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.


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