Self-Interference as a Paradigm for Psychoanalysis
Most people have a psychologically healthy and whole self that is capable of the functions that are normal for human beings, such as being independent, setting and attaining goals, experiencing intimacy and enjoying the moment. In most people, to a significant degree, and in some people to a very large degree, this healthy self is obscured by what is often referred to as neurosis. But the healthy self continues to exist, in a kind of psychological prison or, perhaps, in a state of potentiality. We know it is in there, in part, because there are times when even very neurotic people allow their true self to emerge for a few minutes or a few hours or a day, upon which it comes out fully formed like the mythological Athena from Zeus's head. Suddenly, these people discover that they feel unusually good about themselves and are enjoying each moment or that they have a sense of humor that is without bitterness or that they are no longer treating every task as if it is a catastrophe waiting to happen. In those rare moments, they feel as if they have become themselves and then, often with little awareness of what is happening, they slip back into the more neurotic state they were in before.
We see evidence of this true self in other ways because most behavior is a mix of health and neurosis in a constantly shifting balance, so that even in very neurotic expressions one can decipher disguised yearnings for, and attempts to attain, a state of psychological health and wholeness. And we see evidence of this true self in the fact that even some very disturbed people are conscious of feeling that somewhere "down there" there is a sane person who isn't taken in by the craziness but feels helpless to stop itself from acting as if it is.
All of us are aware of this true self even if we dont explicitly express this fact to ourselves. In fact, the human race has collectively been trying to understand how and why we retreat from it for all of its history, although most of these efforts have themselves taken place in disguised ways. The field of psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies have also been trying to understand this for about a century, and they have taken the first steps toward thinking clearly about the way the self functions and the way we lose ourselves in neuroses.
Unfortunately there are a great many impediments to thinking clearly about ourselves. One problem is that, no sooner do we begin to investigate ourselves and others, than we are confronted by a multiplicity of psychological symptoms that do not easily betray their origins. If we try to understand ourselves by examining society at large, for example, we are confronted by a set of seemingly unrelated symptoms in the form of broken marriages; abused children; addictions; acts of violence that people direct against themselves and others; desperate yearnings for money, power and celebrity; distorted public debates, and corrupted lives - everything that once was and, in some quarters, still is, referred to as our fallen state. If we examine accounts of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, we find ourselves in an even more complicated maze of symptoms -- perverse sexual fascinations; visions of grandiosity; feelings of persecution; desires to save the world; secret power plays; secret agent fantasies; fascinations with penises, breasts, anuses and vaginas; desires to make other people experience guilt; the collecting of accusations; forebodings of disaster; strange rituals; disguised forms of sexual stimulation played out with the self and others, and so on.
Fortunately, psychoanalytic theory has already arrived at a basic understanding of how and why we retreat from our true selves into neurosis. In most psychoanalytic theory, one can find the same central idea, namely that in the state of neurosis we are unable to see ourselves as autonomous adults moving about the world, encountering other similarly autonomous adults. Instead, outside of awareness and in a way we can't or won't put into words, we experiences ourselves as if we are confronted by, under the control of, and monitored by, powerful objects, which are internalized and fantasy-laden images of the primary caretakers of childhood. It is as if we live in an illusory world governed by these strange God-objects that dispense love and hate, threats and promises, accusations and forgiveness in response to what we do, while all the while remaining invisible.
To the extent we suffer this, we are stuck, forever placating our jailer-objects, trying to escape punishment and assert our innocence; reassuring them, performing for them, escaping their wrath, secretly rebelling against them, atoning for imagined sins against them, holding out against their demands, trying to exert power over them, trying to seduce them, trying to become them, desiring, approaching, threatening, wooing, and retreating. And we repress the knowledge of what we are perceiving and doing so the entire drama unfolds in a state of disguise. In essence, we end up object-fixated, manifesting an object-dependent, object-fearing and object-desiring personality in which we give the appearance of doing everything in relation to these internalized others.
It is as if we are locked in a lifelong play, perpetually reenacting a neurotic version of our relationship to our primary caretakers. The drama in our minds gets projected onto every situation in life, which is partly misperceived in terms of the plot and characters and performances going on inside.
We thereby also have the genesis of the false self, which is the actor we become to deal with our objects and servitude. This false self is self-negating, self-destroying, self-limiting and self-interfering, placing the individual in a life situation in which he (or she) feels compelled to satisfy his true self, while feeling trapped in a state of imaginary servitude. In this deluded state, we are self-effacing, self-protective, self-involved and self-aggrandizing, forever trying to bolster a fragile self-esteem and win symbolic power games that make no contribution to true satisfaction because the secondary, fragile, object-fixated self that is the object of these actions, like the objects themselves, is an illusion.
But much of psychoanalytic theory is also based on another idea, that what the individual is experiencing are disavowed desires that he (or she) believes will evoke retaliation from his primary caretakers. These desires may be to engage in forms of aggression, or power or sex, including incest, or they may be to experience forms of independence. Whatever they are, the child has been told, mostly in disguised form, that his desires will evoke retaliation, even while he finds them compelling and hard to resist. As a result, he is stuck, forever trying to fulfill his desires while the internalized caretakers of childhood admonish, threaten, surveil and punish. Thus, the object-obsessed personality is object-obsessed in a limited number of ways that provide a distorted reflection of this central conflict.
As a result of psychoanalytic theory and the theories of family therapy, mostly since World War Two, we also now know how this conflict arises. The answer is that parents covertly pass on their unconscious fantasy world to their children. They communicate it in their interactions, conveying and transferring onto their children the subterranean world of their own secret thoughts, perceptions, fears and desires that revolved around their relationship to their own parents. The child begins with a universal biology and psychological make-up, and he and his primary caretakers then shape his way of dealing with his fears and desires and thoughts and perceptions, and his way of interacting with the world. In a sense, this means that the unconscious hallucinations of each generation are passed on to the next and modified with each passage across time. The threats the child perceives and engages in; the prohibitions; the seduction; the fears of annihilation, retaliation and revenge, and so on, aren't merely invented by the child's mind -- they are passed on and shared in secret communication and covert disavowed action. If they are made consciously by the primary caretakers and avowed, with the intent of carrying them out, then they are all the more mad and malevolent. Either way, the emotionally vulnerable and intellectually unformed child will respond to (and help exaggerate and invent) these conscious or unconscious threats of attack, torture, castration and rape, loss of love, loss of esteem, loss of control, loss of support, and death.
This then is the description of the false self, living in a world of illusion, which can, without exaggeration, be described as humanity's chains and its delusional world. It is the ongoing hallucination that turns people into Don Quixote's, tilting at parental windmills that are part of a shared delusional world. Today, and throughout history, we have mostly seen people whose behavior is altered by the distorted prism of these psychological states, corrupted by the fake, secondary fears and fake desires of the neurotic object-fixated personality, transferring this primal relationship to their adult interactions, driven by forces that are their own but not themselves, all of this mixed in with expressions of health and wholeness. Humanity will have to learn to understand how and why it retreats from itself into this realm of neurosis, and learn how to not retreat, if it is ever to be truly liberated and become itself.
Psychoanalytic theory has also given us a model of psychological health. The healthy person, it tells us, is someone whose mind comes to incorporate an image of benevolent caretakers who, to one degree or another, encourage him or her to be free of them and develop into a whole person. To paraphrase Freud, the healthy individual is capable of work and love -- terms that encompass a great deal. The unhealthy person is stuck reenacting the same relationships again and again in place of remembering them and getting on with life.
Of course this healthy person capable of work and love, who Freud referred to, is none other than the true self that exists in all of us. It manifests spontaneously, often to a significant degree, when the constraints of neurosis are sloughed off, because it already exists in an unmanifested form to a significant degree. Freud's definition may also need to be expanded somewhat so that we include, for example, the fact that the truly healthy person is capable of assertion and of being at peace with himself, characteristics that are perhaps a little less global than work and love, but also essential.
That said, we now come to one of the essential points of this essay. On the one hand, this essay has described all of us as beset by neuroses that involve disavowed desires and internalized prohibitions against those desires. But it has also described us as desiring to become a healthy self, although we are kept from doing so by the neurosis. We thus seem to have two kinds of conflicts going on.
It is the contention of this essay that they are the same conflict. What is forbidden and perceived as threatening in many instances, or perhaps in all, is precisely the attainment of psychological health. To be independent or genitally competent and orgasmic, to be assertive and in control, to win, to take on responsibility, to stand up to manipulators and controllers, to open oneself up to other people and the vulnerability of emotions, to be able to truly relax and enjoy the moment, to be in the right -- these and other forms of health are what is forbidden. They may have been treated as dangerous in themselves or, more likely, in growing up, the child has come to fear that they will release or be misconstrued for, other seemingly dangerous desires and feelings involving sex, power, aggression, rejection and so on, directed at his or her primary caretakers.
To enjoy these forms of health is to set loose feelings and thoughts and desires that arouse profoundly disturbing unconscious fears and perceptions of danger. So, to save ourselves, we lose our selves, and begin a lifetime project of self-denial. Or, more precisely, we allow ourselves to experience psychological health and enjoy the wonders of life within a certain limited range. For some people that range is located more on the side of health; for others more on the side of psychopathology. Parents, as a result of their own unconscious fantasy world and fears and desires, convey information to their children about what is allowed and not allowed, and their children grow into adults who contain themselves within those limits, while forever trying to break free.
I don't know whether this describes the central conflict in all people or whether it is important in many people, but not central, while it is central in others. I suspect the former. But either way, understanding how and why this takes place is a key to the emancipation of humanity.