Everyday Life and the Unconscious Mind: An Introduction to Psychoanalytic Concepts

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An increasing number of people are seeking to develop an understanding of psychoanalytic concepts in order to apply them to the ordinary situations that they encounter as they go about their work, family and social lives. Some of these people are students just leaving college and going on to university, some are managers seeking to understand the dynamics of work place relationships and some are the friends or families of people who suffer with emotional distress or mental health issues.Everyday Life and the Unconscious Mind is written for students, for those who work in the care sector, or in management, and for those who love someone who is struggling emotionally. It explains and clarifies some of the concepts that address the way in which the unconscious mind works and how it seeks to manage its feelings. It includes chapters on trauma and defence mechanisms, which are to do with how we cope with events that act like a psychological blow to our self esteem or our identity. It also discusses transference and countertransference, concepts which have traditionally been confined to the consulting room, but which can be mobilised in a number of different sorts of relationships, and if understood can contribute to the moment-by-moment decisions that we make in our everyday relationships. The book also clarifies what is meant by 'projective identification', a fundamental concept in understanding the profound nature of communication between people and absolutely invaluable in work with people in distress or with mental health difficulties.

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One - The Background to the Conscious and Unconscious Aspects of the Mind

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Sigmund Freud's working life spanned well over fifty years. Between 1886 and 1939 when he died, he produced twenty-four volumes of work that formed the foundation stones of the discipline to which he gave the name “psychoanalysis”. His adult life was characterised by a huge output of work and the development of many ideas and ways of thinking. He was one of the most original and brilliant thinkers of all time. He effected a revolution in the way in which we think about, and understand ourselves and our relationships with others. Other brilliantly clever historical figures, such as Newton, Galileo, Einstein, Darwin, have revolutionised the way in which we understand the world around us, but Freud is the person who radically changed forever, the way in which we understand and can think about, the world within ourselves. This revolution has had a profound impact upon our personal, social, and political lives. Psychoanalysis has something to say about the everyday detail of the most ordinary humdrum life and something to say about the momentous events of war and of social change. It has something to say about the intimacy of the new born infant's relationship to the mother, and about how this can link to an ambition to be powerful, to rule a nation, to subject others to one's own will.

 

Two - Trauma

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It could be argued that all forms of emotional distress, from mild upset to major mental health problems, are caused by, or triggered by some form of trauma. The word trauma comes from the Greek word “wound”. Originally it would have referred to a physical wound but is just as often now thought of as a psychological wound. A physical wound is an injury that breaks the protective barrier of the skin and causes damage to that which lies beneath the surface. This can be mild damage that can heal easily, or it can be severe damage that will need time and treatment for recovery to take place.

In this chapter I will consider what it is that constitutes an emotional trauma, that it can be an unusual and extreme event, and it can be an everyday almost unnoticeable event that can trigger traumatised responses. The damage of a trauma can be fairly minor or it can have long term emotional consequences and I hope to look at the ways in which the impact of a traumatic event works in the mind of an individual and can then be present in everyday interactions with the people in one's environment.

 

Three - Anxiety

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What is anxiety all about? Why do people worry so much? Does it serve a purpose in some obscure way? Is there a point to being stressed?

Mental health difficulties generally are on the increase. More and more people are going to their GP and saying “I just can't cope anymore”. More and more people are taking time off work with stress, more and more people are being diagnosed with depression or anxiety or both. Hearing someone say that they feel stressed or they are going through a very stressful time is not unusual.

It seems that anxiety, stress, excessive worrying, has become a big aspect of the daily lives of a large proportion of the ordinary men and women, and indeed children, of the affluent Western world. The causes of stress and anxiety are almost always attributed to modern life being difficult. Finding a good job can be hard, having enough money, finding a decent place to live; many aspects of everyday life seem to be fraught with anxiety. And it is often thought that if some aspect of life could be altered, the anxiety would go away. If we could win the lottery, or find the perfect job, all the anxiety would just disappear, we would no longer have anything to worry about.

 

Four - Defence Mechanisms

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In Chapter Two we looked at two ways of thinking about the structure of the mind. One of these is as an entity that has both conscious and unconscious aspects, the topographical model. The other is the structural model, which is contained within the topographical model and in which the mind is thought of as having three basic aspects that interact with each other and are involved in the everyday decisions and choices that we make. These three aspects are the id, the ego, and the superego.

When Sigmund Freud first conceived of the these models he thought that the unconscious aspect of the mind contained memories, thoughts, and fantasies that had been shut away from awareness because the conscious aspect of the mind did not wish to know about them, or could not bear the emotional pain of knowing or remembering. The term that he gave to this process of pushing away painful thoughts, feelings and memories, is “repression”.

Repression was the formulation around which defence mechanisms were first conceptualised.

 

Five - Remembering, Repeating, and Working through

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (1905).

George Santanya wrote this often quoted, and misquoted, sentence in a paper called “Reason in common sense”.

In 1993, Maya Angelou wrote a poem for the inauguration of the American President, Bill Clinton, which included the lines: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

In both cases the authors were thinking of social and political history, of wars and injustice. They were saying that if only we could learn from historical events, we could avoid making the same mistakes and build a better future for ourselves and our children. But what is implied in their comments is an awareness that we have a tendency to not learn the lessons of history, that we have a tendency to repeat the mistakes that have been made over and over again, to create war, misery, to deliberately generate human distress, to behave in brutal and inhuman ways toward our fellows, to be destructive rather than creative.

 

Six - Envy and Guilt

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It may seem curious at first glance that of all the human emotions and feelings that might be well placed in an introduction to psychoanalytic thinking, envy and guilt find their way in. What about happiness, or sorrow, love or hate, pain or joy? Are they not more obvious emotional conditions to include here?

Melanie Klein (1921–1945) wrote about envy and guilt in her seminal book, Love, Guilt and Reparation. In this book she put envy and guilt firmly on the psychoanalytic map as central emotional experiences with which we all have to grapple and which have to be negotiated and renegotiated in many everyday encounters and relationships. We are inclined to compare ourselves with everyone we meet, all the time. We wonder if the person sitting next to us is prettier, wealthier, and cleverer. We might have a better car than one person, but it is not so good as another's. We might live in a bigger house than the family over the road, but a smaller house than the wealthy people a few miles away. We constantly, consciously and unconsciously rank ourselves in relation to those around us. If the way in which we rank ourselves in relation to another person is roughly in line with the way in which they rank themselves in relation to us, then we are more or less in tune with each other, but if we are out of tune with each other, the relationship will be constantly battling with misunderstanding and indeed competition. For example in a workplace setting there may be two people who have to work together who both consider themselves to be senior to the other. It is not difficult to imagine how this may give rise to friction between them. The degree of friction may in some respects reflect a measure of the difficulty of resolving feelings of envy.

 

Seven - Transference

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The concept of transference is at the heart of psychoanalytic understanding about the relationship between a clinician and a patient. It is not only at the heart of understanding but is the central focus of a psychoanalytic treatment. This means that a psychoanalytically trained clinician will always be thinking about what is going on in the transference aspect of the therapy relationship, and will base their comments to the patient upon this understanding. This process is known as “formulating an interpretation”.

Transference is central to a psychoanalytic treatment between an individual patient and a psychotherapist and it is in the context of such a treatment that the concept has been developed and discussed and argued over. But it is also a concept that can be useful in understanding aspects of relationships other than the treatment relationship. It is a concept that can help to understand that between a teacher and a student, or between a doctor or nurse and a patient, or between a carer and a cared for person. What all these relationships have in common is that one person needs something from the other person, that they have a degree of dependency upon the other person, and it is this dependency that can give rise to the phenomena that we call transference. The dependency can be great as in the situation of a very ill person who needs the medical staff to make them well again, or it can be small, as in needing help to spell an unfamiliar word.

 

Eight - Countertransference, the Response to Transference

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The countertransference, the counter to the transference, or response to the transference, is more difficult to understand than transference, not least because there are areas of disagreement within the psychoanalytic world as to its definition.

Psychoanalysis is all about what it is to be human and since being human defies definition it is not surprising that the terminology that is used to try to describe the experience also proves difficult to define and is subject to argument and disagreement.

In this chapter I will attempt to explain broadly how the views about countertransference differ, but will on the whole be discussing my view of the concept as taught to me through my training as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.

It is also almost impossible to understand counter transference without also considering the concept of projective identification, but Chapter Nine will be about projective processes and I am going to attempt to maintain a separation between them in the interests of clarity and simplicity.

 

Nine - Projective Identification

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Projective identification is the term given to the unconscious processes by which transference and, in particular counter transference, come about. Like transference and countertransference it is a concept that has developed over time and over continents, and given slightly different emphases by different psychoanalytic thinkers and writers. It now has a central place in the psychoanalytic understanding of unconscious communication. This chapter is an attempt to explain the concept as Melanie Klein developed it and its subsequent evolution to its current usage in psychoanalytic and psychodynamic thinking today. It is based on my understanding of the term as I was taught it and have come to use it in my own psychotherapy practice.

Melanie Klein (1946) wrote “Notes on some schizoid mechanisms”. In this paper she described the process that came to be known as projective identification, though she did not use the term itself in that paper. She thought, as do psychoanalysts, that the unconscious processes by which emotions are communicated, begin at birth and that we continue to use these fundamental processes throughout our lives. She used the language of bodily functioning to symbolise that which she was trying to convey. This can seem bizarre and disconcerting to someone new to psycho analysis, but she was trying to describe emotional processes in the early infant, and a small baby's experience is entirely in the context of their bodily processes. The sensations to do with feeding, digesting and excreting are central to their gradual awareness of themselves as a being and eventually to the awareness of others as separate beings. In this early paper she was thinking about the infant's experience of having a bad internal feeling, perhaps having a pain or being hungry. She considers that the infant has a sense of something bad inside, something within themselves that is horrible, and they wish to get rid of this bad thing in way that might feel something like getting rid of excrement, a need to discharge and then experience a sense of relief and well-being. She refers to excrement as a symbol of that which is being discharged and to evoke a sense of relief at having rid oneself of what is felt to be bad. She also considers that this is done angrily and aggressively, and with the aim of taking over and controlling the person of the mother.

 

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