Wednesday, 30 March 2016

what is self-possession?

Sometimes one meets with a word which, used smartly, captures in a totally satisfying and illuminating way just what has hitherto been obscured. Jim Hopkins' word 'pacification' does this so well when considering the relation between wish-fulfilling fantasy and desire (so much better than 'satisfaction', which simply fudges things). Heidegger's 'solicitude' - 'F├╝rsorge' - does it for me when thinking about the un-intrusive mode of authentic care required in psychotherapy. 'Casuistry' works well-enough as a marker for the understanding that essentially requires grounding in specific cases rather than proceeding from generally cognisable rules. But the one that's pleased me most this last year is 'self-possession'. 'Self-possession' has, in a way that really surprised me, given how infrequently one encounters the word there, come to stand for one of the most important achievements of psychoanalytical psychotherapy.

But what is self-possession? Dictionary definitions tend to the unhelpful. Thus Merriam Webster: "control of one's emotions or reactions especially when under stress". Really? Is self-possession really about 'controlling emotions'? How does one even do that? Perhaps by controlling their expression? As I see it, emotional control doesn't begin to capture it, although the reference to being under stress is helpful (vide infra).

The reason I think the definition goes wrong is that it tries to define 'self-possession' in positive rather than negative terms. What I mean by this is that we would do better to start by thinking of what is meant by being possessed by someone else - by a relative or colleague or ghost, say. In such cases we lose touch with what we ourselves believe and want. We become colonised by inauthentic desires - by the desires of others.

It's not as mysterious as it sounds. It happens like this: Let's say that you and I are wondering what to do today. You favour a walk, I favour going to the movies. We have a way of talking about these things together that is, all going well, sensitive to both our desires. The friendship supports both of us to voice our feelings, and we want to take one another's wishes into account. We feel naturally confident that the friendship is not conditional on doing what the other person wants.

Sometimes we consciously subordinate our own wishes to the wishes of the other or to the flourishing of the friendship. And sometimes that's fine. But sometimes something less helpful happens. Perhaps our friend is very forceful and he offers us a false choice (between two of his wishes) that we don't even notice since it's done so swiftly. Or perhaps she is being highly charming or seductive so that we start to think with the wrong part of our body. Perhaps we are very timid and without even realising it subordinate our own wishes to hers, becoming more focused on meeting her needs than on even registering our own. Perhaps we continue to unconsciously live out the wishes of someone else even after they are dead (which could be one meaning of 'haunting'). The value of talk of being possessed by ghosts is, as I see it, that it stresses that we needn't be possessed by real others. Often we most lose our self-possession when in thrall not to an actual other but to an unconscious phantasy - an unconscious 'representation' of self-in-relation-to-other. All of these are forms of what we can call 'possession'.

Now self-possession, it seems to me, means nothing positive other than authentic living. But what it means 'negatively' is: being resistant to being possessed by the goals and values and desires of a Svengali or of 'the they' or of the personality-disordered neighbour who willy nilly wheels out the projective identification if you so much as walk past his window. It means: holding your own. These are the situations which the dictionary is referring to by 'under stress'.

Self-possession isn't possession of the self. A country which successfully fends off an invading force isn't in the business of invading itself. We no more possess our selves than we possess our own bodies (contra what some pro-choice pundits suggest). Just because we can fight to make sure that no-one else possesses our bodies doesn't mean that we literally possess them ourselves ( - surely our relation to our own bodies is more intimate than that of possession!). Self-possession is just that: not being possessed by someone else. It is achieved not through controlling ourselves, but through recognising how we unwittingly cede power to others, and then ceasing this ceding.

Sunday, 27 March 2016


What is psychoanalytic psychotherapy? I sometimes like to ask this question afresh, trying to forget everything I already know or believe, and trying to avoid the terms often used to answer it.

As we grow up we develop a sense-of-self-in-relation-to-others, and a sense-of-others-in-relation-to-self. Hopefully we have a sense of self as often-enough valued by and desirable to others. And a sense of others as often-enough trustworthy and kind.

These moral-emotional senses of self and other are essential for us to fully function as human beings and essential for us to be able to relate with any comfort to others. My talk of 'senses' is, however, a little lazy. I'm not really talking about something consciously recognised, but more about an ability to be truly settled and open and relaxed with others.

Someone who believes that their ownmost music will be appreciated can relax enough to give of it spontaneously. Someone who is anxious about this will become preoccupied with how they are seen, will become involved in putting on a performance rather than simply performing, or will develop annoying narcissistic defences to manage their narcissistic wounds. (Damn, didn't take long for the psychobabble to start up...)

These 'senses' I'm talking about largely manifest as repeating mood states, and take their shape in those moods that are sedimented into our characters, rather than present primarily in the contents of our thoughts. The moods may in fact be so pervasive that they go unrecognised as such.

One of the tricks of therapy is just to try to attend to such general facts about particular people as often escape our notice since we tend to think (if we think at all) 'oh that's just them'. Inflections of mood and character then show up as meaningful - and, importantly, as potentially optional. By resisting being pulled into the 'oh that's just them' and taking a stand against a patient's habitual moods and expectations, we take a stand for them too, offering them the hope of freedom from expectations-of-others-in-relation-to-self which greatly constrain their self-becoming.

Sometimes someone grows up with parents who are significantly mentally ill or otherwise unavailable, unreliable and unloving. What will now be adaptive for the child will not be a resting attitude of openness and trust in the other, and will not be a sense-of-self as valued by the other. They will instead do better to develop a wary fight-flight-freeze attitude to social life.

A patient of mine talked thoughtfully and movingly of Katniss from The Hunger Games with whom she partly identified. For Katniss and my patient it would not have been adaptive to have grown up with a settled trust in others. And internalising a sense-of-self-as-experienced-as-good-and-valued-by-others would not have been possible or desirable (given how unforthcoming and conditional that love was).

Psychoanalytic psychotherapy provides an opportunity for the recalibration of such fundamental expectations of others-in-relation-to-self. It does this not primarily through intellectual discussion and disputation, the recovery of memories, the provision of tips and tools, etc. Instead it does it through a new formative relationship.

A formative relationship is one which doesn't simply take its shape from previous relationships. It is one in which those standing expectations which constitute character can be refashioned in a more comfortable shape. One develops a new sense of one's perspective as valid, of oneself as loveable, of one's failings as forgivable, in and through an ongoing relationship with the psychotherapist.

One of the ways in which a psychotherapist differs from a friend is that the psychotherapist refuses to equate, or insists on drawing a distinction between, a person's subtle or not-so-subtle reactive habits of distrust and their potential self. They do not say 'well that's just them'. They see reactive habits of distrust as what must be worked on and through. These habits may even be such as to be alienating to certain people, making it hard for a patient to find friends. Psychotherapy makes for the possibility of friendship in the same kind of way that surrogacy makes for the possibility of sexual intimacy. In fact psychotherapy makes it possible to truly choose one's friends.

One of the boons of enjoying a new formative relationship is that it enables enough strength to develop in one's sense-of-self-as-good-enough that one can now fairly and confidently stand up to bullies without collapsing into doubt about the possible validity of their message about oneself. One grows in realistic self-possession.

Psychotherapy, then, involves recalibration of the scales which constitute one's sense of self-in-relation-to-others. But it involves not only resetting the scales, but the development of steadiness and confidence in the readings the newly calibrated scales give. Now the shit that belongs to the other can be allowed to remain with them, and the shit that belongs to oneself can be owned without fear of excommunication.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

transference and indeterminacy

Marjorie hears James say something ambiguous. On one reading that comes naturally to her - let's even say: comes inexorably and unwittingly to her - she finds herself thinking that he's being rather controlling and mean and thoughtless in saying what he does. Well, 'finds herself thinking' is putting it a bit too reflectively: she immediate reacts, with a certainty that ought to belong only to knowledge, to what James says - or rather to him in his saying of that.

Now pretty much any social-conversational offering might be considered ambiguous. That is: the significance of what is said - not just of what but of why it is said as, and when, and to whom, it is - can't be ascertained by reference to any facts about the verbal content of the speech act itself. We grasp a speaker's intention in saying what they do - we grasp not just the content of their speech act but also its perlocutionary force - against our background knowledge of and assumptions about his or her character and situation.

Of course, hopefully, in the normal run of things, our interactions proceed against a background of implicit trust in the goodness, or at least the good-enough-ness, of our interlocutors. That kind of trust - that we are not here in the presence of evil, say - is a prerequisite for playing the relational game.

Someone who has what in certain contexts and in certain extreme manifestations would get diagnosed as a 'personality disorder' - like we all to-some-very-much-varying-degree-let's-be-honest have from time to time - though, will be primed, probably from themselves having been on the receiving end of copious projections earlier in their life, to kinda expect the worst.

Marjorie expects the worst. She just does. She can't help it. And, recall, this expectation is not a reflective matter - it is her automatic conviction. It isn't something she really knows to be irrational. Well, she might suspect it, or she might 'know it but not believe it'. The point is: her 'knowledge' of her irrationality, if she even suspects it at all, barely touches her living conviction about James' thoughtlessness, barely touches the belief about that which courses through her reactive dispositions.

Take as true that, in this situation we're considering, what James said would not, by most people, be considered offensive in the ways Marjorie suspects. Take as true, for that matter, that what James says is not in fact ill-motivated.

Here, finally, is my first point: that there is (at least, not usually, not that I can think of right now) no simple fact that can be appealed to to instance in an irrefutable manner James' probity in issuing his remark. There is of course the goodness of his intention itself - and this, sure, is a fact, a simple one if you like. But what I really mean by 'simple fact' here is: there is no fact such as something particular said or done which alone can speak unambiguously to that intention's goodness.

(The great appeal (to me at least!) of the show 'Lie to Me', in which Tim Roth (playing a sexed-up version of Paul Ekman) reads people's true feelings and intentions by paying attention to their facial micro-expressions, resides, I believe, in its offering us (the fantasy of) a true short-cut which can, for the cognoscenti, eradicate the form of uncertainty here arising.)

What we are encountering is what Lars Herzberg, following a lead of Wittgenstein, called 'The Indeterminacy of the Mental' (Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Vol 57 (1983), pp. 91- 109).

And here is my second and final point: that the standing constitutive indeterminacy of the mental is a condition of possibility of the kinds of fearful anticipations (of evil, meanness, etc.) we find in extremis in personality disorders and to varying lesser degrees in the less 'happy' moments of all our interpersonal lives.

People become phobic about all sorts of things. Psychoanalysts have suggested that most phobias are ultimately social - that simple phobias of inanimate objects and animals are often symbolic ways of coping with deeper unconscious phobias pertaining to the attachment zone. Whether or not that is true, it remains the case that most of what constitutes psychopathology is founded in our fears of what others think and feel - especially what they think and feel about and towards us.

My goal in this post has just been to describe how what Wittgensteinians (like Hertzberg, but also Peter Hacker - see e.g. section 3 of ch 7 of Hacker's Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind) have labelled the 'indeterminacy of the mental' is what makes for that vulnerability which sustains not just the richness of personal life but the personality disorders themselves.

Philosophical psychopathology is premised on the idea that psychopathological 'conditions', rightly interrogated, tell us about what makes for mindedness itself - as well as vice versa. So, here: the kinds of chasms of transferential disturbances which are fallen through by those who suffer from personality disorders (i.e. let's-face-it  all of us to some degree in some contexts of attachment (partners, bosses, colleagues, housemates...)) are illuminated by, and themselves illumine the nature of, the indeterminacy of the mental.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

on having an idea in the shower

Someone might say, in response to my talk (in the last blog post) of 'having an idea in the shower', that my idea was not literally in the shower.

This is either a mistake or not even a mistake.

My saying that it is a mistake is not my claiming that it is straightforwardly apt to say that my idea was in the shower.

What however is straightforwardly apt to say is that I had an idea in the shower.

I actually had this idea in the shower. It was actually in the shower that I had this idea.

The truth is it is unclear what is meant by saying of an idea simpliciter that it is or is not in the shower. I don't really know, unless I or you or we first stipulate to specify, what it would mean to say of an idea that it is or isn't in the shower.

It is therefore not straightforwardly either literally or metaphorically true or false to say of it that it is in the shower.

One thing we could mean by talk of an idea being in the shower is that this is where it was had. If this is what we mean by saying that the idea was in the shower, then it is literally true that the idea was in the shower.

We do not rightly use the word 'literally' to mean: conforming to grammatical paradigms appropriate to statements about (our knowledge of) the form and spatial and temporal location of physical objects.

Thus 'in' does not always mean 'inside'; 'have' does not always mean 'possess'. There are different non-metaphorical uses of these terms.

We could use the word 'metaphor' in a metaphorical sense - as do Lakoff and Johnson. They use it to mean: deviating from physical paradigms. That's fine, so long as we acknowledge what we're doing.

What is true of someone if they have an idea in the shower is different in character from what is true if someone's cat climbs in the shower with them or if there's a new bar of soap in the shower. It is not true in that sense.

But it is no more true to say that I did not literally have a cat or a good time of it or some new soap in the shower (because of not having them in the shower in the same kind of a way that my idea was had in the shower) than it is to say that I did not literally have an idea in the shower (because I do not have ideas in the shower in the same sense in which I sometimes have cats (well, just imagine it, ok) or good times of it or new soap bars in the shower).

We are not forced to individuate senses using only a literal / metaphorical distinction.

And what do we say to someone who tells us that whilst the idea was not in my shower it was in my brain?

Well, I might wonder if they meant, by 'in my brain': 'in my mind'. For to have had an idea in mind is, roughly, to be thinking on something but not yet to have said it. And maybe 'brain' is here a metaphor for 'mind'?

'Well no', they say, 'I don't mean in that sense of 'in your brain'. Yet I do mean that it is in your brain as a matter of fact.'

And that's fine with me, if you don't mean it in that sense. But please tell me now: just what sense is it you have in mind when you say that it is literally in my brain? ... Really, I'm all ears (metaphorically speaking).

After all, not everything I have (a sweet temperament, a good view, a PhD) is in something or other.