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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

Seven Benefits of Psychoanalysis

Benefits of Psychoanalysis

What are the benefits of psychoanalysis?  Psychoanalysis benefits the individual in a number of ways that not all types of psychotherapy do.  

 

First, some context.  In a complex society such as ours, people are challenged to adapt to a constant flow of change.  Each of us is subject to cultural, ethnic, religious, economic, and political expectations while also trying to preserve our individual sense of self.  While we navigate our way through daily living, we do our best to preserve the values, ideals, and dreams that make us unique. 

Diversity and difference are essential on a large scale for a species to survive, while at the individual level consistency and integrity are essential for security.  Many of the issues that bring persons to seek psychotherapy relate to threats against security.  Loss of loved ones, conflicts with co-workers, struggles in school, or financial worries all share a basic threat to the preservation of one’s individuality.  Yet, people are expected to adapt and change to the relentless pressure to conform.

Unfortunately, many modern approaches to psychotherapy advocate on behalf of the prevailing society’s definition of health.  That is, the goals of some therapies involve helping the individual learn to accommodate his or her actions and ideas to those deemed “normal.”  A person “should” be extraverted, socially motivated, objective, and open to change.  Admirable as these qualities might be, they are not for everybody.  Likewise, psychotherapy that functions as a tool for social conformity may tend to diminish the value of the individual in favor of a socio-political agenda.

In contrast, historically psychoanalytic therapy has advocated for the enhancement of human diversity through the nurturing of a person’s self-development.  (Not surprisingly, psychoanalysis was banned in repressive totalitarian societies like the USSR).  This is at the heart of the benefits of psychoanalysis. 

Seven Benefits of Psychoanalysis

Benefits of PsychoanalysisPsychoanalysis advocates on behalf of the individual’s personal truths, as follows:

  1. Psychoanalytic therapy promotes a consumer-driven agenda as it is tailored to the needs of the individual and his or her life history. Childhood history is important as the reference of the normality each individual has known.  Everyone is born into a “normal” home in that childhood sets the context for one’s experience of the world.  Good, bad, or otherwise, one’s childhood has influenced how one knows the self and others.  Becoming aware of these historical influences is critical for any semblance of autonomy.
  2. The psychoanalytic patient is accepted for who he or she is, rather than being compared to some hypothetical “norm.”
  3. Likewise, the patient is not pigeon-holed into some pre-determined diagnostic category, but rather is appreciated in terms of his or her unique challenges and conflicts.
  4. Every patient is encouraged to talk about and explore whatever is important to him or her. No one else imposes an agenda of acceptable or appropriate areas of concern.
  5. Therapy is not time-limited, but rather affords the patient the dignity and respect to pace the treatment and to preserve the therapeutic relationship as long as it proves valuable.
  6. The role of the therapist is as an ally and partner in the therapeutic process. While it may sometimes necessitate confrontation, the over-arching principle is “in the best interest of the patient” wherever possible.
  7. The ultimate goal of therapy is to help mitigate human suffering and enhance the quality of the individual’s life. Whereas symptom reduction occurs, it is not the sole focus of therapy or the definition of success.

Too often, expedience and economic efficiency become the criteria for establishing a standard of care.  Psychoanalytic psychotherapies support relevance, meaningfulness, and humanity as the more appropriate gold standards.

To learn more about psychoanalysis, see Psychodynamics of the Therapeutic Relationship, Personality Disorders from a Psychoanalytic Perspective, Psychodynamics of Child Abuse and Trauma, Classical Psychoanalytic Theory, Ego Psychology, or Object Relations Theory.

Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness

Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness

Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness - AwarenessPsychoanalysis and mindfulness may seem to have little in common.  They both involve the mind and are often focused on taming disturbing thoughts and feelings.  But their methods seem to be completely at odds with each other.  Or are they?  Let’s take a look at mindfulness and see how it may be an excellent adjunct to psychoanalysis.

Mindfulness

Try, for a minute, to do nothing at all.  Don’t talk or move around or think about anything.  Just be.  For a full minute.  What happens?  If you’re like most people, you’ll find this to be harder to do than it sounds.  Your thoughts may wander.  “What’s the purpose of this?”  Thoughts or images of the past or future may emerge.  “What do I need to do tomorrow?”  “I wonder what he meant by that?” . . . 

The mind easily gets lost in endless thinking.  Thoughts create emotions and emotions generate more thoughts, and so on.  This may be fine when these are positive and pleasant thoughts and emotions.  But often they are not.  And often they’re not about the immediate present.  Instead, they’re likely to be about past upsets or future worries.  You may lay awake at night because you worry about what might happen tomorrow.  Maybe you can’t stop thinking about that mistake you made last week.  You may constantly be busy with the things that need to be completed.

Mindfulness teaches how to bring more balance to this tendency, by focusing the attention on the here and now—attention to the things that are happening in this very moment, in a non-judgmental way.   Thinking about and learning from past mistakes, planning for the future, and acknowledging sorrows and worries are all important.  But people often get lost in thoughts about the past and future, to the detriment of experiencing life in the present.

Note that acceptance plays a key role in mindfulness.  Mindfulness is not turning off the mind.  Mindfulness does not restrict, deny, or inhibit thoughts or feelings.  Instead, through mindful attention and acceptance, you allow every feeling, emotion, sensation, or thought to be there.  Instead of fighting against them, mindfulness fosters willingness to acknowledge, allow, and accept these internal states.  

By letting go of this struggle, you may come to realize that many thoughts, worries, and feelings fade away automatically, and probably sooner than if they’d been fought against.  Emotions come and go and thoughts, worries, and feelings often fade away automatically if allowed to.  By letting go of the struggle against them and giving them room to exist, unhappy thoughts and feelings can be experienced as temporary and less overwhelming.  

Mindfulness helps you create a different relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.  When you become an observer of your own inner states, you are no longer identified by them or completely lost in them.  You can still experience the emotions or feelings, but now have the choice of being fully taken by them or not.

Psychoanalysis

What I’ve just described for mindfulness is actually similar to the stance of the psychoanalyst.  Inviting you to say whatever comes to mind without censoring your associations.  Helping you become aware of the thoughts, feelings, and patterns that arise.  Helping you make sense of them without judgment, until they can be dealt with instead of battled against. 

Mindfulness practices are helpful tools for bringing a person back to the present moment.  By allowing thoughts and feelings to be present without judgment, a person may also become more aware of the internal states, of recurring patterns of thoughts and feelings, and of issues that seem repeatedly to cause distress.  This self-awareness can be very helpful in therapy.

Resistances to meditation—boredom, distraction, sleepiness, etc.—are also common complaints in mindfulness practice.  They can be useful signals that outside guidance—as in psychoanalysis—may be helpful in removing barriers to further insights.  And yes, now we may need to delve into transferences from . . . the past . . .  But only so that the person can be freed from the past.

Psychoanalysis and Mindfulness

This brings us back to the question of whether psychoanalysis and mindfulness have anything in common.  The more experience I have with both as a clinician, the more excited I am about how they can be used together in practice, to facilitate a person’s self-understanding for a fruitful life in the present. 

To learn more about psychoanalysis, see Classical Psychoanalytic Theory.  To learn more about the theoretical foundations of mindfulness, see Mindfulness Meditation Training: Introduction, Attention, and the Present Moment, or for its applications, see Mindfulness Meditation Training: Body Scan Meditation and Informal Mindfulness Practices.

Criticisms of Freud: Commentary on the Freud Wars

Criticisms of Freud: Commentary on the Freud Wars

Criticisms of FreudToday’s Wall Street Journal offered a book review by Adam Kirsch of, yet another, “quasi-biography” of Sigmund Freud.  The book in question is Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews, the latest in his seemingly endless criticisms of Freud.  As noted by Kirsch, this endless war on Freud by Crews is a direct attack against the person of Freud and, by extension, an assault on nearly everything Freud had to say about the human mind.

Crews, a Professor Emeritus of English of UC Berkeley, is a well-established literary critic who had once embraced psychoanalytic theory, but has since become one of its most vociferous dissidents.  His current work goes beyond his usual attacks against psychoanalysis as a “pseudo-science” and is a direct disparagement of Freud himself as a con man, liar, bully, plagiarist, and false prophet.

As a psychoanalyst myself, I wonder if Crews’ apparent obsession with destroying Freud and psychoanalysis represents what would be labeled a reaction formation–the exaggerated attempt to conceal a private truth (envy) with its opposite (contempt).  This was not Crews’ first harsh criticism of Freud, which dates back decades.  His agenda to eradicate Freud and Freudian theory ironically betrays his indebtedness to Freud for having established a basis for Crews’ career.

No doubt that Freudian psychoanalysis has changed significantly since Freud (who died in 1939), as he, himself, revised his ideas at least five times over a 40-year period.  Nevertheless, he provided 23 volumes of writings on the human condition that have stimulated the search for understanding the complexity of the human mind, our motivations, and our unique forms of psychological sufferings.  Freud offered a humane approach to understanding madness, an early attempt at clinical treatment, a recognition for the importance of child development and child-rearing practices, and a method for understanding the humanities.  Obviously, the legacy of Freud’s ideas has been remarkable.

Despite Freud’s many critics and continued controversy, Nobel-laureate neuroscientist, Eric Kandel, noted that “psychoanalysis still represents the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind” (Kandel, 1999, p. 505).  Freudian theory, while not a rigorous scientific model that can be easily tested in a laboratory, poses necessary questions that require inter-disciplinary study from all the humanities.  Humans live in both a shared empirical reality and a private, personal world of fantasies and imagination.

Rational-empiricists, like Crews, seem to believe that science, in its purest form, is the only truth. If that were so, why become an English professor?  Science is not a subject matter, but rather is a methodology for research.  The humanities represent other methodological forms that also explore stories about the human experience.  A psychological truth that ignores these other stories denies the essence of the inquisitor.  Humans are ultimately story-makers regardless of what those stories are about; physics, poetry, or dreams.  All our knowledge, no matter how rational or empirical, will always remain human knowledge.

Criticisms of Freud can make important contributions toward a dialogue of ideas.  Unfortunately, character assassination presents as excessive disputation that does little to promote meaningful discussion.  Freud, the man, is dead; eviscerating his corpse appears to me as spiteful and mean-spirited and serves no intellectual or scientific advantage.

To read more on Freud’s theory, see Classical Psychoanalytic Theory.

Kandel, E. (1999). Biology and the future of psychoanalysis: A new intellectual framework for psychiatry revisited. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 505- 524.

Kirsch, A. (2017, September 30-October 1). Why the Freud wars will never end. The Wall Street Journal, p. C7.

 

 

Are There Really No Psychological Accidents?

Psychological Determinism

Psychological Determinism
Slip of the tongue?

Perhaps the single most representative concept of psychoanalysis is that of psychological determinism.  By this I mean a fundamental belief that human behavior, consciousness, and experience are determined or explainable.  Freud followed in a scientific tradition that was dedicated to uncovering the laws and mysteries of life, hopefully to lead to a comprehensive theory of the mind.  

Is Action Accidental or Random?

Such an approach would never be satisfied with a conclusion that suggested that a certain action was “accidental” or “random” or that a thought occurred strictly from a spontaneous, meaningless neurochemical action.  Unlike radical behaviorism or even social learning theory, which propose to account for some behaviors as incidental contingencies or fortuitous accidents, psychoanalytic thinking would tend to view such explanations as naïve, simplistic, or superficial.  

What Does Psychoanalysis Tell Us About Action?

Psychoanalysis proposes to describe mind and behavior as meaningful and understandable.  Thus, our lives are the products of our being.  Our intentions, as well as our accidents, are worthy of understanding.  While critics may argue that psychoanalytic theories make too much out of too little, the supposed error is committed in the pursuit of knowledge, with an implicit expectation and respect for the complexity of life.  It should also be noted that such an attitude is reflective of an appreciation for the humanism of psychology, not its mechanization or reduction to biochemistry.

What is the Focus of Psychoanalytic Explanation?

Even if one could demonstrate, once and for all, that the universe and life are random, nonsensical phenomena, this would not contradict the view of determinism.  The focus of psychoanalytic explanation is on the human experience of life.  What is characteristically human is our mind’s proclivity for making sense out of nonsense.  We cannot tolerate being in a state of uncertainty or confusion.  Psychological determinism addresses this characteristic of being human by suggesting that all human knowledge, no matter how sophisticated, abstract, or profound, is always, ultimately, human.

Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria

Freud’s and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria are classic examples of the humanity inherent in a view of psychological determinism.  In their investigation and treatment of hysteria, they stressed how patients’ peculiar behaviors stemmed from important but forgotten episodes of their lives.  Hysteria, understood in the context of a person’s life, represents a meaningful continuity of being, such that the mental life of the patient is respected as relevant and the patient is further accepted as exhibiting psychological processes common to humankind.  The “logic” of symptoms soon led to an appreciation for the logic of dreams, mistakes, jokes, and slips of the tongue.  With acceptance of determinism, we can never take life’s events for granted again!

For more on psychological determinism and other psychoanalytic concepts, see the course Classical Psychoanalytic Theory.  If you would like to receive a specialization Certificate in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and learn more about issues of interest, please see our home study psychology continuing education courses, available online.

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