Thinking About Clothes

October 15, 2011 10:00 am

By Samoan Barish

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“Clothes are inevitable.  They are nothing less than the furniture of the mind made visible.”  James Laver, Style in Costume

One is only poor, only if you choose to be
Although we had no money, I was rich as I could be
In my coat of Many Colors my mama made for me.” Song by Dolly Parton

From the adornment of the fig leaf to modern times, covering the body has been fraught with symbolic significance.  Early psychoanalysts talked about the genital meaning represented by different items of clothing. Although acknowledging that clothes served as a protection from the cold and the range of natural elements, their focus of interest was upon the conflictual and symbolic nature of clothes.  They talked about the struggle between modesty and primitive exhibitionism; addressing the wide span of possible sublimations and displacements on to beautiful clothes.

Surely, like Jacob’s many colored jacket, looking at clothes for its idiosyncratic meanings to us as well as its reflections upon the times and culture we live in, is indeed a many splendored thing.

Flugel, as long ago as 1929 summarizing the literature of the time, wrote in his  article “Clothes Symbolism and Clothes Ambivalence” that the object most frequently symbolized by clothes is the phallus, and  goes on to list some specific items of clothes, e.g. the hat, the shoe, the tie and even the humble button”.  It all sounds a little laughable now; however, he concludes with the following statement which is many ways is the organizing principle of my paper. “Fully to understand the dynamic relations involved in a man’s attitudes to the garments he wears would carry us far towards knowledge of his Whole Psychological Development.”  Indeed, Ilene Beckerman’s (1995), little illustrated book,  Love, Loss, and What We Wore (recently made into a play by the Ephron sisters) is in fact her life story told and drawn through the prism of her clothes. We follow her life starting at seven years old when she wore her Brownie uniform, the clothes her mother made for her before she died when Ilene was not yet 13 years old, her prom and wedding dresses and so forth. She concludes her monograph after she’s become a grandmother and watches her first granddaughter play dress up with her old clothes. Undoubtedly, many of us can remember events by what we wore. And each of us carries our own storehouse of symbolic meanings these clothes held for us. Recently a 31 year old patient of mine, in trying to recall how old she was  when her maternal grandmother died, identified her age by the dress she wore (“It was white dress with hard yellow buttons”).

I will consider women’s/men’s development in light of their relationship to clothes. In the spirit of the 2011 IFPE conference, at which this paper was presented, “Psychoanalysis: Not the Same Old Song and Dance?” we will play with clothes. Let’s go to the store, let’s go to the closet. Let’s go to your closets, let’s go to mine.   What do clothes mean to us, how do we feel about them how do we choose them, and what do our choices in clothes say about us and our sense of our selves? Do our choices and sense of style change over time and so on and on?

I also will look at clothes in the context of the clinical situation. For example. do we think about specific patients we’re going to see when we choose our clothes for our work day? How do we decide what to wear? How much do the patients we’re going to see influence our choices? In addition, we will elaborate upon some of our reactions to what our patients wear, and if and when we talk about it with patients.

Further, I will explore how and when the topic of clothes comes up in therapy, including considering some different illustrations of patients talking about clothes and the ways and the therapists’ response to them.  What resonates for us as we reflect with our patients upon the meaning of clothes for them?

In a sense, I invite you to sing along and play together as we enter the world of clothes.

“I have nothing to wear” and “What should I wear?” are oft repeated refrains for most of us.

What do we think about when we think about clothes? Or, do we even think about them?  Indeed, I do, lots of people do, and many of our patients do, and thus I invite you to open up this arena and cast eyes and mind about. What conscious and unconscious thoughts fly through our heads, like  buzzing bees, as we stand before our closet making up our minds about what to wear? How do we develop our unique style Or, do we? And, what does that even mean? What is each of our particular relation to clothes? What does it say about us who we are, how we are in the world, how we wish to be seen, and the time and place we live in?

I grew up in NYC in a middle class Jewish family and neighborhood.  How you looked and what you wore were very important to my family and to most of the people I knew, if not all.  Critiquing other peoples clothes and style was an ongoing activity; almost a pastime in its own right in my family.  My mother positioned herself as the authority, the expert. My father wasn’t far behind. And my uncle was in the garment industry as were many of my parent’s friends and relatives.  It was quite routine and normal for my sister and mother and I to go downtown to the wholesale houses and choose our clothes among people who “knew” what was best and best for you. They appeared and acted as if they were “in the know”.  Indeed, they were in the forefront of perceiving what was in fashion and the latest styles….  Going shopping was fun for me; an adventure, never knowing what you might find; in many ways, our family’s form of an expedition to new and old territories.

I only began to realize as I got older, what little say I had in the matter of choosing my clothes.  That was my mother’s job and I thought she did it very well.  I never doubted her choices for a moment.  (Obviously I was a pretty naive child). I can remember a  particular time after the rigors of my mother’s, my sister’s and my shopping tour, relaxing in the comfort of my father’s car, after he came to pick us up at the store.  My mother said to my father “It’s always such a pleasure to go shopping with Samoan”. That made me feels very on top of already being so pleased with our purchases. It was only many years and analyses later that I came to realize what my mother really meant by that statement.  In short, essentially that I happily agreed with everything she picked out for me, never disagreed or fought with her and consequently never exercised any decision making or inclinations of my own.  That process was to take years and years until I could feel both the right, wherewithal, and confidence to figure out for myself what I liked and what looked good on me.  To develop that kind of confidence has truly been a developmental achievement for me.  Notably different, my five year old granddaughter seems to have very strong opinions about what clothes she likes, what looks good on her, what combinations to put together for herself and what she will wear and what she won’t.  She seems to know her likes and dislikes in a way I had no concept of earlier.   I do now…………….

Claiming myself, discovering my own taste and rights to my own taste, occurred quietly throughout the course of my lifetime. I remember all those early years of shopping with my mother; her choosing the clothes and me agreeing and seeming to like them.  I have a memory of some specific clothes I especially liked. A yellow dress with a cape collar piped in white. I wore it to mysixth grade graduation and I remember feeling so good in it. The cotton felt so soft and good on my body, the lemony shade of the yellow felt so happy without being too bright; just right, the soft flare of the skirt had the perfect degree of twirl.  I especially loved the cape-like collar, so unusual; I’d never had a dress like that.  All so pleasing to me.  I’m sure everyone reading this essay have your own storehouse of memories of clothes you wore for special occasions or just clothes you loved and were especially attached to. I remember my Sweet 16 dress I picked out with my mother and my mother’s friend and her daughter who was older than me but who also fell in love with the dress too and bought it too! All I can remember of it now was that it had a lot of pink in it and ruffles. I just felt so special in that dress, like a Sweet 16 girl should feel! And, then in the earlier years of flying, when flying was a big deal and people got dressed up even to go to the airport, I had this checkered shirtwaist dress that I wore quite regularly when we flew. My husband and I came to call it “my airplane dress”. It was very comfortable, suited me and looked good on me to boot. I literally wore it until it just frayed and essentially fell apart. I bet most of you have your memory equivalences; something you loved and literally fell apart. . And maybe are associating to them right now!

I know that I must have gone with my mother to buy both my sixth grade graduation dress and my Sweet 16 dress,  both of which I so loved and felt so special to me; although I only remember she and I  and her friend and her friend’s daughter going to buy the Sweet 16 dress. What I don’t remember at all is whether my mother made the choices unilaterally, or whether I participated in the choice. All I can remember is that I loved them and remember them fondly to this day.

It’s interesting to consider a paradox here. The fabrics that clothes are made from are generally not long lasting, nor are the styles, and yet, the memory of the clothes and their requisite meanings linger perhaps forever in our minds and psyches. What does this say about the meaning of clothes and our attitude towards clothes and what they represent? There’s a certain nostalgia in considering clothes we wore at earlier times in our lives. .Nostalgia is often considered an aspect of mourning. Impart and Rubin (in press) talk about nostalgia’s unique capacity to both facilitate and impede the mourning process, reminding us that it has both an affective and sensory component…

In many ways, some of our tender feelings about our clothes, our attachment to our clothes, whether from the distant past , more recent past, or present,  may well serve as “evocative objects” (Bollas, 2009). Bollas informs us that these evocative objects tell a story about our lives, calling forth a time that has vanished; that is, much was changing in my life as a result of my sixth grade graduation and the summer that followed. I was having to give up all my attachments to my old school, the neighborhood where the school was, my familiar walk t o get there, passing my best friend’s house en route, my favorite candy store that I habitually frequented, my teachers, classmates and friends, some of whom I would be separating from and perhaps never to see again. Indeed, my familiar and comfortable surrounds changing before my eyes. My sense of growing up and my decided ambivalence about that state of affairs was palpable… Would my mother still be there to go shopping with me and either pick out my clothes or help me pick them out?    Clearly I was one of the kids who felt she needed her mother and couldn’t manage very well on her own, and now I was being thrust into the growing up world of junior high school!  However, loss and anxiety were not the only feelings I felt. I also felt great excitement about the novelty of the prospect of a new school, new friends, new environment; really a new world. Accompanying my sadness was also a sense of adventure, exploration, curiosity and optimism.

Consider, when Bollas was taking about object-as-thing, he tells us that “we need the object to release our self into expression” (Bollas, 2009. P.87). There are a myriad different functions clothes serve for us (“releasing our self {through our choice of clothes} into expression”).

As I write this, I find myself suddenly remembering the summer right after I graduated and wore my yellow and white dress.   My whole family went away to Rockaway Beach for the summer. There were family friends around, which was always fun; and I loved the novelty of this very different physical environment outside the city. I loved the air, the light, the beach, the smell of the ocean, and especially the relaxation that the grownups seemed to feel, which in turn made me feel more relaxed.   I think it may be the summer I learned how to ride a two-wheel bike, and the sense of mastery and freedom were powerful.  I could ride my bike all around Rockaway by myself using my own pedal power! Yet I distinctly remember feeling sad, very sad.  I thought a lot about leaving my grammar school, never to return and the loss of all my connections. I had had a particularly goodsixth grade. Things had jelled for me, and I didn’t want to give it up.

I thought wistfully about the physical school, the places I knew in it, my friends, some of my teachers. I played through in my mind any number of times the particular events that had occurred in my classroom and in that school the past year.  The replayed experiences were vivid….  I had the painful realization that that was all over, never to return. I missed it and them and the prospect of it all being gone made me feel very sad. I remember some yearning to be able to go back again, but I knew it was not to be. It was over and never to be repeated in the same way again. I keenly remember how it hurt to think about it. I had a real sense of loss (Viorst ,”Necessary Losses”). My sixth grade was over and now irretrievable.

I guess I was beginning to understand the concept of endings, and the cycle of endings, loss and new beginnings in a way I had never gleaned before.  Yet another memory comes to me about that summer. I made a very big decision to break myself of my habit of putting U –Bet chocolate syrup in my milk. I hated the taste of milk and somehow had come up with the idea of putting syrup in my milk to make it palatable. Had that been my mother’s idea? I made a concentrated effort to wean myself of this habit. I figured out, that I could drink my milk straight without the syrup, if I had a cookie or something else sweet to eat with it. Now, of course in retrospect that was hardly a great solution, since I now changed my dependence from U-Bet chocolate syrup to other sweets. (Which unfortunately I still have!) But, I guess it was the best I could do at the time. Clearly I was trying to get more grown up. My family was rather bemused and indifferent to the whole matter and, knowing my mother, she was probably happy to supply the cookies.

Now I see how these memories of the summer after I graduated were all condensed and symbolized by my yellow dress.

Clothes were like a talisman in many ways. Growing up in NYC, they ushered in the seasons and in a sense recorded the passing of time. We went shopping for new clothes every season. Came late August/early September we went shopping for school clothes, cooler and colder months ahead, and the holidays. I seem to remember always having sad feelings when each season was over, although also having excited feelings about the season ahead. Because we lived in a small apt with precious few closets, there were rituals around each season with our clothes. We removed our clothes from the last season, packed them up and put them in the building’s basement storage, clearing the way and the space for the next season’s clothes. We usually had some clothes we carried over from the last year’s season, would unpack those and then go shopping for new ones. I especially liked spring and summer clothes. They were lighter not just in weight, but in spirit; brighter colors, lighter fabrics, more playful and fun. Less serious. I think in those days my whole family was pretty much driven by what was in style that year.  There was not that much room or emotional space for free expression, experimentation and creativity.

During my adolescent years I went shopping with my friends, especially my best friend. During that period, I distinctly remember wanting to dress the way all the other girls did. I specifically did NOT want to stand out. Fitting in with all of them felt just right to me.

I don’t remember much about clothes during my young adulthood one way or the other, although I’m quite sure I also continued to shop at the wholesale manufacturers with my mother, and possibly my sister.  Being in style was a serious and important matter for the whole family.

I always liked clothes, was interested in them. I was quite inhibited and somewhat cautious and uncertain. I did not think I had any particular knack or gift for being creative around clothes. I would often look at other woman’s clothes and admire how well put together they were, but I didn’t think I could quite do that for myself.

Before I went off to graduate school in social work, leaving the city and moving 3000 miles away to Berkeley CA, which was a gigantic move for me, an uncle who worked in the garment industry gave me a talking to, his form of a goodbye lecture. In effect, he talked about clothes and how I should dress and how important that was.  By then, being a kind of snobbish and somewhat intellectual young woman, I was appalled. How superficial! Really! Even insulting!  Why would anybody be thinking about clothes at a time like that? I certainly wasn’t. Although in fairness to my uncle, my mother and I had gone shopping in preparation for this new phase of my life. And I felt quite prepared, clothes-wise anyway.  I remembered recalling Polonius’ soliloquy to his son, Laertes, as he strikes off on his own and heads for Paris.  “Buy as costly clothes, as can pay for, But not made fancy, rich, and certainly not gaudy. For the clothes often tell what kind of man you are, the apparel oft proclaims the man….”  In my graduate school years, and my early motherhood years, clothes were not very central in my life, although I cared about how I looked and what I wore. All the while, my mother was ever present in her pronouncements about what looked good on me and what I should wear. Even so, I was gradually finding my own path regarding clothes choices for myself. It probably helped that my mother was 3,000 miles away much of the time. I found small stores that I liked, and salespeople who got to know me and we’d work together on finding clothes the seemed to suit me. I was in the process of discovering what colors most suited me, what cuts more flattering to my body and shape, and so on.  I have always had fun shopping with a sense of positive anticipation, albeit accompanied by worrying that I was spending too much money. And I was — and do.

I became friendly with a woman whose life revolved around clothes, particularly high style. She had a great eye, a lot of money, and had come from a family where clothes were central to their lives. Since she never worked, and had access to considerable funds, once her child care and family duties were fulfilled, she could devote the rest of her time to shopping and buying, and shop and buy she did!..  She was, and is, a phenomenon to be reckoned with. She would come alive as soon as she entered a store. I think it was with her and our many shopping expeditions that I came to develop my own sense of taste, style and finally figured out what suited me best. We especially preferred artisanal clothes, and went to many artists’ designs shows, got to know some of the artists, and worked with them. It was all very exciting and a lot of fun. I like wearing art; I appreciate the time, imagination, knowledge, creativity and work connected with each item I buy and I feel proud supporting their work and wearing their clothes.

Quietly, moving in like soft south sea island breezes, my pleasure around clothes with all its attendant meanings evolved for me into a “conflict free area zone” (Hartmann, 1964).

Throughout all these years, some of my clothes my mother liked, some she didn’t. She was the eternal critic until the day she died. And, until the day she died some three and a half years ago, she cared very much how she looked, what she wore, how she put it together, just as her mother had done before her, until the day she died, both dying in their mid-late 90’s.

For a period in her life, my sister was very much in the jet set life scene. To that effect she had a personal shopper choose her very expensive designer couture clothes. My mother would quite regularly critique this professional woman’s taste, letting me know, and whoever else would listen, how that woman put my sister in the wrong cut, wrong color, wrong print, wrong, wrong, wrong. My mother TRULY believed she knew best. And, for many years I too thought she knew best.

In many ways, it’s taken me a lifetime to grow into my views about clothes and to have confidence and not be too hard on myself, when I made some mistakes (which I do).  In a sense it’s a telescoped story of my growing into myself . In short, my life’s development.  Imperceptively, like a quiet south sea breeze, my relation to clothes has evolved into “a conflict free zone” (Hartmann, 1964).  I can now enjoy clothes and be less inhibited. I am far from consumed by them or needing to buy a lot all the time. I truly have come to see them as a form of self expression, different costumes to put on, as it were, conveying different aspects of myself and my mood. I have grown to see clothes as a means by which I can express myself and happily present myself to the world…. This is who I am and I finally feel good enough about myself and my presentation

Clothes are how we interface with the world. They cover our nakedness, protect us from the world and the world from us, but they also reveal who we are, how we see ourselves, our social class and the times we live in.  Thus, simultaneously, clothes both cover us up and reveal us.  In the novel Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant, the heroine tell us, “The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in.”  (Think of Bollas here, of the object releasing our selves into expression)…. “A new dress. Is that all it takes to make a new beginning? This shred of dyed cloth, shaped in the form of a woman’s body? My clothes acted as a kind of carapace, armour with which I protected my inner softness….. And if life took you to uncertain, strange margins, to the places where people struggled to express their whole being, through dress, whatever forms such individuality took, that that’s where I would go.”..

Through the years I‘ve come to appreciate the artistry, imaginativeness and craftsmanship that are involved in designing and making fine clothes. At any given time of the year, in U.S. and abroad, one can see museum shows devoted to clothes and high fashion, in different ways, all the styles in the shows reflect social, political, economic circumstances of the times.   The shows portray the archetypes created by mass media and hardly represent any of us ordinary folk. None the less, in reviewing  the shows, The New Yorker tells us, “The archetypes do suggest the way that each ideal makes subtle alterations to the notion of a woman’s place, and to the code that determines who is worthy of respect and who isn’t.” (September 20, 2010)  To be sure, most people don’t wear couture, having neither the body nor especially the finances that these shows are highlighting. But, one of the many fascinating aspects of the shows, is how they do reflect larger historical trends in taste, mores and of course wealth, while at the same time capturing the technical innovations, artistic sensibilities and fantasies that trickle down to more practical designs that are available to most women and men . In line with my heightened appreciation of the artistic aspects of clothes, one can also consider some designs as art;  fiber art combining features of painting, sculpture, architecture, body art, and theatre and exquisite craft”(The New York Times, May 7, 2010.  Consider for a moment another kind of art show.  It was entitled “No Man’s Land”. The artist was Christian Boltanski and it was at the Park Avenue Armory, New York City, in May 2010.  The show consists of a five-story crane claw and a 25 foot-high mound of salvaged clothes. Every few minutes the crane picks up a random assortment of shirts, pants and dresses from the mound and releases them to flap back down haphazardly.  Clothes here are certainly not about high fashion.  A deeper, darker aspect of clothes and their meaning are represented here.  The artist tells us they are meant to represent survival and death and the randomness of life”.

Turning for a moment to the matter of the centrality of social class and its relationship to clothes, I want to share with you a powerful book Landscapes for a Good Woman, by Carolyn Kay Steedman, a sociologist who writes of her growing up as a daughter of a working class mother in South London during the 1950’s (2003). Steedman, graphically and poignantly, writes about the social world she and her mother knew about, and their place within it.  She tells us “My mother did what powerless women have always done and do still, she worked on her body, the only bargaining power she ended up with, given the economic times and the culture in which she grew.” Appearance was connected to her choice of clothes.  She goes on to tell us what her mother learned by the 1960’s. She learned through magazines and anecdotes  “how the goods of that world of privilege might be appropriated, with the cut and fall of a skirt, a good winter coat, with leather shoes , a certain voice, but above all with CLOTHES, the best boundary between you and a  cold world.”

I think we can all agree that clothes carry a vast and deep panoply of meanings; symbolic and metaphoric in nature. Thinking about clothes and their meaning to each of our patients and to us, may shed light on deep, dare I say closeted, pockets of our psyches. Way back in 1977 I wrote a paper about listening and metaphor in the clinical situation, and I cited as one example a patients whose oft repeated refrain was the difficulty she had finding suitable clothes to buy.  She’d go to stores and look and look, but almost always come home empty handed. Her explanation for such frustrating experiences was the following: “Others had gotten there first and had picked out the newest and best clothes and left the junk behind.” Somehow, in her way of thinking, there was a very limited amount of the good stuff, to which she could never get assess to it. Invariably she came too late. I think you can all play with some of the metaphoric meanings of her beliefs around clothes. She was in treatment for many years, and eventually she began to find clothes she liked and took great pleasure in her purchases; a felicitous indicator of deeper psychic changes.

So, lets look some more at the clinical situation, and start by answering a question I posed earlier. Do we think about patients when we get dressed for our work day?   I do think about the patients I’m going to see on any specific day and choose my wardrobe accordingly. Some patients don’t seem to ever notice ever what I am wearing, and with them I am less thoughtful about what I choose to wear. With other patients who comment about my clothes, or whom appearance and clothes are important to them, I dress more carefully and perhaps take a bit more effort… With certain patients it’s fun to wear something new and different… I like to feel good in what I’m wearing and try not to wear the same thing I wore the last time I saw the same patient. Some patients I feel I can be more casually dressed than others… In short, overall I like to look nice and well put together. I enjoy the novelty of deciding what to wear each day, based on the weather, the degree of comfort and the patients I’m seeing that day, although sometimes I’m lazy and just don’t put out much energy around what I wear. And, that’s okay too.  How I dress, including clothes, shoes, jewelry, is but one of several ways I bring myself into the consulting room.    Although I’ve moved very far from my original training and its prohibitions against expressing too much of your personality in your clothes, I. have some mindfulness about what might be inappropriate dress: e.g. I’m reminded of a male supervisee whom I had many years ago. He wore jeans with an eye catching fly; thereby making it inevitable that your eyes would be drawn to his nether region. That felt inappropriate and I remember how uncomfortable it was to talk to him about it as all the staff was urging me to do. In regards to patient’s attire; with some patients I might well comment about something they were wearing, particularly if it seems to have some relevance to our work. With other patients I would never comment on their clothes. In all of these areas around clothes; mine or my patients, I feel much freer to comment upon, talk about and discuss than I did formerly.

In general, I would say that throughout therapy, most of my female patients and many male patients invariably talk about clothes in a variety of different contexts.  With some frequency, patients share memories of going shopping with their mothers.

Rhoda D. is now a woman in her mid 50’s whom I have seen for over 25 years. Rhoda is a very smart, extremely thoughtful, somewhat proper and conservatively dressed professional woman married with no children. She comes from a very wealthy family stemming from a family business started by her maternal grandfather. Her grandparents, especially her grandmother were very important to her. Rhoda is the oldest of four siblings and the only daughter. Much was expected of Rhoda, growing up. Perfectionism was the name of the game in the family. Her mother was obsessive and demanding and was frequently volatile.  Clothes, dressing well and in high style was  her mother’s credo.  Rhoda has early memories of hiding in one particular closet. The closet she chose was a storage closet, so all of the clothes, many of which were coats and other outer garments, were encased in plastic, so she couldn’t cuddle next to the fur coats and feel cozy. None the less, being surrounded by those clothes served as an oasis for her.  In this closet she could feel at peace. She also could hear her mother. When her mother’s voice got to a certain pitch, Rhoda knew it was time to come out. In all the years she used this closet as her temporary safe base, her mother never knew it.  Rhoda was an extremely vigilant child, forever on guard and on the lookout. She actively problem solved her way through childhood, anticipating her mother’s moods and positioning herself accordingly. Rhoda’s mother was a shopper par excellence. She went to the finest stores, knew the salespeople, managers and buyers. She was up on the latest fashions. Dressing herself and her daughter well was a serious manner, nothing frivolous or light about it. Certainly not much fun. To this day, she knows ahead of time when a sale is and what will be on sale, and it’s a matter of urgency that her daughter drops whatever to accompany her, then and there, to the store. There was a rather rigid ritual around clothes. Clothes had to be reviewed at the end and at the beginning of the season. Nothing must be kept that was deemed out of style.  From Rhoda’s point of view, her mother could be absolutely ruthless when it came time to getting rid of the old things.. Out with the old, In with the new. But, Rhoda had her attachments to her clothes and other things, and it was very painful to her to let them go. Her mother simply couldn’t fathom that attitude. It appeared to be almost Rhoda’s duty to keep up the high style that both her grandmother and mother maintained. In a manner of speaking, Rhoda had to uphold her family’s social reputation by her deportment and dress. Quite a burden to be sure.

Rhoda’s conflicts were indeed fraught with anguish.  Choosing clothes and her whole relation to clothes is fraught with pain that is blatantly alive. One of the major topics through all our years of work, has been about her closet, sorting through clothes, deciding which ones to get rid of and which to keep, and purchasing new clothes.  As she goes through sorting out her clothes, her mother’s words from when she was a child still ring in her ears.  “These have to go, they don’t fit you…or they don’t look good on you anymore, etc.” Rhoda says, “I have a hard time making decisions, what should I choose, what should I save, what should I let go”? Rhoda’s sense of deprivation. sense of loss and abandonment and identification with the items given away are palpable. “It pains me to think of the old clothes in the bag.” She frets that if she lets things go, she may not find the equivalent quality again. We have had many, many discussions through all these years, about her attachment to the past and her associations to each article of clothing. She feels it also says something about the future.  In a very profound sense, she has come to see that so many of her feelings around clothes say something to her about the “meaning of life”. Once again, Bollas’s notion of “evocative object” inevitably comes to my mind.  Rhoda says she grew up hearing, “Your mother is so attractive, and she dresses so beautifully”. Rhoda never felt she was as attractive as her mother nor could she dress as beautifully. Self contempt and despair have been constant companions for Rhoda every step of the way, although the depth and extent of her despair has been considerably mitigated through the years of our work.

Shopping with her mother was fraught with utter anguish from childhood on. Her mother would pick something out and even if Rhoda didn’t like it, she’d end up getting it, because “Otherwise I’d leave empty handed”.  Using her analytic way of thinking she has thought and thought about what happens around clothes for her with her mother and with herself. She says, “My mother is intuitive and I’m not. I have to think things through more carefully.” As she’s gotten older, she likes some of her mother’s choices for her, but certainly not all. She’s come to see that her mother doesn’t pay attention to details the way Rhoda does and often chooses thing for her now middle aged daughter that may be good looking, but not really right for her figure, her life style, etc. With time, Rhoda has become more in touch with her ability to know what she likes, and feels more comfortable with her choices.  Parting with things is still a struggle. In many ways, one could say that her lengthy treatment has been conducted around the crucible of clothes.

Another middle-aged patient who has had life long struggles around accepting her body self recalls how hellish it was going shopping with her mother. She distinctly recalls her mother picking something off the rack and saying “That would be the cutest thing on you.” Whereupon her daughter would think, “Who do you think I am. All those frilly clothes. They’re just what I don’t like”. Invariably they’d end up having a huge fight.

Another patient in her late 30’s talks about how she doesn’t know what to wear for the many groups she participates in as a volunteer. She bemoans the fact that she feels she “can’t get it right”. She’s come to think that the women in these groups wear a kind of uniform that she has yet to fully decipher. She says “I worry before an event. I don’t like to call attention to myself. I like clothes that have plain, classic lines; I don’t think the others do. She recalls her times shopping with her mother and their fights… Reared in the Catholic faith, she recounts the very last time she went to confession. She and her mother had gotten in to a terrible fight at the department store and she had screamed at her, “I hate you!” She says with some pride, “when I  finally turned 16 I got my driving license, got a job, bought my own clothes and never went shopping with my mother again!”

Talking about mothers and daughters shopping and yelling at each other at the store, puts me in mind of a painful scene from the recent movie “Please Give”. The mother and teenage daughter are shopping for jeans. The daughter wants a special designer brand; the mother says it’s too expensive. The daughter tries on a number of other less expensive jeans and feels miserable.  The mother says they look good, the daughter feels they look horrid, and end up yelling in the store at the mother “I hate you!”…

I end with a quote from Oscar Wilde:

“One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.”


Bollas, C.  1992.  The Evocative Object.  New York: Hill and Wang.

Flugel, J.  1929.  Clothes symbolism and clothes ambivalence.  The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 10:205-217.

Grant, L.  2008.  Clothes on Their Back.  New York: Little Brown and Company.

Hartmann, H.  1964.  Ego Psychology and the Problem of Adaptation.  New York, NY:   International Universities Press.

Steedman, C.  2003.  Landscape for a Good Woman.  New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Wilde, O.  1894.  Epigrams: Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young.  Oxford:  Chameleon, December 1894.

Samoan Barish  has a MSW and DSW in Clinical Social Work and a Ph.D in Psychoanalysis.  She is past president of AAPCSW, and former Dean and current faculty of The Sanville Institute.  She is on the faculty of the New Center for Psychoanalysis and is a member of the IFPE Board, where she serves as Awards Chair.  She is in private practice in Santa Monica, California.

Ancient and Indigenous Roots of Psychoanalysis

October 15, 2011 10:00 am

A Psycho-Anthropological-Shamanic Treatise

by Farrell R. Silverberg, Ph.D., N.C.Psy.A.

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Supervising and Training Psychoanalyst, Philadelphia School of Psychoanalysis and Member, Society of Shamanistic Practitioners

A preliminary version of this paper was presented at the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education Annual Conference Friday, October 28, 2010, Nashville, Tennessee

In the cave of the Trois Frères in southwestern France, there is a painting of a shamanic healer that dates back to approximately 13,000 B.C. (about 15,000 years before Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer published their 1895 Studies in Hysteria). As psychoanalysts, we are accustomed to dating our legacy back to Freud, or to the important psychoanalysts who followed in the ensuing century. But this may be a bit short-sighted since we hold much in common with our prehistoric forbears, medicine men and women, and subscribe to theories and methods that are consistent with ancient wisdom. Rather than a relatively recent arrival on the healing scene, psychoanalysis may have roots that stretch back tens of thousand years or more.

In 1939 Freud’s ashes were placed in an urn at Golders Green Crematorium in London. Around 12,000 years earlier, at a burial site in Israel, an elderly woman, thought to be a shaman, had been laid to rest on her side, her legs folded at the knee with ten large stones placed on her body (Grosman, Munro & Belfer-Cohen, p. 105). The grave was located in a cave in Galilee and contained 50 tortoise shells, a human foot, body parts from animals such as a cow tails, eagle wings and parts from a boar, leopard, and two martens. These animal parts indicated that the woman was seen as being in a close relationship with the animal spirits (Grossman et al., 2008, p. 105).

Upon first glance, indigenous healers and psychoanalysts may seem as far apart as the 12,000-year interval between the two graves I just mentioned. However, psychoanalysts and indigenous healers share the very important common belief that forces beyond our control and phenomena that are not generally observed, or observable, in our ordinary daily awareness affect our health. These forces have been identified by a variety of names depending upon the metaphor that one employs: factors in our unconscious minds, the Tao, transpersonal fields, the effects of our core energies, the life force, our chakras, God’s will, grace, Buddha-nature, the interconnectedness-of-all-things, synchronicity, the collective unconscious, fate, the remnants of past lives, or, as healers in indigenous cultures view it, the spirit world. Whatever label is put on these unseen phenomena, most practitioners of a healing art acknowledge that matters of sickness and healing always involve more than meets the eye.

A key contribution of indigenous medical thinking is the conviction that not only is the etiology of a patient’s illness caused by happenings in non-ordinary reality but that, in order to cure the patient, the practitioner must gain access to that dimension of reality to help free the patient of the adverse effects resulting from happenings therein.

This treatment philosophy may sound familiar to us as psychoanalysts since psychoanalysts also hold that emotional and relationship health is indeed mediated in another dimension: the non-ordinary reality of the unconscious mind with its psychodynamics. This extremely important similarity with indigenous medicine is often missed in our profession, since the commonality tends to be overshadowed by the metaphors that are used by traditional shamans – these metaphors distract us from noticing the shamanic roots of our work.

Roots of Illness in Another Dimension

Indigenous medicine and psychoanalysis share the key perspective that, in order to obtain a cure for certain maladies, something within non-ordinary reality (a realm of experience inaccessible in daily life) be adjusted. Since non-ordinary reality is not readily available for direct observation and medical manipulation, such elements must be understood through metaphor. And, in each of these metaphors for non-ordinary reality, there are theories about how things operate and systems of rules for this other dimension.

In the Pima culture of Northern Mexico, for instance, trespassing against the “way” (or rules) of a powerful object in the spirit world will lead the lingering “strengths” of that object to cause problems within the patient (Bahr, Gregorio, Lopez, & Alvarez, 1974, p. 21).  The object is usually an animal spirit, and each class of animal spirit has rules. For instance, according to Donald Bahr, Juan Gregorio, David Lopez, and Albert Alvarez (1974), violating the “jackrabbit way” might make a patient suffer impulsive and out-of-control behavior while violating the “owl way” might make the patient become lethargic (p. 28).  Such afflictions, with roots in non-ordinary reality, cannot be reversed without taking the world of spirits and strengths into account.

Likewise, in the culture of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, afflictions that have their roots in the “unconscious mind”––cannot be understood or remedied without taking into account the theories or rules of that realm. In our metaphor, powerful objects and forces in the unconscious realm come about by introjecting or moving certain reactions and energies into this non-ordinary realm. Once relocated, introjected objects create an internal parallel universe in that typically invisible realm––which, if you step outside of the psychoanalytic worldview for a moment and think about what our theories portend, is a rather mystical sounding process.

Of course we have our own rationales for the development of the non-ordinary world of the unconscious mind, such as our motive for introjection that is based, according to Otto Weininger (1992) on the fantasy that: “If I have it inside me, I can control it effectively, it will not be on the outside where it can threaten me and destroy me” (p. 27).  It is a false fantasy, however, because these powerful internalized objects could, when trespassed against, cause toxic effects in the unconscious, thereby sickening the patient with emotional illness—and even cause such extreme effects as suicide.

In both metaphors, the shamanic and the psychoanalytic, it is thought that the patient’s transgression or the patient’s parents’ transgression (albeit usually unwitting and accidental in either case) have effects in non-ordinary reality that lead to the patient’s illness. In both the explanatory stories told by shamans and in the case of historical stories told by psychoanalysts, the interactions responsible for the current symptoms are thought to have occurred long before the patient developed the illness. Among the Pima, such interactions took place, “so long before that the patient has forgotten what he [or she] did and, therefore, he [or she] required the services of a shaman to diagnose the sickness” (Bahr et al., 1974, p. 21). Bahr et al. also point out that, in the shaman’s system of medicine, “Sickness comes from failure to follow the commandments of the way: failure to be careful, to remember, to believe, or to defer to things” (pg. 42).

According to Mariko Walter and Jane Neumann-Fridman (2004), shamans of the Numic culture (including the Native American Shoshone, Comanche and Ute tribes) are called in when an unremembered dream is thought to be causing an illness in the patient:

In the curing ceremony, the shaman discovers the dream and the person who dreamed it.  The dreamer must confess the dream and relate its content publicly.  Not until the dreamer confesses the content of the dream to the shaman can a cure be made (p. 293).

Sharing the indigenous medical idea, psychoanalysts also believe that the etiology of an illness often occurred so far in the past that the patient has forgotten, potentially in the patient’s formative childhood years – and that the etiology may reveal itself to people through their access to the unconscious realm in dreams. So, we can note that both in psychoanalytic psychology and in indigenous medicine, dreams are a  “royal road” (Freud, 1980, p. 647) to non-ordinary knowledge. In the indigenous medicine practiced in Borneo, “Dreams are believed to be what the soul sees when it travels outside the body during sleep. Dreams are the only way in which normal people [as opposed to shamans]… have contact with the spirit world” (Bernstein, 1977, p. 59).

In the Piman system of diagnosis, taboo events such as having stepped on a bear track, may have brought about symptoms. In this case , symptoms are thought to be due to the infiltrating and lingering punitiveness of the bear strength. In psychoanalysis, violating the tacit rules of one’s family of origin, and the introjects that are reflective thereof, that operate in the unconscious realm, can lead to similar infiltration and lingering punitive symptoms.

For example, I have a patient who was raised to have a very undignified existence. Most of her family members live victimized and self-destructive lives, including drug and alcohol abuse, brushes with the law and promiscuity. Whenever this patient violates that family legacy (e.g., chooses not to get drunk and refuses to have a one night stand with a stranger) she feels the compelling urge to, and often carries out, self-mutilating behavior such as cutting her legs with a razor knife.  In other words, it could be said that these symptoms came from a violation of the family “way” and the punishment for this trespass is the family “strength” in her body or mind that makes her cut herself.

In the case of the emotional suffering of babies and young children, shamans and psychoanalysts both agree that the patient is innocent of committing any violation, but suffers nonetheless. Another similarity between the two metaphors of etiology, is that there is often, a separation in time between the causative factors and the appearance of symptoms. For instance, if the patient has a symptom picture known to the Pima as “whirlwind sickness,” the shaman assumes that as a child, the patient ran inside of a whirlwind and the consequences of that trespass took several years to “reach” and sicken the victim (Bahr et al., 1974, p. 74).  Likewise in psychology traumatizing events in childhood (being caught in a different kind of whirlwind, an emotional one, so to speak) may take years to “reach” and sicken the patient. And just as in the uncovering work of psychoanalysis, in shamanic healing work the wrongful past transgressions of a parent are sometimes only discovered through the analysis of the symptoms and history of the child (Bahr et al., 1974, p.76).

Shamanic Trances and Ogden’s Reverie

Shamans may access non-ordinary reality through the use of plant-based mind-altering substances and/or through a spiritual practice that allows them to enter into a trance-like state of consciousness. In the shamanic metaphor, the altered consciousness allows the healer to journey into the “spirit world” associated with the patient; wherein the contents affect the patient’s inner balance and health. Having experientially “walked in the patient’s shoes,” and even having transacted with non-ordinary reality entities and spirits affecting the patient, the shaman returns to ordinary reality with important knowledge. As psychoanalysts we glean similar experiential knowledge when our countertransferences transact with the patient’s transferences and introjects — all of which originate in the non-ordinary reality we call “the unconscious mind.”

According to Barbara Tedlock (2005), Essie Parish (a California Kashaya Pomo indigenous healer) describes her experience of the shamanic trance as follows:

“While the disease is coming to me, I’m in a trance. It speaks to me firmly saying, ‘This is the way it is. It is such and such kind of disease. This is why the person is sick.’ But when I come out of the trance I no longer remember what the disease told me” (p. 19).

In indigenous cultures, such trances are not considered autistic or out of touch with the person who is ill, but are viewed as a method that allows the shaman to immerse himself or herself more deeply into an understanding the patient’s illness.

When a psychotherapist engages in a close empathic connection with a patient to the point of exchanging his or her own reality for the patient’s unconscious-realm reality, a similar curative element is added to the treatment. This is not an uncommon occurrence in forms of psychoanalysis wherein the therapist is trained to cultivate the ability to become open to experiencing a many-textured countertransference and therapeutic relation in order to experience a better empathic “grasp” (Kohut, 1984, p. 210).

According to Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar (2003), “Empathy, and the meditative state that underlies it, may well be the sluice through which the spiritual enters the consulting room and where it flows together with the art and science of psychoanalysis in the practice of psychotherapy” (p. 674). In our psychoanalytic shaman’s shift, rather than subscribing to mind altering drugs, we employ free-floating attention, or what Thomas Ogden (1997) describes as a “reverie” within the analyst’s mind during the session—a process that could be viewed as a form of healing trance (p. 719-732).

It is particularly hard to deny the similarity between our work and that of indigenous medicine when noting a shamanic technique among the Navajo medicine men and women called “listening.” According to Walter and Neumann-Fridman (2004), such listening has similarities to the kind of open attention many of us practice during our psychoanalytic work and was carried out:

…in a similar way to stargazing. The listener would bless his ears and those of his patient with powder made from dried badger eardrums: he would then go outside away from the patient and chant and the listen for telltale sounds in the environment.  Based upon the pattern of what he heard (lightning, a rattlesnake, a coyote howling, whatever it might be), he would render a diagnosis (p. 322).

Becoming the Patient: A Common Thread

Michael Harner (1990) describes an indigenous healing ritual that is striking in its similarity with the experience we have as psychotherapists when understanding our patients through our empathy and compassion for their history and suffering. In the “becoming the patient” technique used by Coast Salish shamans of British Columbia, the shaman takes upon himself the harmful effects of the spirit world that are making the patient ill (p. 132).  The shaman interviews the afflicted person to learn about the experience of the patient and about what it is like to be the patient. This interview process is similar to the process of interview in psychoanalytic psychotherapy except that it lasts only a few days while the psychoanalytic version takes more time.

When the Salish shaman knows enough about the patient that he or she feels capable of identifying with the inner experience of the patient they both go to the wilderness to perform the ritual. During this ritual the shaman and the patient slowly exchange clothes, and with each article of clothing borrowed and put on, the shaman contemplates taking upon himself more of the patient’s hurts and symptoms. Then the patient and shaman perform a dance in which the patient moves and the shaman imitates each movement and gesture of the patient. At first the movements are just empty imitation but eventually, the shaman feels his consciousness changing and would feel “waves of sickness, or pain, passing over him” (Harner, 1990, p. 133)

Like the shaman, the psychotherapist who is open to non-ordinary elements welcomes, even cultivates, the transfer of psychological toxins such as despair, helplessness, aggression and self-punitiveness. If the therapist has discovered what it may be like to be the patient through touching the non-ordinary realm of the unconscious, a small trace of that knowledge inhabiting the tone of voice or infusing the supportive words being spoken reinforces that the patient is being understood and makes intervention more meaningful. As I’ve stated in a recent paper:

Without the analyst’s sustained ability to experience the resonant empathic connection as the ground from which the hope is expressed, and to calmly abide the concomitant tension, there is more risk of the empathic breach about which Kohut warned us (Silverberg, 2011).

Shamanism Without Drama

Psychoanalysts and psychotherapists need not carry a rattle, beat a drum, chant, lay hands upon, lie down on the floor beside the patient, take mind-altering botanical formulae, or enter into a trance in order to access a patient’s unconscious realm and affect elements therein for the sake of helping that person. These are the rituals of indigenous healers and although they bring the shaman into the limelight, such drama is not the only way to have access to the patient’s deeper world. In our work with non-ordinary reality as psychoanalysts, our lack of these overt displays does not vitiate the fact that we may be accessing a hidden dimension in our work. In our version of the healing rituals, we are more subtle in our empathic pyrotechnics than our shamanic forebears, who might, for instance, enhance the impact of the encounter by rubbing an egg over the patient to absorb all the toxins and then throwing that egg at the door of one of the patient’s enemies..

But, despite the reputation of shamans for chants and rituals, drama was not always a required element of healing. According to Walter and Neumann-Fridman (2004), in some indigenous cultures, shamanic healings were often performed simply through “a conversation between the sick person and the shaman in which the shaman would induce hope of recovery in the patient by referring to similar cases where the ill person became well again or by narrating the happiness in the Otherworld” (p. 301).

As a matter of fact, a smooth and non-jarring accessing of non-ordinary reality of the unconscious and the hidden dimension of the intersubjective without disrupting normal discourse and without entering a trance state, and in the absence of elaborate rituals, is key to our work. Our psychoanalytic empathic in-touchness via a non-ordinary connection can also be seen as a form of shamanism without the drama of the rituals.  Non-ordinary reality can be integrated quietly, and with a smooth interface into psychoanalysis, psychotherapy or other healing procedures. In our work we prove that, extraordinary levels of experience can be accessed without telegraphing to the patient or anyone else who might see the transaction that an extraordinary experience is occurring – although the outcomes of treatment and the profound experiences that occur on the way will give testImony to this fact.

In Conclusion: Sharing the Tradition of Eyes that See in the Dark

According to Tedlock (2005), the Inuit and Innu peoples who reside close to the Arctic Circle refer to shamans as “those with eyes that see in the dark” (p. 25). Clearly the metaphors used by indigenous shamans and those used by psychoanalysts differ, but if one takes an overview that encompasses both, indigenous medicine and psychoanalysis, it is also clear that the two metaphors share common underlying assumptions about what can be seen in the dark.

According to James Grotstein (1981), Wilfred Bion (in poetically confabulating a line from one of Freud’s letters to Lou Andreas Salome with a line from the Nobel prize acceptance speech from the inventor of the CAT scan) stated that analysts need to send  “a beam of intense darkness” (p. 507) in order to obscure the distractions of ordinary reality.  Sending such a beam allows one to become more receptive to messages from the unconscious world, which in contrast to the darkness, would be illuminated. This idea is not at all dissimilar from the idea expressed in the Inuit expression about a shaman’s eyes.

The two metaphors that have been discussed in this paper (that of shamanic healing and that of psychoanalysis) may ultimately be pointing to the same notion–the concept that health is mediated in a non-ordinary reality.  Through conjecturing this common thread, we can say that the legacy of psychoanalysis extends thousands of years into the past, and could well be a continuation of ancient and indigenous healing practices.  Just as the indigenous healers had methods of facilitating a shaman’s trance or healing interaction, we have been seeing a shamanic lineage within psychoanalysis without having realized how far back the association goes. By such standards, our lineage of psychoanalytic shamans includes Bion, Ogden, Kohut and Mitchell, to name just a few whose work entailed cultivating a state of being wherein the analyst can more easily access the non-ordinary/unconscious dimension in the service of helping another person. The extraordinary knowledge gleaned from the elusive, and for the most part invisible, non-ordinary reality, whether considered the stuff of the spirit world or of the unconscious and intersubjective word, is never far from us when we are working with “eyes that can see in the dark.”


Bahr, D., Gregorio, J., Lopez, D.I., & Alvarez, A. (1974). Piman shamanism and staying sickness. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Bernstein, J.H. (1997). Spirits captured in stone: Shamanism and traditional medicine among the Taman of Bomeo. London, UK: Lynne Rienner.

Freud, S. (1980). The interpretation of dreams. New York City, NY: Avon.

Grosman, L., Munro N., & Belfer-Cohen A. (2008). A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel). Proceedings of the National Academy of    Sciences, 105 (46):17665-17669.

Grotstein, J. S. (1981). Wilfred R. Bion: The man, the psychoanalyst, the mystic: A perspective on his life and work. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 17:501-536.

Harner, M. (1990). The way of the shaman. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

Kakar, S. (2003). Psychoanalysis and Eastern spiritual healing traditions.  Journal of Analytical Psychology, 48: 659-678.

Kohut, H. (1984) How Does Analysis Cure?. Ed. A. Goldberg., Chicago, IL: Chicago  Press.

Ogden, T. (1997). Reverie and metaphor. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 78:719-732.

Silverberg, F. (2011). The Tao of Self Psychology: Was Heinz Kohut a Taoist Sage?, Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 31(5).

Tedlock B. (2005). The woman in the shaman’s body. New York City, NY: Bantam.

Walter, M., & Neumann-Fridman, J. (2004). Shamanism: An encyclopedia of world beliefs, practices, and culture. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Cleo Publishers.

Weininger, O. (1992). Melanie Klein: From theory to reality. London, UK: Karnac Books.

Author Bio:

Farrell Silverberg, PhD, NCPsyA is a clinical psychologist, a certified psychoanalyst, a member of the Society for Shamanic Practitioners and the first Western student of Taopsychotherapy master Rhee Dong Shik in Seoul, Korea. Silverberg has lectured internationally and has published in journals in the United States and in Asia. He began integrating psychoanalysis, Buddhist-Taoist philosophy and Shamanic thought thirty years ago, and his papers on the combined technique include Therapeutic Resonance (1988), Resonance and Exchange in Contemplative Psychotherapy (2008), and, recently, The Tao of Self Psychology: Was Heinz Kohut a Taoist Sage? (2011). Having served in hospitals and clinics over the years, Silverberg is currently a Supervising and Training psychoanalyst at the Philadelphia School of Psychoanalysis. His 2005 book, entitled Make the Leap, distills professional concepts into accessible language, is currently being used as a treatment manual in randomized and controlled design research to prove the efficacy of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.


Through the Lens of Quantum Theory

October 15, 2011 10:00 am

A Mother/Daughter Dialogue About Creativity in Art and Psychoanalysis

by Rachel Paula Shapiro, artist, and Leanne Domash, psychoanalyst

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LD: First, let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Leanne Domash, psychologist and psychoanalyst, and the mother of Rachel Paula Shapiro, artist. I am very interested in the creative process and in the intersection of various fields as an inspiration and breeding ground for creative ideas. This article will hopefully be an enlightening mix of art, quantum theory and psychoanalysis. I’m so excited that we can dialogue about how creativity manifests itself in our life and work.

RPS: I’m Rachel Paula Shapiro, artist and teacher, and I share similar interests. I am fascinated by the symbolic life surrounding us and the language of the psyche. This conversation touches on themes that are relevant to each of us in a unique and intersected way.

LD: In a way, we are also introducing ourselves to each other, as adult colleagues. Although I’ve assisted you some in your growing jewelry business, this is the first time we have formally discussed our work together.  I hope this dialogue helps create the birth of this new collegial relationship as well as deepen us as mother and daughter.

RPS: Absolutely. This forum also helps me formulate ideas that are sometimes abstract and elusive. I appreciate the space to focus and discuss these issues that are so important to me.

How do new ideas come into being?

LD: One of the most intriguing questions for me is: how does creativity happen? How do new ideas come into being?  As therapists, we want new insights about our work and our patients. As an artist, how do new ideas come to you?

RPS: Sometimes it’s as if the idea is already there and that it comes into being when my senses open up and I am able to notice it.

LD: This makes me think of our recent IFPE conference Psychoanalysis: Not the Same Old Song and Dance where I was inspired by Ken Silvestro’s discussion of quantum theory as a paradigm for psychoanalysis (Silvestro, 2010). This led me to begin to explore these ideas further in relation to art and psychoanalysis.

The Quantum World

As background, based on both Silvestro and Al-Kahali (2003), I’ll discuss several key concepts in the quantum world before we begin our dialogue.

According to quantum theory, the universe is comprised of waves of energy.  These waves are like energy clouds of sorts, without a beginning or an end.  They contain possibilities that begin to exist in the real world only when they are measured, a process called decoherence.  This is when possibilities pop into being.

Analogously, in the case of your creativity,  Rachel, you are the measurer. You notice the idea or image and then you gradually bring it into being as you develop it.

Silvestro and others have made the analogy of the quantum world to the unconscious realm and the Newtonian or material world to the conscious. The quantum universe is nonlogical, acausal, counter-intuitive and bizarre. Silvestro likens it to Alice’s Wonderland. I liken it to unconscious dream life.

It is by reaching this unconscious realm that meaningful work occurs, both for the patient/therapist dyad in psychotherapy and for the artist and her creative product. Using the analogy of quantum theory, we can explore the implicit self from a new perspective and better understand our elusive, emotional and “illogical” unconscious.

An example of the illogical nature of the quantum world is that a quantum particle can be in two or more places or states at the same time, a concept called superposition.  For a quantum object a single position of a particle within a waveform is impossible. Since they are only potential particles, many potential particles simultaneously exist within the wavefunction and simultaneously don’t exist. Potentialities can exist in many places at the same time.

As Silvestro explains, pointing to the location of a quantum particle in a waveform is similar to attempting to grasp the elusive rabbit in Alice’s Wonderland. One quickly discovers the rabbit exists in many places at the same time. By analogy, this captures the elusive, shifting, multi textured, and multi determined quality of working with unconscious material.

Perhaps an analogy in the physical world is that in dialoguing together, you and I are each in two states at the same time.  You are both an artist and a daughter and I, psychoanalyst and mother.

Silvestro writes that the unconscious cannot be directly known but as soon as an unconscious waveform interacts with a Newtonian measuring device (in this discussion, the “measuring device” is the artist or the psychoanalyst), the unconscious content becomes a conscious physical or psychic object. In our therapeutic language, this is when the unconscious becomes conscious.

Ideally, in our work, the psychic object that pops out may be a memory or association that leads to a new perspective or reflection; this can help the patient move in productive directions.

This can be experienced as an “aha” moment when clarity is suddenly achieved, a process I have written about elsewhere (Domash, 2010). For this to occur, both patient and therapist need to be receptive and open, to be comfortable with paradox and ambiguity. Similarly, the artist creates a physical work of meaning and passion which too seems to pop out of her unconscious as she embraces surprise and ambiguity.

As artists or as psychoanalysts, we have to tolerate the indeterminate nature of our process and our knowledge.  Similarly quantum theory stresses the indeterminacy of knowledge of the quantum world which is only a world of possibilities, not of realities. Therefore we can never know with precision what will happen or where a particular “particle” will emerge from the infinite length of the waveform. Similarly, therapy is an unpredictable process. It is an environment of possibilities; insights come and guide the patient but do not follow a set pattern.

Uncannily, quantum particles are known to pop in and out of existence. Bohm (1983) describes this “in and out movement ” from waveform to Newtonian reality as a dynamic between the implicate and explicate orders, much like an unconscious thought can become conscious and then recede back into unconsciousness.

RPS:  Sometimes in therapy I have come across “blind spots” where after the session I actually forgot what I had spoken about. When trying to recall the content of what had surfaced, I am only able to remember the context, but not what was actually said. My therapist is able to then guide me and bring light to this dark area. This is an example of material surfacing from the unconscious that is difficult to face, and when out of the therapy space, recedes back into unconsciousness.  This in and out movement also occurs when remembering dreams, the memory is present and then often vanishes and recedes.

LD:  Another concept is called entanglement: once two quantum particles intersect, they remain connected and will behave in the same manner no matter how far apart they are in space and time.  This is because, according to one interpretation by quantum physicists, they remain as part of a unified waveform which can extend indefinitely and stretch throughout space. The unified waveform contains the shared information about their quantum states so when one potential particle changes in any way, the other potential particle simultaneously changes as well.

To help us understand nonlocal reality– this connection regardless of time or space due to an earlier entanglement– the following example is sometimes given.  Picture two dice that, when thrown, alway register doubles, that is two threes, two sixes, and so on, no matter how far apart they are.  One die could be on earth and the other on Pluto.

As I understand it, this is because in the quantum world the waveform for each die entangled and then separated but stayed connected.  Then each waveform, with all the potentials simultaneously present, was measured. These measurements cause the waveform potentials to decohere to particles in our reality, Newtonian reality. (When measured, potentialities come out of the waveform and appear as real objects.)  In our case, the two die in the example appear in the real world.  Therefore, when one die is thrown and results in a number, the other die, wherever it may be in Newtonian reality, will suddenly display the same number due to the one time entanglement at the quantum level. Because of the original entanglement, when one particle changes in some way, the other will as well.

This strange concept of entanglement has been related to Jung’s concept of synchronicity (1972). Synchronicity is the co-incidence of a psychic state in the observer and an objective, external event. In other words, synchronicities are highly meaningful, symbolic, acausal connections made between one’s interior subjectivity and the events of everyday reality. It is the psychological connection between the inner state and outer event that makes it synchronistic. These are experienced as extra-ordinary co-occurrences. (Hopcke, 2009; Sylvester, 2010).

I have written about how we and our patients have to be alert for synchronicities, that is when an outside event seems to “hit” us as uncannily coincidental and gives power to the moment.  I termed this “psychoanalytic luck” (Domash, 2009). Moments of synchronicity can alert us to exceptional and meaningful opportunities and reveal an underlying pattern or framework, otherwise unknown or hidden from us. These moments can be thought of as an unconscious entanglement suddenly erupting into conscious reality.  These are connections that we can productively and creatively use.

Ironically (or not, considering quantum theory), the same day as I attended the presentation on quantum theory, Rachel sent me a poem she wrote titled “Footprint” which both by its content and timing illustrates these ideas. This poem “hit” me as important and as a possible avenue to begin exploring these important themes.

Creativity pops into the Newtonian world



Last winter
I began to find
peculiar silences imprinted everywhere.
Silence, in dust gathered,
silence, after a closed book,
around an empty glass of water,
after a switched off light.

The quiet that resided
in the folds of my sheets,
the blankets piled up
to get through winter,
the caves they formed around me.
The quiet that lurked in the morning
in those caves
is the silence that I speak of.

In this soundless state
I found myself
seated at my worn wooden desk
in a diagonal beam of light,
coffee cold
and a canvas before me.

LD: It seems as if this poem is about your emergent creativity and how it arose from stillness.

RPS: Yes, it is. This poem speaks about creating from a place of sad silence. Last year, recently separated, I found myself with more time to myself than I had had in years. I actively chose not to fill that time with distracting noise and activities to take me away from my feelings. Sometimes I would just sit in my house. Over time, I began to listen, to myself, to what was around me, and I heard a calling. In the poem the calling comes as a beam of light across my desk, me dazed, and my coffee cold. As I settled into this silence, I began to see more intricacies to my world, and was able to dive into my own self, slowly and gently peeling back the layers. It was in this void, this void that was both a gift and a theft, that I was to create.

It is only now as I write this that I can give thanks for this separation, for the clean and lonely hole it created in my life. It is through that hole, that I began to cultivate my artist.

LD: It sounds like you were able to tolerate the silences and allow something profound to emerge from your unconscious and work with it.

RPS: Absolutely. This emptiness was necessary for me to cultivate the land and wait for the seeds to come. Cleaning the creative space, watering it lovingly, is as important as the actual flowering process.

LD: You also used the beam of light (which behaves like a wave) as the symbol for the “calling” of your creativity, perhaps an unconscious analogy to the quantum waveform in the world of possibilities. Clarissa Pinkola Estes (1992), whose work you introduced me to, uses surges of water as the metaphor for female creativity.  She writes,  “The creative force flows over the terrain of our psyches looking for natural hollows, the arroyos, the channels that exist in us.  We become its tributaries, its basins; we are its pools, ponds, streams, and sanctuaries. The wild creative force flows into whatever beds we have, those we are born with as well as those we dig with our own hands. We don’t have to fill them, we only have to build them.” (p. 299)

This is analogous to a forceful emergence of particles from the quantum wave into consciousness. Estes (1992, p. 299) writes that the creative force is not a “matter of wanting to, not a singular act of will; one solely must.”

How is this for you? Are artists beings who are called to bring “the quantum into the material world”, to continuously reach the unconscious and bring it forth?

RPS:  I agree that my creativity comes from a place below and I think that the water images powerfully speak to the ways this energy can flow in a river or a stream, and often I experience it like a great wave. Sometimes it is  still water in a basin, and sometimes a dry riverbed. This terrain is always present and I do believe that my work as an artist is a conversation, sometimes aware and sometimes not, with my unconscious psyche.  It’s when the boundary between the two worlds blur that I am able to create most abundantly and freely. When patterns in randomness become clear, these two realms have connected. I try to feed this unconscious, illogical and intuitive part of myself as part of nourishing my artist.

How do we nurture our creative self?

LD: Estes talks about the importance of caring for our creative life. The “river beneath the river” which nourishes us can get polluted and seal off the creative. As she states it, then the river of life becomes the river of death.

Many myths have this theme of how negative forces can rob us of our life force. One of many examples she gives is one in which two men seal off a well owned by a man and his family so trees and flowers can’t grow; another in which a noxious fog spreads over an island so the gods cannot continue to create the story of life. These myths serve as warnings for us to escape, at all costs, negativity in our surroundings.

The above examples are of negativity coming from the outside.  The negativity can also come from within in the form of denigrating one’s own work and/or succumbing to procrastination, disorganization, or distraction. In women, the most common symptom of this pollution is a loss of vitality, to be distinguished from a natural ebbing and flowing of the creative process.

What thoughts do you have about our protecting our creative life, whether as therapists or artists?  Would you feel comfortable discussing your recent meditation retreat and if you feel it helped deepen your creative life?

RPS:  As I mentioned above, there are ways in which I actively nourish my creativity. I think protecting it is crucial. Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, refers to our artist as a child. A child needs to be fed, taken care of, spoiled, loved, and protected in order to blossom. I think we are our worst enemies when it comes to our own art. The self-critical voice in the mind is often so developed, sometimes overpowering. Part of protecting my artist, is quieting and reasoning with that voice of self doubt, of comparison, of negativity. I do this in the same way that I would try to protect a child from violence or anger, from harmful things in life.

I do feel the meditation course signaled an initiation of sorts that had been building in the months prior to it. Before I left for this course I had begun to float so freely in the unconscious realm that I got scared. I had a dream that came true. I also started falling asleep while I was dreaming and having deeper dreams inside my dreams. What really scared me though, is that I started having experiences in reality that felt like “waking dreams.” My dreams started feeling more “real” than certain moments or scenes from my waking life. This completely threw me off balance and I didn’t know how to navigate this dissolution.

LD: It sounds like you were so in touch with the unconscious realm, or metaphorically the quantum realm, that you were beginning to feel like an Alice in Wonderland. How did the “initiation” of the meditation course affect this?

RPS: I went to a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in absolute silence, where one tries to observe “reality” as it really is, without any distractions.  As I observed self during this immersion into the mind, I experienced a certain internal death. Various patterns and ways of living began to dissolve as it became clear that they were outdated. Maybe with this ‘death’ I will be able to let go of the need for a specific structure in reality in order to feel safe.  Maybe developing as a artist means deepening my experience in both the conscious and the unconscious realms. Sometimes getting lost is part of the journey. I could see that the fear that came up in the period before the meditation course was because I had reached a level of acute awareness that was new to me. Once I became familiar with this level of unconscious awareness, the fear began to retreat.

During the meditation course, my senses on an earthly level also became fine tuned.  My visual eye began to focus on light in ways I don’t recognize in normal life. Shadows, rays through clouds, reflections bouncing off my glasses, circular light particles, the early morning winter light before the sunrise- blue grey and misty.  I ate an orange at 5 PM with the sun low over the mountains and was able to observe every little bubble particle that made up such a luscious fruit. Holding that same fruit up to the light, I saw a warm tender glow.

LD: Wow, that’s an endorsement of the Newtonian world!

Jewelry As Symbolic Expression

LD: You are a jewelry designer as well as a fine artist.  From a psychological perspective, could one of the functions of your jewelry be to help us evolve, both to more fully express who we are and also to try out new and future selves. Can jewelry, with its fanciful and playful aspects, help us create a self that is “truer” than the real self, maybe the self we want to become.

I have been reading the work of Doniger (2005), a Hindu scholar, who discusses the use of “masquerade” and “pretend” in finding an identity. She writes in “The Woman Who Pretended to Be Who She Was” that a masquerade can help one find out who one really is. The mask reveals rather than conceals the self beneath the mask.

In this sense, the mask may be more authentic than the real self, the surface “deeper” than the depth. There can be a dialectic between the idea that the meaning is hidden beneath the surface and the idea that the meaning is on the surface, or still a third position, that meaning is in the space between the two.

She also discusses how symbolic jewelry was, especially rings, in ancient Hindu myths. One of the many possible symbols for the ring is of identity and the loss of it.  A signet ring was one’s particular seal or stamp, similar to credit cards of today. Credit card theft is termed identity theft. In some of these ancient myths the ring was also actually used to establish identity, usually of a male child by identifying his father. For example, the woman takes the ring of her lover while he is sleeping and then returns years later to prove he is the father of her child.

Can you say something about jewelry as a symbolic expression?

RPS: Jewelry is functional art.  It is meant to be worn, touched, and it ages with time. A special piece of jewelry can also become an extension of the body and a symbol reflecting one’s life experience. If the jewel is timeless enough to be passed down in a family, it holds in it memory and story and through the identification with that memory, a shared family identity.

I am wearing a ring right now that illustrates this symbology. Before I was born, you gifted your mother with a trip to Israel. The trip was meant to help my grandmother reclaim aspects of her emotional and spiritual identity after her husband, my grandfather, had passed away. In Israel, my grandmother bought a gift of a raw ruby for you. You then had that stone made into a ring and wore it for many years. Now that ring sits on my hand and connects me with my matrilineal line and is a symbol for reciprocity between generations. The story it holds is invaluable to me, and it’s the only artifact I have that my grandmother held in her hands.

LD:  Powerful. I didn’t realize until now how important this ring is to you and how it is a thread through the generations of our family, establishing a strong sense of female identity and the value of sharing resources. I wish my mother could know this and could have known you. I’m reminded again of my sadness that you two never met, yet the ring does link us all.

Let’s go from talking about symbolic expression to self expression. Can you say more about how your jewelry might speak to this?

RPS:  I think jewelry has the power to set a mood for the wearer and express different sides of personality. For example the movement in a pair of slinky earrings can be wispy and feather-like evocative of the feminine or of the forest. The wearer might choose these earrings to express that energy on a given day.  On another day, she might choose a pair of heavy hoop earrings that express a tougher, more urban aspect of self.

However, when I create, the small sculptures come to being without thought about what their essences will reflect. My own emotions and experiences come into play when I am doing art. It is more when I wear the jewelry or see it glowing on another person that the language it speaks becomes clear. It is to say, the wearer gives the object life and voice.

LD: The pieces of jewelry are expressions from the implicit world that can assist us in shaping ourselves psychologically.

Doniger writes that many myths have as their message the fact that you cannot escape your fate. However, myths provide “loopholes” as well. For example, as you travel through life, you may not become a completely different person but you can learn and evolve; you can find valuable aspects of yourself with the help of others and in that way experience a transformation.

Jewelry may help us find some of these “loopholes”, that is, it can help us to continue to discover ourselves and evolve.


LD: In psychoanalysis one of our main goals is to reach the implicit or unconscious self to access and potentially change early dysfunctional patterns that are repetitive and self destructive. One key method of reaching this implicit self is through dreamwork. The psychoanalytic literature has described  many possible functions of dreams. Some intriguing new research from neuroscience suggests that dream can change the brain both by helping us form new memories as well as reworking old memories. In this process, dreams can help us solve problems (Stickgold, 2005). On a neuronal level, this happens because our usual censors are turned off during dreaming so neurons are freer to roam about and make new connections (Limb and Baum, 2008; Beeman, et al, 2004). Relating to the quantum field, dreams are examples of images from the unconscious decohering and becoming manifest. Bion said it well: dreams are alpha functions by which he means the dreamer takes amorphous feelings and turns them into meaningful symbols (Bion, 1962).

Does dreaming help you come up with new ideas?  Can you give us an example?

RPS: I have definitely dreamt ideas for jewelry and images have come to me in dreams that inspire my collage work. When creative energy is flowing in my life, my dreams are vibrant and alive, which adds a symbolic and inspiring tone to my life. I don’t always strive to create actual dream images, but rather, to operate in a space where the active dream world allows me to enter deeper into myself. There have also been instances where I have dreamed about a piece of work and have literally tried to copy the dream.

LD: Can you tell us a dream that helped you solve a creative problem?

RPS: Yes I can, I have been working on a large collage of a volcano. The entire collage was completed except I needed to finish the lava. I didn’t know how I wanted to do this. I got frustrated, even proposed the idea to myself that it was an inactive volcano. Then I had a dream where I was observing a real view of this volcano erupting from a floating room inside myself. There were intense flashes of orange, yellow, and purple glowing behind the image and yes, there was lava flowing. But instead of what I was thinking and imaging lava to be in the conscious realm, in the dream world the lava consisted of black silhouettes of people, animals, objects all fleeing the mouth of the volcano. They were black paper cut out silhouettes on the horizon. I understood this eruption as an illusion to my past memory, to the people and events that have shaped my life and a purging that is happening right now for me.

I think this dream was advising me to not think of lava so literally in regards to my painting. I photocopied photographs, reduced them, darkened them and cut out the silhouettes of my family members and placed them on the horizon of my collage. However, it was impossible to achieve the grandeur of the image experienced in the dream. I was unsatisfied with the real image of the lava I had created in the collage, and after many hours of work, ripped it off layer by layer. This destruction was an echo of my own internal active eruption. Now the piece is finished, and it depicts the smoke settling post explosion. This collage was part of a group exhibition in March 2011 in Barcelona.

LD: Wow, the collage is electric and is such a good example of the force of the quantum popping into existence. Knowing your journey with the images makes it even more meaningful.

I am intrigued by this concept–the way that dreams can help us solve problems. I sometimes dream about patients, especially when I am puzzled by them. Reflecting on the dream can help me understand the treatment more deeply and may even suggest a direction I need to take, or be careful not to take, with the patient.

The following is an example, reported elsewhere (Domash, 2010), of a chilling image from a dream and my subsequent emotional insight about a patient. This insight may have prevented an enactment.

I awoke from a dream in which all I remembered was the chilling and dreadful image of a seductive mermaid in the water but with the face of Joan Crawford (whom I associate with cruelty from the biography Mommie Dearest). On awakening I thought of my patient who the day before had been discussing her mother as a seductive, yet periodically cruel woman. Although she had been discussing this a great deal in these first few months of therapy, I had been unable to feel it. Whether I was mirroring her detachment or it was my own defensiveness, or possibly both, I don’t know. However, when I woke up from the dream, I was very shaken and felt a sense of dread about the image. I felt I then knew on a very visceral level what the patient felt.

I began to think of what could develop in the treatment, that is, how we could get into an enactment where either she or I could become the seductive mermaid and have a sadomasochistic interaction. Instead, I was forearmed by the dream image and could move forward with more awareness of both her unconscious and mine. Of course, my feeling of detachment in the treatment was already the beginning of this enactment.

This unconscious insight (the image of the mermaid) helped me understand the patient from “the inside out” (Bromberg, 1998) and be more free of the possibility of unconsciously acting this out.

RPS: Very interesting, so your dream also helped you develop true empathy for the patient.

LD: Yes, I felt more alive with her and understood more deeply her experience of her mother.


LD:  You do collage which is literally creating a new composite from existing pieces, perhaps something like we do in dreams. At times you may be representing artistically what exists now; at other times, you may be grappling with what

could be, or an imagined reality you may want to create, something beyond what exists now? Can you comment?

RPS: I love collage as a medium because it is so open. Almost anything can be used and incorporated into a collage. This freedom allows me to descend into internal terrain and create images that are sometimes evocative of my irrational dreamscape. This world has particular color palettes that I identify with this descent.

I recall talking to you (my mother) about a dream I had where there was an underwater basketball game going on, and in a fit of rage one player threw the basketball to the surface of the water and hit a swimmer who was doing her laps in an enormous pool. While analyzing this rage, you pointed out to me that in the subconscious, emotions are raw; they exist without judgement. It is when the ball breaks the surface that we tag opinions and criticisms onto emotions. Some of my work  in collage is a meditation on a particular raw emotion. During this process I try to create from this raw place that is alive only “under water.” This is a collage exploring raw rage.

LD: So the viewer of your work can experience this too and get a sense of his/her own unconscious for a moment without all of the usual censors operating. You give us an opportunity to go deep below the surface to know ourselves more deeply. As therapists, of course, we are trying to help patients contact their deep emotions. It is only in this way that change is possible.


LD: As mentioned, an intriguing concept in quantum theory is entanglement, that is when two quanta meet and touch, they are eternally connected. This is analogous to Jung’s concept of synchronicity (1972), when a psychic element meets an element in the real world evoking strong meaning for the person.  This can be viewed as an expression in the real world of an entanglement that existed in the unconscious before the real event occurred.

I encourage my patients to welcome synchronicity, to notice and seize these moments as they may lead to new opportunities.. That uncanny feeling of “aha” when a synchronistic event occurs can alert us to something meaningful to pursue, perhaps a “forgotten” but important path.

Does synchronicity play a role in your art? Can you give us an example?

RPS: Synchronicity plays a huge role in my life.  When I am aligned with my creativity the more synchronicity and magical things happen in my daily life. My senses are more open and fine tuned so I notice these things more- perhaps they are always actually there, just like the ideas floating around, present only when we capture them. These events and this way of interacting with the world in turn inspires my art. I recently made a collage on top of a city grid of the gothic neighborhood in Barcelona. This collage was inspired by various synchronistic events that occurred along this street during the month of December.

LD: To answer the question at the start of our dialogue, “How do new ideas come into being?” it seems that creativity happens when we allow ourselves to notice it, when we can “measure” our unconscious. Many things can facilitate this: meditation, dreaming, psychotherapy.  I’d say a general attitude of welcoming surprise, of letting oneself be “struck”.

The Entrance of the Unconscious into the Physical World

LD: Let’s bring these ideas into the very physical world by presenting one of your collages which suggest some of these themes as we bring our dialogue to conclusion. We are going to ask you to be both artist and commentator on your own artistic work!

LD:  As you reflect on your work, what would you say are some of the feelings and ideas you are conveying?

RPS: In this collage a young girl is scribbling on a chalk board. She just woke up and is desperately painting a dream she just had. She is in a trance, a creative spell, a hypnagogic state wherein everything else falls away. There is fear in her eyes. She is scared the creative spell will end and the inspiration will slip away. Her time is limited. She fears she will be judged. She fears the sensations; she is out of sorts.

The bottom part of the image is the surreal, subconscious world.  Trees from the subconscious are growing up towards waking life, connecting the two arenas. The collage illustrates a moment where the subconscious or dreamworld overlaps with the Newtonian world and is expressed through art. This young girl represents a primal necessity to release the quantum energy into the real world, to express her dreams with a mass of scribbles on the wall. The river running horizontally separates the two realms; the creative life bridges the two.

In the girl’s hand, growing from the chalk is a gear from a clock. It is with this gear and a piece of chalk, the artist’s instruments, that she navigates through her psyche. She is able to turn the hands of time back and access the past dream world and lost memories. This is new territory for her, and she is young. She is intrigued but navigates cautiously.

LD:  Despite her fear, it seems she is capable of traveling between the two worlds. Like the quantum popping in and out of existence.

Psychoanalyst/Mother, Artist/Daughter

LD: A toast! As mother and daughter, may we be an example of “metaphorical entanglement”, forever psychically connected regardless of time and space.

By this I mean a deep meaningful connection that is inspiring. The term entanglement should not be confused with the negative concept of enmeshment. Enmeshment suggests a crippling, overdependent connection whereas entanglement evokes freedom and individuation while never losing a primal sense of being related and part of the other.

In this dialogue I hope we have succeeded in our experiment in superposition, that we have been able to exist as artist/daughter and psychoanalyst/mother at the same time! I am so grateful to have this special opportunity.

RPS:  Bringing these words into being, artist and psychoanalyst as the “measurers”, I too hope that we have been able to connect both the quantum world with the conscious world, and then back again, the Newtonian world with the unconscious realm. And, I hope we have shown how creativity helps us navigate the space between the two.


waveform:  an energy cloud, of sorts, without a beginning or end that inherently ‘contains’ the possibility of transforming into a Newtonian particle  (Silvestro, 2010).

quantum particle: a possibility in the wave function

superposition: a quantum particle or possibility can be in two or more places or states at the same time

entanglement: once two quantum particles intersect, they remain connected and will behave in the same manner no matter how far apart they are in space and time. We are using the term “entanglement” in a psychological sense to mean connected in a meaningful, growth promoting manner. This is to be distinguished from the psychological term “enmeshment” which connotes a crippling, suffocating connection that impedes individuation and freedom.

decoherence:  when the quantum particle is measured, it comes into the real world as a material object and is no longer just a possibility. Then it loses the capability of superposition.

synchronicity: a meaningful, acausal, connection between a psychic object, event or element, and its manifestation in everyday reality

Acknowledgement: We both wish to thank Dr. Ken Silvestro for his generous and thoughtful help with this article.


Al-Khalili, J. (2003). Quantum: A guide for the perplexed. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson.

Beeman, M.J., Bowden E.M., Haberman J., Frymiare J.L., Arambel-Liu S., Greenblatt, R.,  Reber, P.J., & Kounios, J. (2004) Neural activity when people solve verbal problems with insight.  PLoS Biol 2, (4),  e97. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.

Bion, W.R. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann Medical Books.

Bion, W. (1967). Notes on memory and desire. Psychoanalytic Forum, 2, 271-280.

Bohm, D. (1983). Wholeness and the implicate order. London: Ark Paperback.

Bromberg, P. (1998). Standing in the spaces: Essays on clinical process, trauma, and dissociation. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way: A spiritual path to higher creativity.  New York:Tarcher/Putnam.

Domash, L. (2010). Unconscious freedom and the insight of the analyst: Exploring neuropsychological processes underlying “aha” moments. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry,  38(2), 315-340.

Domash, L. (2009). The emergence of hope: Implicit spirituality in the treatment situation and  the occurrence of psychoanalytic luck. Psychoanalytic Review. 96, 35-54.

Doniger , W. (2005). The woman who pretended to be who she was: Myths of self-imitation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Estes, C.P. (1992).  Women who run with the wolves: Myths and stories of the wild woman archetype. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hopcke, R.H. (2009). Synchronicity and psychotherapy: Jung’s concept and its use in clinical work. Psychiatric Annals, 39(5), 287-296.

Jung, C. G. (1972). Synchronicity: An acausal connecting principle. London: Routledge and Kegan.

Kandel, E. R. (2006). In search of memory: The emergence of a new science of mind. New York: Norton.

Limb, C.J., & Baum, A.R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS ONE, 3(2), e1679. doi: 10. 1371/ journal.pone.

Silvestro, K. (2010). Newton meets the Mad Hatter: Introducing psychoanalysis to quantum physics.  IFPE Annual Conference: “Psychoanalysis: Not the Same Old Song and Dance.” Nashville, TN.

Stickgold, (2005).  Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature,  437, 27.

Rachel Shapiro, an artist, jeweler and teacher living in Barcelona Spain, is fascinated by the intersection of the language of the psyche and the creative process in art. Her collage work was recently exhibited at Gallery Maxó in Barcelona. Her jewelry line, Rachel Paula, is for sale in New York City and Barcelona as well as on the web, on Etsy and Amazon.

Leanne Domash, psychoanalyst and supervisor in New York City, is intensely interested in how both patient and analyst can become more innovative and creative in the psychoanalytic process. Dr. Domash maintains a private practice in Manhattan. She is a Supervisor in the New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis and Consulting Psychologist, Beth Israel Medical Center and Associate Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Leanne and Rachel are mother and daughter. This is their first collaboration as colleagues.

Captured and Enraptured by the Muse: Psychoanalysts Discussing Poetry

April 15, 2010 12:00 am


by Merle Molofsky

This paper was presented at the 20th Interdisciplinary Conference of the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education in Seattle, Washington, November 2009.

Psychoanalysts and poets live in a world of symbolism, imagery, and heightened language, moving fluidly between conscious and unconscious process, among shifting and conflicting emotional states, seeking meaning.  In March 2009, I was invited to lead an on-line forum on poetry for a psychoanalytic organization.  I began the discussion inviting participation thusly: “Poetry is the consummate language of the human psyche, the fusion of symbolic communication, music, and meaning.  Poetry is the verbal interface between primary process and secondary process, guided by creative artistry.  Freud said that poets are the best psychologists, meaning not that among psychoanalysts the poets are the best, not at all, but that the dramatic poets such as Goethe and Schiller best penetrated the depths of the human psyche.”

Participants in the on-line forum were invited to submit poems of no more than 40 lines, either original work of their own or work by other poets.  For the three weeks of the forum, I would choose poems for discussion from those submitted.  I emphasized that the discussion would focus on the reader’s response to the poem.  “What does the poem evoke in you?  What thoughts and feelings and memories are stimulated by the poem?”  I further stipulated that we were not to discuss the poet’s psyche.  We were not to analyze the poet.  We were to learn from our own response, to enjoy our own process of discovery.

Literary discussions of poetry focus on imagery, music, and meaning of a poem.  Participants in the on-line forum were encouraged if they so chose to address prosody: tropes and the musical impact of rhythm, rhyme, and repetition.  I acknowledged the importance of the awareness of literary elements.  Even more so, I envisioned personal response, individual resonance with meanings of the poem.  In essence, I was asking, “Does this poem convey something of unconscious fantasy, unconscious process, affect, memory?  Does it create a sense of oneness or of anomie?  What do you resonate with?  What engages you?”  My aim was to encourage a free associative process that would allow us to share our expanding understandings of the deepest meanings of human experience as they are expressed in poetry and shared by all.

The basic guidelines for discussion are a paradigm for exploring transference and countertransference responses in the analytic situation.  To explore one’s own responses to symbolic creative process is akin to exploring one’s own countertransference.  Psychoanalysts who read and listen to poetry are training themselves to resonate further with dreams, free association, fantasies, primary process, and transference wishes.  And of course, much more.

Prominent members of the community submitted their own poems, which had literary merit and deep meaning.  Participants identified and resonated with themes of leaving, silence, loss, and non-existence.  Water imagery evoked a sense of nature and impermanence, and led to many associations, some serious, some humorous.  One poem describes a world overwhelmed by flooding, an engulfing and predatory ocean.  Since all psychoanalysts have undergone personal analysis, we can assume that the analysts responding to this poem had access to their own memories of feeling overwhelmed, flooded, engulfed, at risk of annihilation, either in their personal lives, their clinical work, or both.  Certainly these analysts would be able to recognize and resonate with similar feelings experienced by their analysands.   We frequently are witness to clinical manifestations of fear of symbiotic engulfment, of annihilation of self and individuality.  To resonate with such imagery in a poem means we can resonate with clinical manifestations of such fears.  Poets can be aware of such feelings, which to some extent are universal, and poets find a way to symbolize and sublimate such feelings without being truly overwhelmed or engulfed.  Poets provide a pathway to explore these feelings without having been swept away and drowned!

One participant responded to an image in a poem that evoked a predatory ocean, “[the] ‘monotonously sleeping sea quiet to the eyes’ terrifies me.  It only seems quiet to the eyes for there are monsters below.”  After another participant referenced Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” a third participant responded, “And hit a Homer and slid across home Plato.”  Free associative processes heightened, and as they did, community built.  The ability to share both cultural frames of reference and humor, particularly the provocative humor of punning, created a freer and freer environment.  We were sharing a language of poetry, a language of free association, in a way very different from most psychoanalytic forums.  We were deeply immersed in transitional space.  We were playing.  I offer you now fragments of our process.  Please join us, first in contemplation, and later in interchange.

(Interchange:  All articles published in Other/Wise may be responded to by readers.)

on reading ammons

by Gerald Gargiulo

it’s not the leaving
that it’s about.
about leaving
there is no

it’s about the silence,
like a monotonously sleeping sea
quiet to the eyes
can we leave that way?

that way, non-existence has
no argument with us.
we trouble it not
disturbing with our memories
what cannot be disturbed

no wonder we come again
again to learn
it’s not about the leaving
but leaving not troubled

not troubling the quiet
which yearns to remember
with no trouble at all.

In sending the poem to the group listserv, I made the following remarks:  “This poem is a meditation on leaving, and silence, and non-existence, and emptiness, and memory.  These are ultimately profoundly human themes, themes we all have wrestled with, encountered in our own lives, and certainly in our work with analysands.  Your thoughts, your feelings, are welcome, and will be seriously entertained by all of us.

“In stanza four, the poet says, ‘it’s not about the leaving/but leaving not troubled.’  What sort of leaving can lead to a leaving not troubled?  What prevents us from attaining leaving not troubled?

“What impact does the spareness of the poem, the simplicity, have on you?  Does the spareness and simplicity evoke silence, or leaving, or emptiness, or something else?”

My questions are the questions a literature professor, or a high school teacher, might ask!  They were intended to spark dialogue, and were my defenses against my fears that people might be too shy to respond without encouragement.  I did not trust the “free association” potential.

In identifying the themes, I stated the obvious, culling the words directly from the poem.  Because the themes touch our deepest fears, I thought it wise to articulate them loud and clear, to ease the defenses and resistances to approaching the subject matter.  It would be quintessentially natural to defend against the feelings evoked by the poem, particularly in a public discussion among analysts.  But it would be quintessentially natural to feel relief in being able to do so!

The first response, by Lou Hagood, was intense.  “Perhaps existence & memory are manifestations in the waking world like subatomic particles, emerging, briefly, from the sleeping quantum sea of dream.  Quiet to the eyes, but alive with infinite energy.”  He brought us straight to psychoanalytic concerns, the stuff that dreams are made of, to dream, and he did it with poetic language of his own.  Lou Hagood has a particular interest in dreams, has attended and led many dream workshops, and maintains a blog, at  Our encounter with symbolic process led us to a transitional play space, where we could be allusive, rather than academic, free, not constricted by professional jargon.  I did not have to play the role of literature professor.

The second response was equally intense, and personal.  “I keep reading this poem, trying to feel my way toward words articulating my experience of it.

“I’m troubled when I sense the silence left behind by vanished loved ones, and by my inevitable leaving.  The poem suggests to me that there may be an infinite sphere of mind in which remembrance of me and my others can be untroubled.  Don’t I want to take, and leave behind, this trouble?”

The analyst responding did what an analyst should do – she identified the issue being alluded to.  She brought to the open the fear of death and abandonment, and of being forgotten.  She named the vanished loved ones, those who disappear when they die.

Paul Cooper responded to this post, saying, “Your experience parallels my own, except you have articulated yours when you say ‘trying to feel my way toward words articulating my experience of it.’  I had this odd blank feeling of not being able to resonate and therefore not being able to use words.  So perhaps that was the experience, right within and in front of me and completely missing it.  Perhaps, as with certain patients, the state of ‘not-knowing’ is the actual ‘knowing’.  Yes, ‘The quiet emptiness…’”

This response is resonant with the first analyst’s depth of response, conveys how Paul processes his own feelings as human being and as analyst, and provides a model for clinical and personal dialogue.  He is attuned to poetic, symbolic process, as analyst, poet, and person.

Alexander Stein, who is an expert on psychoanalysis and music, and who has written and published extensively in this area, responded thusly:  “There is a lexical-affective symmetry.  …[T]his is one of the defining features of what poetry can achieve.  I also admire how Jerry has layered and compounded meanings and allusions in key words, akin to imagistic or auditory condensation in dream work.  The fulcrum is… Ammons, a word laden with assonant and ideational overtones – Amen, endings, Jerry’s spirituality, the distinguished and beautiful poet A.R. Ammons….  As I hear it , Jerry offers a haunting paean to loss, a meditation on presence, absence, and remembrance tied to the life cycle.”  Stein’s ability to tie the meaning to the music of the poem, his freedom in associating the name Ammons to the word Amen, his psychoanalytic and musical and poetic ear integrating possibilities for his colleagues, indeed is impressive.  That he did so freely and smoothly is a tribute to the poetry, of course, but also to the openness and responsiveness of his colleagues.

Michael Eigen responded with a poem from his soul,

What a haunting transmission, deep, enigmatic, true.

A deep sea within, totally silent, at peace….the deeper one goes, the greater

the peace….

and on the surface, ripples, waves, turbulence.

So deep, the Sabbath point of soul.

So deep, the ever moving ripples.

Poetry offered then was matched by more poetry offered.  Paul Cooper pointed out in one of his comments that “poetic response is central to certain aspects of Japanese poetry.”  Further, he said, “A good poem…can evoke infinities of response, which says more about the reader than the poem.”  Analysts listen to the poetry of free association, to the deepest conscious and unconscious wishes, conflicts, fears, yearnings of the analysand, and in the many analysts are evoked infinities of response.  In clinical work we discover that our own infinities of response may tell us more about ourselves than our analysand, as Paul said of poetry.  Yet knowledge of our own response allows us to offer so much more to our analysands.

Henry Grinberg’s poem on the watery burial of the city of Torcello also evokes the same pervasive anxiety of loss.  The tides and turbulence of feeling that Jerry Gargiulo’s poetry created continued to swirl as we considered Henry’s poem.  Henry’s poem addresses the rage of abandonment, offering us the image of a forgotten drowned god who continues to smile beneath the roiling waters as the safe and dry sky gods look down.


by Henry Grinberg

As Venice sinks,
Some miles across the water,
Trembling beige and brown in torpid mist,
Here too waters slide upward,
Washing inset tombs of ancient saints
Set in the cathedral floor.
From above, others gaze:
Cool, grave, lovely and passionate gods,
In the apsidical mosaics of Torcello.

The charmed city across the lagoon
Smiles in easy indulgence,
Seducing its familiars with colors and wine.
But here, wetted in cold silence,
Water pulls and stretches the faces of deities—
Cool, angry, lovely, gold and ivory undimmed,
Passionate in silent rage—
Pulled and stretched, by water unshaped.

I too lie beneath the waters,
My face gathering and relaxing
In the quiet restless wash.
The glower above matches my lifeless stare beneath,
Sheltered from the tumbling heat outside,
Piercing grief and bereavement,
Though unforgiving.

Like Venice,
Torcello, biothanatic, settles into the water.
But its descent, believed accomplished, alarms not at all.
Alarms not at all.
Only I, flagstone-rinsed by implacable inches,
Stare upward, matching blind hatred, god to god,
With watered, shining eyes of stone.

Torcello once was a haven for people fleeing Venice during barbarian invasions.  It is now a saline marsh, with a population of about 20.   Analysts share an appreciation and dread of silence.  We appreciate reverie, we dread unmovable resistance.  If something is forever dead and buried beneath unforgiving waters, can we dredge it up and bring it to light?  Silence is both a spiritual state of grace and a sinking into non-existence.  Perhaps the contemplation of grief, bereavement, and silenced rage caused a momentary lull in the forum dialogue.  Comments were sparse and focused on the concrete realities of the poem, the back story rather than the imagery or what was being invoked.  The poem itself is complex, deep, beautiful, resonant.  Perhaps I erred in offering two melancholy poems back to back.  Too much to bear….  And then….

A particularly stirring part of the discussion came when I announced that the upcoming poem for discussion, “Hebrew Mamita,” by Vanessa Hidary, could be seen on YouTube.  The YouTube video is poetry in performance, a lively “rant” on the theme of a bar pick-up.  Vanessa Hidary describes a man coarsely coming on to her with an anti-Semitic attitude.  She explores the experience in a contemporary poetic style, part of the “Poetry Slam” culture.  She uses her whole body, the musicality of her voice underscoring the musicality of the poem itself.

I offered literary background to contextualize the discussion while leaving room for individual associations.  I pointed out that worldwide, poetry always has been a performance art, long before written language and “literary” tradition, and that much of prosody evolved as an aid to memorization.  I cited Celtic bardic tradition, court minstrelsy throughout Europe and the Middle East, African griot tradition, and Greek epic recital.  Blind Homer had a prodigious memory (if Homer indeed were blind).    I then referred to the tradition of the “rant,” found in the Celtic bardic tradition, Calypso, talking blues, and rap.

“Hebrew Mamita” evoked deep memories among a number of Jewish women analysts, particularly those who grew up as minorities.  The discussion then involved the experience of non-Jewish analysts as well.  We explored the concept of the Other.  One Jewish woman, who grew up in a Baptist Bible Belt town, stated, “I am noticing a wish to ask the non-Jews reading [these posts] if my own remarks have made them uncomfortable, or to wonder if a profession like psychoanalysis with so many Jews has marginalized non-Jews as the Other, the way Jews were marginalized in their own cultures of origin.

“What intrigues me about the power of ‘Hebrew Mamita’ is that the poem has sensitized me to how sensitive I am to other people’s reactions.  Am I apologizing in some way for being ‘too Jewish’ or for presuming that psychoanalysts are ‘too Jewish’?”

Another Jewish woman analyst responded, “I loved it, in my flesh.  I know the barstool moment.  I loved Vanessa’s beautiful flesh, her articulation, her polite in-your-face gruffness, her body.  I loved her rhythm.”

She then went on to wonder how the people attending the poetry slam at which “Hebrew Mamita” was performed would experience a white Jewish woman using a hip-hop inflected poetry style.  Would the mainly African-American crowd feel co-opted?  Or would they identify with her?  She also considered how the poem would work if the writer/performer were a Jewish man.  From there she speculated on whether the poet consciously uses her “flesh and winsome talents” as “weapons in her act.”

I chose “Hebrew Mamita” because of personal experience.  I commented on this in initiating the discussion, as follows:  “During the late 1950’s, I used to participate in poetry readings at the Gaslight Café on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.  I was a teenager from the ‘outer boroughs,’ seeking ‘culture’, ‘art’, adventure and romance.  Most of the poets who read were not teenagers.  They were adults.  Among those adults was a poet named Ted Joans, who mocked the outer borough Jewish adolescent girls who frequented the Village.  One of his poems referred to these girls as ‘Bronx bagel babies’.  And yes, I found the poem degrading, anti-Semitic, insulting, and hurtful.  ‘Hebrew Mamita’ voices something I could not articulate myself as a teenager among adults.  I was more concerned with avoiding the predators among the adults, those trying to manipulate and seduce the girls seeking romance and adventure.  Whatever we were seeking, it was not to be found among the predators filling the cafés, sitting on the stoops near the store fronts, or at the fountain at Washington Square.”

A response soon followed.  “Vanessa Hidary’s voice strongly echoes my own struggle between feeling deeply part of a group, contrasted with the painful and confusing shame, fear and anger that that group could be hated, denigrated, and cast out.  This certainly was a force that I had to reckon with analytically on many levels.”

The poetry brought the individual experience out of privacy and into shared play space, in a form that analysts together could recognize, resonate with, inform their own lives with, and bring to their own clinical practice.  From my own self-revelation in choosing the poem and discussing my reasons to do so, to the responses from others, we found ourselves touching on many issues from a personal perspective.  Sexual vulnerability, Otherness, humiliation, rage, were all identified and willingly explored.  What I find remarkable is the freedom we had to delve publicly into issues such as these, issues which are seldom explored in psychoanalytic presentations and gatherings.  In the spirit of the forum, I offer a poem of my own, a rant:


When I call the names of invisible things upon you,
when you hear your own voice
calling your own name
in your left ear,
when the names of invisible things become nothing,
yet your skin feels the whisper of names present,
like a halo,
when I do these word-deeds with my tongue and voice,
do not then believe that I have exacted vengeance.

Nine nights dreaming you will see me dancing,
and it won’t be me!  It will be
a fox, perhaps, or a bird, something creaturely,
naked as a tree, and I won’t be there!
But I’ll be somewhere, dancing,
and you will be encircled.

You are grown earthy; marsh-grass sprouts in damp places,
moss dapples your back.
Your tongue lies mute as a stone in your mouth,
and in your throat nickel begins to boil.

You are free: run to the river,
roll in the mud, sink in the waters;
you shall still be burning.
And do not think that I have sought my vengeance
in these tame events.

For those who attended the presentation of this article at the 2009 IFPE conference, and for those now reading, I will say what I said on the poetry forum, “Rant is an honorable form.” Is that statement defensive?  I find myself speculating, is offering this poem for contemplation actually sublimation through art and creativity, or is it aesthetically-informed acting out?  Either way, it sure feels good.  I reveal an aspect of myself through rant that I don’t particularly choose as public persona, someone angry, vengeful, aggressive – and of course, beneath the blatant aggression, someone hurt and sad.  Obviously I am letting this aspect of myself be seen because I trust that it is integrated into a self that enjoys psychoanalytic interchange and intellectual and emotional dialogue.

Rant inspires to action.  While rap and hip-hop inflected poetry in performance is “embodied”, as are sung lyrics, political poetry reminds us that “the times, they are a-changing’, that poetry creates change.  What do the following lines evoke in you?  “The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.”  “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you and me.”  “Where working men go out on strike, it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.” “This land is my land, this land is your land.” “Allons enfants de la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé.”  “Buffalo soldiers, stolen from Africa.”

How have the following poets changed or challenged your world view, your perception of reality, your filters?

Muriel Rukheyser.  Federico Garcia Lorca.  Pablo Neruda.

In discussing poetry, a dialogue among analysts emerged that was open, free, playful, serious, self-revealing, and vibrant.  We shared a language of the soul.

NOTE:  I would like to express my gratitude to the poets who permitted their work to be presented in this paper.  All rights to the poems are retained by the poets, and the poems may not be reproduced in whole or in part without consent from their authors.

Merle Molofsky

Merle Molofsky is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. She serves on the IFPE Board of Directors and as chair of the IFPE Ethics Committee. She is a member of the editorial board of The Psychoanalytic Review. Her articles and reviews have been published in Other/Wise, The Psychoanalytic Review, Journal for Religion and Health, and other journals. She is a faculty member, supervisor, and training analyst of NPAP and the Institute for Expressive Analysis, and supervisor at Harlem Family Institute. Her play, “Koolaid”, was produced at Lincoln Center, and her poetry has been published in a chapbook, Notes for a Journey, and in numerous small press journals.

Alphabetized: Being and About

April 15, 2010 12:00 am


By Paul Cooper

This paper is adapted and excerpted from The Zen Impulse and the Psychoanalytic Encounter by Paul C Cooper and used with the permission of Routledge an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group.

I would like to develop and articulate some distinctions between “being” and “about.” Bion’s use of alpha function serves to enter the discussion. Bion developed the notion of “alpha function,” a process by which “beta elements,” a term he uses to describe the basic raw experience of sensations and affects are worked over and transformed into the precursors or the material of thought. Alpha function explains, as Eigen writes, “… how feelings become real for us, how “emotional digestion” works (2004, p. 76). The failure of alpha function in the absence or failure or deficiency of maternal reverie, the lack of, which Lopez-Corvo, for instance, notes, “… will hamper the possibility of structuring an alpha function” (2006, p.99).  From this theoretical perspective, Ferro (2005) details the manner in which pathology occurs as a result of deficient or lacking alpha function or in which the alpha function cannot process the intensity and extent of incoming stimuli. Rhode speaks of the role that the “deterioration in alpha function” plays in psychic deadness. He notes that “Meaning drains from the concepts of space and time, and a sense of catastrophe darkens any attempt at comprehension” (1994, p. 111). These sensitive and creative formulations and developments in psychoanalytic thought derive from Melanie Klein’s original theoretical formulations and have extended the range and efficacy of clinical technique.

However, in a shift in perspective away from an exclusive emphasis on pathology, Zen experience informs me that just as such deficiencies require attention; one can become what I would like to describe as being over “alpha-betized.”  This experience finds expression in the human tendency to seek out, discover, uncover, recover what is the cause, the reason, the why, or the meaning of experience. Becoming alphabetized contributes to what Rhode (1998) describes as viewing the world in a limited and “lexical” manner, imagining that everything must make sense; that we feel comfortable when things make sense; as if  all experience can be lined up alphabetically or numerically; as if the crucial existential questions of life can be answered by consulting a master dictionary; as if dream images are devoid of unique meanings for the individual; as if the koan can be “solved” or answered logically and intellectually; as if, as Rhode notes, with regard to the medical model, that “it has no place in it for a concept of unknowable internalization – a concept of unknowable becoming” (1998, p. 20). Such problems and dilemmas constituted the agenda of the positivists, not the Zenist and not a small but increasingly expanding cadre of contemporary psychoanalysts. These basic existential questions are the type that Zen teachers characteristically and repeatedly scoff at. The Zen literature is filled with stories reflecting this attitude. This over-reliance on sense-making operates at the expense of a view of the infinite and creative potential of openings into the unknown. This tendency becomes institutionalized and rationalized through an exclusive use of theory, logic, linear thinking and sense-making and results in de-emphasizing, thus inadvertently buffering, and at the extreme foreclosing the felt, lived impact of experiencing Truth as we find it. Grotstein, for example, takes it a step further. He describes psychoanalytic theories as

… veritable psychoanalytic manic defenses against the unknown, unknowable, ineffable, inscrutable, ontological experience of ultimate being, what Bion terms “Absolute Truth”, “Ultimate Reality.” It is beyond words, beyond contemplation, beyond knowing, and always remains “beyond” in dimensions forever unreachable by man (2007, p.121).

Zen practice demands a stripping away of such defenses, which are often characterized in Zen parlance as “dualistic thinking.” Practice, in this respect, demands “being” not simply talking “about” a koan. Performing, not informing and not speaking, as the Zen master demands, when he says, “Show me!” This demand, however, has often been misunderstood, even by serious Zen practitioners, as an exclusive “showing” at the expense of “telling,” at the expense of dialogue, at the expense of intellect and can result in a radical extremism that devalues dialogue and which has clearly been the subject of criticism among contemporary Zen scholars and practitioners who assert that intellectual and intuitive capacities require integration and that prioritization of one over the other represents dualistic thinking (Heine, 1994, Heine & Wright, 2000; Hori 2000, 2003). Heine, for instance describes the interview between teacher and student as an “encounter dialogue,” which he notes involves “ … a particular type of oral practice in which masters and students interact in certain definable, if unpredictable ways (2000, p.47).

The fundamental and distinctive Zen tenet, “no reliance on words and letters,” for instance, what was intended as a critique and warning of fundamentalist tendencies toward concrete and literal meaning of the scriptures, a tendency in any religion or psychoanalytic school of thought; a tendency and a dependency, has been erroneously interpreted and misused to rationalize a total disregard for written teachings. This radical disregard for the intellect has clearly not been my experience with several Zen teachers whom I have studied and practiced with over the years, who all, without exception, encouraged discussion, especially during our early meetings. Without exception these teachers consistently worked through this misconception on my part, which was typically expressed through my own attempts to derail dialogue and that interfered with genuine relatedness.  These efforts, while consciously reflecting my intention to demonstrate, in no uncertain terms, my own level of realization, also functioned, at the time, more as expressions of my own unconscious character-driven avoidance tactics than any true expression of any Zen realization, or, as my analyst used to assert it at the time, “You prefer to be a moving target rather than a sitting duck.”

The relationships between analyst and analysand; between Zen teacher and student are fluid with specific identifiable phases that traverse the full range between “being” and “about.” For instance, Daido Loori, the contemporary American Zen master, outlines this flow as follows:

The first stage is very much like a child with a parent. The teacher is very directive. “This is the way you sit. This is the way you hold your hands. This is the way you breathe.” It’s to get the student started. That quickly dissolves into a relationship in which the teacher … becomes a spiritual mentor. Then that dissolves into spiritual equals. The teacher disappears. Finally the teacher and the student exchange positions—the teacher becomes the student, the student becomes the teacher. (2009, p. 41).

In this regard, we take in the qualities of our teachers, although teachers will consciously work against such identifications in order to facilitate a process for the student of opening up to who one is, to “true self.” However, just as maternal reverie facilitates alpha function and the development of the capacity to digest and use raw experience, the power of unconscious identification and internalization through cycles of projection and introjection can exert a strong influence in shaping the student’s perception, experience and expression of Zen.

Loori, in describing his experience with his teacher, characterizes the conversations as sparse. The terseness of language that Loori describes can be reflective of both the evolution of the relationship interacting with cultural influences and personalities. For instance, during my sui-zen [2] training with Japanese teachers, basically nothing was spoken. Teaching was exclusively through example, playing together and by demonstration. Given this traditional formalized Japanese teaching style, certain teachers said more or less than others. By contrast, American teachers who I have studied with tend to speak quite a bit, providing guidance and historical information in between demonstrations and explications on technique. Within this interactive context, this group of teachers displayed a wide range of personal variation. For example, one teacher would usually take a break in between pieces to serve tea during our lessons.

Similarly, the relation between “being and “about” can be observed in different approaches to psychoanalysis. One approach hinges on the view of psychoanalysis as a collection of theories and related techniques applied to specifically diagnosed pathologies with cure as a goal. The practitioner stands outside looking in and applies the tools. The notion of cure as an exclusive goal can become problematic and at the extreme can be intertwined with intolerance, greed, aggression or fear. Conformity to a system of techniques, at the extreme, reflects an expectation that the analysand conforms. With regard to the role of cure, Barratt draws a distinction between “psychotherapeutic efficacy” and “psychoanalytic truthfulness and transformation” (1993, p. 41). He further observes that “In short the psychoanalytic method is not the generation of formulas by which lives may be encoded and guided” (p. 42). Loori’s pronouncement “I am a worthless wretch and have nothing to show you, go see for yourself!” exemplifies this position.

Alternatively, the psychoanalyst facilitates and engages in a free-associative inquiry that constitutes the psychoanalytic dialogue relating to the individual’s uniqueness in an accepting and creative way. The ensuing transformative conversation is unique and integrates varying levels of both “being” and “about.” Barrett’s observation holds relevance for both disciplines. He notes that “the secret of the psychoanalytic method is the very engagement  of a discourse wherein the fixity and certainty of  any proffered epistemic configuration are dislodged … what psychoanalysis offers the subject is thus its discourse as Otherwise” (Barrett’s emphasis, p. 42).

Dogen, the 13th C Japanese monk and founder of the Soto Zen tradition, points to non-privileging of silence or dialogue, demonstration or talking about in this poem:

Not limited

By language

It is ceaselessly expressed;

So, too, the way of letters

Can display but not exhaust it.

(Dogen, In: S. Heine, Trans. 1997, p.108)

In this regard, “experiential being” does not exclude “talking about” direct experience and does not always exclude intellectual discourse. We are thinking and feeling beings. Our relationships are fluid. Such an option and misperception betrays subtle splits and reinforces dualistic thinking. Rather, “being” and “about” become harmonized and reflect a lived aspect of the abstract notion of the identity of the relative and the absolute. “Being” does not exclude “about” or other capacities. Rather the dialogue evolves and opens an expanded enriched sense of who we are in relation to each other, for instance, when student and teacher exchange roles.

The Zen master and the student, often through formal ritual, express a commitment to partake in truth evolutions through varying and oscillating combinations of “about” and “being” discovering moments of balance of simultaneous separateness and oneness. In this way, the ensuing dialogue occurring in the interview re-establishes the basic rhythm of one’s personal oscillation, which in this sense becomes restorative, and refreshing, albeit, at times, shocking, disorienting and terrifying and often, in my experience, includes a discussion of ordinary day-to-day basic human experiences.

With experience, a sense of trust develops. One begins to experience the break up of exclusive reliance on the intellect. Break ups in momentary doses exert a beneficial and integrating impact that engenders a psychic balance between “being” and “about.” The transitory and unstable nature of experiences of clarity and insight can be frustratingly fragmentary occurring in split-second moments. Grasping engenders reification. We grasp at what the contemporary psychoanalyst and Zen master Diane Martin describes as idealized “preferred psychological states.” [3] These states are partial and tantalizing. Zen masters typically dismiss such states and advocate for continued practice. Enlightenment experiences in their seductiveness can engender complacency. In such states, we fail to realize that there is no endpoint. Practice is ongoing and something that we need to keep at. This is the significance of such mandates as: “Enlightenment, throw it away!” Or, “If you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha!” However, as brief as these momentary experiences might be, they can exert a profound influence on our lives in subtle, yet dramatic ways and reverberate outwardly as shifts occur in one’s mode of being in the world and affect those individuals with whom we come in contact with. This is what I feel in relation to my teacher regardless of whether she is terse or expansive when we meet.

This process takes time and depends on the development of trust in the other and faith in the process. Eigen, in a discussion of recovery from breakdown, describes a parallel relationship in psychoanalysis. He writes, “One must feel the Other’s fidelity in order to risk finding the place of breaking and coming together, in order to establish this psychic pulse-beat” (2004, p. 23- 24). For example, after finishing this manuscript, I commented to Enkyo Roshi that I felt like a fraud; that people view me as some kind of expert, which I clearly know I am not. She responded: “How do you think I feel?” “All of my students expecting me to be enlightened all of the time?”  This was followed by shared heartfelt laughter that drove home the point that after all, we are simply human beings seeking the truth together.

This idealized expectation or illusion that the teacher is enlightened or perfect is simultaneously devaluing and dehumanizing because there is a failure to see the teacher in real terms or in human terms. Stefano Baragato, Sensei would say during interviews, “The teachings came about because we are human!” In this spirit he would often pick a student to conduct the interviews.

There is a grandiose expectation of perfection, a perfect mother, father, breast, mirror, anchor. Growth requires seeing through the transparency of this illusion and the accompanying expectations, suffering through the disappointment and realizing that we are simply human beings struggling together. Giving up this idealization of the teacher, giving up this grandiose expectation requires giving up one’s own grandiosity and the idea that we will find some permanent state of incorruptible perfection.

Nick’s Safe Harbor

Similarly, the analysand often entertains the fantasy and holds the desire of some conflict-free endpoint where everything will forever be fine, smooth, seamless and live the fairy tale existence of a “happy ever after.” During his analysis, Nick described a “safe harbor” free from waves, turbulence, and chaos. He imagined a move out of the city to a rural environment where he speculated that “I can grow flowers, walk my dog, play music, whatever. I noticed that he would run from relationships when “things would heat up,” when the waves appear. He has trouble realizing that the safe harbor is in how an individual or a couple negotiate the waves as they rise and fall. How do they ride them out without drowning in the conflict? Is collaborative and sensitive communication possible or do defensive aggressive flight –fight patterns emerge? Can we own our humanness in a way that facilitates feeling and surviving the impacts of self and other on self and other?  This safe harbor wish might be related to early experiences and might be successfully analyzed. However, analysis can strengthen the capacity to work with such states, not necessarily make them disappear.

From the Zen perspective, Hisamatsu speaks to the urge to engender a feeling of safe harbor. He notes:

Man cannot comfortably live in inconstancy. As a consequence of the view which would have it that the world is ‘inconstant,’ one comes to hate this world of inconstancy and to retire from it. There then arises an idea, typified in the recluse, by which one tries to attain a world of eternal life, lending significance to the inconstant world as a mere process of preparation for the achievement of the eternal realm (1979, p.4).

The implication for both Zen and psychoanalysis centers on the willingness for two individuals to participate in a shared endeavor of becoming real, being human and living sensitively and compassionately as we become “partners in Truth.” From this perspective, the question as I see it becomes not whether to privilege “being” or “about” but how we use or misuse “being” and ‘about?” Do we exploit their capacities to resist or to reveal Truth? Realistically we operate through variations of blends of both. They are not mutually exclusive. Functions are variable and subject to rising and falling oscillations. The teacher’s or the analyst’s flexibility to enter both forms of encounter and variations of both engenders growth. Can we transcend such either or’s and ask:  How real can we become to ourselves? How real can we become to others?”


  • Eigen, M. (2004). The Sensitive Self. Middletown, Ct: Wesleyan Press.
  • Ferro, A. (2005). Seeds of Illness, Seeds of Recovery. New York and London: Routeledge.
  • Barratt, B. (1993). Psychoanalysis and the Postmodern Impulse: Knowing and Being since Freud’s Psychology. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Grotstein, J. (2007). A Beam of Intense Darkness: Wilfred Bion’s Legacy to             Psychoanalysis. London: Karnac.
  • Heine, S. (1994).  Dogen and the Koan Tradition: A Tale of Two Shobogenzo Texts. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  • Heine, S. (1997).  The Zen Poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.
  • Heine, S & Wright, D. (2000). The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University press.
  • Hisamatsu, S. (1979).  Ordinary Mind. Eastern Buddhist 12 (1), pp. 1 – 29.
  • Hori, V. (2000).  Koan and kensho in the Rinzai Zen curriculum. In S. Heine & D.             Wright (Eds.), The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism (pp. 280-315). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hori, V. (2003).  Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Zen Practice. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  • Loori, J. (2009). What is a teacher? Mountain Record, Spring 2009, p. 30 – 41.
  • Lopez-Corvo, R. (2006). Wild Thoughts Searching for a Thinker: A Clinical Application of  W.R. Bion’s Theories. London: Karnac.
  • Rhode, E. (1994).  Psychotic Metaphysics. London: The Clunie Press, Karnac Books.
  • Rhode, E.  (1998). On Hallucination, Intuition and the Becoming of “O.” Binghamton,     NY: Esf.

[1] This article is adapted and excerpted  from The Zen Impulse and the Psychoanalytic Encounter (2010) by Paul C. Cooper and used with permission of Routeledge an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group.

[2] Sui-zen: Literally “blowing meditation,” practiced with a shakuhachi, a bamboo flute played vertically.

[3] Personal conversation with Diane Martin, Roshi and Abbott of Udumbara Zen Center

Paul Cooper currently serves as Dean of Training for NPAP. He served as a Learning Disabilities teacher, education evaluator and staff developer for the NYC Public schools for the past thirty years. Prior to his psychoanalytic training, he served as a yoga and meditation instructor at Integral Yoga Institute in NYC where he received yoga teacher certification. He is on the faculty at NPAP and IEA where he also serves as a training analyst and supervisor. He is a long-time Zen student and is the founding teacher of the Absent Mind Zen Group of Westchester. His books and edited collections include: The Zen Impulse and the Psychoanalytic Encounter, Into the Mountain Stream: Psychotherapy & Buddhist Experience, and Many Paths, One Journey: Psychotherapy & Religion.
He maintains a private practice in the Murray Hill section of NYC and in Westchester.

Envy in the Context of Patriarchal Hierarchies

April 15, 2010 12:00 am



By Caroline de Pottel, Ph.D., LCSW


Historically, the psychoanalyst’s primary consideration has been the intra-psychic life of the individual as formed within a family context, while discussion about the broader social influences upon the individual and the family have been minimal.  Overlooking the social origins of personal ideals and values that influence the family, the patient, and the psychoanalyst, would be like ignoring any other countertransference phenomenon.   I use the topic of envy, as one example, to show the importance of including elements of social and political life to bring further understanding to the treatment and theory of psychoanalysis.

In this paper, I examine the effect of patriarchal hierarchies on the social norms that are internalized by both genders to inform what is enviable in a given culture and what is acceptable envy expression.  I’ll begin by defining envy; identify the role patriarchal hierarchies play in stimulating envy; then, demonstrate the power that patriarchal views had upon envy and gender-bias in early psychoanalysis; and conclude with female and male case material demonstrating the manner these social influences affect the individual expression of envy as seen clinically in both men and women.

Envy is a devaluing experience causing great personal distress.  Like a narcissistic injury, envy ignites anger and the impulse to retaliate when an admired trait, possession, or success of another feels threatening to personal self-esteem.  The rigid hierarchies and subjugation of women indigenous to patriarchal cultures stimulate idealizations that further intensify the envious response.

Envy is paradoxical.  It can quickly erupt into terrible confrontations between siblings, friends, colleagues, or between parent and child, analyst and patient, and yet social custom dictates destructive envy is seldom discussed openly.  Our field, also influenced by the beliefs of a larger social context about envy has repeated this clandestine tendency by focusing only on the most pathological forms of it, as if envy were not ubiquitous to human nature.

The key to understanding the role of hierarchies in stimulating destructive envy lies in the thesis that certain beliefs and social norms become idealized and are then communicated between the social and the personal levels.  The social becomes personal (introjection) when these socially constructed norms are accepted on an individual level as personally true (identification).   In addition to beliefs, the acceptable expression of private emotion is learned within a social context (Gergen, 1996).  Put succinctly, humans in a given culture consciously and unconsciously form and are impacted by the beliefs and norms of that society.  An acceptable model for expression of emotion develops; then these learned behaviors are passed from person to person and from one generation to another.  Trends are established for emotional expression.  For one example, men express themselves more easily with anger and women with sadness (Lerner, et al, 1992).   Now, more particular to my topic of envy  — typically, women are more likely to admit to envy, while in general, men do not (Burke, 1998).

These standards are set in a given culture or group and the individual members compare themselves to these particular ways of behaving and feeling, and often experience themselves as not measuring up.  Frequently, these feelings of inadequacy breed envy and envy is damaging both to the individual mind and to relationships.

Therefore, I am proposing that the link between the personal and the social context in understanding envy and patriarchal hierarchies cannot be overlooked.


Envy combines a painful wish to possess a cherished quality or property seen with or in another, along with feelings of malice, hostility, destructiveness, and/or revenge toward the envied person (Eisler, 1922; Klein, 1957; Spillius, 1993).   Although many contemporary psychoanalytic theorists admit that envy is ubiquitous and inevitable in the mind of the individual and in relationships (Steiner, 2008); because it can be so destructive, thus accompanied by shame, envy unlike other emotional experiences is not discussed in a broad spectrum of diagnoses (de Pottél, 2002).  Instead, most articles about envy are restricted to case examples portraying patients with severe psychopathology (Kernberg, 1986, for one).

In contrast to those theorists who think about envy in a narrow perspective, I see envy like any other emotion, as multi-determined and based on one’s developmental history, past and current life experience, and maturity level (de Pottél, 2002).  People who tend to have more difficulty with envy and managing its destructive behaviors usually have had earlier disappointments, losses, and/or trauma making it difficult to tolerate the inevitable affect of envy that is evoked in every day life.  The more severe the wound or injury is felt to be, the more the person is likely to feel deficient or inferior and experience the compound affect of envy.   This compound affect includes: 1. admiration; 2. a narcissistic injury; 3. a longing for a quality or possession (probably idealized); and 4. anger at the possessor with a wish to take revenge or destroy that which is admired (Spillius, 1993; Klein, 1957).  I think two additional components are important to consider when looking at envy in a broader spectrum; that is, 5. shame, and 6. an assortment of compensations and adaptations to avoid, enact, manage, and defend against the debilitating experience of envy, thus, giving the concept of envy a broader perspective.

Envy is considered the nastiest of the seven deadly sins, which include pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, and sloth. At its most  destructive the person experiencing envy secretly wants to destroy or ruin the envied possession or person.  Revenge against the envied person just for having the admired trait or possession is the central focus of being envious.  The response of revenge suggests that the missing and coveted trait or possession re-stimulates the experience of inadequacy and narcissistic injury, like the earlier emotional trauma.  Thus, for the person overwhelmed by malignant envy, obtaining the trait or sought after possession becomes secondary to the primary focus of revenge (Spillius, 1993).  Instead, the ultimate revenge would be narcissistic debasement and/or humiliation of the other, as if that would even the score.  Considering the complexities within the envy dynamic, it is easy to see how a privileged state of one person could evoke in another a feeling of injustice or an envious’ wish for revenge (the unspeakable side of envy).  I propose that with the added disadvantage of being in a lesser position in a patriarchal hierarchy, there can be a further inflammation of feelings of inferiority, intensification of perceived unfairness or inequality, and/or stimulation of a wish to even the score.


Patriarchy, defined in the narrow sense, refers to a system, historically derived from Greek and Roman law, in which the male head of the household had absolute legal and economic power over his dependent female and male family members.  The term patriarchy defined in a broader sense means a hierarchical social system and way of thinking that extends beyond simply the institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family that extends to a society in general (Lerner, 1992; Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 1993).  This male domination is not really about individual men having control over individual women (yet it could be).  Instead, it is a generalized sense of domination by a group esteemed to be most valued over those that are not in the same social class, race, gender, and/or sexual orientation.  Patriarchal hierarchies have now become an accepted model of leadership style in many organizations.

Implicit to hierarchical structure is oppression.  Oppression controls thinking and action; leads people to adjust to the “right way.”  Thus, creativity and growth are stunted (Freire, 1984).   Oppression is an overwhelming anti-life mechanism that stifles thinking and action, as does envy.  Authentic thinking is kept alive through active communication and dies when subordinated to an authority deemed to be superior (Fromm, 1966; Freire, 1984).   Erich Fromm (l966), a psychoanalyst with a particular focus on culture’s relevance to individual experience, also suggests that those who are oppressed feel less impotent by submitting to and identifying with the group in power.   This submission and/or diminishment minimizes the awareness of the painful lack of individual empowerment.   Similarly, envy intensifies when there is awareness of difference and recedes with conformity.  Those in power within a group or society control those considered in a lesser position in the hierarchy by domination and repression.

Patriarchy and Envy Linked

These tensions, exacerbated within a patriarchal leadership style, create a backdrop wherein the inevitable comparisons made between one person and another are intensified and thus, envy is evoked.   The stratification within a patriarchal hierarchy sets up a system where those in leadership positions want to keep the status quo.  Those who are in an inferior position want to change their situation to get what the privileged have.  It really is a black and white system that is similar to the private envious experience of either wanting to be the best or feeling left with the worst.

Envy can also exist in the minds of the privileged.  Just because someone ascribes to a patriarchal belief system does not mean they feel adequate.  Those in the dominant group are silent carriers of their own unresolved envious feelings and are often frightened their status could be usurped.  A creative contribution can be threatening within professional groups because progress establishes difference (Fonagy, 2008).  Or, the overall maintenance of established norms and the existence of the group in control could be threatened.  These hierarchal tensions of patriarchal cultures expose the inhabitants to the inevitable threatening experience of envy and the fear of others’ envy.  Both envy and the conservation of the patriarchal hierarchy are maintained and controlled by a very powerful means – silence.

Within this silence exists the envy quagmire to which terms like evil and hate, as well as malignant, have been applied.  The main aim of envy is to spoil that which is desired.   This spoiling can be analogized to a cancerous-type of growth that destroys healthy cells.   There are increasing feelings of shame that contribute further to its private and unspeakable nature.   Silence is the mechanism by which envy and conservation of the existing inequality in patriarchal culture are controlled.  Thus, those in a dominant position retain a control in the hierarchy, tensions build, and the inevitable comparisons from a devalued position result in envy.  The envier is unaware that the internal obsession with the possessions of the other inhibits true personal liberation.  Similar outcomes from the same amount of effort are limited in a hierarchy based on the subjugation of women and rigid structures.  Both envy and the inherent inequality of the patriarchal hierarchy are hushed and fester within this idealized and closed system.

Hierarchies, Internalization of Idealized Norms, and Envy

Perpetual youth is a value in the United States that has particularly focused on an ideal female body that includes thinness and perfect breasts.  There are many idiosyncratic and intrapsychic reasons that determine which women become so obsessed with this perfection that eating disorders result.  This is one example of an external ideal in which these social norms become personal and pathological.  As well, there have been increasing numbers of women and men coming to treatment who want to control the aging process and undergo various types of cosmetic surgery, in particular for women, breast augmentation.

Both men and women internalize patriarchal beliefs that are learned at the social level in a patriarchal society.  Gradually, these beliefs are accepted on a personal level.  This same mechanism of internalization operates to silence the open admission of envy.  The sense that envy should not be openly expressed is learned socially, as if the act of revealing envy implies an admission of inferiority.  This oppressive process internalizes the imperative to silence envy and manage malignant envy on the societal level.  That is, the individual becomes a carrier of the same belief system as those in charge of a hierarchy-style of leadership, envy is then diminished, and thus, idealized norms are perpetuated and re-enforced.


Freud (the father of psychoanalysis) did not use the term envy, except in relation to the penis (e.g., 1905).  Thus, envy was not listed in the index to the Standard Edition, only penis envy.  Freud’s primary focus on penis envy in women implied only women experience envy.  However, as early as 1922 Eisler   linked envy to self-esteem.  It seems to me, although not directly stated, Eisler implied that envy was an expectable response in male and female development (gender neutral).

Other psychoanalytic authors displayed the forbidden aspect of envy through discussion of the basic components and conflicts about envy without using the word envy (Abraham, 1910 and Glover, 1924).  Instead, they focused on what were called anal-narcissistic phase fixations, which described manifestations of concerns with the hidden desire to have the possessions of others.  Today, we would call this phenomenon envy, but at that time Freud’s psychosexual stages of development were the predominant way of understanding and labeling the mind’s structure and function. These stages were a revolutionary way to link the corresponding issues of mental life with the physiological growth milestones in the child’s body.  Thus, the anal-narcissistic phase fixations in adults were thought to replicate a time when the child selfishly watched over the possessions he already had or wanted what he didn’t have.  Therefore, an intense ambivalence of admiration and rage led to hostility, exaggerated criticalness, and an overdeveloped envy constellation (my language, not theirs).  The discussions of these authors were centered on a person hating someone 1. superior or stronger, 2. with whom he has a strong positive affective bond and 3. who is perceived as frustrating or denying him love or some other desired gift.   I notice there is an implied concept of hierarchy adding to the intensity of envy.

Melanie Klein, was the first analyst to realize the centrality of envy in the mind and relationships.  Personal dislike of Klein and her view of envy as constitutionally based engendered much debate amongst her colleagues.  Although Klein was born about 25 years later than Freud, life for her as a female in a patriarchal society was not easy.  She was not allowed to go to medical school as she wanted due to her family’s wish she lead a traditional life with marriage and children.   The societal dictates of the time demanded that women even if professionals were limited to work with the church, children, or in the kitchen.   It is easy to see how this type of restricted hierarchal structure creates oppression and could lead to envy.

However, Klein was a feminist during a very difficult time in the history of women. Within psychoanalysis she challenged the notion of the centrality of the penis in the development of the female psyche.  Her theoretical and clinical emphasis was instead developed and organized around the mother and her breasts, not the father and his penis.  Klein broadened the exclusive female gender-bias perspective about envy to include males or females since both sexes work out their early transition from the mother’s breast.  Thus, she established the gender-neutral possibility to envy.

One of Freud’s important contributions was the impact of the body on the psyche (Ellman, 2000).  I can only assume Freud might have had some personal issue about envy or he, too, was reflecting the social custom to silence admission of envy.  Respecting the historical/cultural context of Freud at the time he made his scientific contributions, penis envy can be understood as a metaphor reflecting a woman’s sense of her powerlessness in the world rather than simply or only a wish for an anatomical part.  Freud generalized male anatomy and development to women without regard for their differences (Grossman and Stewart, 1977; Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1970; and Horney, 1939).   Thus, penis envy as a developmental metaphor can be understood as the child’s early envious wishes to have it all.  Stated another way, part of maturity is developing a healthy ego ideal to face limitations and maximize strengths.  Perhaps, the obsession with being thin (a wish for perpetual youth and perfection) is also a metaphor reflecting a wish for power and status.


Envy is an emotion that humans struggle with psychologically. It is universal, yet paradoxically, unspeakable and shameful.  The context of the psychoanalytic relationship is a microcosm that creates a fertile environment where these types of comparisons, evaluations, diminishments, and then envious reactions flourish.  As well, the context of a patriarchal leadership style intensifies envy in the individual through the re-enforcement of idealized social norms.  These standardized norms are transmitted and controlled at the individual and social levels.  Therefore, it is natural for all of us to evaluate and compare ourselves with one another, to experience envy, relive these experiences in analysis, and cleverly manage this forbidden and shameful experience.   Now I’ll demonstrate how envy unfolds within the transference/countertransference encounter using cases from both genders with various degrees of pathology.  Of course space does not permit the entire case, but I think you’ll see from the relevant portions of the cases I use, how the dynamics of patriarchal hierarchies and envy are uniquely exhibited in each case and worked through within the treatment dyad with varying degrees of pathology.

Female Case

Sondra had considered plastic surgery as an external solution to her emotional distress, but was willing to undergo psychoanalysis to better understand the internal underpinnings of her issues.  She immigrated to the United States as a teenager from a third world country, desperately wanting to fit in here in her new culture.   Sondra was smart, acquired higher education, married, and had children of her own.  Internally, she struggled with an obsessive envy of women who had larger breasts than hers.  Sondra felt emotionally devastated when she compared herself to women (with larger breasts) in her husband’s presence, thinking he overvalued breast size as well.

I began to feel impatient with her repetitive obsession with breast size.  Sondra defeated my efforts to help by indirectly communicating her pain with excruciating details when prejudice was inflicted against her regarding gender, race, and social class.  Increasing tension grew at the transference/ countertransference edge.  I analyzed my own issues and realized I had not wanted the role she was assigning me.   She was punishing me as a member of the patriarchy with her suffering and lack of progress.  I could see that I had wanted to show her I was different, that is, a nice member of the patriarchal hierarchy.  I interpreted to her my sense she was experiencing me as part of the same world that hurt and devalued her, so it was hard to take my help.  Her obsessive focus on external issues lessened, our alliance grew stronger, and the work deepened to reveal the following associations.

Sondra was raised in a large family with little money or privileges.  Her father contributed little economically, and on his occasional visits, he was physically abusive to her mother.   Clearly, this patient was deprived on emotional and material levels during her important developmental years.   Until I interpreted the hierarchical tension between us, she felt that I would see her the way she saw herself.  She experienced me as part of a patriarchal hierarchy in which she felt devalued, yet a culture in which she desperately wanted to belong.  This is one of the key internal issues in the conflict of envy – overvaluing the other and undervaluing the self within a self-defeating cycle.

I could see many possible unconscious meanings in this woman’s mind for her wish for larger breasts; such as the wish for a nurturing mother.   But from our many discussions together, I understood that the breast signified her wish to be accepted into a patriarchal culture where this prized part of the female body was both idealized and objectified.  Instead, in a parallel manner, she felt deeply rejected by her family, new culture, and perhaps, me.

Internally, Sondra continued to feel a deep sense of hurt and shame from her early traumatic experiences.  Once we worked past the external focus on breast size, there was a young part of her that could barely cope with the overwhelming feelings she was now experiencing.   Together we were caught in an envious struggle.  She was defeating my efforts towards understanding, yet indirectly demanding I be the loving parent she wanted.  Her repetitive torment about breast envy now, within the transference, was an envious struggle between us.  She was envious of my perceived adequacy and felt devalued by it.  Thus, she could not take the help from me she sorely needed.

Here, I’ve presented one woman’s internalization of an idealized image of the female body portrayed in this culture as a presenting symptom in a case about envy.   The initial envy of breast size developed into a typical case of envy within the treatment dyad.  That is, she wanted my help, but felt envy to perceive me as more adequate, so initially she had to defeat her progress.  Often attempted defeat of the analyst is called a negative therapeutic reaction, but in this milder form, I considered her bind what I call “envy resistance.”  It was necessary to identify her projection onto me as the perpetrator of her suffering within a patriarchal hierarchy to proceed.  To further explore the issue, I will discuss a male case, where as is often typical, envy is more disguised beneath the presenting issues.

Male Case

Tom was a 32 year old married man with a four year old son.  He was a hard worker and a dedicated family man.  He reported episodes of anxiety that ranged between times of actual panic to other times of mild nervousness when he handled complicated and intense situations with remarkable ease.  He declined the use of medication hoping he would get relief from his intense anxiety through our therapeutic work.  I was encouraged by Tom’s requisite curiosity for analytic work (wanting to identify the deeper issues that motivated him); there were, however, other times he approached issues in such a concrete manner that I doubted his psychological-mindedness.  I wondered if his concrete thinking emerged when he was disconnected from his feelings, stirring anxiety (danger) and limiting his ability to self-soothe.

During the first six months of psychoanalytic therapy Tom reported a decrease in his symptoms of anxiety, but I was struck by how unaware he was of devaluing himself.   I also began to feel devalued as my interventions were rarely quite right.  However, symptom relief led to other memories, such as, “I never felt like I got it, the way I saw the other kids getting it; you know, like interacting and being with one another.  They laughed together and I didn’t understand what was so funny.”  As a young man, Tom’s father came to the United States from a Middle Eastern country.  Tom could not consider my intervention that with language and cultural challenges, his father might have felt and appeared awkward in this new culture.

Tom’s resistance took the form of an idealization of his parents that covered his disappointment (and accompanying guilt for feeling disappointed).  Due to his conflict about being disappointed in his father for not fitting in, idealization was the conscious defense.  Yet in time, Tom admitted, “My parents never had anyone over to the house like the other kids’ parents did.  I felt they [the other kids] had it better than me.”

Tom’s most crippling current worry surrounded his son’s daycare experience.  He was terrified the other boys would bully his son and without Tom’s protection, his son would be irreparably harmed.  Although there were times his son returned home with stories of being teased, I could see that Tom’s anxious manner, conveyed by asking his son dozens of questions, re-enforced the situation.  Then, in a parallel manner, my countertransference response was a worry about Tom devaluing himself in his career and family.  I hypothesized that these deep worries about his son were a displacement of Tom’s minimization of his own abilities.  This configuration of issues between Tom and his son and, Tom and me, comprised the major resistance that covered his own envy.  Let me explain by illustrating some clinical material.

Tom recalled as a boy he felt like a “wimpy nerd.”  Although now as an adult he feels intelligent, then, as a boy, he felt he was over-sensitive and uncoordinated, falling short of the male ideal.  Neither parent understood, nor helped him deal with these distressing early feelings.  Ironically, even though Tom was very involved in his son’s daily experience, his anxiety limited his emotional availability to his son.

He couldn’t say the words “I envied,” but he described many situations of envy, where he wished he was more like some other boys and had thoughts of their failing in some way.  “It wasn’t fair,” he would say.  Further associations emerged of Tom’s life in the shadow of his older brother who was revered as gifted and talented academically and athletically by his family and many teachers who taught both brothers.

I tried to link these experiences with the mannerin which  he currently underplayed his abilities.  Initially, he would resist my intervention by exaggerating what I had said, “You want me to brag and show off.  Where would that get me?”  He was in quite a bind.   He was fighting for his own inferiority.  I could see that this defeat of my interventions as both competition and as a fear he might be envied.  I interpreted his anger with me, realizing in his mind I, like his parents, did not understand what facing all of this would mean.  I interpreted to him that even though he came for help, he seemed to have to figure everything out for himself, as if taking my help was admitting I had something he wanted.  Also, if I had something to offer I moved from the familiarity of the devalued maternal transference to the many faceted and intense father transference.   He was trapped in a conflict that necessitated him retaining a position of inferiority, even though on another level, he wanted to believe he had all the answers himself.

He was angry to have spent so much of his life trapped by the myth that he was not smart or capable, yet he was still caught in a catch-22 of devaluation.  As well, underlying his anxiety and low self-esteem was an intense envy he had never admitted to himself or anyone else.  His defense of inferiority blocked the envious feelings he had felt ashamed to admit.  It was difficult for him to realize he considered most people as superior, yet he also felt spiteful towards those people.  Characteristic of his younger years, when he judged himself as a “wimpy nerd,” he felt further devalued to admit to envy and those intense “girl” feelings.  I might add here that in my clinical experience, men often consider envy a “female” emotion, whereas competition is the parallel male counterpart, which is socially accepted, and even valued.

The next area that opened in our work together was the influence of his father’s culture on their family.  For example, the firstborn son was granted the privilege of the father’s namesake and a superior position with the other siblings.  Here we see the intergenerational transmission of these cultural beliefs.  A break in this hierarchical order was to dishonor his father.  Now, in Tom’s mind he felt disobeying the patriarchal rule was tantamount to disgracing his father’s name.   Oedipal issues within this reified patriarchal order were complicated.  Tom’s devaluation symptom served as a compromise that kept him safe with his mother who was also devalued in the family.  We were now able to understand why he felt so threatened to relinquish the comfort of devaluation.  The devalued position protected him from the intense competitive issues with his father and brother and kept him close to his mother.  I understood Tom’s anger at me to be for disrupting the equilibrium created by his continued devaluation of himself, his son, and me, while facing the intense feelings of envy, competition, and anger.  Although there are many ways of understanding Tom’s difficulties, understanding the deeply buried envy dynamic, greatly expanded this man’s capacity to function in a life reflecting his true abilities.


And so, I have used the topic of envy and moved beyond the usual intra-psychic realm, formed within the family of origin, to include the manner patriarchal hierarchies, within the broader social network, can intensify this complex emotional experience.  Psychoanalysis offers a way for men and women to emerge from the oppression and injustice intrinsic to patriarchal hierarchies.  The destructive envy evoked from comparisons to idealized social norms can be transformed from silent misery to open discussion of disappointments and expression of anger.  Thus, transcending the hierarchical system of black and white thinking and the either/or paradigm of envy, the other does not have to be destroyed in order to have what is desired.

There is really not a cure for envy, but with dynamic understanding and analytic interpretation using transference and countertransference, its malignant crippling effects can be mitigated.  Envy can be used as a signal that identifies choices, not a life of self-absorption or devaluation of the self and idealization of the other.  In the context of hierarchies, it means being secure so not to be taken in by the popular culture (a standardized ideal) or the beliefs of the privileged as necessary to feel whole.  I am fascinated by the intricacies of these social issues as they are interwoven in our minds and come alive with our patients.


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  • Joffe, W. (l969). A critical review of the status of the envy concept. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 50, 533-545.
  • Klein, M. (1957). Envy and gratitude. In The writings of Melanie Klein, Vol. III and Envy and gratitude and other works. London: Hogarth Press, 176-235).
  • Lerner, H.D., & Erlich, J. (1992). Psychodynamic models. In V.B. Van Hasselt & M. Hersen (Eds.) Handbook of Social Development: A lifespan perspective (pp. 51-79). New York:Plenum Press.
  • Random House Unabridged Dictionary. (1993). New York: Random House.
  • Spillius, E. (l993). Varieties of envious experience. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74, 1199-1212.
  • Stein, R. (1990). A new look at the theory of Melanie Klein. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 71, 499-511.
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Caroline de Pottél, PhD

5190 Governor Drive, Suite 102

San Diego, CA  92122Phone:  858 455-0278

Caroline de Pottél, PhD, LCSW has been in private practice in San Diego, California for 29 years. She is a Senior Faculty Member in the Adult Psychoanalytic Training Program and teaches in the Advanced Psychotherapy Program at the San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

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

April 15, 2010 12:00 am

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.

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