Category Archives: Mind Control

Is There Such A Thing As An Accident?

No I don’t believe in luck
No I don’t believe in circumstance no more
Accidents never happen in a perfect world

Jimmy Destri, of Blondie

Lately, in connection with another project, I’ve been reading a number of books by ex-residents of Bruno Bettleheim’s Orthogenic School in Chicago.  One thing that each resident takes up in their own way is one of the Bettleheim’s guiding principles:  there is no such thing as an accident.

Bettleheim took this quite far.  If during a hectic dodgeball game, you jumped out of the way of the ball and your elbow encountered another person’s ribs, the game would be stopped and you’d be asked why you had done this.  Saying “it was an accident,” or “I didn’t mean to hit him,” were not allowed as responses.  Rather, you were required to reflect on your unconscious motivation for this aggressive act.

Most people’s response to hearing a story like this is to say it’s absurd. A demonstration of how mad psychoanalysis can be when taken to an extreme.  I can understand this response.  And yet, I think meditating on both the principle and our response to it will pay dividends, illuminating the correct and incorrect use of psychoanalytic ideas, the limits of psychoanalytic explanation.

First of all, is it correct to say that in psychoanalysis that there is no such thing as an accident?  Certainly Freud and many other analysts (including myself) have found that many actions, originally thought to be accidental or inadvertent, can be discovered, through the application of the psychoanalytic method, to have been unconsciously motivated, meant if you like, or at least, meaningful.

But it is important to note here that “explaining” actions in this way is not the point of an analysis.  One doesn’t want a client to come out of an analysis full of lovely explanations for why they do what they do, but behaving exactly the same.

Rather the point of understanding actions differently is the coming to “own” them retrospectively.  So, for example, I’m late by fifteen minutes to meet a friend.  In my mind, it’s an accident, and I tell myself if I’d been luckier with the Underground I would have been on time.

But when I meet him, he says, “Still pissed off about what I said about your story?” I then remember how angry I was about his criticism during our last meeting, how I stewed on it for days, repeating it in my mind and stoking the anger again.  I immediately see — and own — how my being late was in fact, an expression of my anger and reluctance to see him again.  I smile, chagrined.  “I don’t hold a grudge, do I?”

The experience of many such incidents, both in your own life and in the analyses you conduct, does tend to produce some scepticism about the explanation “it’s an accident.”   But does it rule it out of court?  Given “a perfect world,” infinite time to reflect on our lives, and a completely enlightened, unjudgemental mind,  perhaps…

In other words, no.

I’m sceptical about “accidents” because of repeated experience of discovering that what I (and others) once thought was accidental, turned out, not to be.   It may be the case that Bruno Bettleheim had similar experiences to me, and had come to believe a more extreme version of what I do,  that accidents never happen.

No problem so far.

He, and I, can believe what we want.  It’s when Bettleheim attempts to impose his understanding on another that this becomes problematic.  Especially when the others are children in his care/power.

Let’s say, I believe Freud is the bee’s knees.  I may believe a lot of what he says is true. In spite of my wealth of experience justifying these beliefs to myself, I am not entitled to insist that you share them. Even if I believe it would greatly improve your life to know the wonderful truths of Freud, I have no mandate to impose my beliefs on you, any more than I can insist that you agree with me about Barack Obama, David Cameron, or anything else.

If you come to me for help, our work together may result in your sharing my admiration of Freud.   You may have experiences which make you believe that accidents never happen.  (You may not of course.  You may end up thinking Freud, and I, am bonkers!)

I cannot shortcut the process by which you arrive at your own understanding of the truth of whether accidents are possible (and everything else).  If I attempt to do so, and insist you believe something or act as if it is true and I have power over you, you can only identify with me or comply with me — pretend that you agree that what I say is true and give me explanations that might satisfy me.

Since the aim of psychoanalysis is to increase your freedom, identification (technically, identification with the aggressor) as an outcome is unsatisfactory — as it limits your understanding to that of the person you are identifying with.

The latter is largely what seems to have happened at Bettleheim’s school.  Residents learned not to say “it was an accident” and instead to say things like “Yes, I guess I was angry that my mother used to shout at me,” or “I did feel aggressive after my session with my counsellor.”

Having to comply in this way is antithetical to the whole psychoanalytic enterprise, which is founded on telling the truth.   In other words, ideally residents would have been rewarded for saying “I believe it was an accident, Dr. Bettleheim, whatever you think. Maybe I will come to understand differently in the fullness of time, but at the moment I think it is quite wrong for you to insist I produce explanations that relate this to my past.  It completely devalues the currency of explanation, and of this school.  And if you don’t mind, I’d like to go back to my game of dodgeball.”

Of course, the young children at the school were not in a position to say this. Neither are vulnerable and dependent patients. That is why it’s so important that therapists maintain a high degree of awareness of the limits of their explanatory principles, and of the largeness of their power in the therapeutic situation.

Mind Control Techniques — Part Two

There is something terribly exciting about a mind control technique – a mental procedure which is meant to help you control anger, worry or self hatred. Best selling self-help books are full of them.  Today I’d like to explore why such techniques are both terrible attractive – and largely unused.

One of the most sobering aspects of being human is the way in which our moods and so much of what we feel, think, and sometimes even say, seems beyond our control.  Most of what we can will ourselves to do seems trivial (turn on the kettle, smile) in relation to what we can’t will –to be happy, to love, to be optimistic, to find someone attractive or unattractive, not to hate ourselves.

We can limit the damage to our narcissism by averting our eyes from the areas over which we don’t exercise control and concentrating on those we do, or at least have the illusion of doing.  But we always know, at the back of our minds, that we’re fooling ourselves.  Though we love the idea that we are “masters of our fate, captains of our soul.” the area in which we can exercise such mastery is disturbingly small.

This is the attraction of mind control techniques.  They tantalizingly promise we can extend our control of ourselves even to those areas where it’s so obviously lacking –  to stop a fight once the words and feelings start flowing, to shift a dark mood,  to stop worrying about things we tell ourselves are silly.

When we feel impotent, a technique which promises us power and control is very beguiling. One of my favourite books as a teen was Frank Herbert’s Dune.   Let’s leave aside for the moment the wonderful world Herbert created.  Who is the main character? Paul Atreides, a boy painstakingly trained from birth to control his voice, his thinking, his feeling, indeed every single muscle of his body.  Paul, with his intensive body and mind control training, was a complete contrast to me at the time.  I was unable to control anything very important: I didn’t have my own money, was living with my parents and was suffering the fact that my body was radically changing whether I liked it or not.

One of my favourite bits of Dune was the Litany of Fear, a mind control technique Paul uses when he would otherwise be frightened out of his skull.  In fact, I was so taken with it I memorized it – and can still remember it today.

I must not fear. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.  I will face my fear.  I will let it over me and through me.  And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

How many times in the past fifty years have I drawn on this technique?  I can recall two, to no great effect.  When I’m truly frightened, the last thing on my mind is the Litany of Fear.

And so it is with most such techniques.  We love the idea of them, the illusion they give us that if only we applied ourselves we could be masters of our fate.  But when it comes to applying ourselves, or the techniques…

We’d prefer to have these techniques as a wonderful potential, something we could do, rather than discover that they can’t really give us that measure of control which we crave and which is always just… out of reach.

Mind Control Techniques — Part 1

The other day a client told me he’d watched a TED video in which a French Buddhist taught a technique for making your anger into a bird, which would fly away, leaving no trace.  This lead to a discussion between him and his wife in which they wondered why psychoanalytic therapists don’t teach techniques like this…

Let me start by being clear that it’s not that I think this, or other techniques like this, don’t work.  They do.  At least sometimes.

The problem is that people don’t use them.   They don’t apply their “letting go of anger technique” in the middle of an argument with their partner, colleague, friend, sibling or parent.  They don’t use their “what me worry” tactics when they are consumed by anxiety about what they’ll do if they lose their job, or their partner falls in love with someone else, or if they develop cancer.   And they don’t remember their “be nice to themselves” procedures when they’re beating themselves to a pulp because they feel they’ve made a fool of themselves/done something stupid/or been less fluent than they’d like.

All these techniques presuppose the ability to choose to use them.  And this, in the heat of the moment, when someone is driven, is precisely what is lacking.

To put it simply, psychoanalytic therapists believe that people do what they do – even those things which to others are obviously completely self-destructive – because they think it’s a good idea and/or because it gives them pleasure.   If, in your mind, your worrying is invaluable for demonstrating your fealty to a loved parent, or for keeping away tigers, there is no need for your “what me worry” technique.  (You know the Sufi story: Nasrudin was throwing handfuls of crumbs around his house. “What are you doing?” someone asked him. “Keeping the tigers away.” “But there are no tigers in these parts.” “You see, it works!”)

This is most obvious in couples work.  (I see couples with a female colleague, two on two.  More about this in a later post.)   In couples work, you see couples engage in relationship-destructive behaviours — attacking each other remorselessly, demanding the impossible, being a victim/making the other the oppressor. You help them see what they are doing, and how this gets in the way of their stated goal, which is to have a loving, supportive relationship.  They recognize this.  And then they start again.  Either immediately, just after the session, or at the next session.

Because when this behaviour restarts they no longer see how destructive it is.

The couples (and individuals) we see are not stupid people.  They understand that these behaviours destroy the possibility of what they most want — when they’re not in the grips of their drives/defences/repetitions,.    But even though they’ve agreed to call a halt during their sessions, they don’t, not in the middle of a row.  They’re getting too much pleasure fighting an ancient enemy, showing the world how unloved they are and what a monster the other is, or demonstrating their loyalty to a dysfunctional parent.

It’s only when they see what is unconsciously driving them, see the early scenarios they are replaying in which their actions make sense, that the beginning of a possibility of a different choice emerges.           

In other words, the possibility of choosing differently is usually hard won.  It involves freeing yourself from your drives (for revenge, to win, to humiliate), your needs (to be loved), and your demands.  This is what therapy is all about – creating the space, or freedom, in which different choices begin to be possible.

It’s at this point techniques might become useful.  Because you have the possibility of choosing to use them.

But I have to say, in my experience, by the time you get to this point, techniques seem superfluous.  You just stop worrying, being angry.   Because you now have the ability to choose that the technique presupposed.