introduction to psychodynamic theory

The psychodynamic theories that I have been studying this year have been nothing short of fascinating and as a result, I now view life in a very different way. I can see many of these concepts in both my own life and in my client work. I was relinquished by my mother and adopted when only a few days old and although my adoptive parents made me aware of my situation from an early age, I did not understand or accept the magnitude of this early life experience until much later in life.

Many of the theories I am studying this year relate to early infancy and the importance of the mother and these theories have proved challenging for me, on a personal level. We have only briefly touched on the work of Sigmund Freud this year. I am very interested in working with both the conscious and unconscious processes and this was championed by Freud. Many of Freud’s concepts come in pairs: conscious and unconscious, ego and id, internal and external, Eros and the death instinct and can bring conflict; the urge to love and the urge to destroy.

Freud was one of the first to use dreams as a tool in psychoanalysis, stating that dreams are the ‘royal road to the unconscious. ’ (Freud 1899) One of the concepts that I feel particularly drawn to is what Freud called the repetition compulsion. I understand this to mean the need people seem to have to create for themselves repeats of earlier difficult or uncomfortable situations and relationships from childhood. we have come across people all of whom human relationships have the same outcomes: such as the benefactor who is abandoned in anger after a time by each of his proteges, however much they may otherwise differ from one another, and who thus seems doomed to taste all the bitterness of ingratitude; or the man whose friendships all end in betrayal by his friend; or the man who time after time in the course of his life raises someone else into a position of great private or public authority and then, after a certain interval , himself upsets that authority and replaces him by a new one; or, again, the lover each of whose love affairs passes through the same phases and reaches the same conclusion. ’ Freud, S (1920 p 22) I have seen this phenomenon in many of my clients who seem determined to replicate difficult past relationships in the here and now, leading to more frustration and disappointment.

This compulsion appears everywhere and therefore can also play out in the relationship between therapist and client and can be of immense use to the therapist if correctly identified. I have often wondered if my early childhood experiences of being raised in a family that were not biologically my own, with all the subtle references about not truly belonging and frequently having to ’fit in’ may have led me to marry into a black West Indian culture, so vastly different to that of my own white British culture, thus satisfying my repetitive compulsion to sustain a relationship that does not feel like a natural fit but requires hard work and compromise. The comfort of the discomfort is familiar to me.

We have studied Object Relations theories this year and my understanding of these developmental theories based on the early mother/child relationship essentially looks at relationships between people (objects) and parts of the self or others. (part objects) The individual’s interpretation of these earlier relationships- both conscious and unconscious- becomes the basis for later relations with others, e. g. friendship, marriage, and raising a family. When looking at the work of Melanie Klein, at first it felt uncomfortable and difficult to conceptualise. I struggled to understand her ideas in the context of babies and young children but could identify them more clearly in an adult context.

I believe many of Klein’s contributions are vitally important and I frequently recognise them in my client work. Klein saw the new baby as relating to the world via its physical relationship with the world, with the initial importance of its mother, initially as a set of part-objects. Klein saw relations with the breast as significant. As the baby feeds, it feels gratified and satisfied when the breast produces sufficient milk, in which case it is loved and cherished. When the baby is prematurely withdrawn or the breast does not provide sufficient food, the baby is frustrated and the breast is hated and the recipient of hostile thoughts. The mother therefore receives love or destructive attack depending on this.

This splitting of parts of the same object emerges during the first three months of life and is referred to by Klein as the paranoid-schizoid position. The baby experiences extremes of feeling. When he is angry, he rejects and thrusts away the mother. When he is happy, he loves and adores her. He projects his bad feeling and associates her with it. A baby seeks to retain good feelings and introjects good objects, whilst expelling bad objects and projecting bad feelings onto an external object. The expulsion is motivated by a paranoid fear of annihilation by the bad object. Klein describes this as splitting, in the way that it seeks to prevent the bad object from contaminating the good object by separating them via the inside-outside barrier.

The schizoid response to the paranoia is then to excessively project or introject those parts, seeking to keep the good and bad controlled and separated. Aggression is common in splitting as fear of the bad object can cause destructive behaviour. The infant’s ego does not yet have the ability to tolerate or integrate these two different aspects, and so uses ‘magical’ omnipotent denial in order to remove the power and reality from the persecuting bad object. Projective identification is commonly used to separate bad objects whilst also keeping them close, which can lead to confused aggression. Projective identification is used to project the bad object into another person so it becomes a part of that person.

The person then identifies with that other person, and hence has means to control them. Klein describes the depressive position beginning after the paranoid-schizoid position at around 3 to 4 months old. The depressive position is a significant step in development which occurs when the infant discovers that the hated bad breast and the loved good breast are one and the same. The mother begins to be recognised as a whole object, both good and bad, rather than two part-objects, one good and one bad. Love and hate, along with external reality and internal phantasy, can now also begin to co-exist. As uncertainty is accepted, the baby begins to recognise its own helplessness, dependency and jealousy towards the mother.

The baby consequently becomes anxious that the aggressive impulses might have hurt or even destroyed the mother, who the infant now recognises as needed and loved. This results in replacing destructive urges with guilt. The depressive position can be seen as more sympathetic and accommodating than the paranoid- schizoid position. Especially in times of stress, people can be seen to fluctuate between these two states and this can often be evident in the therapy room. Clients presenting as paranoid- schizoid will be very defensive and will feel as if they are under attack from even the closest to them. ‘In general, the anxieties in the paranoid schizoid position are life and death anxieties: you or me; my life or yours.

Parents and children (or couples or workplaces) functioning in this way do not know how to share or how to care for each other; they feel that that they have to care for themselves, since no one else is there to care for them. A paranoid schizoid atmosphere of distrust and suspicion,’ two-faced’ placation and back-biting, erupting sometimes into open attack, can maintain itself. Any sign of care or love is likely to be interpreted by those around as weakness and can be used against the caring person. Underlying this is a sense of total lack of love; there may be no conscious sense of loss and no awareness of a different way of functioning, except in terms of mockery or bitter triumph or cynicism. Segal J. 1992 p 35) I have two teenagers living at home and I see them both, particularly the older one functioning predominantly the paranoid- schizoid position at present. I look forward to his move back into the depressive position, as soon as possible! Klein’s theory of splitting can be seen everywhere and in every situation and I am acutely aware that I have just referred to my lovely, intelligent, articulate male offspring as mere ‘teenagers. ’ I often see clients in the therapy room splitting off parts of others. In my specialist domestic violence counselling placement, female clients frequently declare that ‘all men are bad’ despite possibly having good fathers, brothers, sons, male colleagues etc. One of the theorists that I particularly like is Donald Winnicott.

Winnicott believed that for children to develop in a healthy way, they required the’ good-enough mother. ’ By having the ability to truly connect with her baby, the good enough mother provided a sense of control and containment to the infant. This holding environment is seen as necessary by Winnicott, for the baby to move at its own rate to a state of independence. Winnicott refers to this primary maternal pre-occupation as the state in which the mother is so closely attuned to her baby in the first few days of life to the exclusion of everything else, that the baby believes that mother and baby are ‘as one. ’ This makes the baby feel secure and even omnipotent.

After the obsession with her new-born baby passes and the mother begins to separate and reintegrate all the other existing elements back into her life, the baby can gradually start to experience frustration and disappointment in a bearable form, allowing the baby to understand and develop the existence of his own now limited powers. This is referred by Winnicott as the mother’s failure, which is seen as necessary to facilitate the change. “The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure” Winnicott D. 1953 p93) Having given birth to two sons I can vaguely remember the all-consuming feelings associated with the first few days of each of my children’s birth, where I surrendered my body and mind to this tiny infant, without conscious thought or planning. These memories were only reactivated when I read Winnicott’s theory. ‘It gradually develops and becomes a state of heightened sensitivity during, and especially towards the end of the pregnancy. It last for a few weeks after the birth of the child. It is not easily remembered by mothers once they have recovered from it. I would go further and say that the memory mothers have of this state tends to be repressed. Winnicott D. (1956 p302) My adoptive mother once told me that she had not allowed herself to bond with me during the first six months of my life, as she was scared that my birth mother would change her mind and want me back. I have always wondered what effect this lack of early bonding may have had on me. My birth mother may also have resisted bonding with me, as she was aware that she was relinquishing me. As Winnicott believed that primary maternal preoccupation began sometime before the infant was born, this leaves me wondering about my unsettled start in life and how this is playing out for me, as an adult. This is a work in progress.

Winnicott believed that the healthy, early interaction between mother and child afforded the baby the state of going on being. This good enough care giving would allow the baby to form a true self thus creating for the infant a sense of reality and aliveness which fosters spontaneity. Winnicott believed that failure at this stage i. e. a lack of reasonably attuned caregiving resulting in an environment for the baby that felt unsafe or overwhelming could lead to the development of the false self. This false self may result in other people’s expectations of you becoming more important than anything you may wish for yourself, thus giving rise to compliance and imitation.

I believe these ideas are especially important when considering the adopted child, as some adoptive parents may have not examined their motives for adopting in the first place and may have fantasies about raising their ‘ideal child. ’ If not explored before an adoption takes place, this can lead to disappointment and a lack of fulfilment all round. I can now see that on reaching puberty, my overwhelming sense of needing to be authentic highlighted my mother’s earlier creation of an ideal daughter, which clearly, I was not. I was seen by my parents as being rebellious in my teens, although I, myself never felt rebellious. I was just trying to discover my true self whilst also trying to fit into my parents’ idea of what their daughter should be.

Finally, my overwhelming need to embrace my true self resulted in me alienating myself from the only family I knew by leaving home at 19 and travelling 450 miles to London to begin a new life. At the time, I thought that I was going on an adventure down south, to work in the heart of the fashion industry, with my parents blessing. But in retrospect, I was escaping far away, to a large city that afforded me the anonymity to find my true self, leaving behind a family who resented me for being unable to ‘play the adoption game. ’ My adopted brother, by complete contrast, embraced his false self and ‘fitted the bill’ as my mother’s perfect son. My brother was compliant all the way, even taking up golf and gaining employment as a sales rep, as our father had done.

My brother has, however, never been able to make and keep meaningful relationships with anyone, has never be able to make decisions for himself and has no real sense of ‘self. ’ As a result my brother has been completely lost since my mother’s death last year. I am unsure how much of this is down to a lack of adequate containment in early life or the effects of adoption but it is certainly interesting to me to see complete opposites of reaction to the seemingly same set of circumstances. My brother was adopted first and maybe, due to the absence of pre-natal bonding alongside a possible lack of confidence in her new parental role, my mother may have struggled in those early days.

By not being adequately attuned, coupled with the anxiety of having to serve her newly adopted baby’s every demand, this could have resulted in my mother’s impingement (Winnicott) on my brother, thus creating the development of his false self. ‘he will be overwhelmed by stimuli from internal and external sources which he cannot manage, at an intensity that breaks up his peaceful state of simply being. Winnicott termed these traumatic experiences ‘impingements’, fractures in the wholeness of being…’ Gomez L. (1997 p91) I was placed with my parents 20 months after my brother and from my own experience of raising subsequent children, my mother may have been more relaxed with her second child, proposing then that my mother may not have ‘ impinged’ on me in the same way. We also looked at the work of Wilfred Bion this year.

Bion’s writing style I have found quite difficult to comprehend. But I believe that Bion’s concept of the container and the contained (Bion 1962) is one of the most important ideas in therapy. Bion’s description of the container and the contained as the birth of thinking and of psychological development was in many ways a continuation of Kleinian thought. Melanie Klein gave us the infant defence mechanism of projective identification and Bion described this process as far more than just a primitive defence of the baby’s ego. He believed that this projective identification is in fact a crucial means of communication between mother and baby and, indeed, the origin of thought.

The infant projects his distress into the mother and she, if all goes well, will process that distress and return it to the child as something more manageable. Bion looked at thinking as communication, the ultimate aim being greater knowledge both of oneself and of others resulting in psychological development. ‘So, during interaction the mother becomes a container for the child’s emotional world and that world is the contained, transformed by her reverie (her concern for and involvement with the child) into something that can be re-introjected into the child in a digestible form. If the mother fails to provide this function then the unpleasurable is retained and omnipotence replaces thinking. ’ (O’Shaughnessy E. 981) Bion stressed that containing is not a passive function. It involves both partners in an active inter-relationship and that the relationship between the container and the contained is dynamic. This is a flexible relationship, one in which the contained enters the container and has an impact on it, whilst the container and its shape and function also transform the contained; the knack is the ability to feel the clients anxiety and still be able to retain a balance of mind. This is evident in the therapy room much of the time and sometimes just being able to adequately contain the client’s painful material is enough to start the process of establishing a good therapeutic alliance.

It is an extremely powerful experience when someone else can contain your most painful thoughts and feelings and still be there for you the next week, with no apparent damage done. To me, containment is fundamental in life but especially in the therapy room. This year, we also looked at the ideas of Heinz Kohut. I found these concepts to be of great importance but refreshingly simple in comparison to some of the more complex theories of Klein, Bion etc. Freud had proposed that a child develops from a ‘state of narcissism to one of object-relatedness’ and the more complete this change, the healthier the mature adult would be, becoming less interested in self issues.

Kohut began to question whether Freud’s idea was the best way to view maturation and thought that there were, in fact, two parallel lines of development, one being Freud’s single line previously explained and another line being the development of the self, which Kohut said ‘goes on throughout the lifetime of the healthy individual. ’ In order for the self to develop fully, Kohut stated that three needs must be met: Mirroring, Idealised Parental Imago and Twinship. Kohut believed that children need to be shown that they are special and wanted by their parents and that this feeling is conveyed to the child regularly not just in speech but also by gesture, Kohut named this mirroring.

Kohut believed that as long as adequate mirroring had taken place, the child could draw on those memories for a short time and become their own mirror, in the absence of the parent. Kohut called this transmuting internalization, by which he meant each time the child mirrored themselves, they added structures, which in turn developed into a greater sense of self and the establishment of good self-esteem. If the mirroring need is not satisfied, the person may suffer from feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. Kohut also believed that the developing child needs a parent to look up to and count on to help, when the internal and external worlds are too much for the child to deal with, he called this need an idealized parental imago.

When this need has been adequately met by the parent, gradually bit by bit, through transmuting internalization, when the parent is unavailable, the child will now be able to develop some power and confidence of their own. The meeting of this need also assists in the ability to self soothe in times of distress. This is especially useful in the therapy room, as I have come across many clients who lack the ability to sooth themselves and by identifying this need; it may then go on to be addressed in therapy. Kohut also stated that clients that seemed to lack vitality and a lust for life may not have met the need for an idealized parental imago.

The third need that Kohut said we require for the developing self he called twinship or alter ego need. The child needs to establish a sense of belonging to his parents, by way of sharing important characteristic or similarities to one or both of his parents. If this need is not met then children can feel as if they are strange and do not ‘fit it. ’ This is a problem that can be faced by many adopted children and as I have stated earlier the feeling of not quite fitting in, is one I am familiar with. Kohut believed that if at least one of the three needs are met by parents, the child will go on to build what Kohut called compensatory structures in the area of the need successfully met.

Kohut believed that most people function on these compensatory structures and cope well enough. Kohut also believed that we continually seek people to fulfil these needs, referring to them as selfobjects. Although most psychodynamic theory tends to place emphasis on infant development, Kohut believed that the need for such selfobject relationships does not end at childhood but continues throughout all stages of a person’s life. I have always felt, even as an adult, an innate need to be connected to other people, despite growing up in a time when women were constantly being encouraged to do everything for themselves and being told that a need for others was a sign of weakness.

Kohut called this the false maturity morality of our culture. Finally, Kohut encouraged therapists to be empathic to their client’s needs and not resort to gratification, but instead through the therapeutic alliance, motivate the client to seek their own selfobjects to assist with the client’s growth and change. ‘Warmth and interest are indeed parts of the corrective emotional experience that Kohut thought therapy must be. And he would have added that this warm and empathic understanding of the hard path the client has walked is utterly different from pronouncing the client the fairest one of all. ’ Khan M. (1997)

Word Count 3763 References Freud, S. 1920) Beyond the pleasure principle in The standard edition (Vol. 18) Gomez. L (1997) An Introduction to Object Relations, London, Free Association Michael Khan (1997), ‘The Meeting of Psychoanalysis and Humanism’ In Between Therapist and Client: The New Relationship. London, Freeman O’Shaughnessy, E. (1981) ‘A Commemorative Essay on W. R. Bion’s theory on thinking,’ Journal of Child Psychotherapy (1981) Segal, J (1992) Melanie Klein, London, Sage Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, International Journal of Psychoanalysis 34:89-97 Winnicott, D. (1956) Primary Maternal Preoccupation in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis (1958)

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