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The search for a subjective identity and the hysterical, obsessive, and narcissistic conflicts
- Towards a new paradigm
In the past few decades we have become familiar with a multiple of models, learnt to appreciate the dialectical use of different perspectives, come to terms with the relativity of truth, and as a result renounced our need for reification.
The invaluable work of comparative analysis of the psychoanalytic models elaborated by J. Greenberg and S. Mitchell (1983) have been an indispensable tool in this process clarifying the limits of the Freudian model, based on drive, in explaining the complexity of the human mind. Greenberg and Mitchell demonstrated how the subsequent steps of theoretical adjustment were useful in the integration of the experiential and relational aspects of the psychical development.
Overcoming the most radical oppositions we learned to accept that the Freudian drive model and the relational theorisation are not incompatible perspectives.
We now consider the drive as intrinsically relational and we think its destiny is determined by the encounter with the other and the signifiers offered in order to contain the Real of the drive. This is considered the intersubjective base of identity.
We are witnessing a substantial convergence among these models that emphasise the attention to the subject and its efforts to maintain its needed connection to the social field and develop at the same time an independent sense of Self.
According to Kirshner (2004) contemporary psychoanalysis is undergoing an important transformation in which the origins of identity and the maintenance of a subjectively experienced life are considered the central therapeutic goals. This growing attention to the vicissitudes of the Self is a consequence of the symptoms connected to the actual pathology. This is considered consequence of the increasing social disorganisation and the lack of a solid anchorage to the dominant values of the past patriarchal society, ideologies and religions. The different norms about sexual roles also expose the individual to an increasing sense of abandonment and to a vulnerability to the Real; a dimension of reality that is symbolically uncontainable and experienced by the Self as an unsustainable encounter.
If we explore closely the psychoanalytic models we see as in Ego Psychology, to start with, the evolutionary process of separation and individuation needs an environment characterised by affective immediacy. The pre-edipal disorders are believed to origin in the failed quality of the primary relationship.
According to the Self Psychological model the core of the identity crystallises itself in the encounter between the child’s inborn potentialities and the parental desiring expectations and their function as narcissistic support.
Kohut, like Winnicott, does not give for granted the acquisition of a subjective sense of Self and his interest goes to the individual’s struggle to maintain a cohesive sense of Self necessary to avoid an empty and meaningless adaptation to reality.
According to the intersubjective model proposed by Stolorow and coll. the Self’s cohesion is determined by the encounter between two subjectivities in sync within the context of a continuos and mutual affective influence.
Winnicott believes that the origin of the Self is the consequence of the encounter between the child’s omnipotent illusion and the mother’s availability to anticipate his needs in the context of an almost perfect simultaneity between the subjectively experienced object and the real one.
Empathic failures, the lack of emotional contact or a total availability of the object can damage the development of the self and deprive the child of the development of an inner mental space necessary to the awareness of one’s mind, of one’s spontaneous gestures and of a personal idiom, as suggested by Bollas (1989).
In the intersubjective lacanian perspective the experience of being the object of someone’s desire is considered the foundation of the individual’s identity and the conquest of subjectivity depends on the subject’s capacity to become independent from the other’s desire, which is at the same time necessary and alienating.
In the mirror phase, considered by Lacan (1996) as a metaphor of the identificatory process, the human identity is understood to find its origins in the encounter between the subject and the other’s desire. This encounter will shape the Self image.
Fonagy (1996) thinks that at the centre of our identity lies the representation coming from the other. Our capacity for self-awareness, necessary in the comprehension of relational experience, stems from a correct mirroring of the subject’s affective states. The mother sees an intentionality and attributes a meaning to her child’s affective states and in this way she relates to his potential subjectivity. If the child does not find a recognisable version of his affective state in the mother’s mind he will loose a chance for an acquisition of the symbolic representation of his psychological state.
In all these models of the mind we can find a vision of the human subject as intrinsically relational and only slowly emerging as a self aware subject. Self awareness indeed needs an extended period of containment.
According to this emergent paradigm the psychoanalytic method is considered ideal for the Self’s transformational needs. The interpretative and containing dimension of the method are considered as necessary modalities, expression of the need to know and the need to become (Bollas 1999).
Bollas (1999) and Kennedy (2007) argue the necessity of a theory of subject relations to study the interaction of human sensibilities, to go along with the object relational theory that focuses on the formation and projection of the representations of the Self and of the object.
The relation to the object and the lack of the object
After completing my training in the States at The W. A. White Institute and the Post Doctoral Program in Psychoanalysis at New York University, which I choose for their eclectict approach, I then also discovered in my clinical practice the benefits of the dialectical use of Winnicott’s model, together with C. Bollas’s extension, and the lacanian model as integrated by some European analysts like P. Verhaege.
Both models study the deeply intersubjective nature of human identity, the importance of a meaningful relationship to an object, the subject’s vulnerability in the relationship to an other who can in many ways interfer or foster the development of an authentic identity. The object relational model emphasises more the relationship to the object whereas the lacanian perspective the lack of the object.
One of the advantages in using these relational models is that the diagnosis cannot be restricted to the individual since his identity emerges in the encounter with the other. Verhaege (2004) observes that the clinical diagnosis has to include an evolutionary perspective, has to be founded on the primary relationship between the subject and the other, and for these reasons must contain a therapeutic indication.
According to Winnicott the centre of gravity of the human being begins in the relationship with the primary object that offers the necessary ingredients to the development of the Self. Adequate mirroring, a non intrusive maternal presence that fosters the capacity of the child to be alone in her presence and develop a relationship to his own mind; the development of transitional objects that gradually facilitate the separation from the mother and the awareness of a separate subjectivity and the use of aggression as an indispensable tool to the birth of a separate sense of Self and the recognition of the mother as a separate subject. Without these conditions and evolutionary steps the subject runs the risk of getting lost in a compliant identity, a false Self.
- Technical implications
Winnicott (1969) considers the analytic situation as perfect for the exploration and expansion of subjectivity. The analyst, like the good enough mother, contributes to the development of an appropriate containment for the mirroring of the Self’s spontaneous gestures. The regressive pull exercised by the analytic situation makes it easier for the developmental needs to re-emerge. Winnicott also believed in the patient’s self therapeutic potentials.
Bollas (2000), expanding on Winnicott’s model, explores how the relationship of the subject with the maternal unconscious has a strong influence on the development of the Self and for this reason considers the subject’s emancipation from the bond with the primary object as the main therapeutic goal.
The free association technique, revisited by Bollas (2002), is considered a form of unconscious communication within the Freudian pair that fosters the intersubjective dimension. The analyst, suspending his need to make sense of the patient’s free talk, surrenders to his unconscious listening of the associative sequence expecting to be surprised by the emergence of a latent thought.
- Structural diagnosis
Character disorders are considered by Bollas (2000) as a failure and the consequence of a developmental arrest of the Self in its relationship to the primary object. For primary object it is intended not only the child’s experience of the mother, her style and unconscious conflicts, but also the result of the child’s inner economy of love and hatred and determined by environmental disturbing vicissitudes like divorce, illnesses and hospitalisations etc.
The maternal unconscious has a profound influence on the child’s developing identity and the relationship with the primary object is, in this model, the guideline for a diagnosis of the subject’s psychological structure.
The hysterical subject will dissociate from sexuality in the attempt to be the mother’s innocent love object; the narcissist will replace with his own Self the maternal object experienced as uneven; the schizoid will detached himself from a mother experienced only as intrusive; the borderline’s experience of the primary object is characterised by turbulence and for this reason will seek a disturbing relationship with the object, and the psychotic, who did not experience the object and the Self as separate entities, will distance himself from an emotional encounter to avoid the risk of being engulfed by the other or to experience the emptiness and the total absence of the object.
The lacanian model
Lacan’s thinking (1996) explores the alienation and the emptiness at the core of human identity. The Self we think we are is, for Lacan, the result of a social construction based on the desire of the other. In the game of reel the child’s use of the two phonemes accompanied by joy is expression of the celebration of the birth of the subject. The presence and the absence of the mother for the first time find a linguistic representation. The mother is lost not because she is gone but because she has been for ever replaced by the symbol and from this moment on the divided subject will have to speak in order to find her. In the lacanian perspective, unlike Winnicott, human identity is not a potential but the consequence of linguistic acquisition. This primary castration, named as the law of the father, will protect the subject from the psychic dissolution inherent in the position of being the passive object of the mother’s desire. This law originates in the mother’s capacity to be a separate subject with her own desire.
According to Verhaege (2004) the identity structures itself in a relational dimension in which the child’s need finds expression through the crying; in this first relational interaction his somatic pain becomes psychic, an affective reaction of depression and anxiety if the first other is not in sink and does not meet appropriately his needs. Like in Fonagy’s “social biofeedback of parental affective mirroring”, in the lacanian model the other is considered crucial in the formation of identity and particularly in the psychological containment and transformation of the drive. The first other will interpret and contain with his own signifiers the child’s demands. In this sense the psychological identity will be the result of the encounter of the child’s intensity and the desire of the other in an ongoing process of alienation and separation. A secure base of attachment in the desire of the other is indispensable in the development of a secure sense of Self and a condition for a possible separation based on the subject desire rooted in the body.
- Technical implications
While Winnicott emphasises the regressive need to re-experience the damaging infantile situation and a containing approach, Lacan’s method refers to the paternal function and the importance of creating a separation from the maternal to facilitate the development of an independent identity. The emphatic listening could interfere with the attention to a potentially emerging subject, the other in the patient. This technique is based on frustration and sees the analyst as an unreachable object of desire as a way of mobilising in the patient a demand that will be ultimately recognised by the the subject as an expression of his own desire.
The desiring subject will emerge in the patient’s non-intentional speech.
Kennedy (2007), interpreting the lacanian approach, observes the importance of the analyst’s desire for the subject to emerge from his discourse in order to find his own voice. Verhaege (2004) considers the analytic desire as the main source of the process that should become the patient’s desire to speak and listen to the unintentional meaning behind his own words.
In contrast with Ego-Psychology, Lacan considers the Ego as a result of an alienating adaptation in the desire of the other in order to minimise the effect of primary castration, the loss of fusionality with the maternal consequent to the entrance in the symbolic order. The lacanian subject is elusive, profoundly divided, continuously vanishing and emerging through the full speech of a desiring subject.
- Structural diagnosis
The fundamental diagnostic criteria in this model is defined by the relation of the subject with desire. The initial phase of attachment to the desire of the other can be insufficient or excessive. In the first instance the subject will not develop the necessary anchorage to the other’s desire and will not afford to loose the other or to loose the assigned identity and choose his own.
Separation in this case causes abandonment anxiety, traumatic in the actual pathology, or the development of symptoms in the case of a psychopathology.
If the initial phase of alienation is excessive the subject, smothered by an invasive object love, will be trapped in a passive position contrary to the development of a desiring subjectivity. The anxiety of being engulfed by the other will oblige the subject to defensively neutralise whatever comes from the object confining him self to a position of extreme independence.
Verhaege (2004) makes an important diagnostic distinction between actual pathology and psychopathology. The actual structure of the subject is considered the consequence of the impossibility to transform the somatic excitement of the drive into psychological representations, a secondary system. The failure of the other in this evolutionary process is confirmed by the impossibility of a separation: “The other abandoned me and left me in an intolerable state of anxiety”. Self-expansion and adequate mirroring, rather then conflict interpretation, is the necessary therapeutic ingredient in these cases.
In psychopathology the subjective identity is far more developed and we see the presence of meaningful symptomatology, absent in the case of actual disorders.
The subject has managed to integrate the drive but his identity will be restricted by a feeling of not being good enough for the other and abandonment anxiety, as in hysteria, or a grandiose sense of Self and engulfment anxiety like in the obsessive subject who felt loved too much.
According to Fink (1997) psychopathology can be understood as the subject’s strategy to deny the separation from the other, the primary castration and division. The hysterical subject in a position of self-sacrifice will merge with the other trying to be his or her object of desire preferring unsatisfaction for fear of loosing the object’s love. The obsessive will sacrifice the independence of the other positioning himself in the logic of an impossible desire.
The position of the subject regarding anxiety, sense of guilt and depression.
Verhaege (2004) considers anxiety, sense of guilt and depression as affective states deeply related to the development of identity or to its loss. Anxiety, linked to an insufficient or excessive response from the other in the process of integrating the drive, can be handled through the attribution of guilt. This creates the illusion that anxiety could be avoided while it is strongly connected to the real of the drive and to the dependency states of the preverbal stage.
Depression, that also does not imply a psychopathological structure, is considered a key element in the formation of identity. Depression is the consequence of de-identification with the alienating desire of the other which filled the initial emptiness. The emptiness re-emerges in depression emptying of meaning the individual’s existence in contrast with the fullness of enthusiasm.
Through a radical re-evaluation of the origins of one’s identity the depressed subject, whom experiences the impotence of being a desiring subject, looks for a better integration behind his identity.
Kirshner (2004) considers depression as rapture between the Self and the object world. In this vision the sense of guilt is not seen as the cause of depression but as the subject’s attempt to maintain a connection, through the attribution of guilt, to the object world in order to avoid the emptiness of the pre-subjective existence.
The significance of the hysterical, obsessive, and narcissistic conflicts.
In my last years of clinical experience using these models I became acquainted with the centrality of the hysterical, obsessive and narcissistic conflicts which I consider transversal to all diagnostic categories and pertaining not only to patients that can be structurally considered hysterical, obsessive or narcissistic.
I consider these conflicts as universal and central to the development of a subjective identity since they pertain to the relationship of the subject to the other and the drive.
The hysterical conflict
Both the lacanian and object relational models emphasise the other’s failure to provide the subject with the appropriate signifiers to contain and integrate the drive and sexuality in the developing identity. Without this integration sexuality is experienced by the Self as traumatic.
- The lacanian model
The first other is the interpreter of the demand coming from the drive, according to Verhaege (2004), and inevitably the child’s drive will be influenced by the mother’s desire. Even the “good enough mother” will fail in containing completely her child’s demands and this failure constitutes the first important element in the birth of a distinct identity: ” If I am not everything for the mother who am I ?”. The mother’s lack and her capacity to look at the child’s father with desire is the most important element in the child’s identity formation since it breaks their fusionality and introduces the subject in the dialectic of desire.
The original anxiety, close to the real of the drive, becomes signal anxiety as expression of the subject’s incapacity to contain sexuality in phallic terms.
The hysterical subject, feeling inadequate to meet the other’s desire and afraid of abandonment, will try to identify with the desire of the other as a way to find the missing initial anchorage necessary to the development of a secure sense of Self: ” how could I exist if I do not feel the object of your vitality and desire ?”. Incapable of a separate existence the hysteric will sacrifice himself to the other in his effort to avoid the sexual instinct experienced as overwhelming and inevitably linked to abandonment from the other. For this reason the hysteric desires unsatisfaction.
He will eroticize his relationship with the other because of his identification with his phallic desire but will avoid the confrontation for fear of failing. Hysterical depression represents the subject’s despair for his incapacity to find an access to the sexualised world, were the lack is bearable and the desire speakable.
The object relational model
According to Bollas (2000) sexuality is experienced as unexpected and traumatic by the infantile Self particularly if he cannot find in his familiar environment an appropriate support to contain this transformation. The hysterical subject is the spectator of a love relationship between his mother and her innocent imaginary child, and will have to eradicate the sexualised body to keep the necessary connection to her: “I will always be your innocent child.” As a consequence of this identification with the maternal desire the hysteric develops an indifference towards the body and will sacrifice his connection to the outside sexualised reality and the development of his adult identity. The others in the real world will be envied for their capacity to assert themselves with an identity based on desire and sexuality. Dissociation is the solution adopted to make possible the coexistence of asceticism and autoerotic sexuality. Autoerotism does not imply a real and definitive entrance in the adult world and this is the price paid by the hysteric to maintain the bond with the primary object. Rejecting the invitation from the sexualised other the hysteric will remain in the infantile psychic space.
The analysis in the transference of the hysteric structure is, according to Bollas (2000), important to foster the subject’s awareness on how his substantially autoerotic existence goes against the potentiality of a therapeutic change. The critical aspect in the therapy of hysteria lays on the therapist capacity to recognise in the countertransference the patient’s rejected need to integrate his own desire, and unlike the mother, who became stifled, be able to run the risk to speak it.
The obsessive conflict
Abandonment anxiety and the feeling of being the mother’s pathetic love object are central in the hysteric’s subjectivity while the obsessive, who leaves with the anxiety of being engulfed by the other, is inflated by a feeling of superiority deriving from having been assigned to a position of uncomfortable privilege in relation to the mother. With great difficulty he will succeed to free himself by asserting a desire recognised as truly its own.
- The lacanian perspective
Verhaege (2004) observes how the strive for independence is the central aspect of the obsessive character and this proves how the initial phase of identity formation based on the necessary but alienating identification with the desire of the other has been adequately achieved.
Indeed, overwhelmed by the other’s expectations the obsessive thinks that he has to give everything in order to contain the other’s lack: ” If I work hard enough to satisfy your desire and take care of your unhappiness I might be able to free myself from this burdening invasion and have the necessary space to get to know myself and my real desire.”
S. Leclaire (1971) describes how the obsessive is profoundly influenced by nostalgia of an unspeakable happiness connected to the experience of having been the privileged object of mother’s love. He has been prematurely exposed to the awareness that mother preferred him to the father, captured in her unsatisfaction before he was able to separate, confront himself with his lack and be able to develop as an independent desiring subject.
Lacan (1996) thinks the obsessive relationship to desire is characterised by impossibility, he chooses an impossible desire to avoid the greater danger of loosing his separate sense of Self and dissolving in the other’s desire.
J. Dor (1999) considers the passivity regarding sexual pleasure the main characteristic of the obsessive who cannot develop an active position towards the possession of the phallus; he remains in the passive position of being the mother’s phallus.
As far as the quality of his object relations is concerned, the obsessive is incapable of tolerating separation and loss and will control the other as if a part of him. He is deeply disturbed by the awareness of the other’s separate subjectivity and will build for him a golden prison: “If the other does not show a desire I can relax since my desire is always and only the desire of the other!”
The hysteric will sarcify himself to the other while the obsessive will sacrifice the object.
In the analytic relationship the obsessive will have to sacrifice the analyst’s expectations of an affective and meaningful psychic connectedness to avoid the risk of ending in the position of dependency towards an other who has become too important and invasive.
- The object relational model
Even according to Bollas (2000) the obsessive experienced the mother as intrusive and will find protection in the relation to his own mind, where like a scientist, will study her and scrutinise every interaction in order to get rid of the invasion in the Self. His affective life will be avoided for fear of surrendering to the other.
Bollas points out that if the obsessive structure is not analysed in the transference the analytic relationship runs the risk of becoming a collusion and the exploration of the patient’s mind can become an end in itself; the obsessive in this way will try to avoid an affective psychic collaboration.
The narcissistic conflict
Neville Symington (1993) thinks that the psychoanalytic models of the mind are inadequate in explaining narcissism and for this reason patients after extended therapy often maintain a narcissistic vulnerability with an unanalysed structure.
Symington observes how we are constantly immersed in the relational dimension through a continuous process of unconscious communication made of projections and introjections of emotions, affective states and Self’s parts. The hatred for this inevitable relational dimension is central to the narcissistic subject.
Narcissism is considered a reaction of the subject to an infantile traumatic deprivation, but the cause of narcissism is not in the trauma but rather in the subject reaction to it. The essence of the emotional reaction to traumatic deprivation and precocious disillusionment consists in the subject’s refusal to relate to his own inner vitality. This is adopted as a solution to avoid a painful dependency towards another experienced as deeply disappointing.
The precocious growth of the narcissist implies a refusal of the infantile Self and a reaction into pseudo-independence and self-sufficiency that eventually will become a way of living extremely difficult to overcome. The refusal of inner vitality threatens to empty the personality leaving the subject exposed to feelings of emptiness. He will artificially keep himself alive through hyper-erotization of the Self, hyper-activity and the continuous search for people’s admiration. His relational life will be based more on manipulation rather then being the consequence of a real desire and inner vitality.
The refusal of relational dependency will never be total and will become, in the inner psychic world, a splitting between a part of the Self desperately looking for the needed emotional connection to the other and a negative and cynical part full of hatred towards the needy Self whom will inevitably expose the subject to a painful disappointment.
Many contemporary analysts (Mitchell, 1991; Bromberg, 1993; Ogden, 1994) share the vision of a multiple Self made of compensatory inner objects functioning beyond our awareness invading our personality and depriving the subject of control on his destiny. The awareness of this multiplicity becomes the main obstacle in overcoming narcissism because it implies the subject’s exposure to shame and vulnerability. A character trait is considered destructive because of the subject’s lack of awareness.
Symington theory on narcissism, as chosen by the subject in response to trauma, implies the possibility of its reversal that depends on the subject’s determination to free himself from his own negativity. The analyst, who should be fully aware of his own narcissism, has the important task to find an alliance with the patient’s need for a vital connection by exploring the pervasiveness of negativity within the personality and its effects on the patient’s life. In this respect the exploration of the split off parts is favoured by a more participated analytic attitude rather then the neutral classical position which could run the risk of a collusion with the narcissistic refusal of dependency.
In the hysterical conflict the identity is restricted in its development by lack of mirroring and containment of sexuality within the primary relation. The subject is confined to a position of desiring unsatisfaction and of grudge towards the other.
The obsessive subject is struggling to find an independence from an invasive other but is stuck in the impossibility of desire.
The narcissist, convinced that it is too painful to love and need the wrong person, is invaded by negativity and mistrust and by smothering his vitality runs the risk of emptying his personality of any subjectivity.
Using these two models we can see how the subject’s vicissitudes within the hysteric, obsessive and narcissistic conflictualities is effected by his relationship to the primary object and to desire.
One important consideration has to do with the role played by the subject in the conflict; the subject in this perspective is not exonerated nor considered merely a victim of unfortunate conditions restricting the development of his identity.
The bond to the primary object will first become recognisable through the symbolic externalisation in the transference of the emotional unconscious scene and will find a possible transformation within the context of a therapeutic relationship that offers the needed emotional corrective experience. At this condition the subject will affirm the relation to desire and will have a chance to articulate his identity.
These conflicts, even when observed outside a psychopathological structure, pertain to the process of identiy formation. The hysterical conflict involves the subject in the difficoult task of integrating in his identity sexuality and the desire of the other. The obsessive conflict refers to the initial alienation in the desire of the other and the also difficoult task of finding the necessary indipendence form it. The narcissistic conflict engages the subject with inevitable disillusionments that, if not depriving at the point of pushing him into isolation, will stimulate the subject to conquer his subjectivity.
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