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Jacques Lacan: A Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Psychoanalyst

Jacques Lacan: A Real, Imaginary, and Symbolic Psychoanalyst 

Jacques LacanAs a practicing psychoanalyst for the past 30-plus years, I have sought to integrate the wisdom from many mentors. My supervisors and training analyst guided me through the collected works of Freud, Klein, Winnicott, and Spotnitz. While writing my doctoral dissertation on clinical psycholinguistics, I learned of the work of Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst.

The more I read of Lacan’s ideas, the more fascinated I became with his unique take on the role of language for shaping the mind and the practice of psychoanalysis. Equally intriguing were the stories about Lacan, the man, who fought to promote a view of psychoanalysis that dared to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the psychoanalytic establishment.

Psychoanalysis has been fraught with in-fighting, exclusiveness, and dogmatism since its inception, which bears an embarrassing irony toward unresolved Oedipal feuds. Fortunately, my training had encouraged an appreciation for psychoanalysis as one of the humanities. Art, literature, religion, culture, philosophy, and music are all expressions of the human experience that are essential for venturing into a serious consideration of the psyche. Lacan’s masterpiece, simply titled, Écrits, included discussions of all of these topics and more.

Certainly his writing is dense and difficult; yet, I found it compelling as a source of provocative ideas and observations. A learned colleague once warned me that life is too short to read Lacan. In fact, most of my colleagues have shared similar negative biases, although they had never read his work themselves and relied, instead, on second- and third-hand critiques. Like most contemporary textbooks on psychology that summarily dismiss Freud out of ignorance or misinformation, these colleagues were content to preserve their allegiance to a particular school of thought.

Some Lacanian theorists have since become a somewhat esoteric group in the US, often adopting an obscure and cryptic style, perhaps in homage to the master. Whereas Lacan’s concepts are complex, both philosophically and logically, my reading of his work suggests that he sought to promote creative and relevant applications by clinicians, not to develop sycophants.

As an addition to Freud’s structural model of the mind consisting of the Id, Ego, and Superego, Lacan proposed that our subjective experience is contextualized with regard to how phenomena become registered in the mind. He identified three constituent contexts for the mind: the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. Broadly described, the Real is fundamentally a derivative of our senses, the Imaginary is derived from perceptual and fantasied mental processes, and the Symbolic is derived from culture and through language. These registers function as interlocking systems of knowing that collectively form one’s sense of awareness.

With the premise of these mental registers, I will attempt to describe Lacan himself. The Real Lacan was a man trained as a psychiatrist in the first half of the twentieth century. He appeared as an intellectual and scholar who studied philosophy, art, science, medicine, and politics, as well as psychoanalysis. His personality is described as intense, passionate, and charismatic. Reportedly, he successfully obtained the release of his wife from Nazi custody by charging into Gestapo offices and demanding her immediate release.

The Imaginary Lacan is the one we know as we read his words. The thoughts and questions that emerge as the reader forms associations to his ideas and through his playful use of words that tease us to push our thinking a bit further.

The Symbolic Lacan is a provocateur of psychological theory. The word “Lacanian” has come to represent courageous and radical commitment to understanding the depth and vastness of the human condition, with full acceptance of the impossibility and ineffability of that task.

Whereas Lacan is mostly known in the US in terms of applications to literary criticism and socio-political theory, he is considered one of the most influential psychoanalytic thinkers in Europe and South America. Regardless of the difficulty that some of his ideas pose, the questions he raises about self-authenticity and one’s capacity to retain sanity in a civilized society has never been more timely.

To learn more about Lacan, see Jacques Lacan: Introductory Overview.

Psychoanalysis, Resilience, and Meaning-Making

Psychoanalysis, Resilience, and Meaning-Making

Psychoanalysis, Resilience, and Meaning-MakingCan psychoanalysis help build resilience?  Psychoanalysis, resilience, and meaning-making may go hand-in-hand.

Resilience involves being able to do better than expected in the face of difficult circumstances.  It requires inner strength.  What factors may help promote such strength?  Meaning-making—finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life—seems to be especially important.

Research has long pointed to the potentially important role that spirituality can play in building psychological well-being and resilience (e.g., Anum & Dasti, 2016; Fombuena et al., 2016; Foskett, Marriott, & Wilson, 2004; Porter et al., 2017; Smith & Carlson, 1997).  Studies have explored many aspects of spirituality—experiences of transcendence and awe that can come from sensing something greater than the self, feelings of connection with others, and the meaning-making involved in a personal search for purpose and meaning in life (intrapersonal spirituality).  A recent study (Gerson, 2018) has found that intrapersonal spirituality—meaning-making—best predicts both resilience and life satisfaction, at least in early adulthood.

The study explored predictors of resilience and life satisfaction in over 400 undergraduates at two universities in the US.  Measures included sense of purpose and meaning in life, spiritual connection to others, and feelings of spiritual transcendence, as well as a host of other variables.  Contrary to many current studies which have focused on the importance of transcendent spirituality and social support, the study found that, at least in young adulthood, resilience is best predicted by more individual factors, including a personal sense of purpose and meaningful life.  And the relationship between resilience and meaning-making is strong.

What implications may this finding have for psychoanalysis?  We know that psychoanalysis seeks a deep understanding of the human psyche—rather than focusing merely on behavior change or symptom resolution, psychoanalysis explores deeper motivations and the potential sources of emotional turmoil.  Psychoanalysis and intrapersonal spirituality share a common goal—that of meaning-making.  Resilience requires stamina in the face of hardship.  It makes sense that a mindset of seeking understanding and a meaningful life—and resilience—may be strengthened by the process of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis, resilience, and meaning-making may go hand-in-hand.   

To learn more about psychoanalysis, see Classical Psychoanalytic Theory or other courses in psychoanalytic psychotherapy.  You may find the brief article on Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness interesting as well.

References

Anum, J., & Dasti, R. (2016). Caregiver Burden, Spirituality, and Psychological Well-Being of Parents Having Children with Thalassemia. Journal of Religion and Health, 55, 941-955. doi: 10.1007/s10943-015-0127-1

Fombuena, M., Galiana, L., Barreto, P., Oliver, A., Pascual, A., & Soto-Rubio, A. (2016). Spirituality in Patients With Advanced Illness: The Role of Symptom Control, Resilience and Social Network. Journal of Health Psychology, 21(12), 2765–2774. doi: 10.1177/1359105315586213

Foskett, J., Marriott, J., & Wilson R. F. (2004). Mental Health, Religion and Spirituality: Attitudes, Experience and Expertise Among Mental Health Professionals and Religious Leaders in Somerset. Mental Health, Religion and Culture, 7, 5-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/13674670310001602490

Gerson, M. W. (2018). Spirituality, Social Support, Pride, and Contentment as Differential Predictors of Resilience and Life Satisfaction in Emerging Adulthood. Special Issue on Positive Psychology, Psychology.

Porter, K. E., Brennan-Ing, M., Burr, J. A., Dugan, E., & Karpiak, S. E. (2017). Stigma and Psychological Well-Being Among Older Adults with HIV: The Impact of Spirituality and Integrative Health Approaches. The Gerontologist, 57(2), 219-228.  doi: 10.1093/geront/gnv128

Smith, C., & Carlson, B. E. (1997). Stress, Coping, and Resilience in Children and Youth. Social Service Review, 71(2), 231-256. doi: 0037-7961/97/7102-0004

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