Saturday, 1 May 2021

psychotherapy's moral bite: on deactivating the projection of will

What distinguishes the master therapist? I've long suspected that an important aspect of such a therapist is her moral seriousness. By that phrase - moral seriousness - I mean something quite specific. Rather than define it I'd like to first say what I don't mean by it, and to then allow the sense of it to emerge from an example. 

So, what I don't mean is moral shrillness, or moralising, or a failure of empathy, or an absence of the light touch, or an inability to take oneself less than seriously (i.e. a failure of what Jonathan Lear calls irony.) 

And now the example. It's from a recent blogpost by Jon Frederikson; Frederikson is a particularly lucid and thoughtful exponent of ISTDP (Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy). One of his trademarks is what ISTDP calls 'deactivating the projection of will':

Pt: "I don't want to dig too deep today because I'm in a precarious personal equilibrium."
Th: I have no right to dig into anything you don’t want to dig into. That’s why I have to ask you what you want to dig into that you think would be useful to you.” [Deactivating the projection of will.]
Pt: I don’t want to dig into anything.
Th: It’s your therapy, so you can dig as much or as little as you want. [Deactivate the projection of will.] If we don’t dig into anything, what will be the result for you?
Pt: I won’t get anywhere.
Th: So it sounds like you are at war with yourself: wanting to get somewhere and not wanting to get somewhere. What’s that like to notice that struggle within yourself? [Point out the struggle he faces within himself. There is no struggle between the two of you.]
Pt: "I'm afraid if I connect too much with how exhausted I am, I will just fall down."
Th: That makes complete sense. Would it make sense to look under the exhaustion to see what it might be covering up? [Exhaustion is not something we want to explore since the patient would only become depleted. We might test whether exhaustion is functioning as a defense and invite the patient to look under it.]
Pt: “I don’t want to look at my issues too closely today because I’m balancing lots of things and I feel fragile.”
Th: I have no right to look at any of your issues unless there are issues you want to look at that you think would be helpful to you. That’s why we need to find out what you want to look at that you think will be helpful to you. [Deactivate the projection of will.]
Pt: I feel fragile.
Th: How so? [If the patient is fragile, naturally we want to know so we can assess his strengths and weaknesses. Or the patient may not be fragile. We can’t know unless we assess.]
Pt: I didn’t sleep well last night.
Th: And the fragility? What are the signs telling you that you might be fragile?
Pt: “I’m afraid if I let myself feel how tired I am I won’t be able to go on.”
Th: That makes sense. Shall we look under this tiredness and see what it might be covering up?
Pt: Covering up?
Th: Yes. Would it make sense to look at a specific example where this tiredness comes in, so we could see what it might be covering up? [Invitation to engage in the therapeutic task.]

Now Frederikson doesn't describe his intervention in moral terms. He focuses, quite properly, on the character of the defense and the apt means of blocking it in the service of the therapeutic work. But it seems to me that the extract warrants a moral redescription, and that such a description will reveal something important about what's going on.

The first thing I want to note is that the projection of will is, in a sense, quietly abusive. I don't say this to make a big thing of it - it is often just a little thing - but to highlight an essential aspect of its character. 

So: I come to my therapist's consulting room but then, rather than stay in touch with my wish to know myself better and do the work of therapy, I regress and in effect say 'I want to be here but I don't want to do the work'. Except if it'd actually been said like that, then the patient would at least have been owning the contradictoriness of her action and her thought. Yet instead of owning the contradiction, she secretly disavows her wish to do the work whilst still coming to therapy. The contradiction is a living, rather than a thematised, one.

The therapist is after all a professional, is someone who does her job because she enjoys exercising her skills. And the patient who says he doesn't want to work in the session is depriving them of the opportunity of actually earning their living by plying their trade. (Imagine going to the dentist and saying, 'oh don't worry I'll pay you for your time, but today I just want to sit and chat'... It's not cool.)

For a patch of time some years ago, when a couple of patients habitually turned up late and apologised for it, I found myself saying something like 'Well as for me I was very happy reading my book; and I'll still be paid; it's surely only your own time you're wasting.' The reason I'd give myself for saying this was that I wanted to help them see what they were losing because of their actions, as well as to help myself avoid slipping into a 'oh that's quite all right, please don't worry about it', people-pleasing, overly empathic, state of mind. No doubt it was sometimes of help in those ways. But it truly failed in at least five respects. First, in saying it I failed to acknowledge the fact that I do my job because I find it rewarding - not just because it's how I earn my living. In this way what I said was disrespectful to myself: I wasn't noticing that I was being deprived of the opportunity to be the professional I am. (Of course, properly understood, the discussion of the lateness was also precisely an opportunity to engage my professional skills! But y'know, and to make an analogy: being abused by a narcissist is also an opportunity to develop one's self-possession - it doesn't mean we should thank them for it.) Second, by implying that it really was of no more value to me than my book, it devalued the therapeutic work that the patient and I were doing together and potentially also the patient. Thirdly, it failed because it deprived the patient of a chance to have a healthy experience of repentance, an apology being heard, blame being aptly apportioned, and forgiveness being given. (Experiencing true rupture repair, as opposed to competitive grudge-bearing, is majorly important for many patients since their early environment provided them very little opportunity for internalising healthy regulative moral ideals.) Fourthly it tanked because it rather prevented meaningful investigation into the meaning of the lateness. And finally it failed because it was perhaps something of a passive aggressive vengeful devaluation of the patient. I thought I was being morally serious - but, yeah, I wasn't.

Back to Frederikson on deactivating the projection of will. So, as well as not holding onto her own wish to actually do therapy, and as well as disrespecting the therapist by prima facie depriving her of the opportunity to ply her noble trade, the patient also disrespects the therapist by bending out of shape the moral fabric of their relationship. This projection is in truth a kind of projective identification. The patient not only fails to hold onto his own wish to do the work; he regressively shunts it into the therapist; and now sets up a dynamic in which the therapist is invited to experience herself as opposed to the patient. This is the structural equivalent of going up to an innocent stranger in a bar, nudging them, and then - rather than apologising - acting as if there's now some standing beef between them for which the nudgee is no more responsible than the nudged. The real issue, of course, is what's going on within the nudgee - it's an issue between himself and himself.

It's precisely here that the therapist's moral seriousness is most required. For what she mustn't do is what I described my past self doing above - or, even worse, just ignore the issue or become pathologically 'understanding'. But rather, in a gentle and firm way, she must implicitly call the patient out on what he's doing, and invite him to re-own what he's projecting. This demands the therapist's full self-possession. She must have spotted the projection in play, been able to stand up to it without getting drawn into an enactment, implicitly let the patient know not only that it's happening but that it's not ok, hold in mind the patient's better self's reason for coming to therapy even whilst he's busy disowning it, actively recall the patient to his better self, openly hand back the covertly passed over baton of the patient's will, not be reactive or dismissive, hold true to a dignified sense of her own value (and in this way manifest that moral value we call self respect), hold morally true to a sense of the value of the work, be aware of the patient's genuine struggles and anxieties without letting this awareness become a spurious exculpation, and invite a reparative - 'depressive' rather than 'paranoid-schizoid' position - dynamic. Being 'the adult in the room' is not, we might say, simply a matter of having a certain psychological maturity. Or rather, it is, but such a maturity must be understood as itself ineliminably a moral maturity.

I want to end by noting that it's not only master therapists who have (amongst other signal attributes) cultivated and embody what I'm calling 'moral seriousness'. The other professionals who I'm most aware of embodying it are what we might call master school teachers and master social workers. They deal with difficult and in some ways toxic dynamics not by becoming remote, not by morphing into a perversely uninvolved version of the so-called analytic 'blank screen', not by allowing themselves to get sucked into the dynamics or by becoming 'superior' to their charges. Instead they retain dignity and, without being patronising about it, and without minimising the fact of the disrespect in play, and - without removing themselves from the vital, dynamic, respect-constituted character of the relationship - recall their charges to their better selves.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

what's love got to do with it?

A talk for a Confer London webinar on 

30th January 2021


Patients come to therapy voicing all sorts of problems. Sometimes they talk about, say, anxiety or depression or hypomania, sometimes about relationship and work difficulties. But all going well, I suggest, what they’ll be met with in therapy is the opportunity to engage in a form of interaction which leaves them with a greater trust in their lovability, a greater clarity regarding what it is to love and be loved, and a greater capacity for loving. Because of this they shall hopefully become able to direct a new, sympathetic, gaze on their own emotional experience, under which gaze it becomes more readily conscious and more manageable. They also become more accountable to themselves as well. And because of all of this, their presenting problems remit.

Now the claim I’ll work to make intelligible today is this: that the active force in true therapy is love. The suggestion is that by understanding what this does and doesn’t mean, we can deepen our understanding both of love and of therapy.

Can Love be Paid For?

Now therapy is, directly or otherwise, paid for. But don't we arrive at an immediate contradiction here - for isn’t it the case that true love can’t be bought? In a paper on whether psychotherapy is a form of prostitution, philosopher Rupert Read suggests
that therapy is to genuine loving friendship (‘agape’) as prostitution is to erotic love (‘eros’). The therapist is selling herself, or some simulacrum of herself; the client is being cheated if this fact is played down or veiled.
Therapy may look like something which it makes sense to pay for if it’s dressed up as something technical - as if the patient is merely consulting for the therapist’s skill or knowledge. But Read’s point is that real therapy isn’t aptly articulated in such terms - for therapy requires us to be genuinely loving toward our patients. What’s really mutative in it is, he suggests - and with certain caveats I agree with him - is something rather ordinary and commonplace: it’s a truly caring form of attention. But at the same time, the very idea of therapy as a transaction seems to cancel what’s important in that:
Prostitution is relatively direct and ‘clinical’, or at worst is the selling of a fantasy of a relationship. Is psychotherapy, too, not a more subtle selling of such a fantasy? The therapist doesn’t - mustn’t - literally kiss their client; but I, for one, find the ‘metaphorical kiss’ which the therapist gives their client in return for ‘love money’ perhaps more repulsive than the paid attentions - the literal sex - that a prostitute gives their client’.
What I am asking is simply whether ‘mutuality’ - and the kind of I-thou meeting which … is so vital to the success of … therapy - is possible at all, given the asymmetry introduced by money.
One response would be to bite the bullet, but to compare therapy with surrogacy rather than prostitution. That is, just as a sex therapist may use a surrogate to help a patient gain their confidence, without crippling shame, before they can move onto genuine sexual relationships, so too might a therapist play the role of a surrogate for someone who has been having what we might call love troubles. The patient can now experiment with expressing himself fully for the first time, to see whether or not his habitual latent expectation - that he will be met with rejection if he shows his true emotional face - will be confirmed or disconfirmed. Perhaps he’s paying for tolerance for when he lashes out or hides away.

The surrogacy analogy conveys something of value, but I think it neither fully deactivates Read’s concern nor does justice to the therapeutic situation. We could say instead that the patient is paying for skill - skill in formulation, and skill in defence deactivation, skill in asking the right question, willingness to stand up to the patient’s self-deception (contrast his friends), etc. - i.e. the skill of identifying and clearing the ground so that real human-to-human connection becomes possible. On this view, the love - despite it being the real mutative ingredient - isn’t what’s paid for; what’s paid for is the psychological ‘mine clearance’ or defence deactivation - so that the love can then shine through and do its work.

Well, the defence I just gave is perhaps a little too tidy, since the mine clearance must itself be done lovingly. Even so it’s surely a fact that, despite it being the therapist’s love that is what’s mutative, you can’t buy that love. And I can’t coherently decide to love you because you’re paying me. I can’t love you for 50 minutes each day or week. Instead: I do the work I do because it’s my vocation. I do need payment from somewhere, or else I can’t practice. I also have a sense of the value of my training, skill and time. I keep temporal boundaries around the session because that’s the best way to practice therapy and because it’s in my patient’s interest - not because they've only paid for 50 minutes worth of love, whatever that would mean. They pay for my time and expertise. And I need to earn a living. Therapy is a truly unusual situation. Yet one of the things a successful therapy can do is help us get more realistic about our relation to money, to appreciate what it is and isn’t - as we come to a clearer understanding of our own worth.


So what is this love that I’ve been talking about, and what is it’s significance for psychotherapy? Those looking to provide a historical warrant for such a focus on love sometimes appeal to Freud’s judgement that in psychoanalysis ‘the cure is effected by love’. I was really struck by this when I first read it, as I was when I read Bettelheim’s humanising recommendations regarding the arcane terminology of ‘ego’, ‘superego’ and ‘id’ (into ‘I’, ‘above-I’, ‘it’). But let’s look at what Freud really said. Here he is in a 1906 letter to Jung:
Transference provides the impulse necessary for understanding and translating the language of the unconscious; where it is lacking, the patient does not make the effort or does not listen when we submit our translation to him. Essentially, one might say, the cure is effected by love. And actually transference provides the most cogent, indeed, the only unassailable proof that neuroses are determined by the individual’s love life.
Here, too are some minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society from around the same time:
There is only one power that can remove the resistances, the transference. The patient is compelled to give up his resistances to please us. Our cures are cures of love. There would thus remain for us only the task of removing the personal resistances (those against the transference). To the extent that transference exists — to that extent can we bring about cures; the analogy with hypnotic cures is striking.
What we seem to find here is in fact the rather dismal view that a patient will only change to please a therapist who they’ve idealised. The ‘love’ of which we hear, here, is in short nothing but the ‘positive’ transference. That is, it’s a defensively motivated form of relating which requires an unrealistic idealised sense of the therapist along with a diminishment of the patient’s self-possession. Far from this providing a paradigm of therapeutic action I suggest it represents the floundering of early psychoanalysis to find its way into genuinely therapeutic activity.


A similar conception of love can be found in the writings of other therapists. For example Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, once wrote a self-help book for couples called ‘Love is Never Enough’. What did he mean? He meant that the kind of idealising infatuation with the beloved which often characterises the state of ‘having fallen’ or ‘being’ ‘in love’ with someone is not enough to keep a relationship together. Early on we might think we’ve found our ‘soul mate’ - we yearn to be with them and imagine that simply being with them will solve all our problems. The underlying fantasy here is one of merger: there will be no difference between us any longer; we’ll live in perfect harmony since we’ll simply live out out a state of magical rapturous fusion. 

This reminds me of that tale from Plato’s Symposium where Aristophanes tells of how the earth originally had two-headed four-legged and four-armed creatures who hoofed about the place doing cartwheels. They got too big for their boots, so Zeus split them in half creating the male and female humans we find today. Aristophanes says: 
Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another's company? For if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two—I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?'—there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. 
In short, this is a story of love which has us seeking for our ‘other half’. But as Beck tells it, and as we all actually know, this fantasy is an expression of an ‘infatuation program’ which cannot make for genuinely happy relationship. What else is needed? Well, we need he says to develop realistic attitudes concerning what our partners actually think, want, know, understand, need, and feel. We need, in short, to recognise them in their separateness from us - to recognise that we don’t magically know what they are thinking and needing, and so we need to ask them.

At this point I shall simply comment that what Beck claims is needed in addition to actual love is just what I will claim later is what love actually is - namely a genuine attention to the other in her separateness from ourselves.


In his 1912 paper "Recommendations to Physicians Practising PsychoAnalysis" Freud writes that he
cannot advise my colleagues too urgently to model themselves during psychoanalytic treatment on the surgeon, who puts aside all his feelings, even as human sympathy, and concentrates his mental forces on the single aim of performing the operation as skilfully as possible.
This advice famously contrasts not only with aspects of his own practice but with the attitude of, amongst others, Ferenczi (1932) who wrote that
if the patient notices that I feel a real compassion for her and that I am eagerly determined to search for the causes of her suffering, she then suddenly not only becomes capable of giving a dramatic account of the events but also can talk to me about them.
It also contrasts markedly with the approach of Carl Rogers who from the 1940s offered the world his client- or person-centred therapy. In the extract I’ll now read, Rogers approvingly quotes a colleague’s description of how the word
“love”, easily misunderstood though it may be, is the most useful term… to describe a basic ingredient of the therapeutic relationship. … [A]s a therapist I can allow a very strong feeling or emotion of my own to enter the therapeutic relationship, and expect that the handling of this feeling from me by the client will be an important part of the process of therapy for him. [T]herapeutic interaction at this emotional level, rather than interaction at an intellectual … level, regardless of the content concerned, is the effective ingredient in therapeutic growth. … In terms of the therapeutic situation, I think this feeling [our deepest need to be met with as a person ourselves] says to the client, I have a real hunger to know you, to experience your warmth, your expressivity - in whatever form it may take - to drink as deeply as I can from the experience of you in the closest, most naked relationship which we can achieve. I do not want to change you to suit me: the real you and the real me are perfectly compatible ingredients of a potential relationship which transcends, but in no way violates, our separate identities.
Here and elsewhere (see Client-Centred Therapy 1951 p.160ff.) Rogers fundamentally agrees with other humanistically minded psychologists - such as Gordon Allport (1950, p. 80) - that “Love is incomparably the greatest psychotherapeutic agent”. We also find such an understanding in object relations theorists such as Harry Guntrip (1953) who talked of a “kind of parental love . . . agape . . . [which] is the kind of love the psycho-analyst and psychotherapist must give the patient because he did not get it from his parents in sufficient measure or in a satisfactory form.” And we will come to all this soon. But what I want to note for now is how Rogers consistently sentimentalises love. That is to say, he turns it into a feeling or emotion. The third condition of effective therapy - positive regard, which he also calls love - is talked of by Rogers in terms of what the therapist experiences: "the counselor is experiencing a warm, positive, acceptant attitude toward what IS the client.” Or: “I am describing … a feeling which is not paternalistic, nor sentimental, nor superficially social and agreeable.”

Now we do of course sometimes have important ‘loving feelings’ - but we can’t infer from this that love is itself a feeling. Love, unlike feelings, is known by its fruits, and primarily manifests not in a feeling but in an attitude we have to the other. Whilst hate is an emotion, love is no more an emotion than is courage (see Dilman, Love); it ‘engages’ our emotions, rather than itself being one of them; and unlike actual feelings it doesn’t have discrete start and end points in time.

We’ll get to this attitude soon enough, but I want to pause a moment to describe a well-known difficulty with Rogers’ notion of ‘unconditional positive regard’. The difficulty is primarily with the unrealistic nature of an unconditionally positive regard. The inevitable human truth is that one may at times be morally repulsed or annoyed or bored by one’s patient. How then could our regard be unconditionally positive - especially if we’re to meet Rogers’ own second condition of effective therapy - namely an inner honesty or ‘congruence’ between our own inner and outer states. This difficulty may, I think, in part be mitigated by thinking on the fact that the regard, and not the positivity, is what's supposed to be unconditional. And in part it’s mitigated when we understand that positive regard isn’t to do with always feeling positive about or accepting of what someone’s doing or saying, but rather is “a feeling which is not paternalistic, nor sentimental, nor superficially social and agreeable. It respects the other person as a separate individual, and does not possess him.” Rogers tells us that this is well described as “a kind of love for the client as he is, providing we understand the word love as equivalent to the theologian's term agape, and not in its usual romantic and possessive meanings.” But it is just here I think that Rogers’ words work against him. For the theologian’s agape (or caritas - ‘charity’) isn't the name of a feeling; instead it’s the very form of the virtues (Catechism §1827). It’s fruits are ‘joy, peace and mercy’. It ‘demands beneficence and fraternal correction’, it ‘is benevolence’, it ‘fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous’; it is ‘friendship and communion’ (Catechism §1829). Once we understand that ‘love’, properly understood, isn’t the name of a feeling, then I think we can better understand how we can meaningfully be called to love someone to whom we do not currently feel loving feelings. Perhaps it will even be in the sternness of our rebuke that our love for them most shows itself.

What then is Love?

How, then, shall we understand love? In what follows I will stress three aspects of it. First, it’s a mode of attention. Second, it involves relating without intrusion. Third, it reveals to us the humanity of the other. But before we go further, let’s contemplate an image of love. Here is Donatello’s Virgin and Child - it’s known as the Borromeo Madonna. I would like to draw your attention to the gentleness, tenderness, the holding, the co-presence to each other - the confelicity - of this mother and child. I want to start with the image because it’s easy for verbal description to become abstract, to lose sight of love’s particularity and significance. It’s easy for discussion of love to be shaped by our defences against love and the vulnerability required to know it. It’s easy for talk of love to itself become unloving. To become only a form of thought which tries to hold something to account, rather than a form which is receptive, which gets itself out the way. Perhaps I’ll share a little episode from my life last week as well. I went on a walk with my oldest friend. Just an hour or so; we’re lucky to live near one another. He is a minister, and so one might say his job is to try to remain on a morally serious love trip at all times. At any rate, we had a great conversation, friendly, personal, respectful, intellectually very interesting. But then, when we parted, he turned back and shouted down the road ‘I love you Rich!’ I have to say it hit me with quite some force. And when it hit me thus I realised, too, that despite the gentle thoughtful respectful friendliness of our talk, even here there was a guardedness. The very fact that something was blown away by his exclamation showed up the walk and talk as not everything between friends that they absolutely could be. At any rate, my point is that we perhaps live much of our lives, and this is if we’re lucky, in the state of mind that I was in when on the walk. And that, because of this, our really holding true to our understanding of what’s most important in life - namely: love - all too readily becomes dulled.


This brings me now to attention, the first aspect of love I want to discuss. The 1930s French existentialist Louis Lavelle described love as ‘a pure attention to the existence of the other’ (‘La charité est une pure attention à l’existence d’autrui’). The idea of love as attention has however primarily been associated with Simone Weil. I want to stress that hers is a moralised notion of attention: it’s an attention that involves getting oneself out of the way so that one can truly, receptively, take in the other in all his particularity:
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object… Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it. (Waiting for God, p. 111-2)
We can bring this form of attention into clearer view by contrasting it with how we relate to another when we stand back and think about his character. Describing someone as ‘a character’ is another way in which we refuse to pay loving attention to them. Here is how the Danish theologian K E Løgstrup puts it:
In love and sympathy there is no impulse to give an account of the other person’s character. We do not construct a picture of who he or she is. …We have not made a conscious effort, for the simple reason that nothing about the other has made us wary of them. … On the other hand, if we are not in sympathy with the other person, but there is some tension between us because there is something in the other that we are uncertain about or view with irritation, dissatisfaction, or antipathy, then we begin to construct a picture of the other’s character. We see in him or her a complex set of dispositions, because we are wary of that person. … But in being together with the other person, the picture normally breaks down; their personal presence annihilates it. (The Ethical Demand p. 13)
I now want to offer a particular example. It’s curious in its way, because it doesn’t involve interpersonal love. But perhaps this can even help - in just the same way that we’re sometimes more able to feel pathos in stories of the heroism or friendship of animals than of people. It comes from W H Vanstone’s book Love’s Endeavours, Love’s Expense. Vanstone, a clergyman, is visited by two bored boys from his parish asking him for ideas of what to do in the winter half-term break. And he gives them the uninspired task of making a model of a waterfall they’d all visited in the Irish countryside the previous summer. They set about their task without enthusiasm. But over four days they really got into it, becoming oblivious to mealtimes and their own tiredness, utterly giving themselves to the task.
Having expended to the full their own power to make, they became the more attentive to what the model itself might disclose. The two boys became vulnerable in and through that which, out of virtually nothing, they had brought into being. … For the self-giving built into the model I could find no simple word or name but love. … I had actually seen the activity of love - the concentration, the effort and the unsparingness of self-giving that are involved in love. … Love aspires to reach that which, being truly an ‘other’, cannot be controlled. The aspiration of love is that the other, which cannot be controlled, may receive: and the greatness of love lies in its endless and unfailing improvisation in hope that the other may receive.
Essential to this attention, then, is getting oneself out of the way so that the other may truly be seen for who she is. A lovely example of this is given by Iris Murdoch in The Sovereignty of Good:
A mother, whom I shall call M, feels hostility to her daughter-in-law, whom I shall call D. M finds D quite a good-hearted girl, but while not exactly common yet certainly unpolished and lacking in dignity and refinement. D is inclined to be pert and familiar, insufficiently ceremonious, brusque, sometimes positively rude, always tiresomely juvenile. M does not like D’s accent or the way D dresses. M feels that her son has married beneath him. Let us assume for the purposes of the example that the mother, who is a very ‘‘correct’’ person, behaves beautifully to the girl throughout, not allowing her real opinion to appear in any way. … Time passes, and it could be that M settles down with a hardened sense of grievance and a fixed picture of D, imprisoned … by the cliché: my poor son has married a silly vulgar girl. However, the M of the example is an intelligent well-intentioned person, capable of self-criticism, capable of giving careful and just attention to an object which confronts her. M tells herself: ‘‘I am old-fashioned and conventional. I may be prejudiced and narrow-minded. I may be snobbish. I am certainly jealous. Let me look again.”
Essential to such attention is looking at something justly.

Relating without Intrusion

I’ve described love as a form of attention, one in which the self gets itself, and its categorical cognition, out the way so it may truly and openly encounter the other. An important part of this is its restraint on impingement. Love truly is a desire for unity with the other, but this is not unity under any old description; it’s a unity which honours the independent existence of the relata. It is by way of articulating this that Michael Balint offers us the idea of the analyst’s ‘non-impinging, abiding presence’ - and Donald Winnicott famously talks of the importance, for the child, of developing the capacity to be alone in the presence of the other. The example I’d like to give, to make this vivid, comes from R D Laing - and it concerns the opposite of this kind of love which lets the other be.

Consider Maya Abbott, a ‘tall, dark, attractive woman of twenty-eight’ who has spent 9 of the last 10 years in a psychiatric hospital. Laing and Esterson interview her together with her parents. Maya has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia; she feared her father was poisoning her; she experiences herself as a machine rather than a person; she lacks a sense of her motives and intentions and actions belonging together. She feels her thoughts are controlled by others, and believes that her voices, rather than she herself, did her thinking for her. She lives away from home during the war, and when she comes back aged 14 her parents experience her as changed. She objects to her father’s proximity; she objects to the lack of opportunities for autonomy she is offered. Her mother objects to her ironing without supervision, although she’s been working in a laundry for a year without mishap. ‘Mr and Mrs Abbott regarded their daughter’s use of her own ‘mind’ independently of them, as synonymous with ‘illness’, and as a rejection of them.’ Mrs Abbott says ‘you see Maya is er - instead of accepting everything - as if I said to her, er, ‘Black is black’, she would have probably believed it, but since she’s ill, she’s never accepted anything any more.’ Until she was 18 Maya ‘took refuge … in books from what she called her parents’ intrusions.’ ‘When Maya said that her parents put difficulties in the way of her reading, they amusedly denied this. She insisted that she had wanted to read the Bible; they both laughed at the idea that they made this difficult for her, and her father, still laughing, said ‘What do you want to read the Bible for anyway? You can find that sort of information much better in other books.’ Her parents, she said ‘did not think of her, or ‘see’ her as ‘a person’, ‘as the person that I am’. She felt frightened by this lack of recognition, and hit back at them as a means of self-defence. … Maya insisted that her parents had no genuine affection for her because they did not know, and did not want to know, what she felt, and also that she was not allowed to express any spontaneous affection for them, because this was not part of ‘fitting in’.’ Her father ‘often laughed off things that I told him and I couldn’t see what he was laughing at. I thought it was very serious. Even when I was five, when I could understand, I couldn’t see what he was laughing at. … If I told him about my dreams he used to laugh it off and tell me to take no notice. They were important to me at the time - I often got nightmares. He used to laugh them off.’ When the family were all interviewed together, Maya’s ‘mother and father kept exchanging with each other a constant series of nods, winks, gestures, knowing smiles, so obvious to the observer that he commented on them after twenty minutes of the first such interview. They continued, however, unabated and denied.’ When she reaches puberty Maya starts to wonder about her parents’ intercourse, and to masturbate. ‘She tries to tell them about this, but they told her she did not have any thoughts of that kind. She told them she masturbated and they told her that she did not. …when she told her parents in the presence of the interviewer that she still masturbated, he parents simply told her that she did not!’ Maya says that she is trying to cultivate her ‘self-possession’: ‘If I weren’t self-possessed I’d be nowhere, because I’d be mixed up in a medley of other things. … Mother is always … trying to teach me how to use my mind. You can’t tell a person how to use their mind against their will.’ ‘She would feel that her mother and father were forcing their opinions on her, that they were trying to ‘obliterate’ her mind. Laing and Esterson report mother telling them of ‘a ‘home truth’ a friend had given her recently about her relation to Maya. She said to me… ‘Well, you can’t live anyone’s life for them - you could even be punished for doing it’ - And I remember thinking, ‘What a dreadful thing to think’ but afterwards I thought she might be right. It struck me very forcibly. She said to me ‘You get your life to live, and that’s your life - you can’t and mustn’t live anybody’s life for them’ And I thought at the time, ‘Well, what a dreadful thing to think.’ And then afterwards I thought, ‘Well, it’s probably quite right’. This insight, however, was fleeting.’

When we read the other case studies in Laing & Esterson’s book we find similar experiences of intrusion, combined with failures to offer recognition, which are experienced by the children as thwarting their ability to grow up. Parents can’t understand that their own preferences are not shared by their child. Feelings too painful or ego-alien for adults to realise are denied as genuinely pertaining to the child. A child will tell her mother that she felt that she was given no confirmation as a real person, but the mother simply says ‘well I do wish you’d expressed your needs more’ and then continues to talk in a way that makes it clear she’s not interested in what her daughter’s inner needs really are. Now the claim I’m making here is that such failings are essentially failings of love. I’m not saying that failures in love uniquely cause mental illness; perhaps having somewhat obtuse / intrusive parents who provide but a modicum of recognition would cause only insignificant developmental problems for many children. Nor am I saying that these parents are particularly to blame for their difficulties in love. But what I am saying is that such failures give us a clear example of what mature love is not. Such love is trying to understand someone in her own terms. It’s getting yourself out of the way in your appreciation of the other. It makes room for them with their own preferences, values and understandings. It doesn’t tell other people, or pretend to know, what they think.

Disclosing Particularity

The final aspect of love to which I want to draw your attention is its power to disclose the other in her irreplaceable particularity. Again an example will take us further than a thesis. In his A Common Humanity, Raimond Gaita tells of the power of love to make the humanity of another fully visible. The tale he tells is from the early 1960s. Gaita is a 17 year old ward assistant in a psychiatric hospital. The patients are judged incurable. If they soil themselves they stand in showers whilst assistants mop them. Nobody visits. ‘They had no grounds for self-respect insofar as we connect that with self-esteem’. Many clinicians treated them brutishly. Some psychiatrists Gaita admired talked of the patient’s ‘inalienable dignity’. (Their colleagues believed them fools.) He admits that ‘it probably didn’t help their cause for the psychiatrists to speak of the inalienable dignity of the patients. … Natural though it is… it is, I believe, a sign of our conceptual desperation and also of our deep desire to ground in the very nature of things the requirement that we accord each human being unconditional respect.’ Dignity is, in fact, alienable. But then:
One day a nun came to the ward . … everything in her demeanour towards [the patients] - the way she spoke to them, her facial expressions, the inflexions of her body - contrasted with and showed up the behaviour of those noble psychiatrists. She showed that they were, despite their best efforts, condescending, as I too had been. … I felt irresistibly that her behaviour was directly shaped by the reality which it revealed. … Whatever religious people might say, as someone who was witness to [her] love and .. claimed in fidelity to it, I have no understanding of what it revealed independently of the quality of her love. … the quality of her love proved that [the patients] are rightly the objects of our non-condescending treatment, that we should do all in our power to respond in that way.
The aspect of Gaita’s narrative to which I wish to draw attention concerns love’s disclosiveness. The nun’s love reveals the patients in their irreplaceability; it reveals the fact that we are ‘precious beyond reason’. ‘Love is the perception of individuals’, as Iris Murdoch puts it (The Sovereignty of Good). We can understand this, I think, by calling to mind either our friends or our patients. Perhaps you might try this right now with just one or two patients. Bring to mind someone’s distinctive face, and in particular how he animates his face and how he inhabits his body, how he comes into or leaves the consulting room. His tone of voice. Recollect him struggling in his distinctive way, and recollect the way he uses words, and the distinctive enthusiasms he has, the kinds of things he finds funny. Recall his distinctive vulnerability, and how he shares of himself from that vulnerable state. In short, bring to mind what Christopher Bollas calls his ‘idiom’, his ‘style of life’ that transcends his defences. And then bring to mind another patient, and the different way she is herself. Can you enjoy them in their differences? Can you want the best for them in their particularity?

The point of this way of seeing people, i.e. as individuals, is not to do with enjoying their diversity. The presence of diversity should presumably of itself no more be celebrated than its absence. But what reflection on, say, cultural differences does is sensitise us to the wondrous value of the domain of culture per se. And so too with individuals. We can sensitise ourselves in recollection to the wondrousness of our friends, or patients, by drawing to mind all their distinctive ways of being themselves. We might say ‘One of the things I really love about David is the way he uses humour to redeem the pains of life without deflecting from them’. This doesn’t mean of course that what we really love is not David but rather his sense and use of humour. Lovable David is not just a congeries of lovable traits. It rather works like this: thinking of him in his distinctiveness can help us acknowledge him in his singularity, and help avoid other (here irrelevant or occlusive) forms of apprehending him - e.g. that he has a certain group identity. His singularity has to do not with his atypicality but simply with his being an individual. Seen in this way David is not a worker (who could be replaced), but an irreplaceable individual. And ‘love' is the name of the attitude that makes this manifest.

Going naturally along with this revelation of the other in her true humanity and irreplaceable particularity is, I believe, wanting the best for her. Here we’re back to Rogers’ positive regard. Again, wanting the best for someone may show itself in our feelings, but it needn’t; it can rather be a resting, default, background attitude. And as we all know, much of the more ‘technical’ work of therapy consists in pealing back the negative transference (and the positive transference which can hide an underlying negative transference) so as to arrive at the patient’s fears that one doesn’t, in truth, really want the best for him. That one doesn’t really respect him. And once these layers of transference are peeled back, the patient can hopefully ‘internalise’ this wanting the best for him into a relaxed and non-selfish attitude of wanting the best for himself.

Therapeutic Conclusions

To know oneself lovable is the greatest balm we can ever receive. Recall Raymond Carver’s poem ‘Late Fragment’:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

But psychotherapists have - often for good reasons - not infrequently shied away from seeing therapy as a place where such knowledge of belovedness - or perhaps better: of belovedness’s possibility - can be attained. These reasons have to do with the shallow understandings of love that persist both inside and outside the therapeutic community. I hope that by here adumbrating love - not as a feeling, and certainly not as infatuation, but instead - as a non-intrusive disclosive justice-doing attention to an other in her infinitely precious particularity - I’ve helped to make clear how it need not be foreign to a truly therapeutic encounter. And if we accept, as we surely must, that therapeutic learning is essentially experiential; and if we accept that a difficulty in conceiving of love’s possibility for oneself is intrinsically related to mental suffering; then I think we may also see how love is not only not foreign, but in fact essential, for the work of therapy itself.

In his book The Love Cure, John Ryan Haule tells us that ‘Love alone effects the cure because love is the only way we humans have for taking one another seriously.’ The patient ‘has been longing for a love that will find him amidst the tumult and elucidate his experience as his own, as proceeding from the self he has yet to find.’ I think this right, except to say that whilst the patient has long needed such a love, the need may well not have registered in consciousness for the longing to have developed. Carver tells us that he wanted to feel himself beloved on the earth. Yet the knowledge that this was what we wanted may have come late to him. For a long while he seems to have shied away from it for a long while into drink and other distractions. And Tina Turner’s questions ‘What's love got to do … with it? … Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?’ perfectly express a reluctant, begrudging, acknowledgement that it’s love that mends our brokenness. And this is why I want to end by saying that, as psychotherapists, one of our principal tasks is to hold true to this knowledge. To hold true to, live out of, and evangelise for, the knowledge that it’s only the look of love that can disclose us, to ourselves, and to one another, in our utter particularity, as unique centres of value, as having every right to walk this earth.


It came to me during the Q&A that missing from the above is a really important aspect of therapeutic learning. What is missing is the therapist’s loving acceptance of the patient’s love for the therapist. For what a patient may lack, as much as anything, is the sense that his or her own love for others would be something they would welcome. You walk past someone on an empty street or country path. Will one of you look up, with a warm smile, and greet the other? Who will do it first? Will either? Or will these passers by simply be locked in their own worlds, unwilling to risk the shame that comes when a gesture of love is unwelcome? The courage to offer the look of love - a look which in its turn begets love and warmth - requires a trust in one’s own lovability. With that trust in place such a look can be offered, and when it isn’t returned the one who looks and smiles will believe not that they themselves are not lovable, but that the other is sadly too mired in shame, loneliness, or hurt to come out of themselves.

Something else that I would do well to think more on is the way in which love begets itself within the individual, and the way it need not always be directional, inwards or outwards. There are practices that cultivate this in religion for example: one prays to love that one’s love may increase, and this prayer is itself an act of love, and it begets further love. A new ethic, a new 'regime' within the self, emerges, one that trusts in love’s value for disclosing what is of importance in life. A conference guest also reminded me of St Augustine’s ‘Love, and do what you will’. We might see that as a call to trust in love as that which reveals what matters in life - as a rallying cry for the aforementioned regime change.



Aaron Beck. Love is Never Enough. 

Ilham Dilman. Love: It’s Forms, Dimensions and Paradoxes. 

Niklas Forsberg. Iris Murdoch on Love. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Love

Raimon Gaita. A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice.  

John Ryan Haule. The Love Cure.  

Iris Murdoch. The Sovereignty of Good. 

Plato. Symposium. 

Rupert Read & Emma Willmer (2000). Psychotherapy - a form of prostitution? British Gestalt Journal 9: 2. 30-36.  

Carl Rogers. Client Centred Therapy. 

Daniel Shaw (2003) On the Therapeutic Action of Analytic Love. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 39:2, 251-278. 

W H Vanstone. Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense: The Response of Being to the Love of God.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

gaslit: narcissistic perversions of the
soul's moral fabric

Talk given to Applied Section Meeting of the

British Psychoanalytical Society - 9th December 2020

(Pulling together various previously blogged thoughts regarding narcissism and narcissistic abuse.)


Gaslighting is often portrayed in terms of blame-shifting and lying, but in reality also involves far more subtle manipulations that aren't straightforward to describe. The survivor movement provides a rich repertoire of concepts to help the sufferer of narcissistic abuse think about and resist what they fell into. And psychoanalysis comes to our aid with its theory of the intrapsychic and interpersonal forms of projective identification. This talk considers what philosophy has to add. In particular we'll see what light a phenomenological perspective can shed on the (apt or spurious) allocation, within an intimate relationship, of moral properties of culpability and woundedness. We’ll also see how Wittgenstein’s ‘private language’ arguments help us understand how the narcissist sustains his illusion of self-ratifying unaccountability. In such ways we may formulate more clearly what it is for the narcissist to bend out of shape the soul’s moral fabric - both his own and those of the people in close relationship with him.


Let me begin by saying something about the kind of ‘application’ that I’m engaged in, in this ‘Applied’ rather than ‘Scientific’ meeting. My application isn’t of psychoanalytic ideas to matters outside the clinic, but rather of some philosophical thought from outside the clinic to what we find within. What I want to talk about are two aspects of narcissism, one concerning matters intrapsychic, the other having a more interpersonal focus. These correspond in some ways, I think, to two different aspects of projective identification: one a personal unconscious phantasy, the other an intersubjective process. I don’t claim that one is more fundamental than the other; a better way to think of them may be as 2 different angles on the same narcissistic process.

Today I’ve no ambitions to provide a general theory of narcissism. Psychoanalysis already has plenty of those. Instead I’m particularly concerned with that kind of narcissistic abuse that goes by the name of ‘gaslighting’. And what I want to focus on is the gaslighter’s means by which they queer the moral pitch of their interaction with their victim. This gaslighting not only warps the abuser’s own mind’s moral fabric but, as it always occurs in interaction with another, also warps the moral fabric, the morale, of the other’s mind. 

Whence ‘Gaslighting’?

The original inspiration for today’s psychological use of the term ‘gaslighting’ comes from the 1939 play Gas Light, penned by the playwright Patrick Hamilton - who himself suffered considerable characterological complications. An American film, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, was made in 1944. The play’s setting is the home of newlyweds Jack and Bella in 1880s London. Jack disappears from the flat each night, not telling Bella where he’s going. In fact he’s going to the flat upstairs to look for the missing jewels of a murdered woman. While up there, his turning on the gas lights causes the lighting in the whole block to dim; Bella notices this and also hears his footsteps through the ceiling. In a maddening way Jack convinces her she’s seeing and hearing things. ‘Gas lighting’ was then put to psychopathological use in 1969 by psychiatrists Barton & Whitehead, who documented examples of wives inventing stories of their husband’s violent behaviour in order to get them psychiatrically detained. More recently - perhaps driven by Robin Stern’s (2007/2018) book on hidden manipulation, The Gaslight Effect - the phrase has taken a more psychological turn, and is now used to describe certain forms of narcissistic abuse and the unwitting cooperation with that - especially by such abused subjects as we now, following Donna Savery (2018), call ‘echoists’. It’s the notion of lying to undermine another’s stability and morale that’s captured in most contemporary definitions; here’s a representative one from Wikipedia:

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim's belief. Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

The internet has been a major source of supportive and illustrative literature on gaslighting, with excellent websites (e.g. the Narcissist Family Files) springing up, often created by survivors of narcissistic abuse. Here we find thousands of moving stories of people who, coming across the online literature and videos, realise that they’ve been caught in a malignant folie à deux, perhaps even for several decades, finally understanding why they’ve been so exhausted and demoralised, and finally restoring something of their self-possession. Of course we also find here plenty of narcissistic characters looking to blame their ex-partners for their woes! But what we come across should, I suggest, be compelling enough for us to distrust such adages, sometimes commonplace in psychotherapeutic circles, as “the responsibility for conflictual difficulties in relationships is always 50:50” - at least, until we’ve ascertained that our patient doesn’t belong to that segment of the population unlucky enough to be in a relationship with someone whose narcissistic traits are more prominent than average. In short, gaslighting is a very 21st century topic, one that relied on the internet to take off, and one that’s found its way into popular culture. The (Dixie) Chicks, for example, recently released their first new song in 14 years - ‘Gaslighter’ - in which lead singer Natalie Maines calls out her ex-husband’s abusive behaviour.

A particularly interesting feature of this online literature has been the development of a new language to aid in the symbolisation, and hence thoughtful resistance, of such abuse. Thus we now have not only ‘gaslighters’ or narcissistic abusers, ‘empaths’ and ‘codependents’, but a whole new rhetoric of manipulation: ‘supply’ (the term in fact originates with Fenichel, 1938) consists of those the narcissist either idealises and emulates or instead abuses to prop up their own esteem; ‘hoovering’ is the attempt to suck old disillusioned supply back within the narcissist’s dominion; ‘enablers’ are those in the family who don’t question the narcissist’s inflated self-image; 'flying monkeys’ are such enablers as are tasked with doing the narcissist’s dirty work; the ‘scapegoat’ is, for example, a child onto whom is projected all a narcissistic parent’s toxic shame (contrast the idealised ‘golden child’); strategies of ‘divide and conquer’ involve setting up an environment of competition and terror in which people try to avoid the narcissist’s attack but at each other’s expense; ‘fauxpologies’ are those spurious sorry-sayings such as ‘I’m sorry you are so sensitive’; ‘I’m sorry you think I’m such a disappointment as a mother’, ‘I’m sorry to have made you angry’ (rather than being sorry for what was said, in response to which anger might well have been the apt response); ‘smear campaigns’ involve systematically discrediting those who’ve seen through the narcissist’s mask, or those who are envied or resented. Strategies for dealing with such abuse include 'going gray-rock’, i.e. disengaging and making yourself dull and non-reactive to antagonism, despite constant attempts to get under your skin. The language is, I think, particularly important: by naming what’s going on it allows for an empowering restoration of thinking and self-possession, and aids the refusal of intrusive and controlling projections. (Needless to say, the language can itself get abused: ‘You’re gaslighting me!’ has itself now become a classic gaslighting manoeuvre.)

In what follows I’ll argue that, contra the emphasis we find in common definitions of gaslighting, definitions which stress the narcissist’s perpetuation of falsehoods regarding determinate external facts, what’s often more pernicious in gaslighting are distortions to the less determinate contours of the inner life, particularly to our sense of our own moral qualities and worth. I’ll suggest too that such distortions are often provided not so much by overt misrepresentation but by the selective use of attention, by silence, subtly dismissive uses of gesture, tetchy vocal tone, selective ignoring, tacit accusations, the gradual cultivation of distorted expectations, and so on.

Gaslighting and the Indeterminacy and Holism of the Mental

Here’s an example of a somewhat subtle use of gaslighting, one that relies on acts of omission rather than of commission: 

[kris777]  When I was in my late teens, my mother had about 10 of her closest friends over for a party right after Christmas. I was sitting among them (the only one of my mother's children present) enjoying the banter when all of a sudden, my mother grabbed everyone's attention and asked "would you all like to see what my children gave me for Christmas?" They all chimed in "absolutely"!! And I knew she was about to pull one of her classic gaslighting moves as she's done it so many times. She doesn't realize she has a tell (a certain tic in her facial muscles) when she's about to go full on narc. She walked over to the tree and grabbed two gifts - the one my brother got her and the one my sister got for her. She showed both as her friends ooohhhhed and awwed over them, and then she went and put them back under the tree. Her two closest friends' eyes got very wide and puzzled but neither would look over in my direction. I did not take the bait. I knew she wanted me to spout off so that she could humiliate me in front of the group and say she just forgot about my gift - I guess she forgot she has 3 children. It was beautiful though the way her move completely backfired as everyone got very quiet and uncomfortable as I sat completely silent.

Kris777’s mother engages here in an act of omission which, precisely because it isn’t so readily ostensible, can - if called out - be more readily defended. (In fact it likely won’t just be defended but, under the cover of the plausible deniability that such acts offer, turned into an opportunity to push a demoralising counter-accusation of over-sensitivity or presumptuous judgementalism.) 

Now, our everyday psychological vocabulary - I mean that regarding beliefs, desires, feelings, intentions and the like (I’ll call them all ‘thoughts’) - doesn’t reference individual behaviours: there’s no one-to-one correlation between particular actions and thoughts; one and the same behaviour can properly be said to express different thoughts depending on its context. And this context extends not only to other aspects of one’s thinking and the present situation but also reaches back in time to include aspects of the history of one’s interactions. (Philosophers call this the ‘holism of the mental’.) Because of this, such gaslighting as aims to distort the other’s judgement regarding his own and the gaslighted person’s thoughts has far more wriggle room than that which aims to distort our present grasp of particular facts in external reality. And what shall count as the right circumstances against which to read any particular stretch of behaviour as expressive of this or that thought will always be a matter of judgement. (I’ll come back to that shortly.) What exactly, for example, is the context in which that raised eyebrow shall count as non-accusatory surprise, or as a warranted or unwarranted accusation? Does that context obtain here, or not? And who’s to say?

We also do well to note that even utterly competent and perfectly knowledgeable observers can differ on the moral or psychological meaning of certain gestures. We sometimes encounter expressions which to one person look to be of annoyance, to another, mere indifference, and for which consulting the subject in question may provide no clear answer. We may take ourselves to be motivated by entirely selfless ambitions; another finds a sliver of selfishness there - and sometimes there can - I suggest - simply be no fact of the matter as to who here is right. Was he being annoying or just insistent? Was it thoughtless or merely casual? Uncertainty here can, as Wittgenstein (1980, §657) suggests, be “constitutional… not a shortcoming. It resides in our concepts that this uncertainty exists…” And this ‘constitutive indeterminacy of the mental’, as philosophers call it, also provides a cover of plausible deniability for gaslighters to work under.

I don’t think, however, that reference to acts by omission, to holism, and to indeterminacy fully explains how the gaslighter is able to ply his or her shifty trade. Consider for example the following description of gaslighting as ambient abuse (it’s by YouTube presenter Sam Vaknin, himself a narcissist who’s written a lot about the condition):

ambient abuse is the stealthy, subtle, underground current of maltreatment that sometimes goes unnoticed even by the victim herself until it's too late. Ambient abuse penetrates and permeates everything, but is difficult to pinpoint and identify. Gaslighting is vigorous, equivocal, atmospheric and diffuse, hence its insidious and pernicious effects. It is by far the most dangerous kinds of abuse there is. ... Ambient abuse yields an irksome feeling, a kind of disagreeable foreboding, a premonition, a bad omen; it's in the air. In the long term such an environment erodes the individual's sense of self-worth. 

How shall we understand this ‘stealthy’, ‘subtle’, ‘ambient’ and ‘atmospheric’ narcissistic abuse?

Distorting the Foundations of Judgement

Let’s continue to deepen our understanding of gaslighting by picking up the above-mentioned matter of judgement. The word has varied meanings. Philosophers sometimes use it very broadly, to stand for any determinations we make. However we often use it in a more restricted sense, one having to do with practical wisdom and manifesting in what we term ‘judgement calls’. Invoking this latter sense we might say that the need for judgement can sometimes be obviated through the use of checklists, criteria, necessary and sufficient conditions, definitions, and so on. A trainee psychiatrist, for example, might rely on an operationalised diagnostic scheme. By so doing she can, when making her diagnosis, avoid calling on her judgement (in the restricted sense). Such judgement, however, cannot be avoided for long. For example our psychiatrist will hardly be able to avoid it when determining whether one of her patient’s beliefs truly does count as a delusion. And here her ability to exercise good judgement is not something other than her grasp of the meaning of words (like ‘delusion’): she shall count both as knowing what ‘delusion’ means, and as having good psychiatric judgement, if she picks out only those mental states which competent psychiatrists pick out as delusions.

Now, to initially and ongoingly calibrate our judgement regarding ordinary moral and mental matters we rely on interaction with our families, teachers, peers and psychoanalysts. Our calibration consists both in conforming our judgement to that of others and, when enough of that has happened and we’ve developed sufficient mental apparatus of our own, in testing our judgement by also exploring our disagreements with them. (Part of what’s insidious about gaslighting is that, obtaining largely within couples, it involves isolating the victim from alternative sources of calibration; now that she can’t see her friends, her skewed judgement goes quite unchecked.) And what I want to stress here is that these skews to judgement needn’t involve anything so flagrant as buying into out-and-out lies about what facts obtain - about what was and wasn’t said or done. It’s at least as often, or as well, in judgements about the meaning of such facts that these skews are here introduced.

Many of our morally significant interactions involve our ongoing sense of when we’re to blame and, correlatively, when we’re being wronged. The determination of this is always contextual - both situational and historical - and typically relies on judgement. What after all shall count as being over-sensitive, and what instead as a reasonable standing up for oneself? When is and when isn’t one’s forgetting a culpable matter? (NB a typical verbal trick of the narcissist is to spuriously push for non-culpability merely on the basis of unintendedness, conveniently ignoring that we are also responsible for what we should have thought, but didn’t think, about. Another is to substitute commiserative for apologetic meanings of ‘sorry’.) What counts as showing apt consideration, and what instead counts as taking up a perverse invitation to jettison one’s self-possession and instead be possessed by the other? What counts as an understandable tired tetchiness that should be tolerated by another, and what as someone's failure to take apt care for his relationship? What shall be taken as disrespectful, and what as relaxedly casual?

If the persons in a couple have well-formed moral sensibilities, they will often enough agree as to what counts as the violation of reasonable behavioural norms. If they were to ‘graph’ the domain of their responsibilities for the moral upsets obtaining within their relationship, enough of their plots will coincide for meaningful moral discourse to be possible.


If however we here encounter a relationship between a narcissist and someone who buys into the narcissist’s tacit revaluation of moral values, we find them accepting a new moral reality, one in which the narcissist shirks responsibility and projects blameworthiness. In this new reality, new rules have tacitly been introduced; the narcissist has subtly queered the pitch of the distribution of responsibility and blame, and distorted the moral fabric of her victim’s soul. But still, how does she get away with such distortions to judgement?

Our Embodied ‘Understandings of Being’

I want to approach this question by thinking on the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of the unconscious. And to get going with this we’ll need to understand 2 concepts which Merleau-Ponty develops from Husserl and Heidegger. 

The first is that of the ‘lived body’. Whilst Freud offers us an unconscious of individually repressed ideas, the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty offers us a bodily unconscious. The body in question is not the body qua mere organism, not that which is studied by anatomy and physiology, but rather the body as lived. This notion, taken over from Edmund Husserl, has to do with the body: as the coordinated site of sensation and instinct, as a largely perceptually invisible locus of our perceptual points of view, as the sensate receiver and explorer of the world, and as a structure of habit and know-how with well-practiced motor sequences and perceptual Gestalten sedimented into it. It’s with and in our lived bodies that we automatically grasp how close or far to stand to others. We who aren’t beset by autistic disability or schizophrenic illness can readily coordinate our gestures and come into communicative synchrony with others. And only with this subconscious intercorporeal synchrony in place can we make ready sense of one another’s actions and utterances. In this way the lived body provides a recessive foundational background which all our explicit communicative acts presuppose.  

The second concept which is relevant here is Martin Heidegger’s notion of the ‘clearing’. Heidegger invites us to eschew the problematics that arise from thinking of human understanding as self-contained and inner, as something we could enjoy and bring to bear on a world utterly external to it. Instead he wants us to think of ourselves as consisting primarily of being-in-the-world - as always-already situated in a world of which we’re a part. We are, in the terms of the metaphor, ourselves a part of the world’s woods and thickets, but within these our culture, including our language, and our own personal histories create a ‘clearing’, and within that clearing matters can show up for conscious consideration. What can show up there depends, however, on the clearing’s structure. What Merleau-Ponty was interested in were cases where something which we might expect someone to encounter within their clearing has instead become part of their being’s very fabric. Rather than rely here on the usual metaphors for repression, Merleau-Ponty thinks in terms of ‘generalisation’: what once showed up within the visual field instead now becomes part of the field’s invisible boundary, constraining what can be seen. On this view the unconscious is, as it were, the water the fish is always swimming in without realising it, or an invisible ‘atmosphere’ (to use another of Merleau-Ponty’s terms) or unconscious mood with which we’re utterly identified, which utterly surrounds us and which we can’t help but breathe.

To bring these two concepts together now: it’s with and in our lived bodies that we encounter the world, and what’s visible of that world depends upon the ‘set’, so to say, of that body. Consider how sometimes in therapy or analysis you sometimes think, after eventually arriving at a valid formulation, that in some inchoate sense you’d known what the problem was from the way the patient walked in the door on his first visit to your consulting room. Or think of how the transference functions as an invisible force field utterly constraining the way the patient relates to you. On his way up to your door he sometimes slips from one mode of functioning into another quite regressed one, one now constraining the thoughts available to him. The disturbance is contained in his lived body’s habitual postures - postures of deference or shame, fear or awkwardness, for example. Because the patient is this body, is as it were enclosed within what Reich called his ‘character armour’, the way it structures his encounters isn’t visible to him. Psychopathology, on this view, involves the fixation, into the general structure of the clearing, of that which would better be placed as a discrete moment in the living of a life. And psychotherapy, amongst other health-giving relationships, involves the remobilisation and diversification of these structures through a disidentificatory process of symbolising them.

The third concept I want now to introduce is that of intercorporeality. Different cultures have different ways of inhabiting the body, different forms of gesture, different codes regarding eye contact, what counts as warmth and what as flirting, and so on. Such cultural mores sediment themselves invisibly into the lived body, just as accents do into our voices. Let’s focus on such moral emotions as guilt, shame, penitence, forgiveness, warmth, love, confidence, diffidence, open-heartedness and so on. These attitudes not only have their characteristic embodiments - the downward eyes of shame, the expansive motions of open-heartedness, the stride of healthy confidence, and so on - but are ongoingly entrained in us through our interactions with others. Their ongoing entrainment in us is sometimes explicit - as when a parent says ‘Now go and apologise to her!’ - but is often conducted implicitly. Subtle shifts in tone and pitch, fleeting facial micro-expressions, a bodily stance that is slightly less or more welcoming or shunning, the placing of pauses in discourse - these all contribute to the co-regulation of our moral interactions. Our lived bodies constantly find their complementary levels in relation to one another. Together we spontaneously enact - bodily, linguistically and epistemically - our correlative moral sensibilities. My concernful voice correlates with your wounded posture; your sudden move toward me with my flinching away. And we unreflectively understand together when it is that, say, looking into the other’s eyes constitutes openness, and when instead it amounts to presumptuous interrogation or intrusion. Or what tone of voice, what prosody, shall count as innocent and what as suggestive of reproof. This corporeal co-regulation provides the bedrock on top of which our words sit and in relation to which they have their meaning. And, to finally get back to our principal concern, it provides the entry point through which such projective identification as is interpersonally efficacious takes its effects: I can think of a few patients who fairly mastered the art of the projection of a sense of personal uselessness through, say, the slight arching of a single eyebrow or an in-drawing of breath. 

The claim on the table, then, regarding narcissistic abuse is that it often consists not only in such manipulations as are lies, nor only in manipulating the terms of explicit moral judgement, but also in distorting the whole paralinguistic, bodily, context in which all such judgement is situated. The deep habit structure of our intercorporeal lives is perverted. It is our openness to the automatic co-regulation of moral sensibility that allows in the narcissist’s warping of the mind’s moral fabric - i.e. that projectively bends out of shape our soul - i.e. bends out of shape our morale and our moral self-understanding. The indrawn breath, proximity and distance, vocal tone, bodily openness and closedness, and facial micro-expressions, may all be used to set the scene for the perverted morality tale which then plays out in the lives of the narcissist and her victim. Just as the natural corollary of another’s sadness is our own pity, or of their anger is our fear, so too is an automatic taking up of the demoralised stance of shame the near-inevitable outcome of the war of attrition waged in part by implicit accusations. This is then sustained by the victim learning to walk on eggshells, to avoid triggering the narcissist’s avowed disappointment, accusations and rage. His skill at walking on these eggshells is far greater than he himself realises: his ‘understanding of Being’ itself, as Heidegger puts it, has shifted (Dreyfus & Wakefield, 2014); he now dwells in an invisible-to-him atmosphere of unconscious shame, discouragement, and guilt. When a victim of narcissistic abuse who has escaped, and begun to recover, has to see his abuser again, his whole demeanour, gestures, posture, tone, automatically shrink back down. And from the vantage of this alternatively configured lived body, a whole different world comes back into view for him.

The Intrapsychic Situation

So far what’s been discussed is the interpersonal situation: how gaslighting takes its pernicious effect on the narcissist’s victim. I now wish to think about what it is that happens alongside this within the mind of the narcissist. A common way of understanding narcissism is that it involves excessive self-love, grandiosity and superiority (covering over painful shame and inner fragmentation). This, I think, is rather like the idea that gaslighting primarily involves lying about facts. It’s not necessarily wrong, but doesn’t illuminate the underlying structural situation.

Consider the following exchange I witnessed on the Oxford-to-London commuter bus:

Every morning a preening young man would talk loudly, at length, and obnoxiously to his boyfriend on the phone. A fellow passenger had had enough and – pointing to the window sign requesting passengers to keep mobile conversation quiet, short and to the essential – asked if he might limit his conversation to the advantage of his fellow passengers. The young man quickly flew into a rage, and exclaimed to her ‘Who are you to tell me what’s too loud or too long or inessential?!’, and returned to his obnoxious conversation. (So thought-stopping was this furious response that the complainant did not think of the correct answer: ‘I’m a member of the general public’.)

We recognise this as a paradigm of narcissism. But what, considered intrapsychically, does this narcissism consist in? Is it just that he thinks himself superior to others? That rather suggests we think his narcissism results from his having an intelligible but false thought. But this, I think, fails to do justice to the character of his exclamation, the implication of which seemed to me to be that his fellow passenger’s negative appraisal traduced his universal right to that sovereign self-determination which is constitutive of personal dignity. And this in its way was of a piece with his aim which appeared to be to queer the moral pitch of the interaction, spuriously projecting his own blameworthiness into those who would judge him.

What this man seemed to be claiming was that only he could possibly know whether his actions reflected a valid imperative – not because his fellow passenger didn’t, as a contingent matter of fact, have access to the relevant facts about his life situation, but rather simply because she was not he. But what exactly is awry with his thought? In what follows I suggest that we can arrive at an answer to this by considering an aspect of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s deliberations on the very idea of a ‘logically private’ language.

The ‘private language arguments’ are contained in §§243-315 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. In them we find Wittgenstein inviting us to try to ‘imagine a language’ (§243) which ‘describes my inner experiences and which only I myself can understand’ (§256), a language to be set up by giving ‘myself a kind of ostensive definition’ for a sensation term ‘S’ by concentrating ‘my attention on the sensation – and so, as it were, point[ing] to it inwardly’ (§258). (It’s because only I could possibly understand that which only I experience that it’s called a ‘logically private’ language.)

In arguing that we have here only the illusory fantasy of an actual language, Wittgenstein first reminds us of an important feature of genuine sensation language. This is that, if it feels to me like I’m in pain, then I jolly well am in pain. Or, to put it better, there simply is no appearance/reality distinction in play when we’re talking about our conscious inner experiences. This just is what it means for us to be ‘authorities’ regarding our own mental states. This authority is extremely important to us: we rightly complain about intrusion into this sovereign aspect of our lives. (I’m reminded of a couple who visited for dinner before lockdown. I asked what they wanted to drink. One told me ‘a beer please’, but the other somehow had different ideas for his partner. After some squabbling the first, with patience and good humour, said ‘Well Richard, the problem is that I’ve decided what I want; it’s just that he hasn’t yet decided what I want!’ The joke made clear the patent absurdity of the idea of someone else knowing better what we want when our mind is already made up.)

Whilst such inner sovereignty is of course extremely important, Wittgenstein points out that the inapplicability of the seems/is, appearance/reality, distinction here means that we can’t do such things as dream up our own logically private languages to describe what we’re inwardly feeling. For meaningful language is essentially normative - which is to say, its uses are evaluable as correct or incorrect. If, however, there’s no such thing as me using a term wrongly within my own mind, then there’s also no such thing as me using it correctly here (see §258). (This, by the way, is why it’s important that genuine psychological language always has a double aspect: on the one hand we may use it inwardly to authoritatively ascribe thoughts, sensations, wishes, etc. to ourselves; on the other hand, there are observable patterns of behaviour which anchor these psychological states and which function as criteria for the ascription of them to us by others.)

In the text Wittgenstein’s inner interlocutor attempts various strident formulations against himself and in support of the idea of a ‘logically private language’. He tries to insist such things as that, still, here, he can

  • believe that this is the sensation S again.’ (§260); 
  • ‘I can (inwardly) undertake to call THIS ‘pain’ in the future.’ (§263); 
  • I can give myself ‘a subjective justification’ (§265); 

To which his better self responds with a thoughtful irony:

  • ‘Perhaps you believe that you believe it!’
  • ‘The balance on which impressions are weighed is not the impression of a balance’;
  • ‘to imagine … justifying [isn’t to] justify.. [what’s] imagined’, etc. (§§259-267).

In Wittgenstein’s practice of philosophy, it is the illuminating comparison which does much of the work in helping us be freed from compelling illusions. To help us break loose from the fantasy that we could enjoy both sovereign invulnerability to error at the same juncture as we can make substantive truth claims he offers the example of a particular design for a self-driving steamroller he once saw, one in which:

the inventor’s mistake is akin to a philosophical mistake. The invention consists of a motor inside a hollow roller. The crank-shaft runs through the middle of the roller and is connected at both ends by spokes with the wall of the roller. The cylinder of the petrol-engine is fixed onto the inside of the roller. At first glance this construction looks like a machine. But it is a rigid system and the piston cannot move to and fro in the cylinder. (Philosophical Grammar §141; see also Zettel §248 and Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, volume 1, §397.)

Other examples of this fatal ‘rigidity’ are provided by someone saying: ‘ “But I know how tall I am!” and laying his hand on top of his head to indicate it!’ (Philosophical Investigations §279). Or: another man pushes on a car dashboard to try to make the car go faster (Blue Book p. 71); yet another tries to give himself a gift by passing it from one hand to another (Philosophical Investigations §268); a final chap buys ‘several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true’ (Philosophical Investigations §265). Wittgenstein uses these absurd examples to make clear how the would-be private linguist’s case is just as absurd: here too there’s a normatively fatal non-independence of the ‘inner standard’ for S from the ‘inner judgement’ that here we meet with an S again. Again, if whatever you want to say is to count as correct, then the very idea of correctness, of your words actually having meaning, is lost. No work gets done: the steamroller or car stays where it is, the news is not corroborated. 

Let’s return this discussion now to our young man on the bus. Implicit in his challenge – ‘Who are you to tell me what is too loud or too long or inessential?!’ – is, I suggest, a wish to achieve two incompatible things at once: 1. On the one hand he wishes to be counted as having correctly grasped the meaning of the terms: ‘too loud’, ‘too long’, ‘inessential’. The communication is after all predicated on him and his interlocutor sharing an understanding of the meaning of the terms – otherwise his challenge should itself be pointless. 2. On the other hand, he wishes to be treated as the unchallengeable and sole judge of what here is to count as ‘too loud’, ‘too long’ etc. Whatever he judges to be essential or inessential is to count as such. In short, he wishes to still have his normative cake even whilst popping it down the cakehole of his own subjectivity. 

This too was just what we found with our private linguist. He wanted to be able to inwardly institute, and accord with, actual norms for the correct use of ‘S’, but also to continue to enjoy his inviolable first-person authority regarding his suffering of S. He refused to accept that the coin which has first person authority (of his avowals of S) as one of its faces must have an availability to appraisal (of the correctness of his use of ‘S’) as its other. It is this fantasy of normative self-sufficiency and yet inviolability – of being able to purchase the goods of normative warrant without handing over some of his first-person authority – which – I’m suggesting – constitutes a key structural element of the intrapsychic heart of narcissism.


How should we understand the relationship between these two, inter- and intra- personal, aspects of narcissism? Recall the diagram presented above which described the interpersonal situation where a narcissist creates an illusory skew in her partner’s understanding of his own moral character:   

Set alongside this now a representation of the skew in the narcissist’s illusory intrapsychic distribution
of authority and accountability:

In both cases we find a narcissistic subject bending the meaning of words, actions, expressions out of shape to hide her culpability and accountability. But it should also become clear how the perverted sense of authority aids the skewed representation of moral culpability. The young man on the bus found it outrageous that anyone else should presume to have a say as to what should count as too long, loud or inessential a conversation for him. We might describe his attitude as one which in fact sets its face against the very idea of a fellow passenger. In such ways we see how truly corrupt narcissistic abuse is: it bends out of shape the narcissistic subject’s own soul, trashing his conscience and devaluing his relationships. And it bends out of shape the soul of his victim, covertly demoralising her through its insidiously enacted revaluation of her moral self-understanding.

Above I discussed something of Wittgenstein’s inner battle against the illusions of a ‘private language’. These were not, I believe, restricted to his philosophical life. For he was often preoccupied by his own unholy desire for utterly secure admiration or for an inner security quite beyond this world - a longing which, I believe, can be traced to the emotional impoverishment of his childhood, and an impoverishment which left him believing that only displays of genius could secure the affection of others. I have developed this theme elsewhere; there’s no time to develop it further here. Instead I shall simply illustrate it with an example from one of his dreams; this one is from 28.1.1937:

I stood with Paul & Mining [his pianist brother Paul and elder sister Hermione] … as if on the front platform of a streetcar …Paul told Mining how enthusiastic my brother-in-law Jerome was about my unbelievable musical gift; the day before I had so wonderfully sung along in a work of Mendelssohn …. it was as if we had performed this work among ourselves at home and I had sung along with extraordinary expressiveness and also with especially expressive gestures. Paul and Mining seemed to completely agree with Jerome’s praise. Jerome was said to have said again and again: “What talent!” … I held a withered plant in my hand with blackish seeds in little pods that had already opened and thought: if they were to tell me what a pity it is about my unused musical talent, I will show them the plant and say that nature isn’t stingy with its seed either and that one shouldn’t be afraid and just throw out a seed. All of this was carried on in a self-satisfied manner. – I woke up and was angry or ashamed because of my vanity. … May I not become completely base and also not mad! May God have mercy on me.’ (PPO pp.163-4)

To end, to provide another helpful metaphor for the narcissistic wish, and to show something of the inner emancipation from this narcissistic defence which Wittgenstein achieved during this time, we may contrast the above dream with another dream of his, recorded 10 weeks later (11.4.1937). The image he presents (and which is also drawn on by Nietzsche in Beyond Good & Evil) is taken from the Narrative of Baron Munchausen’s Marvellous Travels - a famous 18th century work of fiction by Joseph Raspe (himself an inveterate swindler who based his tales on the self-aggrandising stories of an actual Baron Munchausen - who in turn wasn’t best pleased by the satire). In one such tale the Baron is out riding and, finding himself stuck in a swamp, pulls upwards on his own hair to extricate both himself and his horse from the quagmire. The dream, which is just a fragment, consists of Wittgenstein exhorting himself to trust in what is not of his own making, and to relinquish the narcissistic fantasy of (as we might put it) suckling at one’s own breast:

 “But let us talk in our mother tongue, and not believe that we must pull ourselves out of the swamp by our own hair; that was – thank God – only a dream, after all. To God alone be praise!” (PPO p. 243).



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