Spontaneity, Self-Recovery, Insight and Avowal

Different therapies work with different values; they have different ends in sight. And some of these lie tacitly within the outlook of their practitioners and within the unfolding of their intra-disciplinary histories. Some core psychoanalytic values are, I believe: integration, a capacity to live out of (whilst residing within) one's own centre, and a return of spontaneity.

A subject who is neurotic has developed a curious kink in their personality. Their expression and perception becomes diverted or refracted through structures of phantasy. They are no longer in their utterances and acts as before. What Winnicott called the 'false self' has become prominent. What other people say and do, and whatever one oneself wishes to say and do, is first passed through a filtration system.

Donald W. Winnicott

This filtration, it should be noted, is not always or even often consciously contrived. The habits of mind which lead to the use of the neurotic 'buffer zone' are often just that - habits, which may be conscious or unconscious. Thought and feeling find their own ways through this zone. In the process of stripping their spontaneity they lose their real meaning. As with pasteurisation, the words of others are, detoxified, removing them of any potential to hurt the self, but at the expense of losing their original meaning and losing their ability to touch the self, or to put the self in touch with another. And one's own expressions of thoughts and especially feelings are similarly denatured, on their way 'out' to the other. Perhaps this may be (a la Klein) to avoid the other being hurt, but more likely it is to avoid giving anything away, giving anyone glimpses of the self which could serve as potential ammunition.

So why am I discussing this here? It is because I believe that psychoanalytic theory often recapitulates the distancing process in the ways in which it theorises the very phenomena of interest. The avowal of feeling - the embodiment or manifestation or enactment of affect - is often treated as if it were a matter of self-description, self-report. As if it were a product of a faculty of introspection which, not labouring under the blinders of the defenses, has come up with the goods and can generate correct descriptions of what lies within.

Take the way that the theory of the unconscious is often articulated: we are told that feelings which are unconscious are those which cannot be introspected, whilst those which are conscious are available to introspection. (Anthony Bateman and Peter Fonagy on self-mentalisation provide one such example of an introspective theory of what it is to be in touch with one's own feelings.) As if the feeling in question was the same in both cases, and it was only the access to it which was different. But whilst this may be true, it is I believe only a derivative truth. It is a consequence of the distinction between conscious and unconscious affects; not the defining feature. Furthermore, there is also a sense in which affects which are unconscious can be first-person reported (correctly), yet still continue to wreak the kind of havoc we associate with unconscious affects. What ought rather to be of concern is that they cannot be spontaneously avowed. (This is why intellectual insight is, therapeutically, such an ineffectual thing.)

So let's be clear about the logic of the argument. The traditional introspective theory of the difference between the unconscious and the conscious is that unconscious feelings cannot be introspected. Conscious ones, however, are conscious because they can be introspected. What I am claiming is that this does not define the difference. Conscious feelings, I am claiming, can be avowed. Unconscious feelings cannot be avowed. Conscious feelings, because they can be avowed, can also be reported.

Daniele Moyal-Sharrock

There is however a sense in which an unconscious emotion can be reported. We come to recognise that we must have such an emotion when we take a third-person attitude towards ourselves. We are not thereby directly 'in touch with' such an emotion; our self-ascriptions do not, as Daniele Moyal-Sharrock has discussed, spontaneously express, avow, embody, manifest or enact the emotion in question itself. Nevertheless we notice how we are behaving again - either from introspective observation of our 'inner' mental processes, or from perception of our own 'outer' behaviour.

However it is important to acknowledge that such a mode of self-reporting can itself be - far from providing the paradigm of being 'in touch with' ourselves - highly defensive. The taking up of a third-person attitude towards ourselves can constitute the contact barrier, the buffer zone of phantasy, through which affect may be refracted before it can be experienced. This is what can be annoying about having an analysand who has intellectually assimilated the conceptual apparatus of psychoanalysis. (Not being an analyst, I'm speaking here from my own past position as an analysand.) They start reporting judgements regarding what is going on within. The analytic function is internalised in such a way as to prolongue rather than dissolve the neurotic structures at play. Intellectual insight becomes a problem, not a solution.

What is important for the kind of growth aimed at by the values implicit in psychoanalysis is not, then, that the patient becomes able to correctly self-ascribe their emotional states. What is important is rather that they come to be able to spontaneously avow their emotions. The right kind of 'being in touch with' one's own feelings is not quasi-perceptual, where they remain at a comfortable distance from the perceiving subject. Rather, the gap between perceiver and perceived is finally closed, with the result that the patient's utterances spontaneously manifest their thoughts and emotions.

To conclude, let me make it clear what I am and am not claiming. I am not claiming that the above-described process or passage (from self-report to avowal) accurately conveys the essence of psychoanalysis. It is but one process amongst many others. I am not claiming that self-report is necessarily neurotic. It is however a process which can be recruited by the defense mechanisms. I am not claiming that the 'traditional' definition (of unconscious emotions as non-introspectable) is entirely wrong. It is a sometimes sufficient, but not a necessary, condition on the reportability of a feeling that it can be avowed.

I am claiming that one aspect of mental health is the possibility of avowal. When we arrive at the possibility of avowal we arrive at the possibility of being in our thoughts and emotions once again. It is in this non-epistemic sense that we are 'in touch with' our emotions. The defenses around direct acknowledgement of the meaning of the other's utterances and gestures (drinking mother's milk without pasteurising it), and the defenses around spontaneously displaying our own emotions, are gradually dropped. The disturbing effects of poor early mirroring are lessened through the process of the apt mirroring provided in the analytic sessions. These sessions provide a safe place, too, in which the defenses can be dropped. Avowal can be safely explored, and when the process goes well, the patient finally dares to reside in their own expressive comportment. The refractive kinking of the living-out of thoughts and emotions is diminished to the extent that the prism of the defenses is dismantled. And the energy that went into the refraction can now be used for furthering the projects of living.


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