Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Anxiety Begins In All of Us - 3

By Kevin Murphy MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

To pick up where I left off last week on the subject of anxiety, I was writing about drawing on two notions from contemporary psychoanalytic theory. The first of these was that the roots of adult anxiety reside in infancy as a result of the experiences of connection and rupture, particularly the temporary but necessary connections and ruptures the infant experiences with its primary carer, and which each of us as infants undergo during our development.
The roots of anxiety reside in such moments even before the child has a developed ego with which to defend against the negative aspects, particularly of rupture i.e. the breaking off of contact by the mother to allow her do other necessary tasks. This process is part of the human structural framework and occurs most markedly at phases like weaning, in which the infant must either accept or not accept a loss.
But out of these experiences, a pattern, however primal, is laid down, a template if you like, that dictates future responses to issues of connection to the larger body of human society or, indeed, the rupturing from it, however real or imaginary they might be.
The second notion I wrote about last week was the power of the visual image of the infant at the Mirror Stage, from about six months onwards, to override the more real experience of the fragmentation and uncoordinated nature of its body. In other words, the visual image offers an answer to bodily fragmentation in terms of wholeness and perfection. And so in this way the infant gets its first answer to the question of who it is.
This is a jubilatory experience of recognition but at the same time is also a cause of anxiety. Why? Because the perfection of the image it sees, this ‘other’ that is perfect, has the potential to overwhelm it. In order to accommodate these opposing forces, the infant identifies with the image, owns it, incorporates it, takes it into itself, metaphorically speaking. And this is, in Lacanian psychoanalytical theory, the moment when the infant is jolted into a radically new direction in terms of its identity and in terms of the power of the visual image.
What we learn from this theory is that the birth of identity, the ‘I’ that we understand ourselves to be, takes place at a point of rupture in our relatively comfortable state of existence up to that moment. At the moment our identity is crucially formed we emerge from fragementation to embrace a visual image that offers the semblance of perfection. At the same time anything else about ourselves, the uncoordinated imperfection, fades into the background into that great holding area known in psychoanalytic theory as the unconscious.
From that moment on, ‘seeing’, witnessing, having the evidence of our eyes becomes the unassailable criterion for practically everything we will henceforth judge to be true or not true. And, equally, it inaugurates a distrust, disbelief, disregard, even fear for that which cannot be seen or corroborated by the evidence of our eyes.
The second thing we learn from the theory is that the birth of identity takes place, along with the accommodation of loss and rupture as structural elements of the human infant experience, alongside the experience of anxiety. The inaugural moment of establishing the first visual sense of who we are is woven in with the experience of anxiety.
The third thing it tells us is that in the moment when we are gaining our first tentative visual inkling of who we are, we are essentially an object in front of another object that appears before us. We become ‘I’, in our first moment of identity, by becoming the same as, identifying with, this other object. That might sound like an inconsequential point but what happens in adult anxiety is this very thing in reverse.
In adult anxiety we revert from having an objective sense of who we are, a perspective that allows us stand back, evaluate, view ourselves relatively dispassionately and one that anchors us to reality by various connections, beliefs, attitudes and relationships. Instead we are 'jolted' back to an almost primal sense of vulnerable subjectivity. We come to painfully inhabit ourselves in a way that is so intense it debilitates us and brings into sharp relief our fragile sense of wholeness.
When I conclude on this subject next week, I will be pointing to what contemporary psychoanalytic theory has to say about this reverting to a peculiarly unworkable subjective sense of ourselves, the experience we know as anxiety, and why it is so overwhelming for us.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Roots of Anxiety - 2

By Kevin Murphy MSc.,
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist,
Dublin, Ireland.

I wrote in my last blog about the issue of anxiety as it is understood by psychoanalytic theory and, as I mentioned, I propose to elaborate a little on that. Anxiety is an omnipresent human experience that, for those who experience it, creates intense fear. It turns the world around us into a strange place, a place that was once familiar and that is now threateningly unfamiliar. It converts, in an instant, a sense of control over one’s life into a complete absence of control. With that absence of control comes the threat, the fear, the terror, that we will be overwhelmed by it. And that the part of us that functions as the person we know ourselves to be will be swamped and no longer exist.
You often hear people describing anxiety as a fear with no object – there is nothing visible that is causing us to fear. Or we often hear people describing triggering events in their lives that are relatively insignificant but which cause them massive, persistent anxiety. It is as if the triggering event couldn’t possibly be the cause of such an intense reaction, again suggesting that there is no good reason for such intense anxiety.
But with anxiety there is an object, albeit an invisible one; it is the fear of being made powerless, of being overcome, of being shut down as a person, of being unable to deal effectively with whatever life throws at us. At its core there is a helplessness that epitomises the sense of lack I spoke about last week. And so against our will we are thrown into a place where, rather than the desiring being that needs something and seeks satisfaction of that need, we become unable to do so because we are somehow lacking. Within this new and unpleasant experience we are not just powerless but we are also unrecognizable to ourselves, that is the identity we thought we had is missing, however temporarily, and that is what adds to this unnerving and frightening experience.
Unlike a great deal of theorizing in this area, psychoanalytic theory seeks to explain causes, especially those that are not visible or observable. Going back to the beginning, Freud and his adherent, child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, believed anxiety was linked to the very earliest moments of the infant child and that anxiety in adults is a reactivation of these early experiences. These involve the connection and rupture that are part and parcel of the infant child’s relationship with the mother – the breast being given and the breast being taken away and so on. They bring with them the threat of annihilation in the world of the infant who has still no developed ego with which to defend against such threats.
In the 1960s and 1970s French psychoanalyst Dr Jacques Lacan moved the theory on by suggesting that there was another significant moment happening around this time in the formation of the child. This new ‘moment’ was something of a breakthrough that no one had theorized before but which has since been widely accepted by most schools of thought.
Lacan called it the Mirror Stage, a period or, indeed, a 'moment' in the infant child’s life, from six months onward, when seeing its own reflection for the first time - in a mirror or any reflecting surface, even the image of another infant - it gets its sense of identity.
The wholeness of the image the child sees in the 'mirror' is at odds with its fragmented and relatively uncoordinated bodily experience relative to its stage in life. It comes with a jublilatory sense of triumph, one that can be seen in the excitement of the child. But it also comes with a paradoxical effect because along with the jublilation of being 'whole' as opposed to fragmented, there is the threat that this other, this not-me could pose a threat.
As such this 'moment' marks a huge turning point both in terms of the mental life of the child - in terms of how it understands itself - and in terms of the importance which the bodily image, the visual image, will have for the child thereafter as it develops to adulthood.
The richness of the Mirror Stage as a theory is that it proposes that the child sees wholeness in the image while experiencing uncoordinated fragementation in the body. The allure and perfection of one is contrasted with the inhibition and imperfection of the other. In other words there is a conflict between the imaginary reflection and the reality of the body.
This conflict, deriving an identity of wholeness from something that is not intrinsically us, leads to aggressive tension because the wholeness of the image threatens to overwhelm the child with the threat of annihilation, a repeat of an earlier threat stemming from the serial connection and rupture with the breast. In order to cope with this aggressive tension the child identifies with the image it sees before it.
This resolution of conflict, this choosing of the image of wholeness and relative perfection in psychoanalytic theory, is the first moment of the formation of what we come to know later as ‘I’, my identity, the person who I perceive myself to be. And bear in mind, this is the very thing that vanishes in an anxiety attack.
In a fascinating paper on this subject by Dublin psychoanalyst Dr Olga Cox Cameron she says we can view the trajectory of this process more clearly in adult form, in an example taken from literature. This is in Shakespeare’s Henry V, most particularly in the famous speech Henry makes on the eve of the battle of Agincourt.
Faced with a weary, fragmented army that is due to take on a superior French army Henry conjures up for them in his speech an image of heroism that inspires them to victory. The heroic imagery presented wholeness, while the reality was one of fragmentation and un-coordination. Yet the image was the thing they identified with over the reality and it ‘lifted’ or ‘jolted’ the weary army into new life.
Drawing together these two strands; the roots of anxiety in infancy as a result of the experiences of connection and rupture, and the power of the ‘whole’ image to override the fragmentation of the body, next week I’ll look at how psychoanalytic theory explains the mechanism of anxiety as most adults experience it.