From the category archives:

Intersubjective Systmes Theory

This column also appears in the March/April, 2011; Volume 23, Issue 2 of The Therapist, published by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).  Abstract page 75.

Abstract:

This two-part series examines the psychological origins and antecedents of terrorism.  Object relations, intersubjective systems theory and contemporary relational psychoanalytic concepts are used to define and highlight the constellation of specific dynamics implicated in terrorist enactments, particularly the ways they replicate salient interactive patterns of early mother-infant communication.  This resonant, harmonic unit, characterized by interactive modes of touch, gaze and projection, establishes the creative sphere wherein an infant comes into selfhood and begins to develop nascent capacities for relationality, empathy and morality.  Emotional terrorism begins when a mother is unable to contain and modify her infant’s projected anxieties or, in reverse, projects her own, initiating a repetitious cycle of terrorist-victim or “doer and done-to.” Clinical and cultural implications of sadism, the perversion of empathy, are also considered.

The Emotional Terrorist Part I examined the psychological origins and attributes of terrorist-victim dynamics and the defensive processes that drive repetitious enactments.  It also explored the ways that sadism represents the perversion of empathy.  The Emotional Terrorist Part II explores case material to further clarify and exemplify these dynamics.

Clinical examples

A patient arrived for a session shortly after experiencing a serious break-up and began by disparaging her lost love object.  He was an idiot.  I never really loved him, anyway.  I’m better off without him. While these appraisals may very well have been accurate, they were also being used defensively to avoid abject feelings of jealousy, loss, loneliness and painful rejection.  These intolerable feelings were more safely managed after being externalized, projected and relocated in the lost object where they could then be attacked.

Poet's Dream

Envy and rage are difficult to tolerate, even by psychologically developed individuals, as they activate unpleasant feelings of inadequacy, incompetency and shame associated with the helplessness of infancy and distasteful dependency needs, traits that conflict with subsequent developmental achievements.

Because these undifferentiated, “not-me” (Stern 2009) self-states are kept out of awareness defensively, they pose unbearable conflicts referred to as the “agony of consciousness” (Tustin 1986, p. 43) when they begin to emerge and are quickly dispatched before they can be sufficiently modulated or integrated.  A state of non-experience is preferable to torment.

Preverbal pockets of early traumata and other unmetabolized self states can only be accessed or experienced initially by the therapist via non-linguistic modes of communication that rely frequently on unconscious projective processes (Ogden 1989).

As therapists, we decode or “read” patient projections by tracking ourselves in the intersubjective matrix of the transference-countertransference milieu, carefully attending to our own sensory reactions, feelings, observations, thoughts and reveries.

Following moment by moment shifts in affect, posture, gaze and relationality, we utilize our own means of empathic projection to access unconscious aspects of both self and other in the intersubjective field.  In this dynamic mode, our simultaneous access to the derivatives our own unconscious processes that would otherwise remain out of awareness help us understand what has yet to be formulated and spoken.

The Alexithymic Patient

During the analysis of a deeply frightened patient whose early environmental failures rendered him unable to access even the most basic language that might enable him to identify or conceptualize his emotional states, I learned to recognize when we had hit a preverbal pocket because he would look at me helplessly and shrug.  His episodic inability to give linguistic shape to the content of his affective self-states conveyed how he used the rapid dissociation of unformulated material to protect himself from terror and dread.

Successful in the trades, he and his wife assumed very traditional marital roles that required very little intimate communication, leaving them compatible but emotionally disengaged.  He said his wife complained of loneliness.  He didn’t know what she wanted.  People hadn’t talked about feelings when he was growing up he often said.  His narcissistic mother had filled him with her own projected terrors, leaving his early object world riddled with engulfing psychic voids (Grotstein 1990) rather than viable maternal representations that could be used to contain his feelings.

He had no inner mother on whom he might rely.  What little paternal comfort he had was lost when his parents divorced and his father moved away.

Invisibility was his shadow companion, and he cringed away from interpersonal intimacy and avoided social gathering that made him feel “put on the spot.”  He had sporting buddies but no real friends.  Rather than reactivating the internalized warmth embedded in early modes of concerned relationality provided by empathic maternal attunement, his unacknowledged and unformulated (Stern 1999) feelings simply backed up and congealed.

He loathed his mother’s visits and spoke of her relentless self-absorption, how her endless talking bombarded him with palpable word-objects.  There was no space for him, so he quietly endured her assaults until she left, leaving him “in peace.”  Unable to recognize his dissociated and projected desires for intimacy in his wife’s requests for contact, he felt helpless as she enacted his desperate pleadings, giving voice to his wordless scream.

Our sessions were characterized by lengthy silences during which I functioned as the container for his disavowed self-states.  He found these silences extremely embarrassing, frequently announcing that he wasn’t coming back again.   I understood this to mean that the conflict posed by the emergence of unspeakable affective states into consciousness was intolerable, so the dissociated terrors remained selectively unformulated and desperately avoided.

Tracking my own subtle reactions, I was able to apprehend his unformulated and dissociated feeling states and sought to find symbols and words that might describe them.  Once when talking about the drought, I shared my reverie of a quiet and pristine pool of water, describing his inner world as an aquifer waiting to be tapped.  This was the first symbol he’d ever linked to what had always been an unnamed part of himself.

As we sought descriptive language together, his unspeakable and amorphous feelings of annihilation dread found an outlet in discourse, and he began to formulate his own emotional language and a concomitant capacity to depict his inner world.  Congealed emotional terrors began to liquefy.

Spousal victim and victimizer

In clinical practice, we observe this terrorist dynamic of doer and done-to (Benjamin 2004) most floridly when working with couples.

Repetitiously terrorizing volleys might be construed as representing a game of hot potato with dissociated emotional projectiles and bad objects.  Both “bad me” and “not-me” aspects of self states are launched back and forth like missiles.  Disavowed and unformulated self-states are projected and subsequently attributed to the partner where they are more easily attacked.  Affect often alternates between self-loathing and rage toward the partner.

The patient whose emotional fragility feels too dangerous and alien to claim, projects it onto his spouse.  “She’s too emotional,” an emotionally blunted husband said of his wife.   The nascent emergence of strong conflictual feelings threatened the cohesion and regulatory aspects of his self-image, activating unwelcome dependency needs that made him feel small, needs that chafed against his branding as an autonomous adult.  So, he rid himself of conflict by projecting his needs, locating them in his wife and criticizing her.  In turn, she attacked his remote implacability.

Rather than experiencing the full spectrum of their sensory-affective selves, they terrorized each other with projected aspects of self states that would otherwise pose intolerable conflict. Each spouse representing one half of a broken plate (Stern 2009), they enacted in turn invariable roles of terrorist and victim.  Doer and done-to.

As therapists, we feel it most acutely when a couple closes ranks and directs its combined projective animus at us.  You don’t care about me.  This isn’t working.  You’re only here for the money.  Oh, I think we can talk to each other without you. Feelings of incompetence have been located within us, temporarily relieving a couple from experiencing the abrasive conflict required to resolve them (Stern 2009).

The Mona Lisa

Maternity

These feelings of incompetence that are experientially and dialectically incompatible with mastery can be evaded routinely by patient and therapist, compromising treatment, until the clinician is able and willing to examine conflictual aspects of her own “bad me” and “not me” self states first.

The clinical clue uncloaking a stealth projection of helplessness is a strong countertransference feeling of utter ineptitude.  We must be able to claim our own “not-me” states of ineffectuality.  If we disavow them, we have no option but to project them right back.  Like a juggler with several balls in the air, we must take care not to throw them.

Children and families

Projective dynamics are a bit more complex when working with children and adolescents.  Just as our therapeutic relationships begin to bear fruit and an attachment has been formed, the parents may pull the child from treatment, proffering transparent and superficial excuses.  Some affluent parents would actually prefer that we believe they are impoverished rather than frightened.  The Container-contained dynamics (Bion 1962) have been reversed, and the child is serving a psychological function that the parents will not relinquish.

The emergence into consciousness of their inner terrors would elicit unmanageable and threatening psychic conflict.  Therefore, any therapeutic effort to return projections to their rightful parental owners will be resisted to maintain the homeostatic benefit of selective avoidance.

Paradoxically, enduring change and growth require a willingness to tolerate in titrated doses the anxiety-provoking affective experience and self-states so strenuously avoided.

A patient I’d seen for many years, arrived for her appointment one afternoon and told me a remarkable story about a dinner conversation she’d recently had with her mother, a very anxious woman prone to massive denial.  My patient, a skilled sailing enthusiast who was very comfortable in the water, had experienced intermittent but recurrent nightmares about being engulfed by tidal waves since childhood.

Red boat with blue sails

While sailing, she often experienced intrusive and distressing images of being tossed from a sinking ship into turbid and roiling seas with nothing more than a flimsy kickboard for support, ostensibly to swim for help as her mother clung to the ship’s railing helplessly.  While we explored this imagery thoroughly, we could never quite plumb it to the psychological seabed satisfactorily.  Something elemental always seemed to be absent.  Her mother provided the missing link.

Having dinner together in a seaside restaurant with a lovely view of the bay and its sleek boats, her mother casually remarked that she’d experienced recurrent nightmares about tidal waves throughout her life.  My patient was stunned to realize that she’d been carrying her mother’s projected anxieties and nightmares since early childhood, beginning at a time when the family lived substantially removed from the sea.  Having reversed the container-contained dynamic (Bion 1962), her mother had flooded her daughter with dissociated self-states and annihilation anxiety in which her daughter was drowning.

This anxious and helpless woman, clinging to the railing of her psychologically sinking ship, had tossed her daughter into the vast sea of her own restless and unplumbed unconscious where she was engulfed by projected existential terrors.  My patient had been colonized and terrorized by her mother’s dissociated anxieties.  Soothed by the insight that her tiny kickboard provided the only psychological defense her child-self could summon against the titanic force of her mother’s fierce projections, she renounced it, and her nightmare has not recurred.

Conclusion

In conclusion, terrorism might be construed less as an act of “evil” volition and more as an enactment of unconscious proportions, a psychological trespass that has less to do with discrete ideology, deities or politics and everything to do with mother-infant dynamics and the defensive management of strong, presymbolized affective states.

Its wounds are two-fold.  The initial emotional impingement invades the sensory-affective foundations of the vulnerable infant’s body-mind as a kind of implicit soul piracy.  Occurring long before the infant has developed any capacity to comprehend or object, the trauma exists as terrifying, unspeakable pockets of unformulated and dissociated experience.  If this disavowed material is projected rather than linked to word-symbols where it can be understood and integrated, emotional terrorism ensues as a repetitious series of doer and done-to (Benjamin 2004) enactments.

Until they are mentalized and attain linguistic symbolization, these nameless sensory chards of “beta elements” (Bion 1962) are experienced as chaotic and remain selectively dissociated where they can be safely avoided.  Often these unprocessed elements feel as if they have acquired actual mass and become embedded deeply within the flesh, and the need to expel these uncomfortable psychic elements is urgent.  I often hear patients describe a compelling need to vomit or purge something that feels hard, solid and alien, to “get it up and out.”

The therapist’s state of receptivity to her patient’s unconscious experience is similar to that of an empathically attuned mother’s receptivity to her infant’s presymbolic and pre-linguistic experience (Ogden 1989).  From within the encircling safety of the therapeutic relationship, terrorizing self-states derived from ruptures or deficiencies in early mother-infant exchanges may finally begin to acquire meaningful shape and form where they can be understood, integrated and defused.

WARNING! This text is printed for the personal use of the subscriber to The Therapist Magazine and is copyrighted by Mauri-Lynne Heller.  It is illegal to copy, distribute or circulate it in any form whatsoever without the author’s permission.

Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond doer and done to: an intersubjective view of thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73:5-46

Bion, W.R. (1962). Learning from Experience. London: Tavistock.

Grotstein, J. (1990).  Nothingness, meaninglessness, chaos and the “black hole” I – the importance of nothingness, meaninglessness and chaos in psychoanalysis.  Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26:257-90.

Ogden, T. (1989) The primitive edge of experience.  Jason Aronson Inc., New Jersey, London.

Stern, D.B. (1999).  Unformulated experience: From dissociation to imagination in psychoanalysis.  In: Relational psychoanalysis, the emergence of a tradition.

Hillsdale, HJ: Analytic Press. (Original work published 1983)

Stern, D. (2009). Partners in thought. New York, N.Y., Routledge.

Tustin, F. (1986).  Autistic barriers in neurotic patients. London, Karnac.

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This column also appears in the January/February, 2011; Volume 23, Issue 1 of The Therapist, published by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).  Abstract page 90.

Abstract:

This two-part series examines the psychological origins and antecedents of terrorism.  Object relations, intersubjective systems theory and contemporary relational psychoanalytic theories are used to define and highlight the constellation of specific dynamics implicated in terrorist enactments, particularly the ways they replicate salient interactive patterns of early mother-infant communication.  This resonant, harmonic unit, characterized by interactive modes of touch, gaze and projection, establishes the creative sphere wherein an infant comes into selfhood and begins to develop nascent capacities for relationality, empathy and morality.  Emotional terrorism begins when a mother is unable to contain and modify her infant’s projected anxieties or, in reverse, projects her own, initiating a repetitious cycle of terrorist-victim or “doer and done-to.” Clinical and cultural implications of sadism, the perversion of empathy, are also considered.

Terrorism, that shapeless haunt of latent danger associated with unpredictably nihilistic provocateurs and paranoiac agitation, is as readily identifiable as the plot of a Cold War spy thriller, yet not as easily understood.

What is terrorism, we might ask, and what, if anything, distinguishes it psychologically from other forms of violence.  What makes it so, well, terrifying?

As psychotherapists, how do we begin to think creatively about terrorism and its origins in ways that might disrupt the futility of rancorous recriminations and swift retaliation?  What can we learn from theory of mind and the psychological antecedents of terrorism to relieve the persisting and polarizing impasse of victim and victimizer, what Jessica Benjamin (Benjamin 2004) described as doer and done-to?

Can we use our theoretical knowledge and expertise to expand the narrow scope of conceptual thinking that delimits conventional understanding of terrorism?  Might we then redefine terrorism in ways that generate more enduring solutions than those provided by political and military pundits?  Are there ways to formulate less intrusive and more durable interventions to manage the amorphous dread and collective vigilance that suffuses the atmosphere like toxic vapor?

While preemptive or retaliatory militaristic actions successfully manage discrete acts of terrorism, they do nothing to dismantle the terrorist-victim dynamic that drives intimidating violence, leaving us mired in impasse and stalemate.  The antecedent psychological dynamics informing terrorist violence must be considered with gravitas equal to that of the disruptive behavioral discharge.  Lasting success will be more difficult to achieve if we obstruct the latter without concurrently understanding the former.

To loosen the conceptual stricture and rigid dialectics that dominate civic dialogue and circumscribe public policy, it is crucial to understand that the cycle of terrorist violence begins in the mind.

Psychoanalysis, with its richly diverse theoretical compendium, might illuminate the psychological dynamics of terrorism with a crispness and precision other paradigms lack.  Certainly, it would contribute a thoughtful dimension to a serious dialogue.  Psychoanalytic thinking posits that behavior reflects mentation and understands that mental life begins in infancy.

Therefore, it is imperative to examine the intersubjective sphere in which the budding infant mind begins to develop.  The early interactive modes of mother-infant communication and the projective processes crucial to early mental life represent the prototypical dynamics for those that subsequently galvanize the emotional terrorist.

The vitality of mutually regulating infant-mother communication

Projection denotes a normative, in fact, essential mode of infant communication.  Along with touch and gaze, it is one of the primary, post-natal emotional languages characterizing rudimentary mother-infant communication long before a child acquires the capacity for verbal discourse.  Winnicott (Winnicott 1963) proposed the phrase “maternal preoccupation” to describe the immense emotional and relational changes occurring in new mothers as they care for infants.  This heightened state of attentive focus insures infant survival, because only a mother (or father or primary caretaker serving maternal functions) is sufficiently identified with her infant’s needs to meet them fully.

The Newborn

The newborn

An empathically attuned mother receives her baby’s emotional projections like spoken language.  Organizing and returning these bits of sensory affect in ways her infant experiences as regulatory and containing, he is comforted.  An infant may think he has magically fulfilled or hallucinated his own sensory-affective needs, when it is his mother who has perceived and gratified them seamlessly.

Creating an environment in which her infant can safely mature, he begins to establish a nascent sense of himself as an individual whose unencumbered development was best described by Winnicott (Winnicott 1963) as “going on being.” Within this exquisitely cultivated surround, the unfettered infant is free to grow and begin to develop mental and relational capacities.

Bion (Bion 1962) referred to this rhythmic interpersonal dynamic intended to reduce infant fears as “container-contained.”  During communicative exchanges, mother and baby establish a mutually resonant and harmonic unit.  The subtlety of these early communicative interactions creates a sense of “thirdness,” a co-created, trusting intimacy that relieves the solipsistic isolation of the intrapsychic mind and brings the infant into relationality.  As Winnicott (Winnicott 1960) wrote, “There is no mother without a baby, and there is no baby without a mother.”

If the mother is unwilling or unable to contain and organize her child’s sensory-affective experience or, in reverse, projects her own unmetabolized anxiety onto her child, the overwhelmed infant has few options for deliverance.  Feeling his very existence at risk, he will either split himself off from this undigested emotional matter or use projection to rid himself of what he cannot yet tolerate.

It is this disorganized, unmetabolized emotional experience and the means by which it is kept out of awareness that ultimately pose a threat.  Lacking linguistic symbolization and eluding conscious awareness, it can only be acted out or discharged behaviorally.

The psychologically undeveloped maneuvers of the vulnerable infant grasping for survival eventually become the emotional propellant fueling terrorist enactments.  We are terrorized and scorched by the exploding fragments of projected traumata.

Projection, empathy and morality

Projection – the movement, shifting or sharing of sensory-affective experience in the absence of spoken language – is really a neutral dynamic having psychological implications well beyond infancy.  While it most often recognized as a defensive method employed to rid the body-mind of intolerable sensations or affect, projection may also be used in the service of creating experience-near, interpersonal bonds.

Projection used to locate a part of oneself in another to share or understand that person’s subjective experience constitutes the intrinsic basis for empathy and subsequently, ethical and moral life.   The acquisition of empathy is a developmental achievement, a byproduct of the healthy projective exchanges between mother and infant.  An infant must experience empathy before he can express or return it.

Clinical psychotherapy might best be defined as a science of empathy distinguishing it from the empiricism of research psychology.  Empathic attunement is the singular clinical feature common to all psychotherapeutic modalities.   As practicing psychotherapists, whatever our theoretical orientations, we routinely rely upon empathy as a point of departure to approach and convey understanding to clients and patients in ways that facilitate trust and evoke change.

Empathy is a two-person interpersonal dynamic not a one-person act of benevolence.

In fact empathy guides ethical conduct throughout life.  Moral choices reflect not simply the religious or secular laws that demand them but the earliest moments of flickering consciousness when a mother’s gaze, touch and responsiveness communicated safety and welcome.

Laws exist to regulate behavior when empathy and ethics have failed.

Sadism – the perversion of empathy

Conversely, sadism represents its perversion.  It is well known that the Nazis employed whistling bombs during the Blitz of London, because they knew empathically that the shrill crescendo of approaching incendiaries would terrify people below.  Theirs was a well-crafted mode of emotional terrorism.

Empathically attuned children know just how to injure their parents.  Nothing wounds more acutely than hearing an angry toddler shriek, “I don’t love you anymore.” The father who regards himself as his child’s best friend will cringe every time he hears his enraged offspring declare, “You’re not my best friend anymore.”

In our current mass-media surround, sadism is frequently exploited for cheap entertainment by pop-culture “therapists” who use brutality to shred the fragile defenses of vulnerably desperate client-participants by attacking their exposed psychological viscera most cruelly.  Rather than working to build psychic structure, they use empathy to shame and humiliate.  To amuse and entertain.

Televised “reality” or talk show programming is the bloodsport that has replaced the coliseum as the purveyor of vicarious sadism in the contemporary milieu.

Slathering at the celebrity slag heap, fans project their vicious envy, delighting in the public humiliation of the inconsequential and accomplished alike, often the same people they had idealized as demigods the day before.   John Lennon’s murder thirty years ago might be attributed to the terrorizing enactment of one such emotional fan who idealized then vilified a celebrity-stranger.

Externalization and projection of unmetabolized envy and murderous rage was followed by an actual murder in an ineffectual attempt to kill off unformulated, dissociated experience.  The media delivered death like episodic soap opera melodrama, unable to distinguish the significance of actual murder from the base sexual voyeurism permeating its customary medley of mindless tattle.

Dissociation and unformulated experience

The mind is very adept at devising creative tactics to manage unbearable feelings and traumatic experience.  Sometimes they are defensively and selectively kept out of awareness by avoidance.  Existing as content without form, they have yet to be sculpted by thought and language (Stern 2003).  For a vulnerable infant, these defenses insure survival, which is why they are often extremely difficult to modify later in life.

Dissociation and projection permit the temporary evasion of anxiety, but emotional stasis is maintained at the expense of learning and change.  Though evacuation removes or minimizes the psychological irritant and often leaves the emotional terrorist feeling vigorously self-righteous, serious problems arise when the disavowed attributes are attributed to someone or something else and attacked.

In futile Sisyphean style, the proverbial scapegoat must carry away communal guilt sins of “badness” each successive year, because the shameful feelings they evoke are never claimed and examined.  They can only be split off and dispatched.  The disavowed traits are psychologically transferred ritually to a neutral animal, preferably one young and untainted.  After carrying collective contamination into the wilderness of the unconscious mind, the young animal is destroyed, pushed off a cliff, ostensibly taking the badness with it.  Banished but not vanquished, the badness exists as unsymbolized, dissociated experience that can only be enacted.  This emotional content without symbolic form (Stern 1997) requires increasing degrees of defensive vigilance to circumvent its emergence into consciousness.

Consider for a moment that the one-way transfer of existential terrors from one body-mind to another might be construed as emotional terrorism.  Terrorist enactments, as we have come to know them in both secular and religious configurations, have their origins in the breakdown of communication between a mother and her infant.

Attachment to primary caregivers teaches an infant how to experience and manage feelings of love and hatred.  The qualitative reliability or deficiency of these early relationships forms the emotional substrate of our relational template.  If an infant’s defensive repertoire isn’t modulated by parental care, psychological maturation is hampered, and existential terrors remain unmetabolized, intolerable and unmanageable.

In these instances, unbearable feelings of envy, longing, desire and rage do not remain simply unformulated and emotionally shapeless within the intrapsychic mind.  They are externalized and cast out.  Once ejected, they are located elsewhere just as an infant projects unbearable feelings of distress onto his mother who can (hopefully) better tolerate and organize them.  No military engagement or body of law can assuage the unmediated, existential terrors of infancy and early childhood.

Reciprocity and Mutuality

Ideally, an infant’s archaic projective communications are part of a two-pronged interpersonal dynamic defined by mutual acknowledgment and reciprocity.  Received by his mother who organizes and returns them in digestible and titrated doses to help him develop increasingly differentiated psychic structure and relational capacities, they transpire within a mutually regulating intersubjective field.

Projections associated with terrorism are missing the regulatory and clarifying half of the exchange.  In this configuration, distressing affect is evacuated from the body-mind like a painful gas bubble but remains devoid of clarifying thought or symbolic language that might render it meaningful or psychologically useful.  Without the reparative and integrating response of an attuned parent or therapist, unbearable experience or affect is simply jettisoned like shrapnel and located elsewhere.  Unable to be used for learning, it can only be projected and attacked repeatedly.

Without the completing circle of communication, the “bad” qualities of these emotional projectiles are attributed to the external objects where they have been lobbed and are subsequently attacked “out there.”  While rage and envy may be temporarily subdued, enduring change is precluded, because the attack-retaliation cycle presents no viable opportunity for emotional refinement or growth.

Paradoxically, terrorism is less about hatred of others and more about self-hatred aged into vindictiveness that has been defensively misattributed to someone or something else and then attacked.  An individual with a developed sense of personal agency and only benign degrees of envy has no psychological need to destroy others.  We must distinguish clinically and politically between gratifying terrorist enactments and acknowledging the subjective realities of others in an attempt to promote mutuality and collaborative solutions.

Working with children

Board game imbroglios with young children offer wonderful opportunities to observe and modify defensive projection in action.  Because luck rather than skill is too often involved, a child who is not winning quickly grows frustrated and resorts to cheating.

My nephew and I were playing such a game one afternoon when he happened to select a color card that sent him back to the beginning square of the game.  I could see his entire body collapse with disappointment and downcast, he began to peek furtively at the underside of the cards to his best advantage.  His usual habit was to decide mid-game that he wanted to do something else.

I observed him for a while, weighing options, and finally remarked that he seemed very interested in winning and was very clever about doing so.  He responded with a crafty smile.  As we had played this game together many times, I risked going further, adding that this was a game of luck, and that winning wasn’t always possible.  Was it?  He smiled again and skillfully shifted a card or two.  “He cheats all the time,” his friend proclaimed from the kitchen where he was enjoying a snack, and at that moment, my nephew reached emotional saturation.  Quickly externalizing and projecting his frustration, he shouted, “You cheat!  You cheat!” and fled the room.

Object devaluation accompanies the psychological assault.  One of the first things the mind does to relieve the disappointment of being deprived of something it wants but cannot possess is to devalue as part of the attack.  This is an attempt to “sour the milk.”  The bad feelings of deprivation, envy, lack or loss are projected and superimposed on the unavailable or lost person or object of desire and then attacked vindictively.

For an hour or so after our rupture, my nephew said he didn’t want to play “that stupid game” ever again.  The game had been temporarily personified with projected badness.  After spending some conversational time together outside, he felt able to resume our engagement with enthusiasm and an increased tolerance for the vagaries of Candy land.

The Emotional Terrorist Part II examines theory and case material in depth, offering clinical examples with couples, families, children and individuals.

WARNING! This text is printed for the personal use of subscribers to The Therapist Magazine and Inside Out Journal and is copyrighted by Mauri-Lynne Heller.  It is illegal to copy, distribute or circulate it in any form whatsoever without the author’s permission.

Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond doer and done to: an intersubjective view of thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73:5-46.

Bion, W.R. (1962). Learning from Experience. London: Tavistock

Stern, D.B. (1999).  Unformulated experience: From dissociation to imagination in psychoanalysis.  In: Relational psychoanalysis, the emergence of a tradition. Hillsdale, HJ: Analytic Press. (Original work published 1983)

Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The theory of the parent-infant relationship.  International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41:585-595.

Winnicott, D.W. (1963). Dependence in infant care, in child care, and in the psycho-analytic setting. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 44:339-344.

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This column also appears in the November/December 2010 issue of The Therapist, published by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).

Abstract: This second in a two-part series explores the ways that the symbolic exploration of film imagery during the brief, one-year analysis of a patient suffering from the effects of very early childhood traumata expanded his capacity to think, engage and begin to integrate unformulated and dissociated aspects of himself for the first time.  Just as elements in a dream clothe the invisible man of the psyche, each movie element and character, by giving voice to personal feelings and meanings in novel and mutative ways, increased the mentalization of lived experience that had never before existed in the realm of conscious thought.

Q and I met four times weekly for a year, sometimes five when his skillfully managed emotional needs overwhelmed his narcissistic and intellectual defensive posturing.  More often, he held forth on arcane philosophical paradigms, epistemology and knowledge and his unabashed love of the ancients whom he imbued with the nearly superhuman qualities and capacities that deify celebrities in our own personality-infected culture.

More specifically, he imbued these archetypal figures with the god-like attributes an infant ascribes to his parents, those powerful people who represent our first gods, parents for whom he held deep unmet and unacknowledged longings that had festered over the years.

Q would talk about almost anything to avoid stirring the annihilation anxiety associated with his own lost infancy and compromised childhood.

Pierrot and harlequin

Like Romulus and Remus, Q suckled on mythology and raised himself, running with a pack of equally unparented boys.   Wielding his sharpened intellect like a monarch’s sword, he was really all alone in his kingdom.  Fortunately, these burnished topics were rich in metaphoric and symbolic imagery that permitted me to access and share his private world.  Though he didn’t know it when we began, I was to become his modern day she-wolf.

Primary, and for Q, mythic maternal themes of abandonment, rage and the wordless poignancy of love nearly grasped and lost informed Q’s brief, year-long analysis, offering repeated opportunities for us to examine and explore his experiences deeply.  Movie imagery and content represented the gateway linking inside and out, me and not-me, my world and his.  It gave borrowed form to what was yet the unformulated content (Stern 1997) of his wordless, inner world.

Despite its brevity, the fact that he was able to sustain a tenuous and conflict-laden connection to me for the duration represented a monumental relational and developmental achievement for Q, surpassing that of any prior association.   We struggled together, and the year exhausted both of us.

Almost immediately, he began enacting the Janus-faced, draining aspects of his stagnant and hopeless dialectic, a conflict characterized by a terrifying urge to flee appended to a powerful longing to immerse himself in my mind and body.

Anxious and confused, Q oscillated wildly between starkly opposing impulses, each fraught with danger and dread.  Flight insured safety but exacted isolation and madness, while relationships offered the comfort of companionship but were untrustworthy and portended abject disappointment.

The Persistence of Memory

The persistence of memory

Psychosis was preferable to abandonment.  Even a whiff sent Q running.  Withdrawal, silence, canceling appointments, “forgetting” or arriving late constituted some of the behavioral language he used to convey the full dimensions of his pre-verbal traumata.  I will leave you before you can leave me.

Our engagement was sometimes as basic and wordless as breathing together, and many sessions were spent in almost total silence.  But it was to become a shared silence, and Q was increasingly less encapsulated in the solipsistic bubble that threatened to devour him.

As our relationship acquired a reliable measure of accountability and consistency, we began to seek precise words to capture and describe unspeakable feelings that had never before been thought or conceptualized in mental terms, only dramatized or projected, what Fonagy (Fonagy 2000 and Fonagy 2002) described as mentalization.

Giving linguistic dimension and form to the amorphous content of lived experience released him from the endless behavioral enactments that condemned him to a stale and deadened life.  Though he fled repeatedly, I sustained and nurtured his dare-not-hope that the fragmented shadows of potential self might coalesce into a real boy.

In many respects, the last time we met was as awkward for Q as the first.  There was so much left to say and no more time.

Having fulfilled his one-year commitment, he was too proud to admit his reluctance to leave or remain.  I was left holding one end of severed and frazzled rope of hope that had bound us.  He had no idea where or how to begin.  I tried to express what he could not.

“Endings are hard, aren’t they?  (Nod)  It’s hard to say goodbye.  We don’t usually learn how to do endings well in life, do we?”

“Yeah.”  He mentioned a friend who had died of cancer.

“I think that we’ll each carry part of the other with us for a long time.”

“Yeah.  You’ve been good to talk to.”

“As have you.  Didn’t exactly know what you were getting into, did you?”

“Yeah, I did.”  A laugh gave him away.

I provided referrals and left future access open-ended.  He mentioned that when he told his parents about his analysis, instead of mirroring delight or offering support, they questioned his financial means.  They were unable to imagine why anyone would sponsor their child, because they rarely did.  He waited until he was nearly out the door to tell me.

Spring leavesShrugging as the shadow of wordless, unformulated feelings (Stern 1997) began to envelope him yet again, Q left ten minutes early.  I listened to his quick footsteps rush down the stairs and watched him drive away for the last time.   Relieved and wistful, I enjoyed a quietly restful moment, noticing with pleasure the spring leaves unfurling on the sycamore outside my window.  A few moments later I heard rustling in the waiting room and went back to work.

Two weeks after our last session as I was driving home from Trader Joe’s, my cell phone rang.  My car filled with groceries, I was thinking about dinner and the preciously guarded private evening unfolding ahead.  Finished with daily responsibilities, the remainder of that warm spring afternoon belonged to me, as pristine and crisp as a clean, blank page.

Though I knew it was Q, I answered the phone with my off-duty greeting, a casual hello.  Accustomed to a more professional announcement, he was thrown off balance, realizing he had entered my private life.  I was not simply waiting for him.  Sensing him stumble, the inflection of my voice rose with recognition, and I welcomed him into conversation.

“How are you?” I asked.

“I’m good,” he responded.

Yes, I thought with some satisfaction, you have acknowledged to yourself that you might miss me a little bit, that our relationship mattered, and you wanted me to know that you were okay.  He did not sound bleak, as he so often did, and I relaxed with relief.

I still hold you in mind.  I will care about you even when we don’t see one another.  Remember…

He was a bit nonchalant though talked for a moment about a pressing legal concern that had been resolved judiciously without serious repercussions as a result of his growing capacity to trust, exercise judgment and control impulsivity.

“Yes, you’ve made a wise choice.  I can see you’ve thought about it,” I said, thought being the operative word.

After a moment or two of quiet, as my foot pressed on the accelerator headed for home, he shifted to another topic.

“I watched That Obscure Object of Desire,” he announced, the real purpose of the phone call.

“No kidding,” I responded with delight.  “Where did you find it?”

“Oh, I rented it,” he answered.

“What did you think?”

Portals to Q’s representational world, conversations about films were always lively, characterized by genuine mutuality and thoughtful dialogue, and I had once recommended Luis Bunuel, a 20th c. master.

Cet Obscur Objet du Desir, a wonderful movie about a middle aged diplomat’s ferocious obsession with a seductive yet withholding young woman, swirled in a maelstrom of political terrorism.

“It was great!” he answered emphatically, “yeah, great.”

Bunuel’s main character, a poised and stately diplomat, was so completely besotted with a provocative young woman that his predictably composed life deteriorated into chaotic, obsessive fantasy.  This transpired as explosive terrorist incidents aimed at his political party increased.

The blue circus

This female character represented what the preeminent object relations theorist, Ronald Fairbairn, (Fairbairn 1946) described as an “enticing or exciting object,” symbolizing sadistic seduction with no hope of connection.  The inaccessible and unknowable mother represents the prototype for this subsequent chase-disappointment dynamic.  Representing Q’s elusive and remote mother, her imago was superimposed onto every subsequent relationship he initiated (and fled).

In fact, this character was a political and emotional terrorist.  To portray his fantasy, Bunuel employed two very different actresses to characterize the young woman, one dusky and voluptuous, the other elegant and lithe.  She was a blank screen for the diplomat’s projections.  He did not know her at all.

There ensued an endless series of enactments of sexual enticements and withholding, whereby the diplomat responded to her overtures and was repeatedly and ultimately frustrated.  Terrorist bombs exploded nearby one after another.

Via film imagery, Q and I witnessed emotional terrorism and the terrors of one’s own repetition compulsion (Freud 1914), the proverbial moth to the flame.

In one seduction scene, the diplomat was delirious with desire in response to the voluptuous character’s overtures.  As her clothing was removed, he believed himself about to embrace naked flesh.  Instead, he found her body bound by a tight corset with a tight stays and boning that could not be undone.  Struggling uselessly to release them, he abruptly collapsed in despair and rage, while she continued to taunt him and laugh.

This was the image of a boy trying to reach his mother’s breasts while she displayed but withheld them.  The boy could only begin to think, “I will never go there again, but if I do, I will leave her before she can leave me.”  And this became part of the emotional template of Q’s relational life.

“It took me a while to get it…that it was the same person, the girl, that he’d used two actresses, he continued.”

“Wasn’t that a great technique?”

“Yeah, it took me a while.”

“I think Bunuel was telling us that this man could not see beyond his own fantasies, only his projections.  We’re really looking at emotional terrorism.”

“Yeah,” he added enthusiastically.  “It was really great.”

By observing these characters and their follies, Q finally “got” what Jacques Lacan (1973) referred to as “the joke.”  Recognizing that his own inner terrorist was far worse than anything “out there,” he shed his hard shell for a moment.  Self-awareness was facilitated, because he could see what the diplomat could not.  Before Q was even aware of his insight, his unconscious mind knew what to do with it.  It took him a while to “figure it out,” but as he did, he tasted psychological liberty.  Q finally got the joke, and he was very pleased with himself.

Las dos Fridas

There were actually two very different women in his life, two maternal paradigms, his mother and her terrorizing imago, and me – imperfect but reliable, available, empathetic and steady.  We were not alike.  He had dented the severe organizing principle warning that everyone was and would always be just another variant of his abandoning mother.  There were two actresses, two possibilities, maybe two outcomes.  Perhaps more.

This moment of possibility represented the fruit of analytic “thirdness” (Ogden 1994), the opening of a shared and generative psychological space, one that bodes creative potential rather than stasis and engenders possibilities that break the rigid dialectic of doer and done-to, what Jessica Benjamin (2004) called complementarity.

It is not simply this or that.  It may be this and that or perhaps something completely different.  Q experienced a nascent awareness that he might end his own psychotic reign of terror.  He might liberate himself from his isolated and rigidly autistic, mechanistic mind-prison.

I turned from the main thoroughfare into my neighborhood, slowing down and shifting my hands slightly on the steering wheel.  A dog trotted across the street.

“I talked to my (attorney) uncle, and he told me what to do.”

He had found a way to bypass mother and access father.  He could observe himself and choose to avoid another episode of terrorizing repetition.  He could call me.

“Well, if you feel like it, when you get the information you need, let me know, and I’ll check it out.  He knew I was familiar with the context of his current circumstances.

“Ok.”

I’m still with you.  I will care about you even after you’ve gone. Perhaps this was a test.  Perhaps it was the final punctuation mark on our unfinished narrative but the beginning of another.

There was nothing left to say.  Pulling into my carport, I offered one last remark.

“I’ll be around.”

“Ok,” he said. “Thanks Mauri-Lynne.”

“Bye now.”

“Bye.”

I hung up the phone, releasing his hand hoping he would reach for others and find reciprocal warmth.  I opened the car door, encircled a big bag of groceries with my arms and went inside to make dinner.

There would be one more phone call some time later from this intensely funny and intelligent boy-man, but by then I had slowly begun to release him and his hold on my mind.  Luxuriating in the lightness of removing my own constricting stays, I felt unbound by the taut maternal preoccupation that had clenched so intensely during the past year.  Our trajectories had crossed and were now diverging.  I was glad for both experiences.

In the car running errands, my cell phone rang, this time from the bottom of a large bag.  I knew immediately it was Q.  I had lost a message shortly before and suspected he’d tried to call earlier.  (He had.)  I answered neutrally, though when I heard his voice, matched his tentative tone with my own enthusiasm.

“How are you?” I asked again.

“I’m good,” he responded, his voice stronger.  “I’m good.”

After a moment of quiet, he continued, “I think of you often.”

I think of you often. In my surrogacy, he had found a tangible realness.  I was no longer simply a projection, a wavering hologram of film pixels.  I had become a tentatively real object that he could access within himself and use productively and reliably, and as I did, he became real, too.  As his projections withered, available inner space opened for the imprint of new interpersonal and self-object experiences.  I had survived, and so had he, and we were both changed.

“Remember when I told you a long time ago that even after you’d gone away, I would continue to think of you?”

“Yes.”

Red boat with blue sails

We shared a sweetly quiet moment.  During that silence, I felt a transient but lofty affection for work and life.  I looked out the car window at the sky, as translucent as a watercolor wash.  I felt hope for him and for me.  At the end of his analysis, Q had managed to reach the beginning of the beginning.    He was trying to do for himself what I had tried to do with and for him.

He was using film imagery on his own as a trellis for self-support and was experiencing an emergent sense of himself as a cohesive being in the making, the resumption of his prematurely truncated going-on-being (Winnicott 1960).  Instead of hitting the replay button on the old movies of his past, I wondered whether he might now produce a new movie with an original script created anew.

We shared an incomplete experience.  Many issues remained unexplored.  We tolerated ruptures and bore anguish together.  An embryonic reflective capacity fluttered.  What emerged was nothing less that the basis for hope.

WARNING! This text is printed for the personal use of subscribers to The Therapist Magazine and/or Inside Out Journal and is copyrighted by Mauri-Lynne Heller.  It is illegal to copy, distribute or circulate it in any form whatsoever without permission of the author.

Benjamin, J. (2004). Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 73:5-46.

Fairbairn, W.D. (1946). Object-Relationships and Dynamic Structure. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 27:30-37.

Fonagy, P. (2000). Attachment and Borderline Personality Disorder. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48:1129-1146.

Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E and Target, M. (2002).  Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of the self. New York: Other Press.

Freud, S. (1914). Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis II). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works, 145-156.

Lacan, J. (1973) The four fundamental concepts of psycho-analysis. New York. W.W. Norton & company.

Ogden, T.H. (1994). The analytic third: working with intersubjective clinical facts.  International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 75, pp. 3-19.

Stern, D.B. (1997).  Unformulated experience: From dissociation to imagination in psychoanalysis.  In: Relational psychoanalysis, the emergence of a tradition. Hillsdale, HJ: Analytic Press. (Original work published 1983)

Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41:585-595.

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