From the category archives:

2011

This column also appears in the May/June, 2011; Volume 23, Issue 3 of The Therapist, published by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).  Abstract page 74.

Abstract:

The capacity to use words and language as symbols of communication is a developmental achievement borne of the elegant and mutually regulating mother-infant dyad.  This paper examines what occurs when emotional catastrophe compromises this sensitive process, and speech and words come to be used instead to defend against annihilation anxiety, dread and psychic “black holes” associated with primitive mental states.  The perspectives of Bion, Ogden, Grotstein and Tustin are used in conjunction with case material to explore these early modes of self-other experience that might be construed as pre-object relations, as they are primarily sensory in nature.   Consideration is given to the ways speech is used as an autistic object/shape engendering isolation rather than as a symbolic mode of communication promoting enhanced relationality and subjective meaning.

Language was the conjurer, indeed the philosopher’s stone, language was a form of alchemy.  It was language that elevated meanness to the heights of art.  Like the irritating particle that bred the nacre of the pearl, language ameliorated the gnawing irritant of existence; it interceded between the wound and the dream. Henry Roth

Laurie’s uninterrupted speech knocked me about like a strong wave slamming into an unwitting swimmer who has unwisely turned her back on the sea to gaze anxiously toward the safety of shore.  She would commence speaking the moment she arrived in my consulting room and, if I didn’t intervene or attempt to interject a comment during the ensuing forty-five minutes, would continue until she departed.  I felt intrusive if I intervened, invisible if I didn’t.

For months I looked for meaning in this verbal splatter, something elemental in her eruptions that I might transform and return as both useful and usable.  I struggled to know her, tried to like her.  Feeling superfluous, I was ashamed to find myself looking at the clock repeatedly during sessions and exceedingly relieved when they ended.

Conceptual imagery and word shapes

Taking shape in my mind, her speech appeared as meaningless glyphs, disenfranchised words comprised of loosely formed letters, their varied sizes and shapes barging forward or receding.  Oblivious of the time frame, Laurie’s sessions began to seem endless, requiring gentle reminders to allow her ample preparatory time to reorganize herself and leave.  Any specific reference to the separation anxiety associated with endings would evoke another gush of speech that was almost impossible to interrupt.  I looked for the needy baby behind the noise.

Our sessions had no discernible beginning or ending, just an ongoing flood of speech.   There were few thoughtful troughs between waves, just endless sets rolling toward shore across the surface of a vast sea of words flooding the room.  For a long time, she and I were lost at sea. When she wasn’t speaking to me (or at me), she was talking on her phone, filling the waiting room with sounds that made me wince, and I felt violated by her incessant vacuity.

Collapsed psychological space

The Mona Lisa

Maternity

When we spoke on the phone, her compulsive speech would begin the moment I greeted her, regardless of the purpose of the call.  Unable to differentiate between a formal phone session and a simple business-related call, she leaked words in a manner that suggested her inability to sustain any sense of foundational boundedness.  She experienced words, thoughts and actual bodily contents as equivalencies and was unable to plug holes in her still rudimentary sense of self.  As Odgen described, she was “creating a substitute for the space between mother and infant in which the infant ordinarily finds a place to live between self and other (Ogden 1989, p.66).

Desperate verbiage filled any potential space in which we might have engaged one another meaningfully.   I felt like a theatrical prop that existed simply to absorb her bizarre recitation of the loosely associated and circuitous events of her life daily life, her errands and shopping excursions, her family irritations and interactions.

She would frequently wander through time leaving me to find links in the massive holes in her narrative.  A present time reference to her sister in once sentence would shift decades in the next, the pronoun “she” no longer representing her sibling but her aunt.  Why are you telling me this? I wondered.  What are you really trying to tell me?

She buried me with words, and any attempt to proffer an empathic interpretation or comment was bulldozed with a quick nod and continuation of her monologue.

Any pause in her continuous production of words seemed to provoke terrible dread and annihilation anxiety.  I began to dread her sessions with equal intensity.  No psychological space (Heller 2010) existed in which she and I might engage.  I frequently felt useless and unnoticed.  Who failed to acknowledge you? I wondered.  Who left you alone?  Who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak your language?

Her capacity to utilize the creative potential of psychological space had collapsed like a weak lung, or perhaps a lung that had never filled.  For many months, there was no space for me to offer anything other than my presence and willingness to be used as a container, an exogenous lung.  I felt suffocated, as if the air were being sucked from the room and experienced uncomfortably deliberate urges to fill my lungs to capacity and inhale great breaths of air.

I was to learn eventually that she had sustained a collapsed lung following a childhood accident, so the lung imagery that arose in the analytic third (Ogden 1994) during moments of reverie* were salient and permitted me to begin to comprehend and decode what she was broadcasting unconsciously.

Behind this blinding white water spew of distraction, I found that for a moment, I could grasp the sand with my toes and withstand the currents.   I listened and attended to her pressured and compulsive speech as if I were caring for a screaming infant.  Using a soothing and modulated tone of voice and carefully paced speech as swaddling, I began to open a small space in which we might initiate and share a relational exchange.

The importance of learning from experience

The repetitious nature of her narratives signified her inability to build upon her own ideas and thoughts or upon the co-constructed foundations of shared interpersonal moments.  She would repeat what appeared to be almost scripted sequences again and again, as if she’d never spoken them and I’d never heard them.  Each narration was isolated and unlinked to any other.  She could not make use of earlier versions to work through, learn from or adapt subsequent renditions.

From a Bionian object relations perspective, Laurie could not think with her thoughts (Bion 1962.) They functioned as impulses to speak, nothing more.

Her proto-thoughts existed as beta elements (Bion 1962), sensory bits that had yet to be symbolized and transformed by alpha function and language into meaningful ideas upon which she and I could build.  Paradoxically, Laurie used words not as symbols of communication but as protective amulets to avoid a dark psychic void, a whirling vortex of nonbeing from which she feared she might never return.   As her word waves crashed in, I felt the concomitant pull of dangerous rip tides.

Into the void

Psychic voids represent gaps and fissures in the emotional floor of an infant’s foundational and rudimentary sense of being that expand into gaping and engulfing black holes (Grotstein 1990).  They signify the reverberations of an emotional catastrophe (Tustin 1981) between mother and infant, precipitating what the young child experiences as an endless free-fall in unbounded space.

Despite her mother’s actual presence, Laurie’s needs exceeded what her distracted mother was able to provide.  Lacking adequate maternal protection and containment, Laurie was left to manage confusing and frightening sensory experiences without the aid of her mother, the one person who could symbolize, interpret and transform them into meaningful psychic structure.  Instead, Laurie’s inner landscape was filled with dangerous sensory-affective potholes into which she feared she might trip and fall forever.  She defended against these terrifying threats of annihilating engulfment by filling the holes with meaningless noise and word-spackle.

The autistic-contiguous mode of experience

Evidence of this ancient catastrophe was manifest in Laurie’s default defenses and select mode of experience that reflected presymbolic and sensory rather than more fully mentalized object relations, consistent with what Ogden (Ogden 1989) designated the autistic-contiguous mode of experience.

Lacking a psychological skin (Tustin 1994), Laurie used words as palpable, sensory objects to scab over her flayed emotional self.

While repetitious speech defended against perilous psychic voids, it preserved her stasis in isolation and precluded any viable relational connection.  Like an insect preserved for eons in amber, Laurie was frozen in time and continued to rely on the autistic-contiguous mode of experience with little variation and without the addition of more mature modes that would permit empathy, mutuality and relational engagement.   Once after having learned coincidentally a fact about my personal life, she remarked, “We don’t usually talk about you, do we?”  For a moment, she saw me not simply as an extension of herself but as a separate object with discrete subjectivity of my own.

Working in the transference-countertransference matrix

In response, I experienced potent sensory and somatic countertransference sensations, often feeling drowsy though not bored.  Cringing was my strong response to feeling “tyrannized by an automaton” (Ogden 1989, p.44).  I frequently felt as if I could “crawl out of my skin” or twitch out of my chair as I sat with her, tortured by her inane recitals until I realized that she needed to use my skin and body as a substitute for the psychic skin she lacked.  To contain her unformulated and fragmented self, the beta bits she could not integrate or use, she was trying to burrow under my skin where she might feel shielded by its consistent surface.

And the word-shapes I perceived in reverie* were the autistic shapes (Tustin 1984) that constituted Laurie’s early object relations.  These are sensory, felt “shapes” arising when an infant touches soft objects.  Not yet perceived as separate, they represent the sensory edge of experience whereby warm and sensual contact objects such as bath water and skin or mouth and nipple are experienced by the infant as conjoined.

Surface contact is identified as a soft shape with its own mode of proto-object relations.  This sensory position is operational throughout life but serves a primary function in infancy, preparing a baby to distinguish hard from soft, animate from inanimate, me from not-me.  Imagine the contact friction where the surface of your skin meets the clothes you are wearing as a soft, warm shape representing conjoined rather than separate objects.

Long after the infant acquires the capacity to discriminate self from other and has developed more mentalized modes of experience, the autistic-contiguous mode remains her portal to tactile sensuality and sexuality.   We might think of it as “regression in the service of sensation.”

My countertransference feelings of intrusiveness had their correlate in Laurie’s early life when she felt her infant self to be an unwelcome intruder in her mother’s world.  My feelings of invisibility were linked to Laurie’s experience of herself as ignored and unacknowledged.

Evidence of premature separateness

Before she had acquired the capacity for self or object constancy and a subjective sense of individuality, Laurie’s infant self could only experience premature separateness as annihilating.  Lacking an emotionally attuned mother to modulate and reflect her existence back to her with delight and joy, she felt obliterated.

To bridge the perilous gap between existing and not existing, Laurie made noise.  If she didn’t intrude, she felt herself disperse and disappear into the ethers.  Noise verified her existence.  Though exiled, she was alive.

Laurie’s fall through space was as endless as our sessions often seemed.  I tried to break her fall by acknowledging her sensory needs and bundling her in my psychic skin.  She longed for contact, but had isolated herself behind an autistic, synthesized crust that seemed impossible to penetrate.  Despite the endless topical speech, terrible feelings of isolation and meaninglessness (Grotstein 1990) permeated our sessions leaving me feeling drained and ineffectual.

Laurie’s inability to distinguish between major and minor, foreground and background, significant and insignificant suggested the severe degree to which her sensory-affective experience and nascent thoughts remained conjoined at the surface and undifferentiated qualitatively.  What had originally begun as an early mode of sensory experience, a primitive awareness of self and object-other, had become a concretized and unyielding state in which she was rigidly stuck.

She would talk to a complete stranger just as she talked at me.  Everyone existed to provide archaic psychological functions for her, all interchangeable heads.   I was indistinguishable from a store clerk or gardener or anyone who would listen.

Autistic objects and shapes

Speech served several vital functions for Laurie.  In addition to representing autistic shapes, she also used speech-words as autistic objects (Tustin 1980), sensory dominated object-things used in impersonal and idiosyncratic ways.  Just as individuals with dementia will touch the surface of a nearby table or an edge of cloth as a means of sensory orientation, a feeble attempt to locate themselves in space, Laurie attached herself to objects at a sensory level, using relentless speech as adhesive.  She used speech like sonar to locate herself in proximity to me.  Speech conveyed painful affect not meaningful content.  The significance of my empathic attunement was evident in her choice of words that suggested skin contact and sensation, frequently remarking that something I did or said “touched” her, though she rarely could articulate why.

Considered retrospectively, I am now aware of the frequency with which Laurie referenced geographic and personal space, using them as metaphors for terrifying sensory-affective experience and unmet needs.  She would describe in detail aspects of the homes in which she lived as if she were describing physiological topography, using distance, walls and the impress of small rooms as autistic shapes and objects.  Some rooms felt containing while others did not.

Laurie would occupy herself making mental “shapes” from the lines and holes on the acoustic ceiling tiles on the occasions when I was out of the consulting room and would describe them to me when I returned.  I came to comprehend that these shapes were metaphors for early sensory experience that had never been symbolized.  She was trying to construe something meaningful from the discrete self-states and events in her life that felt random and disconnected.

Young girl dreaming

These “holes” were indicative of primitive mental states associated with sensory experience, particularly touch and the skin.  She entered a very childlike state of reverie associated with bouts of childhood illness when she would lie feverishly in her bed and look for design patterns and shapes in the ceiling above her head.  Neglected for long periods of time by a narcissistic and depressed and disengaged mother, she was left to make meaning of her sensory-affective experiences alone.

Making meaning of trauma and discontinuous self states

Having experienced little continuity of being, Laurie used word-shapes and objects to bridge holes in her discontinuous self states.  Uninterrupted speech served a critical survival function.  It prevented her entire sensory floor from falling away beneath her, pitching her into a dark sea or an engulfing black hole (Grotstein 1990).

Her torrent of words represented the only net she could use to defend against the terror of discontinuity and the nullifying anxiety associated with fathomless psychic voids.  She chattered at the edge of a gravitational vortex she could not overcome any other way.

Instead of suggesting creative potentiality, psychic space (Heller 2010) threatened to devour or engulf her in a state of utter nonbeing.   Unspeakable traumata were smothered in meaningless talk.  Unless her discontinuous self states were tied together with word-strings, Laurie ceased to exist.  Together we worked at the edge of meaning, trying to find symbols to represent unformulated experience.

Speech-noise represented the only girdle holding her together.  She could use words like Lycra, but she couldn’t think with them.  When I once asked who hadn’t cared for her, she stopped talking and wept.

As I began to comprehend her great need for foundational and sensory stability, we began to work at that level, using language that described her bodily and skin sensations in an effort to improve the quality of relatedness and transmute vowels and consonants into psychic scaffolding that might provide a reliably sturdy structure upon which she could rest.  When she initiated a stereotyped recitation, I stopped her and shifted to affect and bodily sensations, and eventually, she began to say, “I feel…”

Using language to create ongoing and increasingly complex stories and narratives from her ceiling picture-shapes and beta elements, she began to acquire the capacity to forge links and symbolize her unformulated experiences rather than simply repeat isolated segments.  Continuity and creativity began to replace abbreviated repetition.

Using my own thoughts, feelings and pictorial imagery as finely tuned instruments to track her unconscious communication in the intersubjective matrix, I learned to gauge her needs.  We worked as alchemists, using alpha function to transform base words into meaningful language.

Every single moment of reflection or reciprocity constituted a decisive achievement, rising like a small island in an otherwise illimitable and unremitting sea.

By slowly symbolizing and linking Laurie’s experiences and self-states over time, using circles of communication (Greenspan 1997) to expand her capacities to both think and relate to me as a discrete other, we began to see a varied and enduring archipelago of meaning emerge from her sensory seabed and coalesce into psychic structure.

 

* Reverie: Bion’s (1962) idea describing the analyst’s state of receptivity to her patient’s unconscious experience that parallels a mother’s receptivity to her infant’s raw, asymbolic or pre-symbolic experience.

WARNING! This text is printed for the personal use of the subscriber to The Therapist Magazine and InsideOutJournal.com 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.

Citations

Bion, W.R. (1962). Learning from experience. Classic Books. (Locale unknown)

Bion, W.R. (1962). The psycho-analytic study of thinking. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 43:306-310.

Greenspan, S (1997).  Training conference, Anaheim, California.

Grotstein, J. (1990). Nothingness, meaninglessness, chaos and the black hole Part I – the

importance of nothingness, meaninglessness and chaos in psychoanalysis.  Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 26:257-290.

Heller, M.L. (2010). Working in psychological space Part I.  The Therapist, volume 22/issue 3, March-April.  Also posted online: Inside Out Journal at insideoutjournal.com

Heller, M.L. (2010) Working in psychological space Part II. The Therapist, volume 22/issue 4, May-June.  Also posted online: Inside Out Journal at insideoutjournal.com

Heller, M.L. (2010) Working in psychological space Part III.  The Therapist, volume 22, issue 5, July-August.  Also posted online: Inside Out Journal at insideoutjournal.com

Ogden, T.H. (1989) The primitive edge of experience. Jason Aronson Inc., New Jersey, London, p.66.

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

Roth, H. (1994). From bondage. Picador USA, New York, p. 77.

Tustin, F. (1980). Autistic objects. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 7:27-39.

Tustin, F. (1981).  Psychological birth and psychological catastrophe.  In Do I dare to disturb the universe: a memorial to W.R. Bion, ed. James Grotstein, Caesura Press, 181-196.

Tustin, F. (1984). Autistic shapes. International Review of Psycho-Analysis, 11:279-290.

Tustin, F. (1994). Autistic children who are assessed as not brain-damaged. Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 20:103-131.

 

 

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

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.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

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.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }