Friday, June 19, 2009

Memories Are Made of This

By Kevin Murphy M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Dublin, Ireland

Much of the work of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy involves memory. Not that a person is forced to search out and reveal any particular memory from their past but invariably it goes that way naturally. The work of unravelling the meaning behind puzzling current symptoms inevitably leads back to earlier times in their life. And here we come to an interesting phenomenon.
Often you find that someone will have a memory they go back to again and again, a particular scene or a particular moment in their life on which they instinctively place a great deal of significance.
It might be a memory that comprises a harmless, bland scene that was somehow frightening for them; or it might be a scene with no obvious impact and yet continues to puzzle them for its insistence in their mind; or it might be a time when a change happened in their lives, a new school, a new home, after which, for no apparent reason, they believe that things were never the same for them.
It is as if the memory has an almost magnetic hold on them and yet they cannot figure out what it is. They believe it must be something important but just what is it?
In psychoanalytic theory, which has evolved and continues to evolve over the past 150years, there is a little known thing called screen memories. These are memories that cover up whatever is unacceptable to the conscious ego and so are defensive in nature.
The first mention of this was, as you would expect, from Freud in 1899, the year before his major work The Interpretation of Dreams was published. "Screen Memories" is a paper in which Freud evoked one of his own memories of childhood (though he ascribed it to someone else), in which he saw himself playing with other children in a very green meadow across which vivid yellow flowers were sprinkled.
Analysis led to a later memory, from adolescence, in which he was in love with a girl in a yellow dress. Thus the childhood memory was in this case screening off a later sexual wish: there was no childhood memory, but only a phantasy put back into childhood. The notion of screen memories, as he outlined it, was that they were false constructions, not intentionally so but with a particular purpose in mind.
This memory from the past therefore has a hold on us and yet appears devoid of any real meaning. This has often been used as the basis to undermine the accuracy or trustworthiness of childhood memories. But a child who has genuinely been abused is not constructing something that did not happen. There is a very real reason why the memory of that abuse will not go away as it contains all the meaning one needs to explain it, albeit meaning riddled with trauma, self contempt, and exploitation.
Screen memories, in contrast, have no meaning within themselves and are devoid of trauma. They are quite literally a screen. The desires that the memory encodes are displaced, temporally (from the near past to the distant past) as well as psychically (from one object to another).
And they introduced for the first time in the great man’s thinking the notion of phantasy. The importance of phantasy for Freud was that it replaced his earlier notion that neurosis had to be caused by trauma of some kind. Now it could be caused by ‘ideas’ a child employed, rightly or wrongly, to interpret experience.
Thinking since Freud has broadened out to include the possibility that screen memories have a screening effect on issues that were current at the time of the memory itself. In other words they have an iconic quality, drawing their power from events, relationships, and ideas both imaginary and real, that were happening at that same time in the child’s life. That is why some clients refer to these memories as puzzling. There is nothing in them, in themselves, that can give any clue as to why they are so enigmatically present in their memory. And yet through teasing out the ideas contained within them and exploring the other factors present in their life at that time, a new and more understandable perspective can be achieved. In short, they exist because something either then or much later was being defended against. They are not so much childhood memories as memories about childhood that come with an astonishing degree of clarity and paradoxically insignificant content. They are little like dreams, in that sense, with their meaning disguised and displaced onto less important details.

* The next blog will appear on Friday July 10th, 2009.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Importance of Trust

By Kevin Murphy M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland

I was listening to someone recently talking about their experience of infidelity. They were describing their peer group and how there was an unspoken consensus in it that infidelity was not such a big deal. By which I mean it was not considered so big a deal that it prevented various members of the group, both men and women, from having affairs with other people.
There is something alluring about freedom of this kind, isn’t there? It offers the prospect of having one’s sexual curiousity satisfied, not to mention one’s sexual desires, in whatever random situation that happens to develop.
It was equally interesting listening to this person describe their peer group – all youngish who were not married and who had no dependants – from a position of anxiety. The question they repeatedly asked was how was it possible to have a relationship in which one felt secure, respected and loved? It was as if the prospect of all that personal freedom was too much to contemplate.
When this person went into the detail of various infidelities it was rarely a clear cut situation. Usually the cheated-on party was greatly hurt and a trust was broken. Or else the cheating party was keeping a secret that was leading to a strong sense of guilt, or was living with the prospect of being found out at some point.
Whichever way you looked at it, the picture this person was painting was one of personal freedom being exercised in a way that willingly risked sacrificing trust within an existing relationship in exchange for pleasure, however brief, outside of it.
Some people feel that this is a worthwhile exchange to make. Others get incredibly damaged by it. And I’m not just talking about those who do the cheating.
Another person I spoke to recently was having huge difficulty coming to terms with the devastating effects on their relationship of having a one night stand. The one night stand is part of popular western culture. It is an acceptable thing, in most instances. But this person was having huge difficulty not just in coping with their partner’s reaction to it, but their own reaction to it. It seemed as if they were more likely to achieve forgiveness from the partner before they would forgive themselves.
And I suppose I’m also thinking of a person I listened to recently who was on the other side of a similar situation. The partner this time had been having an affair and had admitted to it in order to appease their sense of guilt. Once again the issue of trust raised its head but this time in a curious context. This person began asking if it was na├»ve to expect trust to be part of a loving relationship?
And that I suppose is at the root of the questions that all of these people, and more besides, have been asking in one form or another. In an age of unprecedented sexual freedom one could legitimately ask whether there is a corresponding increase in happiness. Freedom brings with it great things but it is also capable of being abused.
So rather than taking it from the perspective of whether freedom should be restrained or curtailed, from a psychotherapeutic point of view we should ask what happens to trust in one’s primary love relationship if one’s pursuit of sexual freedom leads to infidelity?
The answer is that trust gets badly damaged, in some cases terminally so. And when trust gets damaged often the person whose trust has been broken gets damaged too.
And it is not just the innocent party who gets damaged in these situations. Those who stray are just as susceptible.
The occasional transgressor might be filled with remorse but the bulk are publicly unrepentant, they just betray their guilt in different ways. Look at the effort that goes into their defence mechanisms to protect themselves from accepting the possible enormity of what they have done? They use the classic psychoanalytic defences of denial, or projection onto others, or compartmentalisation of the issue in their own minds or they split themselves off from it completely.
This enormity that I am speaking of is not just meant in the narrow sense of what they have done to their existing partner or to their own sense of who they are or to the relationship they currently have. These are important issues, no doubt, but there is a further point that is rarely considered.
When opportunistic sexual gratification is on offer faithfulness can seemingly be jettisoned. So I suppose you could say we are down to a question of ethics now because the decision to remain faithful is at base an ethical one. But, like all ethical decisions, it is a difficult one to make.
It doesn’t come without some form of sacrifice. It doesn’t come without some form of refusal to indulge in extra pleasure. And neither does it come without a degree of personal strength being applied.
In this light, the enormity that I am speaking of also includes this sense of having failed in the face of a hard task, mainly because it was hard. Now some will say, how hard can it be to remain faithful to someone you love? And that too is a good question and one that needs to be considered.
The driving force behind infidelity is desire, in particular sexual desire. And, according to the psychoanalyst Dr Jacques Lacan, somewhere at the heart of this mysterious thing called desire is a misrecognition of completeness, of fullness, of the potential to find the thing that will fill up all our gaps, our lacks. But really there is no fullness at the heart of desire.
Instead it operates from behind a veil that hides our own narcissistic desires; we are satisfying something in and for ourselves. This lack at the heart of desire ensures we continue to desire.
This might sound like a fatalistic approach. But it is far from it. Once we recognise the essential deception in seeing the fulfilment of desire in every new sexual object, male or female, then we can begin to come to an understanding of how to love another person fully.
In that context, trust becomes an intrinsic element that is rarely even considered rather than a dominant issue that must be debated and negotiated on a continual basis.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Making Sense of Transference

By Kevin Murphy, M.Sc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

Take someone who comes to therapy who wants to get to the root of a particular problem and who tries as best they can to speak about the ‘issues’. But at every turn they backtrack on themselves and question why they are doing it and whether they really need to put themselves through any self-examination and whether what they have just told you a moment ago is relevant or accurate or truthful in any way.
Or take someone who comes to therapy and apologies for being there and who wonders if they are taking up your time and whether there is someone with more important issues waiting to come in for the next session.
Or take someone who knows in their heart of hearts broadly what it is they should be talking about but who takes months and months trying to get even close to it.
Or, and I’ve used this example before, take someone who really wants to do therapy but who comes and finds they have a huge inability to speak?
At first sight these various examples might not seem to have anything in common. And in terms of the particularity of the clients on which they might be based, they don’t. Each is a separate condition that needs a separate and particular approach. And, yet, there is one thing they do have in common.
The therapeutic concept of transference is not a word that you hear very often in popular culture. You are more likely to hear terms such as repression, fixation, obsession, and so on. And yet transference describes something that goes to the very heart of the therapeutic process. In fact, if I remember correctly it was Freud who said that without transference there is no therapy.
What the above examples have in common is this concept of transference, the process whereby the client unconsciously relates to the person of the therapist/analyst as if they were someone significant from an earlier part of their life. When Freud first considered this concept he thought of it as a block to the eventual cure. How can the therapist help if the client comes in a has a conversation with someone from his past? Or who refuses to speak freely because the therapist is seen as such?
In this light, it is no wonder Freud first saw it as a stumbling block. It manifests as a shirking away from speaking about the issues that are real for the client. It is, just like any form of resistance, something that can put us back into the place of silence.
The therapist sitting opposite or behind us becomes a stern, judgemental figure who will look unkindly on what it is we want to say. And so we do not say it. That is transference.
Or equally, the therapist becomes an all-forgiving patient listener who knows a great deal and who will not mind whatever it is we want to say. Not only will he/she not mind, but they will forgive us. That too is transference.
Or the therapist is a fool who knows nothing and who only wants to hear me spill out my secrets so that he can get pleasure from seeing me suffer. I am not going to give him/her that pleasure and so I’m quitting. That too is transference.
Or, who do you think you are making an interpretation like that based on the little you know about me? What gives you the right to suggest such a thing? That too is transference.
It can be an impediment to progress in all but the most positive aspects of it. But then Freud discovered something else about it.
When you move away from the single notion that it is just feelings that are being transferred onto the therapist, and consider that the therapist is being transformed into someone from the past, then it can be used as a tool to help therapy along. And this is the second discovery that Freud made about transference. It now becomes a therapeutic tool.
How? In paying close attention to how a client interacts with the therapist through the transference it can be possible to gain an understanding of their position in terms of a significant relationship from their past. This can sometimes take time and involves building up a degree of knowledge about the person themselves.
As Jacques Lacan points out in his Seminar I, transference is not simply about feelings. Nor is it about simply swapping out the person of the therapist for some other human object from the client’s past.
No, it is about meaning and speech. As human beings we are essentially composed of speech and language and so we enter into a therapeutic setting – which is at base a human relationship – using the same medium. Our entire lives have been more or less spent doing the same thing, entering into relationships using the medium of speech.
But in therapy, no more than in ordinary life, speech has the power to define us, transform us, and convey and conceal meanings we don’t always notice. In that context, Lacan defined transference as ‘a hidden discourse’ taking the place of ‘an apparent discourse’.
Transference is one of the things that makes psychoanalytic psychotherapy unique in that it directs the therapist to listen for this hidden discourse, to attend to its nuances, to pick out in the various demands that people make of themselves and others, the ultimate demand for love.
Transference is not a cure. It is a tool that allows the therapist guide the treatment in the most fruitful direction. It is not the final destination, merely the compass that points the way.