Hearing Voices and Speaking in Tongues: A Search for Psychoanalytic Holy Ground

By Douglas R Hansen, MSW, LCSW

I am continually seeking to marry my experience of unconscious process with my experience of the Divine.  Both types of experience speak of Winnicott’s idea of the paradox of creativity and discovery, as components of personal meaning making.  Both types of experience have been transformative in my relationship to myself, and to my interactions with clients and significant others.  Today I would like to describe four events that I have entitled as Hearing Voices.  I am aware that the phrase is often used to describe auditory hallucinations.  Perhaps there is some application of that idea to these events, but, in a broader sense, I am using it to allude to the sense of being spoken to, by the Other (capital O).  All of the events involve my quest to love, and be loved.  The second part of my paper, Speaking in Tongues, refers to the twin passions that fill me regarding personal faith and relational psychoanalysis.  In its original use in the New Testament, speaking in tongues meant a baptism by the Holy Spirit that led the believer to praise God in unknown languages.  The baptism was thought to edify the recipient but required an interpreter for others to benefit.  In my religious childhood, speaking in tongues was equally considered to be a sign of the spiritually elite; a kind of Christian narcissism; and a source of contempt for my father, a minister in the tradition of biblical exposition, who had little use for religious emotional display.  Using glossolalia as a metaphor, I will speak to my belief in an inclusive God and in the neuroscience of limbic love.  The final section of my presentation, the search for psychoanalytic Holy Ground, posits that Winnicott’s idea of the use of the object, Benjamin’s idea of destruction and recognition, and Ghent’s notion of surrender are equally useful for psychoanalytic therapy and for spiritual growth: theories and theologies must be destroyed to see if any One survives.


My father’s death in the winter of 1984 had precipitated my first major depression.  Unable to grieve, I sought rather frantically to pursue a relationship with a woman and her two young children.  I was embarrassed of my emotional instability and sought a relationship to restore what I had known of myself.  The closer I moved to this person, the greater my anxiety bloomed.  Panic attacks, weight loss, obsessions, and sleeplessness were the manifestations of a self I no longer recognized.  With tricyclics and psychotherapy, eventually the depression lifted.  But I had convinced her to marry me and we were miserable.  The guilt of hurting her and her children made it very difficult for me to extract myself from the marriage.  In addition, I felt ashamed in relation to my church community.

The Baghdad Café was a popular movie at the time.  Having seen it, I purchased the sound track that featured the theme song entitled “I’m Calling You”.  I listened to it often when I was at home, alone.  One day I was sweeping the kitchen floor and found a used wine cork that had fallen behind a chopping block.  Retrieving it, I looked for the stamp of the winery.  Instead of a vintner’s name, the cork read:  No Matter How Far You Have Gone Down The Wrong Road, Turn Back.

Now I have had my share of wine since leaving my teetotaling childhood home and I am not familiar with wineries dispensing sage wisdom on the sides of their corks.  I was grateful for the message and made use of it and turned around.  But how do I understand this experience as a psychoanalyst and a man of faith?  Did this really happen or was it a daydream?  Was it a message from my unconscious or a divine encounter or both?  Why did I put the cork back in the birdcage with all the other used corks?  Did my despair and brokenness open me to hear this voice?  What role, if any, did Jeveeta Steele’s recording of “I’m Calling You” play in this experience?  James Grotstein has suggested that if God exists in me, it is in my unconscious.  I am fond of the idea.

The second voice I heard also occurred in the midst of a painful relationship.  (Maybe this paper should be titled “Wine, Women, and Song”).  During my analysis, I agonized over my unhappiness in my marriage.  I got to the point of being sick of hearing myself talk about it, and wondered how my analyst could stand to listen to another day of me.

Driving to work early one morning, I stopped at a stoplight next to a cemetery at Aurora Avenue and 115th.  My best childhood friend, who is a college professor, had lost a former student, who was hit by a bus at that intersection, while on her way to work.  Suddenly, my father’s voice was in my car. “You need to leave”.  My father had been dead for 18 years.  What to make of this visitation when I had been having serious doubts about an afterlife?  Was this some split-off, disembodied authority of my unconscious?  Was the grief of another marriage in ruins rekindling aspects of the loss of my father?  Were the cemetery and the death of the young woman lending a sense of urgency to resolve my impasse regarding my marriage?

If there is an afterlife, can my dad actually make contact with me?  In my marital failures, I experienced guilt, shame and condemnation.  Here is the voice of the biblical expositor telling me I need to leave?  Is this a spiritual experience?

The experience of the third voice was an internal subjective experience.  It was closer to what I think of what most people experience when listening to their internal world in that it was not audible but certainly instructive.  I had finally discovered my capacity to grieve, or, more accurately, grief had finally showed up.  For two months, daily I sobbed over the loss of ever loving and being loved, of ever being or finding an ideal love.  The grief eventually felt so different from the major depressions in that I could no longer struggle or battle.  I surrendered.  I thought the grief would never end.  But then, within me, was the sense of “Be still and know that I am God”.  Or in less biblical terms, “Keep your hands open and shut the fuck up”.  Even though the instruction felt right, it ran counter to the sense of me that worked on my problems.  I was confused because I wanted to be psychologically or consciously responsible for my choices and myself.  In retrospect I now understand the grief as opening me to the Mystery of my unconscious.  But does God say fuck?

The fourth voice I heard was an encounter my love and I refer to as “The Train Wreck”.

Having been friends for a few years, we were having a conversation on an October afternoon when love showed up as an exhilarating and terrifying collision of our lives.

I was not looking for her but there she was.  This was terribly inconvenient and frightening.  I didn’t understand how this could happen.  I didn’t believe in “soul mates” but all I wanted to do was talk to her.  Can anything be terrifyingly comfortable?  I tried to deconstruct it like Scrooge dismissing the appearance of Marley’s ghost.  “A spoiled bit of potato, perhaps”.  It has felt like a gift from that day forward.  While we have made decisions to foster our love, its existence has never seemed to be our doing.  It is an intersubjective third, as some psychoanalysts are prone to suggest.  Both of us would like to take credit for how wonderful it is but our keen awareness of our past failures continually keeps us hearing a “not me” voice for which we are always full of gratitude.  Recently, a client described an encounter with a man that knocked them off their tracks.  While I listened intently, I wondered.  And wondered.  Why to some people and not to others?  Is it co-constructed?  Is this what my parents meant when they talked about God’s will for my life?  Given our past histories, our internal working models, how can this be?  A few years later, my love arrived at my house  for our customary weekend rendezvous, and described a rather powerful experience that she had while driving north.  She was stopped at a light on Aurora and 115th when she suddenly had an epiphany regarding my father.  I had never told her of my previous experience of his voice.  She had never met him.  As I type this I get chills.  I weep for the Mystery that inhabits our lives.


As a child I was taught that having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” ensured the path to heaven.  Organized Christianity located itself as an authoritative voice regarding the authenticity of an individual’s conversion as well as the arbiter of behavioral norms and social conventions that dictated the life-style of the believer.  I have come to think of this as “an impersonal relationship with Jesus Christ”.  So I speak in the tongue of a very personal faith that is inclusive of the personality and subjectivity of the believer.  I believe in God as an adaptive Other, One who can inhabit mind states that resonate with the believer.  I speak in the tongue that understands a Divine connection as a co-constructed phenomenon.  The meaning must be personally derived, and can only be “interpreted” by the participant themselves through their felt experience. Others benefit from hearing my voice because it speaks of a God of inclusiveness, a God who exceeds the limits of any churches’ theology, a God who can contain and relate to the experience of being human.  Each person’s understanding of faith is personally unique.  I teach in a Christian graduate school that welcomes such a spoken tongue.

Limbic Love

I seek to speak in a tongue which combines attachment neuroscience with relational psychoanalysis.  The success of the treatment is largely contingent on the mind of the analyst being able to resonate, recognize and revise the procedural “rules” that inform the patient about how to participate in an intimate relationship.  Limbic love is lived in the consulting room.  It cannot be assimilated cognitively.  It can only be incorporated unconsciously.

Karlen Lyons-Ruth described the procedural memory of how to be in a relationship as implicit relational knowing.  Such procedural memory is stored in the limbic system of the brain.  The limbic system is also the home of the amygdala and the hippocampi, which function as the gas pedal and the brakes of emotional experience, respectively.  As a therapist, I listen to my patient’s stories for themes that will inform me about the relationship that the client will want to establish with me.  The patient’s limbic system expresses itself with Attractors, groups of associated cells, which seek resonance with my limbic system. (Lewis, Amini, and Lannon).  The resonance leads the patient to feel understood about how they seek to attach to others. The patient becomes aware of having a mind that makes meaning.  My capacity to resonate with their “internal working model” (Bowlby) enables me to join in supplementing their capacity to regulate their emotional experience.  The regulatory function of our relationship deepens the patient’s trust and dependency on me for the emotional stability necessary for eventual self-modulation.  Meanwhile, I offer my limbic system to the patient, offering new relational experiences that are not a match for the patient’s Attractors.  The emotional bond of resonance and regulation invites the patient to discover, implicitly, new ways of being in relationship.  The patient gradually becomes a new person as I offer my Attractors to them, hopefully connecting to unmet needs and desires which have been split off or repressed due to a lack of recognition.

Transformation through limbic love can take a long time in treatment.  Unlike the neo-cortex with autobiographical memory and cognitive learning, the limbic system changes very slowly.  The cost of limbic therapy, my version of psychoanalysis, is significant, and is only exceeded by the cost inherent in avoiding it.  But the reward of living and loving with passion and expressiveness is priceless.


In Winnicott’s paper The Use of the Object (1969), he described a process in development whereby the child moved from object relating to object usage.  The central dynamic involved the child attacking and destroying the internal representation of the parent in order to further the child’s agenda.  Alan Schore suggests that this occurs by the child temporarily suspending empathy for the parent and turning her/his sole focus onto the child’s own desire.  If the external parent can survive the attack upon the child’s internal representation of them, not retaliate, and, in fact, lend their support to the process, the child is able to have the experience that parental presence and love exists separately from the child’s control.  The child is then able to make use of love because it is no longer felt to be solely a projection of the child’s own wishes.  The existence of the child’s desire is no longer laden with guilt and shame because the real parent in external reality was able to survive the attack without retaliation.  Winnicott thought that this was largely an unconscious process, and that the destruction/survival process was something that was ongoing in the child’s development.

Jessica Benjamin’s paper Recognition and Destruction (1990) expands Winnicott’s idea in stressing the essential ongoing nature of the destruction of static representations of self and other, in order to further the recognition of the subjectivity of each member in the dyad; the infant-mother and the patient-analyst. She moves from an infantcentric perspective to introduce a process of mutual recognition which requires an ongoing dialect of destruction leading to recognition leading to destruction and so on.  Referring to the earlier “tongue” of limbic love, Benjamin would advocate that the “rules” that govern the implicit relational knowing (Lyons-Ruth) are co-constructed by the intersubjective interplay between the two partners.

Emmanuel Ghent’s paper on Surrender (1990) illuminates the process of destruction as a letting go of the adaptive self that has been impinged upon by the caregiver in order to surrender to all that one knows oneself to be, and to its expression.  Ghent stresses that one cannot choose to surrender but discovers it happening to one’s self.  He sees it as a force for growth (Milner) that can be expressed as a creative fury, wanting to destroy compliant adaptation in favor of authenticity.  Ghent contrasts the willful submission which requires a vigilantly defined Other, with Surrender to an ever-increasing sense of awareness and consciousness (Chardin) of self in the world.

The thinking of Winnicott, Benjamin, and Ghent has been applied to the psychoanalytic relationship by many other writers and thinkers.  I would like to suggest that one attachment that patients attempt to destroy is the relationship of the analyst to her/his theoretical preferences.  I would suggest that the force for this attempt is to discover if the therapist can recognize the patient’s subjectivity beyond the therapist’s internal representation of the patient.  The reciprocal recognition would be of the therapist as a person in his/her own right, not only the image of the analyst in the consulting room.

Today, I would like to apply these ideas to the believer’s relationship to theology and to the experience of the Divine.  It is my thesis that the discovery of the Mystery in epiphanal experience may be contingent upon the ongoing destruction of one’s theology.  In Schore’s terms, the believer must suspend his/her empathy for God and surrender to his/her own desire, in order to discover if God can take it.  Most theologies and religions allude to a retributive God who is punitive and vengeful.  In my earlier reference to the tongue of inclusive faith, I suggest that the onus for adaptivity ought to be on God, not the believer.  If God exists, God must be more than the fragile narcissist who requires constant mirroring.  If God is the source of creativity, God must be receptive to each individual’s expressiveness.  If God is God, otherness must exist.  Unity too.

For some Christians, the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ is the discovery that Christ can accept their destructiveness at the cross, but overcome its mortality in the resurrection.  It is not a story of retaliation but of limitation; the limitation of one’s destructiveness.  It enables the believer to accept one’s own capacity for inflicting pain but one no longer needs to fear that it is fatal.  Surrender in Ghent’s terms is possible because one’s self expression is no longer feared as being fatal.  The believer becomes aware of the capacity to love. Christ’s resurrection is taken as evidence that God can desire the expression of separateness by the believer without retaliation.

I am aware that many believers from my particular heritage, the Judeo-Christian one, are not aware of their theology as a representation of God.  They have what Fonagy calls a state of mind regarding faith known as “psychic equivalence”.  Such a mind equates a belief as the same as external reality.  The God they say they believe in is the God who exists.  This is true of fundamentalism in any religion.

Fonagy and Target write that the state of psychic equivalence must be combined with the state of play known as “pretend” mode, in order for the reflective function to emerge. A person must play with her/his ideas of God in a way that is real, but not too real.  Scott Peck believed that this was also a critical stage of faith, known as doubt.  The believer who has no room for doubt cannot play with theology.  But for believers who can tolerate doubt, it may relate to faith in a dialectical of recognition and destruction in relationship to God.  In the first section of this paper regarding hearing voices, my encounters occurred unexpectedly and in ways that did not fit in with my theology at the time.  The events “destroyed” my preconceptions while leading to an experience of feeling recognized by God while recognizing the presence of the Mystery in my life.


I am thankful for this opportunity to pull together my spiritual experiences with some of my favorite psychoanalytic ideas.  My psychoanalytic experience has enabled me to identify with my Judeo-Christian heritage but also fostered the development of my own voice(s) within both communities.  Events such as this conference are evidence of openness to spirituality in the psychoanalytic community.  Teaching at Mars Hill Graduate School has revealed openness to psychoanalytic ideas in the Christian community.  I have discovered a place to stand; a psychoanalytic Holy Ground.

Doug Hansen, MSW, ACSW is a relational psychoanalyst in private practice in Seattle. He is an adjunct professor at Mars Hill Graduate School and at Seattle University.

2 Responses to Hearing Voices and Speaking in Tongues: A Search for Psychoanalytic Holy Ground

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