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Identity, Narcissism, and the Other

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Practitioners of psychoanalysis find three central themes to be recurrent and ubiquitous in every analysis; firstly, issues around identity, the struggle to know the self, to understand the self and to be the self in an authentic way. Intricately entangled with self-identity is the problem of narcissism, essentially viewed as a defensive retreat to a mental state characterized by an unconscious belief in the special value of the self and the diminution of the Other. The motive for seeking psychoanalytic treatment is often to improve the quality of relationships with the Other, which is clearly jeopardized by narcissistic states; the person undergoing psychoanalysis might hope to re-discover a resilient self and a sense of personal identity, and to overcome narcissism sufficiently to be able to form relationships. However, there are a multitude of inherent anxieties involved in close and intimate relationships. As Freud pointed out, even in our most intimate relationships there is an element of hostility. Threats to both the self and other, and various anxieties around libidinal contact, will be examined in this book using case material, and the relationship between these three important themes, identity, narcissism and the other, separate but interconnected, will be explored. It is proposed that the key to relating to the Other is empathy: entering into the mind of the Other to experience what it is to be them; to move around their internal world, feeling, observing, thinking, connecting, identifying with the Other's objects and experiencing with empathic understanding the Otherness of the person.

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Chapter One - The Way to Identity: An Auspicious Method?

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A robust “sense of self” or self-identity is not a given; there are many ways the self can be lost, deformed, split into parts, or falsified. If one is fortunate, a central identity is formed through the vicissitudes of growing up from infancy into adulthood, meeting each stage as it comes, withstanding the developmental challenges and inevitable traumas that occur. Psychoanalytic theory, begun with Freud and developed by Klein, Winnicott, and many others, provides a coherent roadmap of human development, firmly based on a theory of mind, applicable as a method of treatment for a range of disorders, as well as providing an abundant and rich catalogue of difficulties on the journey to an “identity”.

Psychoanalysis is particularly suited to the task of finding or re-finding the self and establishing an identity if that has not developed or has been lost, fragmented, or become unreal. Some of the pitfalls in establishing self-identity that will be addressed in the chapters of this book will include battles between conflicting parts of the self, splitting the self into parts, excessive projection of parts of the self into others or introjection of parts of others into the self. There can be a surfeit of identifications, playing out roles assigned by parents, or performing other roles that aren't authentic. Feeling oneself to be unreal or false, estranged or out of touch with oneself, or disconnected from others, is discomfiting, to say the least.

 

Chapter Two - Otherness and the Other

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Consciousness first finds in self-consciousness—the notion of mind—its turning point, where it leaves the parti-coloured show of the sensuous immediate, passes from the dark void of the transcendent and remote super-sensuous, and steps into the spiritual daylight of the present.

—G. W. F. Hegel (1964, p. 227)

In Freud's beginnings in Vienna as a doctor of neurology who treated hysterics, there was no indication that he intended to go on to create a system or theory of mind. Yet, as his thought developed, it is difficult to believe that he wasn't influenced by the thinking of the great system-builders of nineteenth-century German philosophy, such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx, the zeitgeist into which he was born. As Freud wrote, he notoriously contradicted himself and added new ideas that were not consistent with older ones; however, as he elaborated his models of the mind, taken as a whole, we can see that his thinking amounts to a substantial theory of mind, albeit “loosely jointed” (Sandler, 1983). When the Kleinian development is considered as an integral part of this system, a valid extension of pre-oedipal theory that I believe to be consistent with Freud's principles, we are provided with an enriched model of the mind based on Freud's framework, further elaborated by the many psychoanalytic writers who have followed. Our psychoanalytic heritage amounts to an open system not a closed one, linked to and overlapping with philosophical and psychological systems that study the same phenomena, both an edifice and a quarry, a superstructure of theory and a practice that mines the depths of the unconscious, capable of incorporating new discoveries, which is required if psychoanalysis is to avoid dogma.

 

Chapter Three - Narcissism and Unconscious Phantasy

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To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.

—Oscar Wilde, 1894

I am the only person in the world I should like to know thoroughly.

Lady Windermere's Fan, Oscar Wilde, 1891

These quotes illustrate in a nutshell the popular view of narcissism as a love relationship and preoccupation with the self, originally portrayed by the myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection. Foremost in relationship difficulties between the self and the other we find the culprit narcissism and its accomplice, lack of empathy. Standing in the way between the self and good human relationships is often an overvalued identity and inflated sense of self.

In psychoanalysis, the notion of narcissism grew from being seen as simple self-love into a much more complex phenomenon posing wideranging problems in the personality and existing somewhere between neurotic and psychotic states. Within the psychoanalytic literature, narcissism is described in several ways: as ordinary healthy narcissism or as the narcissistic disorders of the personality that present clinically, which may be defensive, libidinal, or destructive. First, as seen in ordinary life, when love or life is disappointing or turns bad there can be a turning away from love objects or the external world for a time towards self-love, for the restoration of self-esteem. This is everyday, even healthy, narcissism, to which it is important to have recourse in some degree in order to recover from life's slings and arrows, from the invasion of too much otherness, and as general internal encouragement. However, when there is too much dependence on self-love or when narcissistic formations are installed in early life due to a failure in the mother–infant experience, libidinal narcissism can become a fixed structure of the personality, an identity characterised by self-importance.

 

Chapter Four - From Omnipotence to Ordinary Potency and Identity

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Freud first discussed “omnipotence of thought” in Totem and Taboo (1912–13). It was a term taken from the analysis, in 1909, of the Rat Man, who believed that his thoughts would bring about the death of those he came into contact with. Freud believed that during childhood the individual passes through a stage of primitive, animistic thinking, leaving a residue that bears a “resemblance to the savages who believe they can alter the external world by mere thinking”. He goes on to say about the belief in magic that, “Neurotics live in a world apart, where…they are only affected by what is thought with intensity and pictured with emotion, whereas agreement with external reality is a matter of no importance” (1912–13, p. 86).

Since to some degree we are all neurotic, no one is entirely free from omnipotent thinking. Under conditions of frustration, obstruction, or helplessness, or great desire and desperation, all of us can slip into omnipotent magical thinking. But when substantial regions of the unconscious are taken over by omnipotent states, according to Freud, the stage is set for the development of both neurosis and psychosis. In the overt psychoses, omnipotent magical thinking is a familiar phenomenon in which delusions of being God, Satan, Hitler, or various other figures with fabulous powers to create or destroy, represent the extremes of a demolition of ordinary psychic reality and of normal mental functioning. Segal (1986) has underlined the importance of omnipotent states of mind in the aetiology of all mental disorders. As she put it: “In my view, all neurotic defences are rooted in psychotic omnipotence, particularly the omnipotent denial of psychic reality, that is, conflict, ambivalence, and the attendant depressive anxiety. These defences disturb both the growth of the ego and object relationships” (Segal, 1986, p. 216).

 

Chapter Five - Non-Consummation: A Narcissistic Organisation

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On observing a particular emotional pattern in many of my patients, my interest has been provoked by the phenomenon of holding back and letting go, and the sense of gratification in having power over these functions. In an everyday sense, withholding or giving can be used as a means of influence and control, of reward and punishment. Psychoanalytically, the importance of this phenomenon, initially noted by Freud (1905d) in the Three Essays, was formulated as an interest and pleasure in defecation and urination—in expelling and holding in—and featured as an expression of self-will or defiance by the small child towards the parent.

This body-based model, shaped by the physiological/social development of the child, remains, according to Freud, in the unconscious as a mental configuration of early complex object relations, as emotions, thoughts, and actions, which express themselves in adulthood in various ways. I will use these ideas to understand two distinctive cases of withholding, neurotic patients, demonstrating the way in which they formed defensive narcissistic organisations to protect themselves from terrifying psychotic anxieties in relation to the other.

 

Chapter Six - The Other as Alien: Psychic Atopia

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There are many reasons why individuals have difficulty connecting with others. In Chapter Four I discussed a woman who omitted relationships from her life, stayed alone, and kept all stimuli at bay because of terror of her destructive omnipotent phantasies. In Chapters Three and Five, I discussed patients whose withdrawal to narcissistic organisations prevented closeness to others which they felt could diminish, damage, or even threaten their lives. The wish to keep others out may be due to less extreme origins such as shyness, an introverted personality, paranoid states, or envy; for many, painful experiences with previous relationships or life situations have left a residue of shame, guilt, or humiliation making new relationships problematic.

This chapter will address the more difficult end of the spectrum. After a period of psychoanalytic work, when the patient has gained some trust in the method and in the analyst, and has been relieved of some of his symptoms, a plateau can be reached in which the analyst has difficulty making meaningful emotional connection with the patient and the patient has difficulty listening and taking things in from the analyst. Although emotional closeness may be something the patient consciously desires, still the patient keeps a certain distance and prevents contact, as if the other is alien. How can we understand this? There appears to be some unconscious element that opposes intimacy and contact.

 

Chapter Seven - Sexuality in Psychoanalysis

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Since sexuality has been more openly and publicly expressed in society as a whole from the latter third of the twentieth century, psychoanalytic papers, books, and clinical presentations on the subject of sex and sexuality, paradoxically, have appeared less frequently. Is this coincidental, a sign that sexuality has come out of repression and that patients no longer present sexual difficulties, an indication that individuals no longer have to be ashamed or guilty about their sexual needs in a more permissive society? Or have there been changes occurring in the theory and practice of psychoanalysis that have diminished the role of sexuality and of instinct theory altogether, the ideas on which Freud had based his theoretical edifice and the origin of symptoms? There have indeed been theoretical advances and shifts—most obviously around the development of object relations theory, attachment theory, narcissism, and Bion's notable contribution of theories of thinking, and these new models might appear to have gained in status and influence over Freud's psychosexual model of the mind and of the sexual aetiology of the neuroses. Since Freud's time, in the psychoanalytic literature as well as in psychiatry, patient diagnosis has trended away from the classical neuroses, hysteria, obsessional neurosis, and so on, and towards the various personality disorders: narcissistic, borderline, unstable, bipolar, avoidant, perverse. However, in my clinical experience, in the area of sexuality there continues to be, as there has always been, malaise and the same inhibitions, dysfunctions, and dissatisfactions as ever. In our consulting rooms, we continue to see problems around frigidity, impotence, or the fusion of sexuality with aggression or masochism.

 

Chapter Eight - Negative Therapeutic Reaction Re-Examined

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On the face of it, patients come to analysis in order to feel better, and this is their conscious intention. It is all the more surprising and distressing when treatment exposes contrary trends in their personalities that work against their manifest aim. Freud first wrote of “negative reactions” in 1918 in relation to the Wolf Man, who contradicted the good effects of his analysis by bringing back a symptom that had been cleared up. It was typical of Freud to examine difficulties posed by his new treatment as they presented themselves and he continued to reflect on these until the end of his life. It is still important today for clinicians to re-examine theories and techniques, particularly in the region of setbacks and impediments that can stand in the way of analytic progress. The concept of the negative therapeutic reaction (NTR), relatively neglected in recent times, will be discussed in this chapter along with clinical vignettes that aim to cast light on obstacles to psychoanalytic development.

 

Chapter Nine - Symbol Formation and Dreams: The Art of Odilon Redon

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During the same time that Freud and Jung were opening the doors to the unconscious through dream interpretation, taming its anxieties and demons, and exploring symbolism and unconscious phantasies, the French artist Odilon Redon (1840–1916) was painting strange pictures with images springing to life from his imagination, insisting on their right as creations of the mind to exist in and for themselves. Redon worked contemporaneously with the Impressionists but rejected their preoccupation with the exterior world in favour of the interior world of fantasies, dream-like images and apparitions. He created symbolic creatures and visual oxymorons that emerged from inner darkness, as if from the heart of unconscious symbol-making.

The impact of Redon's work is a profound sense of disturbance, awe, and mystery. The space created by his canvasses is ambiguous and otherworldly. His work evokes feelings of elation and mystical union and, at the same time, reminds us how human suffering can edge towards psychotic states. His own emotionally deprived childhood fed his vivid imagination (Hobbs, 1977, p. 10), often becoming a visual language of madness, yet simultaneously, in Redon there is a conviction that redemption is possible through aesthetic experience.

 

Chapter Ten - Dreams as Access to the Primal Scene

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In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), Freud extensively examined dream life and formulated his theories about the dream as infantile wish fulfilment, whereby unconscious repressed early memories or forbidden thoughts that evade censorship during sleep can appear in dreams, disguised by the dream work. In this chapter I will present a patient whose early experience formed unconscious phantasies of the primal scene that were symbolised in a series of dreams.

The patient, a bisexual woman with an obsessional personality, slept in the parental bedroom until the age of twelve. Dreams from her six-year analysis revealed the unconscious effects of her exposure to the primal scene and the evolution of the dream material is shown, moving from a phase of initial disguise into one of overt sexual content, then into dreams that indicated a modification of the early traumata that made possible working-through in the transference. I maintain that this process resulted in structural changes in her internal world; there was a shift in unconscious defences and inhibitions involving the patient's sexuality and sadism, modifying her obsessional anxiety and freeing her curiosity, to enable overall development to proceed.

 

Chapter Eleven - Arrested Development: Notes on a Case of Paedophilia

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The path of emotional development sometimes goes awry and reaches the cul-de-sac of sexual perversion. For the paedophile presented in this chapter, sexual contact with young boys was his consuming interest. The study of sexual perversion has become a pressing issue, as we have been made aware of the extent of child sexual abuse in our society. I will begin by outlining theories from the psychoanalytic literature before presenting the case and the discussion.

The psychoanalytic literature

Many of the contributions to the literature on the aetiology of perversion point to the disturbance of the early relationship to the primal object in regard to excess innate aggression, including acute infant self/object confusion, bodily fusion states, terror of loss of the object or self, and the resultant desperate distancing mechanisms that are an attempt to differentiate and maintain a sense of self against the fear of ego disintegration and non-survival—a fear thought to be shared by all the perversions (Gallwey, 1978; Glasser, 1979, 1986; Khan, 1979; McDougall, 1972, 1986; Stoller, 1976). These authors also refer to the style of communication in perversions—disturbances in symbolic functioning, concrete thinking, omnipotent autistic domination of the object, and excessive use of projective identification—indicating severe disturbances in object relationships, together with interference with thinking and reality testing.

 

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