kindness – because I am convinced those qualities will then pass on to your kids.
Libidinal object and fetishism
I have ambivalent feelings towards fetishism – on the one hand, I find it fascinating and alluring and have so much respect and admiration for those people who aren’t afraid to throw on some latex and get kinky – if that’s who they are and that’s what they’re into. But I also find it kind of terrifying and alien – because I don’t feel like I have any interesting fetishes or ‘perversions’; at least they’re not obvious to me. The best examples of titillation that I can think of are these rather tame ‘star-crossed trysts’, if you like – fancying your girlfriend or mate’s mum or best friend, or sleeping with your boss or teacher. But these are all examples of fantasies that I find quite intriguing rather than actual examples of object fetishism.
I guess the black curly thing might fall into this remit, but it’s just nowhere near as elaborate as all that bondage gear, leather knee-high boots and other dominatrix stuff. Don’t get me wrong – I definitely find some of those things quite sexy. But it’s not the same as those weird and wonderful guys we all saw on Eurotrash growing up; I was always fascinated by the capers of those sexually liberated Europeans brought to us by Antoine de Caunes and Jean-Paul Gaultier. A deep mystery and intrigue was ignited by all those complex object relations based on sexual impulses. It was quite literally ‘foreign’ to me. The Austrian psychoanalyst Rene Spitz was someone who worked intensely in the field of object relations between infants and their primary caregivers.
He realised that the libidinal object could be something other than a person – the expression of the sexual impulse for a fetishist might be, say, a shoe, a piercing or some stockings. The role of the mother in infancy is important because she provides gratification – and human love is thus built on both direct and disguised gratifications. The ego represses, sublimates and refines our instinctual impulses in these complex object relations. Like Fairbairn, Spitz went beyond Freud’s notion of the libido as purely pleasure-seeking – he saw the libidinal object as not just a means to an end or the consequence of a defence mechanism.
This allowed for a sense of caring and deeply gratifying personal connection. As Mitchell and Black demonstrate, the libidinal object becomes important in its own right – it provides “the essential human connectedness within which all psychological development occurs”. Clearly there is more to all this than just some shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather and a touch of kinkiness. Do you have any fetishes that you’re proud of/happy to share? How important do you think they are to your sense of self – and the way you connect with others? Let me know in the comments section below.
Zachary, Fairbarin and Persona/Shadow
There is an interesting case study in Freud and Beyond about a patient of Fairbairn’s named Zachary. It not only makes me think about my own behaviour, but also the way we ALL often do what’s expected of us rather than what we really WANT to do. I’ve struggled in various relationships in my life with the battle between my Jungian Persona and Shadow. On the one hand, I really loved the close intimate connections I made – but, on the other, I have been selfish and immature and disrespectful. I often wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. But we cannot simply go around doing whatever pleases us – because someone always ends up getting hurt. And that is not fair.
So how can one resolve such desires without denying our instinctual unconscious Shadow side and causing ourselves psychic disruption and, ultimately, pain? Is it as simple as merely channelling these desires into something else? Can we take all those yearnings and desires and drives and refocus all that psychic energy into more useful channels and pursuits – be it art, music, sport, academia, work, whatever. Is Freud’s sublimation the key to reappropriating those libidinal energies towards something useful – rather than towards acts which we later come to regret?
Anyway, back to Zachary – his dad was something of a pauper and his mum was from a well-to-do, and well-off, background. So there was an immediate inferiority complex/feeling he wasn’t good enough for her. Zachary’s father was rather promiscuous and slept around a lot – which eventually saw him banished from the family altogether by the richers. His mother then remarried – a fellow rich dude, as it happens. This of course had a profound affect on Zachary in adulthood – he found it difficult to find a woman to meet his idealistic notions of love and marriage. He was serially monogamous in his relationships – but also tormented by fears he would never be able to commit himself to one woman. He simultaneously feared and longed to be like his real dad – promiscuous, irresponsible; ‘free’ perhaps?
But this was a version of his identity that he kept hidden from others – and even himself! As mentioned, this of course has strong ties to Jung’s notion of our Shadow side – the Dionysus/Hyde element of our being that is kept under wraps in the unconscious vault. Through this particular repression Zachary had forged a libidinal attachment to his father – he was internally bound to him. Mitchell and Black explain how the realisation of this, during treatment, was dangerous and threatening to Zachary’s conscious sense of who he was. It was a rather different set of values to those crafted by the relationship of his mother and stepfather. It was all down to what he felt he should do to be like his mother and stepdad (Persona) versus what he wanted to do but couldn’t face the prospect of (his real dad and that Shadowy side).
I guess this is why a lot of the psychoanalytic literature one comes across, from the likes of Jung, Melanie Klein and others, suggests that an integration of one’s conscious and unconscious is the true pathway to some kind of ultimate psychic stability. We can’t go around doing whatever we want – and that wouldn’t actually make us happy for long anyway. But we also cannot endlessly deny our true feelings and sense of who we are. We need to actually address those feelings deep down in the unconscious vault somehow and aim to find resolutions which bring psychic contentment – while also being respectful, wary and mindful of the feelings of those significant others in our lives.
Internalisation of the parents
While we’re on the subject of Zachary and the manner in which he internalised his father, I thought I might just address this concept a little further. According to Fairbairn, we display traits of our parents in an effort to feel/remain connected to them; even if they’re wholly negative and unhelpful in terms of our overall contentment. I often liken some of my worst traits to my dad (sorry, Andy Shacks!) – such as being short and bad tempered with those I care about. And that’s just one of countless ways that I demonstrate strong elements of my parents’ personalities in my behaviour.
My dad never seemed to like going out much – he was happiest working away in solitude – yet he actually shone around others; he was always smart and funny and often quite charming. He must’ve just found it uncomfortable putting on that Persona. We always thought he might be on the autistic spectrum to be honest. But perhaps those traits were just linked to his relationship to his own mother and father? I expect they were quite a bit more guarded and emotionally distanced in the 1950s and 60s than we are now. Either way, I do also feel like a little bit of that social charm has rubbed off on me – and I certainly get a lot of Dionysian, extrovert, performative traits from my mother; someone who is far more comfortable being the centre of attention.
Fairbairn noted that children with depressed, detached or narcissistically absorbed parents would often experience depression, detachment and self-absorption in their adult lives. Mitchell and Black explain how this was the child’s attempt to gain access to inaccessible sectors of their parents’ personalities. They note the way patients might feel happier during treatment as various breakthroughs are made – but it is often tinged with regret, sadness or concern that they’re ‘losing touch’ with their parents.
The more they work through these issues, the more they alter or affect those internal presences. Fairbairn also noted how this often leads to the patient feeling more isolated and alone – and thus champions the need to make new, less painful, connections with others. Fairbarin presumes there is a splitting of the ego – the child becomes just like the unresponsive features in their parent – be it depressed, isolated, masochistic, a bully. By absorbing these pathological character traits we feel connected to our parents.
I guess it makes total sense that we are inextricably tied to our parents – even for so long after childhood. There are many things that I really like about myself that I believe were down to them. I like to believe I am kind and loving and friendly because of mum and dad. And I try to be as selfless as I can. I try to help others and I try to treat people with respect. But there are plenty of people out there who suffer deep, troublesome psychological issues because of their internalisation of their parents. If you believe that is you, do try to seek help. Even if it’s just talking to people you trust about these things, you might unlock some unconscious connections which help to stop you doing things you regret, making bad decisions or repeating errors.
Making the same mistakes – why it’s so hard to be a different person
Talking of mistakes and repeating errors, Fairbairn recognised that we are prone to demonstrating self-fulfilling prophecies. These are patterns and behaviours that become a part of our character and personality in childhood. I have plenty of character traits that I can’t seem to shift, even though I hate them. As previously mentioned, I am quick-tempered with those I am most intimate with. I guess that’s mainly because I am comfortable enough with them to allow my Persona mask to slip in a way I wouldn’t with others, but I still hate it. Fairbairn illuminated the way our new love objects are often similar to bad objects from the past – new partners, and our interactions, provoke old ‘expected’ behaviours.
We engage in a cyclical projection of old patterns – an internalising of these self-fulfilling prophecies. It means that our very character, and disturbances in our interpersonal relations, are hard to change. This echoes the sentiments from Carl Jung’s archetypes – it’s like we are programmed to behave in certain ways and we cannot help but slip into these familiar ways of being. Now, the Taoist ideal would be to try to turn all those flaws into something positive. While the existentialist in me would try to avoid accepting that we aren’t responsible for our actions and choices, and that to “pass the buck” for the mistakes we make onto fate, destiny or pre-wired archetypal behaviour is to act in Sartrean Bad Faith.
But I personally think that both positions have some validity – we are responsible beings and we have to take ownership of our lives and the choices we make. And yet, there seems to be something about the human condition that we cannot help but repeat behaviours – even if we know they’re ultimately not good for the mental or physical well-being of ourselves or others. I guess one just has to do their best not to allow those negative tendencies to influence one’s behaviour. Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue, or use your reason and rationality, or really try to imagine what the consequences of your actions might be, before you make a mistake. And hope that your Genuinity can guide you towards doing the right thing more often than not.
And so we have reached the final destination in this post. I would just like to continue on the theme of using one’s Genuinity as a helpful life aide, as it’s something that I try do in instances like the one I’m about to elaborate upon. Genuinity is all about that positive, life-affirming, compassionate essence which lies at the heart of human beings – it is your true self; a Niceness infused with a feminine energy and a Taoist child-like spirit. I often turn to Taoism and try to let my Genuinity guide me when I’m feeling low, depressed or acting up a bit. I have had a few instances of this over the last year – and my wife even had to tell me to buck my ideas up recently after getting a bit down about the fact that I wasn’t young and carefree any more!
You see, I really hate the summer (these days, anyway). I not only loathe the hot weather, but also just the general idea of summer. I struggle with the notion (mostly an illusion engineered by my psyche, I’m sure) that everyone else is out there having way more fun than I am – be it boozing, partying, travelling, whatever; I spend far too much time these days pining for an enjoyment which I feel like I’m missing out on. Perhaps it’s all linked to that quest for Wholeness and completeness that I talk about a lot in these blogs? Maybe. Anyway, I get myself into a bit of a funk at times because, as a new father, my life has changed significantly. And simply as a consequence of getting older generally, I tend to get particularly down during the summer months – because all I seem to see is people out drinking and having fun at festivals, or on amazing holidays, all carefree and unrestricted, and I’m just stuck doing the same things day in, day out.
Now, I’m completely aware that I’m essentially being a big baby. I’m really lucky to have all the wonderful things that I DO HAVE in my life – a wife, son, family, friends, a god job, a nice home in a nice town and, vitally, decent health. And, let’s face it, things could always be an awful lot worse. It’s not like I don’t get to drink, see friends, or go on holiday any more. It’s just not the same as it was. I’m not sure where these negative sentiments emanate from – maybe it’s my Freudian death drive Thanatos turned back in on myself in some kind of anti-life, nihilistic depressive self-absorption? Fairbairn explains how many people feel connected to others through their past painful experiences and self-defeating patterns of behaviour. It’s no wonder we struggle to be happy so much of the time! And perhaps no wonder that I constantly push myself back towards these depressive states.
I don’t know if you ever share these sentiments, dear reader, but I do hate these selfish, psychologically draining, depressive states. The summer is a season of colour, music, fun and excitement – it’s when people come together to share the joys of the Dionysian spirit. I guess the truth is that I actually really love all the things that summer brings, and just feel like sometimes I’m less able to participate in the joys of summer than I used to. I feel like it’s become more difficult than ever just to arrange to meet friends – let alone party hard into the wee hours in a field somewhere.
It’s at times like this that I feel the need to refer to my Genuinity – that compassionate essence of my true self. And the Kierkegaardian notion that life can be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. Now is the time to make new connections – I don’t mean one must forget who they are, who they know or what they’ve done. But we all have to move on. Things change over time. We have to grow and develop. I need to accept that I’m not a young person any more and try to find new things that I can do to make me happy. Enjoy spending time with my son, try to keep myself in shape, discover a new hobby – I don’t know. It’s simply a case of realising that we have this inner vitality and we mustn’t shut down – but rather remain open to the world of possibilities that are out there to experience in this weird and wonderful world.
And, most importantly of all, remember that the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side. Don’t waste time wondering about what your life could be like or wishing things were different, and instead appreciate all the amazing things you DO HAVE. Allow your Genuinity to guide you – be kind and compassionate; be nice. Make new connections, try new things and try to move on. Try to find joy in all the little things in life – appreciate every minute that you’re lucky enough to enjoy; respect your life for what it is, and treat people with love and kindness – because you, in turn, will feel happier as a result.