repression, or not

For me the concept of repression finds its surest anchorage in two phenomena. One is the way it can be peculiarly hard to remember one's own dreams. Much harder than remembering someone else's for example. The other is the way it can be similarly hard to remember to tell your analyst about certain recurrent and genuine troubles, despite the fact that working through such troubles is why one pays such a lot of time and money for the analysis. I think there's also an ineluctable air of strain, shame and sneakiness about such phenomena - as if some of our thoughts are trying their best to evade capture, as if our efforts at recall feel like to us straining against a contrary impulse within.

And yet there's much that's strange about the concept. We have our Sartrean worries - that we're either going to end up with an incoherent idea of needing to be aware that a thought is distressing so that we can then make and keep it unaware, or in danger of proliferating various sub-agencies (censors, separate egos, etc) within the person, a theory-saving move which looks rather desperate in the face of the grammar and phenomenology of personhood. We also have the twin worries: that much that is troubling, much that we should rather like repressed, is not; and that much of what we struggle to recall turns out to be really rather affectively innocuous or, well, at least hardly worth all that fuss.

Now, there are things one can say to these worries by way of defence of the inner censor/repression theory. We may think of tropism rather than intention if the avoidance of the pain seems too intentionalistically rich. We may use Fuchs' metaphor of how one automatically adjusts one's gait if one has an injured leg: it's not that we have to keep feeling the pain and adjusting our gait; rather we make an automatic protective adjustment which stops the pain arising. We may offer a range of peculiar facts about human life which might make the sub-agency story more inviting. And we may distinguish between the infantile self who doesn't want and struggles with the feelings which it represses and the adult self who is rather more advanced and capable than the infantile self fears - the adult self, that is, who can't really understand what all the fuss was about when the ineluctable becomes, er, elucted.

Nevertheless, and before rushing ahead with further prosecution and defence, I'd rather choose to stop to think whether we might differently theorise these anchoring phenomena whilst yet respecting the phenomenology. So here's a different theory. This is that we struggle to recall that for which associative grooves are not already laid down in the mind. We struggle to recall that which is not well integrated. We struggle to lay down dream memories partly because we are moving from one radically different mental state to another (sleep to wake). By contrast we find it easier to recall others' dreams because we are fully awake when hearing them. And partly we struggle because dreams can symbolise material which is not well integrated into our dominant self. Because of this there aren't the associative back-and-forth tracks to travel on. And similarly for what we struggle to recall whilst on the couch. There are preoccupations that dog us but which are not yet well integrated into our dominant selfhood and self-conception.

An important difference between the repression thesis and my dunno-what-to-call-it-yet thesis is that mine needs no inner censoring agency to do its work. Another is that mine posits that the difficulty in recall is not a difficulty caused by the painfulness of, or anxiety aroused by, certain affectively charged emotions and memories, but is rather simply because such painful emotions and memories are not well integrated. Yet my theory would also explain why certain rather painless emotions and memories are also hard to recall: despite not being painful they are not (yet) part of the dominant self.

And how about the atmosphere of shame that attends the difficulty of recall on the couch? I propose that this is because we have an adult ideal of integration which we're aware of not here meeting. It's kind of embarrassing not to 'know your own mind'. And what we cannot recall may, because it's not well integrated, because it's the kind of concern which we are likely to encounter only when we are in dream or somewhat dissociated waking trance (as when mentally disturbed), not yet have had the chance to develop and join the club of adult mentality.

And what error theory do I have which explains why the concept of repression gets going so readily? This is that the theory mistakes an effect for a cause. It posits that it's because certain thoughts are disturbing that they're not readily thought about. I suggest first that such elusive thoughts are not always disturbing, and second that when they are it's not their being disturbing which causes them to be experienced as elusive. Rather it's their unintegrated character, the fact that they're not yet part of the gang, that makes us feel ashamed, that makes it the case that we've not yet found ways to deal with them, that causes them to evoke powerful feelings, etc. And why is it that we can feel like we're struggling with a contrary impulse within to not recall the thoughts and feelings in question? Well, first of all it often doesn't feel like this. Second, there's the fact of the shame we can feel at getting in touch with less integrated aspects of ourselves. Finally, and for the analytic aficionados, there's the ubiquitous concept of repression which comes in to (perhaps rather unhelpfully) colour our experience of ourselves.


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