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Self Psychology as Self Protection

By Peter N. Maduro, J.D., Psy.D., Psy.D. - Sunday, January 29, 2017
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It seems that anyone can use anything for defensive purposes. For some time now, critical attention has been paid to psychoanalytic theories and constructs as products of the subjective emotional worlds of their creators.

From my perspective, the most important focus of such attention and criticism has been on the way certain of the analytic theorist's or clinician's defensive motivations and solutions get immunized from dialogue and challenge when universalized and/or reified in psychoanalytic doctrines and meta-psychological constructs.

Case illustrations in support of this area of criticism typically tell of the theorist/clinician who, through such universalizations and reifications, encodes the defensive solutions to the traumata of his own development (especially his avoidance of intolerable affect) into his theory and clinical practices - and does so at the expense of the patient and clinical process. In these cases, the underlying process is invariably shown to involve the decontextualization of the intersubjective context of the analysis, and thus, in particular, the relational context within which the patient's transference experience takes form. Moreover, the culpable theorist/clinician behind this process is revealed to have failed to recognize, reflect upon and avow his defensive and damaging action.

But psychoanalytic theorists and clinicians are not, I have recently discovered for myself, the only people who use analytic theory for defensive purposes. Patients can and do, as well. One of my patients, who I will here call Jill, has, from the outset of our work, invoked aspects of self psychology theory to serve her compulsive aversion of intolerable experiences of self-loathing, failure and personal dissolution.

To my clinical eyes, Jill's subjective world is centrally organized by a belief in the offensiveness-to-others of her affective being. Governed by this belief, the articulation of vast regions of Jill's affectivity (especially affect that was exiled from her caregiving attachments) gives rise to intolerable self-loathing and relational danger. She must avert such affect at all costs.

What this organizing principle has necessitated, for Jill, is a defensive experiential system whereby (among other things) Jill attempts to pre-empt the world, especially the interpersonal world, from existing in ways that painfully confirm the relational offensiveness of her emotional core. The phenomenology of this pre-emptive defense manifests itself in myriad ways.

One of the most striking ways Jill has attempted to pre-empt my dangerousness, and to thereby enlist me into the service of her self protection, has been through the invocation of self psychology theory. Having once read selections of psychoanalytic literature, Jill fastened onto the seemingly Kohutian ideals of the analyst's "empathic attunement" to, and "mirroring" of, the patient's affect. In one respect, Jill invoked these self psychological ideals as a means of calling on me for a greater degree of affective participation. She was expressing a developmental longing for a kind of palpable emotional responsiveness that she felt missing in my personality and in-session manner.

Ultimately, however, it was neither simply absences of emotional responsiveness, nor of gritty emotional demonstrativeness, that I sensed to be paramount in Jill's history and personal experience. More salient was what was crushingly present: both her mother and father's vulnerabilities and the related imperative that Jill accommodate her development to the relational requirement that those parental vulnerabilities lie silent, un-evoked and unarticulated. Jill's self-esteem and attachments were contingent upon her successful accommodation to, and identification with, this requirement. Because Jill's affective expansiveness, as well as her own vulnerabilities and disappointment (often reactive to her parents), so easily threatened her parents' brittle, virtual self-cohesion, the articulation of these affect states operated to confirm their own essential loathsomeness, and represented failures of existential duty.

Consequently, what I principally heard in Jill's invocation of "empathic attunement," and in her efforts to command my experience and behavior in session through devaluations, shamings, and supervisory instructions relating to my inadequate "mirroring," was an effort to counteract this crushing presence. In particular, it was the organizations of self-loathing (or, more relationally, her unassailable conviction in the loathsomeness to others, like me, of her affective life) that Jill sought most desperately to silence. Their silence, or her protection from their articulation, was, it seemed, a condition to her psychological intactness. In this respect, then, Jill appropriated self psychology theory (or perhaps a perversion of it), to serve an antidote function aimed at averting - not investigating - these painful and problematic organizing processes of her emotional life.

With some degree of success, Jill turned self psychology theory on its head, mobilizing it to inhibit, rather than facilitate, the therapeutic mode of inquiry into subjective experience that I think Kohut meant by the term "empathy." Jill's case extended my recognition that the most unsuspecting constructions, like analytic theories designed to understand and advance emotional freedom, can be used in novel ways by the most unsuspecting parties to defend against the articulation of affect.

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About the Author

Peter N. Maduro, J.D.,Psy.D., Psy.D is a clinical and forensic psychologist, and psychoanalyst with a private practice in Santa Monica & South Pasadena, CA. He is a Faculty Member and Training and Supervising Analyst at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.