A lot of psychoanalytic theorizing follows this basic path: you try to understand (made a model for) what happens in the consulting room, say when a client who has been consumed by self-hatred gradually comes to hate themselves less, and then, you project backwards (often to early childhood) the absence of what you believe has happened between you and your client.
For example, some time ago I wrote about a “nightmare client” and of the moment in which, on reflection, her therapy changed. However much a one-off this experience was, it’s inevitable I’ll find myself turning it over in my mind, trying to figure out what it was about this moment that made a difference. And why it made a difference. In other words, trying to understand what was lacking in my client’s history that was remedied by what happened between us.
But my success in doing the latter (trying to understand what was lacking in my client’s history), would very much depend on the “correctness” of my understanding of the moment where everything changed. And there’s the rub.
First of all, unlike in the movies, (Ordinary People being a prime offender) there is rarely one blinding moment of insight, in which everything becomes clear (for both client and therapist). Further, in such movies, there is only one possible interpretation of this moment.
Secondly, the only instrument I have for understanding what happened is my own being – my thoughts/feelings/perceptions and ability to resonate (consciously and unconsciously) with the moment and my client. Even if she should give an account of what happened for her, this too would be limited by her capacity to conceptualize what may essentially be an experience beyond her understanding/experience.
Third, it’s inevitable that my understanding will be shaped by the thinking of those who were involved in my education as a therapist – my analyst, my supervisors, teachers, and of course, what I’ve understood of the writings of the founders of my field – for me, Freud, Klein, Bion, Lacan on the psychoanalytic side, and Heidegger, Farber, Merleau-Ponty on the phenomenological.
So, when I try to understand correctly any moment of change, I am doing so through the lenses of my own perceptions and (my reaction to/comprehension of) the theories with which I have been graced/saddled with.
The “truth” of any psychoanalytic explanation that I arrive at, in other words is highly shaped/constrained by my personal openness to my thoughts/feelings/fantasies and by the theories/understandings that have become part of me.
For example, I’ve written in an earlier blog about a moment when a “nightmare client” walked out of a session to sit on the stairs outside my office. I followed, sat down next to her, and then, consumed by despair at my inability to help/reach her, found tears running down my face.
Psychoanalytically speaking, I would say that this moment was one in which I allowed myself to fully experience/suffer my client’s utter despair at ever reaching me (or originally, I assume, her psychotic mother). And that when she felt this, and my capacity to “contain” this moment, in a way that neither her mother nor her adopted parents had been able to do, something in her changed.
Her “undigested” maddening experience became one which had been altered by my taking it “in,” with compassion and love. (Those familiar with Bion can easily view this in terms of β elements and α elements.
This, I hasten to add, is only one possible interpretation of this moment, but it shows how the notion of repetition functions in psychoanalytic theorizing – that I, unlike her earlier parental figures, was able to contain (deal with emotionally) something which she had repeatedly tried to get someone to understand/feel/contain. (I am very aware in writing this blog for the general public that this may not be convincing, or even much of an “explanation,” to someone not trained in my traditions.)
Another way repetition functions in psychoanalytic theorizing is in the notion of transference, basically, that clients “transfer” their past onto the therapist and thereby repeat it with them.
As it happens, my nightmare client spoke very little of her adopted family, and even less of her mother, who she only managed to trace and meet 2/3 of the way through therapy. In this case, psychoanalytic theorizing involves even more supposition, because I am trying to reconstruct her past by construing what is happening with me (or properly, what I understand of what is happening with me) as a repetition of it.
For example, early in the therapy, I frequently found myself reasoning with my client – explaining to her in reasonable terms why she shouldn’t be acting as she did. (Often, as she was hanging out of my second floor window threatening to jump.) Even as I did this, I recognized it was a rather stupid thing to do. After a while, I began to think of this as something that my client’s adopted parents did with her, when she behaved passionately or angrily. I made an interpretation based on this – “I seem to find myself trying to reason with you, even though I know it’s pointless. I wonder if this isn’t something your father did, which drove you crazy in the same way as my being reasonable does.” My client looked at me with soft eyes and nodded. After this, I didn’t feel so compelled to be reasonable.
In other words, here the repetition of the past was played out in my behaviour.
The notion of repetition, in its many forms, dominates psychoanalytic interpretation, necessarily so, as psychoanalysis is based on trying to understand the present in terms of the past. But for all its power (and I don’t doubt that it’s real), such explanation involves repeatedly attributing to absent parents behaviour/thoughts/feelings/qualities for which we have very little external evidence.
I increasingly feel that this attribution is necessitated much more by our way of theorizing than by the “facts.”
Even if a client has spoken a great deal of their family (and clients vary enormously in this), I am very aware everything I hear is coming through a particular lens, and often is spoken to a particular end, to have me think/feel something. More pointedly, most psychoanalytic theorizing focuses on the first year(s) of life, about which most clients “remember” almost nothing.
This time frame becomes the “blank screen” onto which analysts project their theories of repetition.
The “correctness” of these theories about early development becomes an issue of huge contention for analysts. I would argue that this is the wrong focus, as the “evidence” for these theories is not in early childhood but rather in the consulting room.
It is how we conceive of what goes on in the consulting room that is really important. And I increasingly feel that conceiving of this primarily in terms of repetition, underestimates the importance of the new. I will talk about this in my next blog.