Category Archives: Rationalization

Mom and the Web

When I was reworking my last blog (about rationality and rationalization), I was staying at a friend’s cottage in rural France.  In this isolated valley, there was no internet, and no access to a phone’s data connection.  As always, I found the absence of a thing, gave me space to reflect on its importance (or lack of it).

And my thoughts, influenced by the blog I was working on, and my background, were about how our relation to the web reflects our involvement with the pleasure/reality principles.

What is the word we most commonly use when talking about our access to the web?  That we’re connected.  As a therapist I have to ask, connected to what?  Because our favourite websites, Tumblr and Facebook pages, Youtube videos, etc. are not ends in themselves.  The fact that we can be/are connected to them means something to us.

In psychoanalytic shorthand, connection is an issue to do with the mother.  When we’re born, we’re deeply connected, indeed psychically merged with, our mothers. The life-long process of growing up involves separating from the mother (and all her later iterations in life – teachers, mentors, partners, bosses) and becoming your own person.

The overriding value of the web is connection.  Hardly anyone on it speaks about the value of separateness/separation.  Is this a clue to its psychic meaning?

Separation from a loved one involves pain (as I discussed in my earlier blog, Memory and It’s Relation to Loss).  Separation from the internet (as I’m very aware in its absence) also involves feelings of loss. One becomes conscious of how much one uses the web as an aide de memoir. My recent queries include: when was The Terminator made?  when was Where the Wild Things Are published?  where is Provence?  As I asked each question, and realized I couldn’t google the answer, I had to confront its absence.  Are these not-terribly-important queries so very different in meaning from:  where are my trainers, mum?  where did you put my favourite t shirt?  when’s Neal’s birthday party?

When there’s no wifi, you become aware of how quickly the ubiquitous connection to the internet has become important/essential/taken for granted, even for those of us who still remember dial-up connections.  Is this because it fits an earlier model, not so buried in our psyche, the ubiquitous connection to our infantile mum?  Is the web the always-there and all-knowing mum we never have to separate from?

Let’s consider more about the phenomenology of being plugged into the web:  I would say we’re in a world in which there is no lack, but always an answer or a response (even if we have to search for it); no separation but always a bond to our “friends” even if it’s only to their postings or emails. Moreover, our connection to the internet is timeless – when we’re plugged in/connected, time vanishes and has no meaning.  The passing of time is, of course, one of the most important markers of the “real world.”

What so striking about all this is that it’s so different from my reasons (or should I say rationalizations?) for loving the web.  I’m a technophile.  I’ve observed happily, and participated in, every stage of the development of the web, from the very first space wars games played on intranets and described by Stewart Brand in a classic Rolling Stone article.

rolling stone space war

If you’d asked me what I loved about the web I would have said the way it gives me access to knowledge, to facts, to solutions to problems, to the latest news, to persons who had deep knowledge of particular areas.  I loved that precursor of the web, the Whole Earth Catalogue, for similar reason: the way it gave me access to the enthusiasm and specialized knowledge of people who had plowed a particular furrow deeply and well.

whole earth catalogue coverwhole earth catalogue back cover

All this would have made my love of the web sound like a manifestation of the reality principle, of my searching/desire for truth.  But if I’m honest, though I do use the web for all this,  mostly I pootle about, looking for something interesting or amusing. If I’m brutally truthful, I largely use the web to avoid the work, thinking or writing I need to do.  (Doesn’t everybody?)

So while I tend to consciously justify my dependence on the internet in terms of the knowledge it gives me, in fact, it’s much more to do with the unconscious satisfactions I derive from it, while it helps me avoid the painful task of writing and trying to create characters and worlds that will move people.

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this.  That’s how rationalization works – it makes you feel that an unconsciously pleasurable choice is a useful, inevitable necessity.

Rationalizing and Reason

Rationality and reason have gotten a lot of bad press lately.  They’ve come to be associated with being “in the head” and “cut off from one’s emotions”, with “male” thinking as opposed to”female” thinking.

But I think another reason that reason has gotten a bad name for itself is because it’s become confused with rationalizing.  Being able to tell the difference between these two is essential in any pursuit of self knowledge.  It’s especially crucial in a therapist.

That’s because however much they may appear similar, rationality and rationalizing have different masters, are driven by different impulses.

Let me explain:  In Freud’s early thinking, he talked about the “pleasure principle,” the way in which babies are driven to seek pleasure and avoid unpleasure (hunger, anxiety, overstimulation, dread, fear, loss of connection).  Though it’s called the “pleasure” principle, the avoidance of unpleasure is perhaps more important in Freud’s thinking.

As we grow, this primary principle, or drive, may be replaced, at least in some areas of our life, by the ability to control our impulses, delay gratification and deal with the reality of the world – the reality principle.  We come to see the value of truth and knowledge.  At times, Freud seems to explain this as a development of the pleasure principle – we pursue knowledge because we begin to see how it will ultimately give us more pleasure, or at least avoid unpleasure.  Later psychotherapists (for example, Bion) talk about the drive for truth in a more positive sense — as one of the highest expressions of our humanity.

People usually come to therapy principally out of a desire for a magic solution to their problem. They want themselves, others or their worlds to change without having to undergo personal pain.  In other words, they are dominated by the pleasure principle.

In a successful therapy, this transformed into a seeking of truth, as the client realizes, at least to some extent, that, in the words of x,  the pleasure of truth etc.

Back to rationalizing and rationality:  When we give reasons for something we don’t really have a choice about, we’re rationalizing.  We’re using a simulacrum of reasoning to blind ourselves to our lack of choice, and to the unconscious pleasure our present way of being gives us.  So, for example, an extremely driven client produced the following “reasons” to justify the amount of time he spent at work: many men at his age were working this hard as they were in their prime earning years, he had to do this to support his family, he couldn’t do an adequate job unless he worked this much.  A mother, who felt trapped at home, told me she couldn’t do anything different because her partner wanted dinner on the table at 6, and her teenage children “needed” her as otherwise they wouldn’t do their homework.

In both these cases, the person wants to continue in a pleasurable course of action, unconsciously aimed at avoiding a painful possibility, often one from their earlier lives. For the man, poverty, losing; for the woman, loss of love.  However if they realized how irrational their choices are (in present circumstances), they would be unable to do so.  So they give “reasons” for what they’re doing.  And they defend the truth of this false reasoning.

When we’re more interested in seeking truth, we may also give reasons for what we do.  But there is an open-endedness to this.  We’re not attached to our reasons, and are willing to give them up if better or more adequate ones show up later.  We don’t know where our pursuit of an understanding will lead us. And in general, we’re more curious about what is the case, rather than in defending ourselves from some feared outcome/shame/humiliation etc.

Of course, few of us are at one end of this spectrum or another.  And it’s also true that what was once a true enquiry can end up becoming a rationalization. For example, I have talked to people who have “been through” therapy and who can reel off the “reasons” they feel and behave as they do – their mother did this, their father did this.

One said complacently, “I behave this way because I was abandoned by my other during a holiday (vacation for my American readers).”  Here, what may have been a true past understanding has come to serve the pleasure principle – removing the necessity of enquiring into what is the case; excusing, rather than enabling confrontation, with painful/’bad behaviour.

Because of our desire to avoid unpleasure, it’s a constant struggle to extend the area in which we’re more interested in finding out the truth rather than in persisting in patterns of behaviour aimed at avoiding pain or past traumatic situations which are projected into the future.

The ability to tell the difference between rationalization and reason is one of our key allies in this struggle.