The Vulnerable Self and the Vulnerable Community: A Challenge/Problem for Psychoanalysis?

George Bermudez, Ph.D., Psy.D.

Craig Kramer, M.A., Psy.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

“The call for community is heard everywhere today—in national politics, in the academic disciplines, in education and even in business” (Noddings, 1996, p.245).

What is “community,” why do so many of us yearn for it, and why should psychoanalysts be concerned with it? This paper proposes that psychoanalysis for too long has under-theorized and underdeveloped its repertoire of interventions with regard to community and large human groups. We propose that people unconsciously experience a sense of social melancholia (Bermudez, 2013) in response to an unmet longing and the inability to mourn the loss or absence of community. Furthermore, we present theory and scientific evidence (evolutionary theory; neuroscience; psychoanalytic theory and emergent practice; and social psychology experiments) to support the argument that the human self will remain dangerously and traumatically vulnerable if we do not address the larger traumatically vulnerable human community. The paper  distinguishes between two experiences of human vulnerability: optimal human vulnerability [related to Stolorow’s (2011) existential/ontological insecurity], which allows people to care for themselves, each other, and their overall community; and traumatic vulnerability, which has been engendered by  experiences  that have entered into the realm of catastrophic trauma [based on Hopper’s (2012) differentiation between  catastrophic trauma and  strain trauma]. Finally, we will describe several proposed community-level psychoanalytic interventions (“Social Dreaming”; “Open Space Dialogues”; “Future Search and Discovery”), and report on the results of some of these interventions as well as on the insights derived from   psychoanalytically-informed focus group-type discussions on the meaning of “community’.

The conference theme, “Vulnerability and its Discontents,” for which this paper was prepared is an allusion to Freud’s famous essay on “Civilization and its Discontents” (Freud, 1930). In this seminal paper, Freud outlines what he perceives as the core sources of conflict between the individual and civilization. Among other arguments, Freud proposes that religion and religious feeling (“oceanic feeling” of “wholeness, limitlessness and eternity”) is primordially generated by infantile helplessness and “the longing for the father”—hence the most primal vulnerability creates a yearning for a protective authority, culminating in civilization’s authority and regulation.

The yearning for and the ambivalence toward human communities are obvious to anyone who cares to look at our species and its global situation: we are all required to belong to some large socio-political group. The United Nations has 193 member countries–and still within those national boundaries we have myriads of ethnic and political sub-units: there are active separatist movements in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Oceana! We belong to groups of many dimensions and functions: we belong to multiple identity groups: male, female, Black, White, Latino, Asian, heterosexual, gay, lesbian, generational cohorts (Millennials vis-à-vis Baby Boomers). Most of our daily lives are organized by work groups of varying sizes: for profit and non-profit corporations. As a psychoanalyst I have to ask: why has psychoanalysis, given the universal embeddedness of all human development and functioning in the context of some human community, not had a robust theory and therapeutic practice regarding large groups, communities, and inter-group relations? Psychoanalysis, with some exceptions (Bain, 1999; Fraher, 2005; Hopper, 2003) has not been much influenced by Freud’s (1990) expansive vision:

“The use of analysis for the treatment of neuroses is only one of its applications; the future will perhaps show that it is not the most important one…It would be wrong to sacrifice all the other applications to this single one” (p. 248).

This paper is an attempt to propose a psychoanalytic path forward. Although Freud’s intuition about human vulnerability seems to point our collective psychoanalytic finger in the right direction, he was disoriented, and so was subsequent psychoanalytic theory and practice, as Walls (2004) has cogently outlined, by the socio-political currents of his day and the biased reading of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Our paper proposes to illuminate aspects of this seeming paradox between social regulation and our desire for and conflict with it. To that end, the paper will provide an overview of Twemlow’s (Twemlow & Parens, 2006) theory and practice of “community psychoanalysis”; a critique of the concept of “applied psychoanalysis”; and our own evolving views of “community psychoanalysis” (Bermudez, 2013), which includes a summary of an emerging repertoire of contemporary methods for interventions with large systems: “Social Dreaming” (Lawrence, 2003); “Open Space” (Owen, 1997); and “Future Search” (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995). We assert that these interventions are informed by intersubjectivity (Benjamin, 2004; Stolorow, 1997; Stolorow & Atwood, 1992); psychoanalytic complexity theory (Coburn, 2014); and Twemlow’s community psychoanalytic “Mode III” concepts—“psychoanalysis of the community” instead of “psychoanalysis in the community” (Rudden & Twemlow, 2013).

In contrast to Freud’s individualistic understanding of Darwinism, our current understanding of evolutionary process provides two revolutionary concepts, “multi-level selection theory” and “reciprocal altruism” (Trivers, 1971): natural selection works at multiple levels simultaneously, the group level and the individual level. According to numerous contemporary social psychologists, philosophers, and evolutionary theorists and biologists (Haidt, 2012; Hauer, 2006; Greene, 2013; Pagel, 2012), our species has two systems or modules of motivation: an individualistic or egoistic system and a group or communal module. We are thoroughly communal beings whose social and psychological identities are forged in an exquisitely nuanced and complex interaction between community/culture and biology/genes, between “self” and “group self”.

Kohut (1976) had a profound intuition into these two aspects of our being when he proposed that we possessed a “group self,” alongside an individual or personal self. Although Kohut’s “group self” concept has been largely neglected by the psychoanalytic community, we believe it is a profoundly rich contribution, with links to several other theorists (Bion, 1961; Lichtenberg et al., 2011Winnicott, 1971). The “group self” seems to reside in similar psycho-social territory that “self-object” does: it is both self and non-self, bearing enormous resemblance to Winnicott’s “transitional object” and “transitional space’ (Winnicott, 1971). The group self identifies with the group (“group self-object”), and throughout the life cycle creates, modifies, and struggles with the vicissitudes of self-esteem, cohesiveness, and continuity, deeply linked to group membership. Here are two pioneers in the application of Kohut’s “group self” concept:

“The boundaries between the personal self and the group self are vague….One is part of the other and they dip far down into each other’s unconscious structures. When the group is shattered so too will the individual be” (Karterud, 1998, p. 88).

“An ordinary understanding of an enhanced group-self experience might be the experience of Boston Red Sox fans after ‘their team’ won the World Series in 2004.  More simply, group-self might be enhanced by feeling pride during the performance of the Star-Spangled Banner. Alternatively, depletion or fragmentation of the group-self might be reflected in the experience of one’s country at war. Initially people, based on agreement with country’s goals and ideals, identify with the war efforts as expressions of their group-self. However, “the group-self may be shattered with various kinds of failures to live up to ideals or to achieve goals” (Stone, 2009, p. 42).

Psychoanalytic “motivational systems theory” (Lichtenberg et al., 2011) proposes an “affiliation motivational system” which seems to be an attempt to address our groupishness. I prefer the term, “communal motivational system,” to emphasize the primacy of “communal motivation”; “affiliation motivational system” seems to suggest that individuals choose to affiliate. Our central argument is that all essential human development occurs and is generated in a communal context: human vulnerability and inter-dependence requires an existential belongingness. We are primordially communal.

The sociologist, Robert Putnam (2000), has been the contemporary voice which most eloquently articulated the dangerous loss of a sense of community in American life. He has proposed  that there has been a reduction in “social capital” in our communities, generating numerous social problems because of the loss of social cohesion. However, there have been thinkers throughout the twentieth century, spanning the political spectrum who have decried the loss of community and outlined the dangerous implications for humanity. Here is a sampling:

The conservative sociologist, Robert Nisbet (1953), declared in his prescient book, “The Quest for Community,” that the yearning for community was a powerful factor in the development of totalitarian societies, which exploited that existential and psycho-biological motivation.

Towards the other end of the political spectrum, we discover similar sentiments from the progressive psychoanalysts, Paul Wachtel (1983):

“In all eras people must find means to reassure themselves in the face of their finiteness and mortality. We are ultimately helpless to a far greater degree than we dare admit. Our fragility before the forces of nature…as well as the certainty that death is our ultimate earthly destiny, are unbearable to face without some means of consoling ourselves and of giving meaning and purpose to our lives…the sense of belonging to a community, once provided that for most people. Our present stress on growth and productivity is, I believe, intimately related to the decline in rootedness. Faced with the loneliness and vulnerability that come with deprivation of a securely encompassing community, we have sought to quell the vulnerability through our possessions. When we can buy nice new things, when we look around and see our homes well stocked and well equipped, we feel strong and expansive rather than small and endangered” (p. 65).

[Similarly, we’ve proposed that the “American Dream” is a “cultural complex” (Kimbles, 2014) with which Americans grapple with existential and traumatic vulnerability, often unsuccessfully, resulting in a social malaise—a “social melancholia” (Bermudez, 2013.)]

And still another voice–this one further back in our history—the early twentieth century: Dr. James Jackson Putnam, an American psychologist, who befriended Freud on his visit to America in 1909. Despite his admiration for Freud’s theories, Putnam challenged Freud’s individualistic emphasis. In a letter to Freud, he wrote:

“The point I wish to make is this: the individual is not to be thought of as existing alone, but should be considered as an integral part of the community in which he lives and eventually of what must remain for him an ideal or idealized community. The great schism in everyone’s life is that involved in the instinctive attempt to set one’s self up as having a right to stand alone. The interests of the community are implied in one’s motives and emotions…I feel sure that we should agree virtually as regards these propositions, and so far as I can see the only difference between us would concern the fact that I believe community obligations and interests to be deeply interwoven with the personal interests, and yet at the same time so deeply hidden, in many cases, that I believe they should be considered as forming a part of repressed thoughts” (LaMothe, 2013, p. 2).

This is an extraordinary manifesto from an American psychologist concerning the inter-penetration of the personal and the group: it presages many contemporary and even post-modern ideas: for example, “foundation matrix” (Foulkes, 1984); “social unconscious” (Weinberg & Hopper, 2011); “unconscious normative process” (Layton, 2006 ). It seems safe to say that Freud’s individualistic ethos remained uninfluenced by Dr. Putnam, and despite a number of psychoanalytic innovators, psychoanalysis has remained committed to a psychotherapy for the individual. For example, the Accreditation Council for Psychoanalytic Education (ACPEinc), an accrediting body that sets and implements “Standards for Psychoanalytic Education,” defines psychoanalysis as follows:

“Psychoanalysis is a specific form of individual psychotherapy that aims to bring unconscious mental elements and processes into awareness in order to expand an individual self understanding, enhance adaptation in multiple spheres of functioning, alleviate symptoms of mental disorder, and facilitate character change and emotional growth. Psychoanalytic work is characterized by depth and intensity which are achieved in the context of frequent treatment sessions over a long term” (Accreditation Council for Psychoanalytic Education, 2014-2017, para. 1)

(The members of the ACPEinc include distinguished psychoanalytic training and treatment sites: Austen Riggs Center; Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis; and the Baltimore Washington Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis!)

This definition seems to me a ghostly rendition of the founder’s original ambitions regarding the potential transformative social force of psychoanalysis. This paper proposes that the human vulnerability that, as Freud  asserted, yearned for civilization’s protection and, in his view, generated conflict between ego and group—that vulnerability can and must be addresses by an expanded and socially responsive psychoanalysis. The human self will remain dangerously and traumatically vulnerable if we do not address with a deeply psychoanalytic sensibility the larger traumatically vulnerable human community. Human communities of any size must deal with two broad types of vulnerability: vulnerability that derives from our universal existential/ontological insecurity (Stolorow, 2011); and traumatic vulnerability that derives from collective traumatic events, natural and man-made disasters, and histories of oppression. Communal structures and processes that facilitate deeply reflective and authentic engagement with the former encourage people to care for themselves, each other, and their overall community. However, communities must also have the capacity to deeply heal communal structures and processes that have been disrupted by collective trauma—experiences in the realm of what Hopper (2012) defines as “catastrophic trauma”. Communal structures and processes that do not respond optimally (“failed dependency”; Hopper, 2012) generate a “social melancholia,” which underlies Robert Putnam’s observations regarding the loss of “social capital” and “social cohesion,” ultimately, a loss of faith in community and collaboration.

This paper’s call for an expansive, socially responsive shift in theory and therapeutic practice has been echoed by a number of psychoanalytic authors (Botticelli, 2004; Hopper, 1996, 2003, 2012; Walls; 2004). However, it does require a reconceptualization of the self and psyche, a new bio-psycho-social conception, co-developed in alliance with other disciplines and epistemologies (social psychology; evolutionary psychology and biology; anthropology; and sociology); and perhaps a reconsideration of Darwin’s ideas concerning “social instincts” (what Richard Dawkins has termed a human “lust for niceness”–our obvious capacity for cooperation and collaboration). Toward that objective, this paper will provide a brief summary of the ground -breaking work of social psychologists on our species-wide evolutionarily-designed psychological modules for groupishness, for cultural beliefs including religion and other rules for living, for a moral code—for example, Jonathan Haidt’s (2012) “hive instinct”; Joshua Greene’s (2013) “moral tribalism,” and Mark Hauser’s (2006) genetically-determined moral code.

These researchers and theorists provide unassailable support for developing a “community psychoanalysis”—a psychoanalysis which needs a new manifesto, which this paper proposes: “Psychoanalysis is the study of unconscious processes that affect individuals, groups, and societies. It aims to understand the unconscious organization and experience of the human mind in all its contextual manifestations, utilizing deep reflective explorations of self, groups, and societies in order to develop meaningful, purposeful, and productive lives. Psychoanalysis, utilizing traditional and newly emergent strategies for inquiry and intervention, seeks to transform destructive patterns of behavior and attitudes at multiple levels: self, group, community, and society.”

A number of contemporary academic psychologists have been reviving a focus and emphasis on our biological, evolutionary design, challenging the apparent orthodoxy of the “blank slate” (Pinker, 2002). The argument for a renewed respect for our genetic inheritance was eloquently articulated by the famous psycho-linguist, Steven Pinker (2002), in his best-selling, “The Blank Slate.” Indeed, it seems fair to say that there has been a revolution in evolutionary psychology that psychoanalysis (in moving beyond Freud’s instinct theory, with development of the “relational turn”) has failed to engage with (with some exceptions: cf. Slavin & Krieger. 1992). Three academic researchers in three fascinating books (Greene, 2013; Haidt, 2012; Pagel, 2012) have synthesized numerous ingenious experiments and observation to generate several persuasive hypotheses concerning the human psyche:

  • Human psyches are designed by evolutionary processes for cooperation, development, and actualization in human groups and communities (Greene, 2013; Pagel, 2012);
  • Human psyches are designed by evolutionary processes to be culturally “toti-potent,” designed to be bound to a group and its cultural belief systems, moral codes, and rules for living (Pagel, 2012);
  • There is an “us-them” discriminator module which enhances cooperation within a group, while simultaneously generating group narcissism, intergroup competition, rivalry, and hostility (Greene, 2013; Haidt, 2012).

These evolutionarily-designed motivational systems are scale-free and toti-potent (Pagel, 2012) that is they operate at multiple levels without changing basic dynamics (small group, professional discipline, neighborhood, and nation) and they have no content at birth until they are programmed by experience with a specific group or culture. In plain words, we are designed by evolution, indeed required to join all manner of groups for psychic and physical survival and development, hard-wired to seek culture and rules for living, and we invest narcissistically (Kohut, 1976) in our groups, competing with other groups for resources and psychological status.

A Note on the Concept of “Applied Psychoanalysis”

We take issue with the long-standing tradition in psychoanalysis that the dyadic relationship is real psychoanalysis and everything else is “applied psychoanalysis”—second-rate knowledge and practice. Our perspective is that all psychoanalytic propositions are “applied”: all theory is generated in a particular context and “applied” to a context, including, of course, the traditional psychoanalytic framework. The notion of “applied psychoanalysis” devalues theory and practice in other human contexts: large groups, organizations, ethnic groups, communities, culture, societies, nations—in short, most of social life, which is life.

In addition, I anticipate that some will suggest that the systemic interventions discussed in this paper (particularly, Open Space and Future Search) are not psychoanalytic. We propose that these large group interventions for complex systems change rely on contemporary psychoanalytic principles such as psychoanalytic complexity theory (Coburn, 2014); implicit, procedural processes (Stern et al., 1998; Boston Change Process Study Group & Nahum, 2008); unformulated enactments (Stern, 2009); intersubjective systems theory (Stolorow, 1997). These interventions address the context-dependent nature of subjective experience and identity (Stolorow, 1997; Stern, 2013a, 2013b); and our ineradicable need for mutual recognition  (Benjamin, 2004). Wachtel (2009) persuasively argues that psychoanalysis has traditionally overvalued the “inner world” and undervalued the external world and human action, sacrificing a more comprehensive and effective approach for understanding and change. Wachtel cites Harry Stack Sullivan as an exception to this traditional psychoanalytic attitude, attending to actual interaction, and presaging the contemporary focus on enactment.

Community Psychoanalysis: An Emerging Paradigm

Stuart Twemlow has pioneered a theory and therapeutic practice of “Community Psychoanalysis” (Twemlow & Parens, 2006; Twemlow & Wilkinson, 2004; Twemlow, Fonagy, & Sacco, 2004). In this paradigm, Rudden and Twemlow (2013) advocate for a movement from a psychoanalysis in the community to psychoanalysis of the community, proposing a Social/Therapeutic Mind to define the latter approach.

Rudden and Twemlow (2013) also propose a “social intelligence” as part of our species’ evolutionary heritage as primates who have developed “crucial structures for conflict resolution, for mutual caring and for creating clear dominance hierarchies” (p. 203)—a “social intelligence” that enables humans to read others; understand human systems; and navigate social life. Martela and Saarinen (2008) have also theorized that we possess ”systems intelligence,” and have explicitly linked it to Intersubjective Systems Theory (IST) (Stolorow, 1997; Stolorow et al., 2002):

Rudden and Twemlow (2013) call this a “social procedural unconscious” and assert that community psychoanalysts provide interventions that enhance the “mentalizing capacities” of communities and hence develop what they refer to as the capacity for “social intelligence,” or as we prefer to call it, “systems intelligence.”

Introduction to Social Dreaming: A Psychoanalyst Encounters the “Group Self”

In a roundtable discussion focused on the challenges of integrating a socio-political perspective into psychoanalysis, Jessica Benjamin (Altman et al., 2006) tells an anecdote concerning a group consultation in Germany, which involved analysis of a dream containing an “obvious reference” to the Nazi regime and wartime activities. To her shock the audience engages (despite Benjamin’s interpretation) in a “blanketing denial” of the reference to Nazi murderous actions during World War II. Benjamin goes on to say that her experience in this context suggested a “kind of collective unconscious setup…that we carry an awful lot of things that are not individual, that are what you might call “transpersonal’ in our political unconscious” (p. 182). Furthermore, she argues that psychoanalysis has colluded in an institutional blindness (similar to that group of German therapists)—a taboo—a “denial of historical forces…” (p.182). It seems that Benjamin is groping to conceptualize two essential ideas introduced in this paper: Kohut’s “group self,” a “psychological configuration” representing the collective “which is analogous to the self of the individual” (Kohut, 1976, p. 206); and Gordon Lawrence’s “social dreaming,” an approach to understanding dreams that provides access to the unconscious of the “group self” (Lawrence, 1982, 2003).

A Brief History and Description of Social Dreaming

Lawrence (1982, 2003) defines the “social dreaming matrix” (SDM): a process involving a group of participants who share dreams and associations to those dreams, relying on the working hypothesis that the dreams shared reflect a collective cultural product, a social unconscious comprised of dissociated social, political, and cultural experience. A major hypothesis is that the initial dream shared is a fractal of all subsequently narrated dreams, that is, the initial dream provides a pattern, which is replicated in subsequent dreams. There are several other foundational assumptions: the dreams generated in SDM are metaphors for unconscious, disavowed, dissociated cultural and community experience—the unconscious of the “group self”; the dreams in  SDM are the shared property of the dreaming community; focus must be on the dream , not the dreamer, which facilitates development of a safe “mental space.” Gordon Lawrence (1982; 2003) was deeply affected and influenced by Charlotte Beradt’s Third Reich of Dreams (1968; a book reporting the dreams of ordinary German citizens during the period of 1933-1939—dreams reflecting their intuitive, dissociated, unconscious knowledge and foreknowledge of the Nazi regime’s intentions; Manley, 2014).

Community Psychoanalysis Focus Groups

In order to explore conscious and unconscious meanings and attitudes with regard to community, we conducted three focus groups (7-8 participants) with students and faculty at Antioch University Los Angeles. The results confirmed our hypothesis that there are unconscious internal representations of community (“inner community”), which are revealed through “social dreaming.” The participants were asked five questions:

  1. What are the characteristics of a healthy community?
  2. What feelings are evoked by these characteristics?
  3. What are the characteristics of an unhealthy community?
  4. What are the feelings evoked by an unhealthy community?
  5. Do you recall any dreams that seem related to a sense of community?

The responses to questions 1-4 seemed unremarkable (except for a couple of surprising

responses, which will be discussed later): as expected, healthy communities were described as

“mutually supportive; nurturant; democratic; having common goals; having pride in everyone’s

role; having balanced representation of diversity; having a diminished influence of money;

having shared ideals; everyone having a voice.” Consonant with the foregoing characterizations

of healthy communities, the feelings associated were: ”safe; connected; place to thrive; sense of

trust; validated; peace; relief; feeling mirrored; pride.” The predominant feeling evoked by a

healthy community was a sense of safety.

Unhealthy communities, on the other hand, were portrayed as being characterized by “isolation;

corruption; poor leadership and political responsiveness; violence; secrecy; scarcity; hoarding;

food deserts; torn families.” And the associated feelings evoked were: paranoid; angry

depressed; dirty; trapped; not whole; invisible; ignored; animal-like focus on survival.”

Two utterly surprising findings emerged in response to the first question (portrayals of healthy

communities) and to the last inquiry concerning dreams representing a sense of community: in

response to the healthy community inquiry, two participants from vastly different ethnic and

racial  backgrounds (an Australian and a Latina) described the uncanny feeling of being unable

to shake feelings and images of a negative “inner community” when responding to the request

for images of a healthy community. They could not shed images and feelings of “being trapped;

burdened with responsibility!” Additionally, for all three groups, the dreams associated with a

sense of community were predominantly negative! The dreams narrated were often nightmarish

experiences of abandonment and assault, or of aggregations of alienated people, or of a group of

people being duped by a leader. Here are some examples:

  • One dreamer described feeling “trapped in small classrooms, like a mousetrap; people selling drugs on every corner; and barbed wire on windows.”
  • Another dreamer is “driving and the freeway collapses. There is chaos everywhere.”
  • A third dreamer reports being at a “music festival where there seems to be cacophony. Young people, staring, appear to be lost.”

It seems evident that an unconscious negative “inner community” representation, in contrast to

the conscious intent to imagining a positive, healthy community, appears both in most

participants’ dreams, AND has such a psychological grip on some participants that they are

unable to imagine a positive, healthy community, suggesting a potent negative transference to


A Social Dreaming Matrix (SDM): American Xenophobia

Our  first formal experiment with the SDM was a daylong workshop held at Antioch University

in July 2011, the results of which I’ve described and summarized elsewhere (Bermudez, 2015).

The focus was on American xenophobia, with the goal of interrogating the  communal

unconscious with regard to xenophobia. We’ve come to understand that the participants were

struggling to make sense of their feelings about America, a social melancholia (Bermudez,

2013), and, astonishingly, were unable to reflect consciously on the implications of the persistent

desert  and invasion imagery for the SDM theme of xenophobia and immigrants [in a related

vein, we must note the work of Mitchell & Harris (2003) and Harris (2012) on the unconscious

meaning of the desert (a metaphor for both utopia and dystopia) for Americans]:

A Social Dreaming Matrix (SDM): Whiteness and the American “Group Self”

In June 2013 we organized a two day Social Dreaming event focused on Whiteness and the

American Group Self (Bermudez, 2015). We invited members of the academic community of

Antioch University Los Angeles (faculty, students, and administrators) and members of the

surrounding community.

Despite the low participation of Whites (or because of it), the emergent process was extra

ordinarily moving and healing. At some point (second day) the realization crystallized  that the

Whiteness SDM had created a matrix with the emergent properties of a “communal home”  for

healing a traumatized “group self”–primarily a Black American “group self’ suffering from

both inter-generationally transmitted trauma (with many allusions to the “Jim Crow” South)

(Volkan, 2003;Gorden, 2011; Bermudez, 2015) and more contemporary racial micro-aggressions

and assaults directed at Black Americans (The Black “group self” through its “social dreams”

initially displayed, what we would call, a reparative ambivalence: dreams of nurturing, healing

actions were followed by dreams images and narratives of persecution, terror, loss, and


Social Dreaming, Whiteness, and the Psychoanalytic Institute

A social dreaming matrix (SDM) was held at a psychoanalytic institute (April 2014): the SDM

focused on eliciting and interrogating the organizational and social unconscious relating to

Whiteness at the institute. Held in the Spring, 2014, sixteen members and candidates registered

and attended (several who had registered did not attend; a very small number of candidates,

perhaps two?; and four people of color: one Black Latino, two black women; one Japanese


After an initial phase of  sharing of anxiety dreams (ambivalent, fearful encounters cross

racially), on the second day there was a flurry of dreams and associations.

A  “forward edge” dream, the final dream, was the following (dreamt by a White woman): “I had to change my doctor. A new physician was assigned to me at UCLA Medical Center. To my utter surprise it was Josephine Baker, but she was not dressed like a doctor. She had a fruit basket on her head, and dressed colorfully. In the dream I was critical of myself. Why this image? She was sharing fruit, healing me. I said to her ‘I think you’re dead but it’s amazing how you use your sexuality.’

‘What are you doing here?’ She said, ‘I’m a doctor.’ I realized she had changed careers. I also realized I was an hour late for my appointment.”

This remarkable dream left us tantalized: we had run out of time! However, the manifest content suggested a challenge to the cultural script that constructed Blacks as entertainers and containers of animal-like sexuality and a psychological movement of the group self to the acceptance of Black competence and goodness: Josephine Baker develops but integrates presumably discrepant elements: sexuality and professionalization; entertainment and physicianly healing.

Introduction to “Open Space” and “Future Search”

Open Space as an intervention for large groups and systems  was developed by an anthropologist, Harrison Owen (1997), who had become disappointed with the traditional ways of organizing conferences and workshops: a series of presenters and breakout groups, followed by tentative recommendations. In the Open Space format all participants (the entire organizational  system is invited to participate and no one is turned away) begin in a circle without an agenda. The facilitator provides a few guidelines, invites everyone and anyone present to propose a topic they care about for discussion (no topic is denied), and then the topic proposer invites others to join in that discussion. However, no one is required to attend any discussion group, there are no time constraints on any emergent discussion, but you are required to exit a group discussion you find you are not contributing to or learning from.  The convener has only one responsibility: produce a short written report of the discussion. In this approach,  the whole system can focus and develop concrete next steps on the salient, “hot issues” which require heightened  attention. This simple technique has proved enormously successful (even cross-culturally, with groups as small as five and as large as five hundred): it facilitates a radically democratic, non-linear “free associations” and “group associations” process which encourages the emergence of unconsciously censored and unformulated issues (“unthought known”) to be articulated and solutions formulated through self-organizing collaboration.

Future Search (FS), developed by Marvin Weisbord (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995), promotes an organization’s or community’s ability to  resolve the struggle between old patterns and new paths, helping the participants tolerate uncertainty, empowering participants to co-create the new path by formulating/discovering common ground, thus moving the group into a new future. The process does not allow conflict and “unresolved differences”(Weisbord & Janoff, 1995), whether enacted or symbolized, to maintain stuckness or generate regression. Conflict is surfaced and acknowledged , but the focus is kept on co-creating a future together through discovery of common ground. The model attempts to gather in one space a representative sample of the entire system and essential partners from its ecology: an open “whole system in the room” principle, which is superbly aligned with psychoanalytic complexity theory (Coburn, 2014). The stakeholders/participants represent all sectors of the organization or community and include potential partners from the surrounding ecology of the organization or community, thereby encouraging the inflow of new information and resources, potentially generating novel perspectives, ideas, and  projects, with the intention of facilitating optimal complexity. The Future Search process moves the participants through five stages, which in many ways mimic the psychoanalytic method of revisiting the past to see how organizing principles provide a sense of identity and shape present and future choices, but also respects the power of the present context and the imagined future.  The schedule (sixteen hours of sustained work over three days) requires two nights of sleep so that the unconscious through dreaming can emotionally work over, synthesize,  and generate new solutions and commitments. This process relies on the well-known “Zeigarnik Effect” (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995; Zeigarnik, 1967), which compels the mind-body-self to continue to work on unfinished tasks and projects.

Mersky (2012), in her review of large group interventions for surfacing and acting on unconscious dynamics in organizations, delineates three characteristics that she feels are essential for success:

  • They promote the emergence of the collective “unthought known,” either through direct dream sharing or associations and amplification.
  • They include two activities Bion postulated were essential for productive thinking and action: 1. Generation of thoughts, associations, feelings, etc., and 2. A process for productively coping with the emergent “unthought known” (A capacity for reflection and mentalizing).
  • They focus the intervention via a theme; however, Mersky (2012) cautions that although a theme is critical for a sense of direction and as a stimulus for unconscious thinking, it must not promote a position, or discourage creativity or encourage splits in the group.

I  propose that the three large group interventions (“Social Dreaming Matrix,” “Open Space

Technology” and “Future Search”) share these essential characteristics, and are thus powerful

methods for accessing unconscious, collective, unthought known dynamics, generating a process

for conscious formulation and productive action. Moreover, the three models are designed with

open systems ideas and complexity theory in mind, and, I argue, are inevitable extensions of

psychoanalytic complexity theory (Coburn 2014).

OPEN SPACE DIALOGUES and the Psychoanalytic Institute: An Intervention

Because of much anxiety related to inviting external stakeholders as required by Future Search (potential partners and resources for the institute), a two-day retreat using Open Space principles  was organized. The idea was to first surface and deeply discuss all the implicit issues, the “unformulated” organizational “unthought known,” and then follow with Future Search within six months to a year. The Retreat was well attended and successfully addressed many institute concerns. Fifty-five members and candidates attended and generated thorough discussions on 17 issues that participants had raised and formulated themselves. Self-organized small group discussions centered on the 17 themes were followed by a 2-hour whole group discussion/reflection on the overall organizational meaning of what they had discovered and formulated. In addition, participants were asked to rank all the issues according to urgency and importance for the institute. Three themes emerged as the major challenges that the institute needed to resolve:

  • Bullying related to a misuse of authority and intolerance to theoretical pluralism. This was voted the number one issue and systemic/cultural challenge at the institute;
  • The lack of diversity (ethnic and racial) at the institute: this has been a longstanding issue for which the ‘Diversity Task Force To Address Homophobia and Racism “had been organized”;
  • The organizational and community challenge of managing “transparency and privacy.” (A full report summarizing the 17 discussions was disseminated to the entire institute community.)


In this  paper we have proposed that psychoanalysis for too long has under-theorized and underdeveloped its  repertoire of interventions with regard to community and large human groups. We have proposed that people unconsciously experience a sense of social melancholia  in response to an unmet longing  and the inability to mourn the loss or absence of  community. We have presented theory and scientific evidence (evolutionary theory; psychoanalytic theory and emergent practice; and social psychology experiments) to support the argument that the human self will remain dangerously and traumatically vulnerable if we do not address the larger traumatically vulnerable human community. The paper distinguished between two experiences of human vulnerability: optimal human vulnerability [related to Stolorow’s (2011)  existential/ontological insecurity], which allows people to care for themselves , each other,  and their overall community; and traumatic vulnerability, which has been engendered by  experiences  that have entered into the realm of catastrophic trauma [based on  Hopper’s  (2012) differentiation between catastrophic trauma and  strain trauma]. Finally, we described several proposed community-level psychoanalytic interventions (“Social Dreaming”; “Open Space Dialogues”; “Future Search and Discovery”), and reported on the results of some of these interventions as well as on the insights derived from psychoanalytically-informed focus group-type discussions on the meaning of “community.”


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George Bermudez may be contacted at:

Craig Kramer may be contacted at:

One Response to The Vulnerable Self and the Vulnerable Community: A Challenge/Problem for Psychoanalysis?

  1. Steve says:

    Hi, how are you?

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