by Fritz Perls: “Psychiatry in a New Key” is a manuscript that we believe Perls started sometime in the early 1950’s, after the publication of Gestalt Therapy, which he had co-authored with Paul Goodman and Ralph Hefferline. The title appears to have been a play on the title of another book, Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (Harvard University Press; Cambridge: 1942, 1951). However, Fritz changed the pun in his manuscript: Ms. Langer’s ‘new key’ is a reference to music; Fritz’s ‘new key’ aims at opening the lock of all questioning procedures, both philosophical and psychological.
The style Perls used in this work is much closer to the European intellectual approach that he used in writing his first book, Ego, Hunger and Aggression, than in any of the later works published while he was living at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California or the Gestalt kibbutz he founded at Lake Cowichan, British Columbia, Canada.
Perls shows his great respect and admiration as well as his sincere questioning of Freud and his theories. Throughout “Psychiatry in a New Key” are indications of ideas that Fritz integrated from the work of Kurt Goldstein, Alfred Korzybski, Andras Angyal, Lancelot Law Whyte and Alfred North Whitehead. (Interestingly, Langer’s “Key” book is dedicated to Whitehead.)
Throughout the manuscript Fritz shows how he is aiming at an understanding of how the organism/environment field approach could became a unified field theory for all of the psychological sciences. “Our intention is… to debunk another ill-fitting key, the concept of our ‘having’ a mind, and to try out a no-mind approach.” He wanted to use Gestalt theory to develop a more rigorous, complete picture: a descriptive language of human behavior and misbehavior.
Psychiatry In A New Key
Frederick S. Perls
Lock and key are mutually dependent. Change the lock and we shall have to change the key. If the key at our disposal does not open the door, it could well be that we have lost the right key. If we continue in our endeavor to open a door with a key that will not easily unlock it, we certainly do not behave quite sanely. It would be quite rational, however, to try a new key. It is the aim of this book to forge this new key by using the method of debunking. This method consists of re-examining a question rather than answering the question as it stands. If the recast results in unmasking the question as phony, we have to reformulate the whole problem as such.
An instance in question is the problem: “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?” Since the chicken-egg-chicken-egg-chicken-egg, etc., sequence is a process that goes on for thousands of years, we can answer our question only by reducing the abstract problem to a concrete one and determining which egg precedes which chicken. Some centuries ago a similar distinction between concrete and abstract succeeded, for some people at least, in reducing to absurdity the argument as to how many angels could dance on the point of a needle.
As far as psychiatry is concerned, the first great step was taken after debunking the principle that the soul was made from different stuff than the body and that it could leave and return to its abode. Here, indeed, was a key which could unlock many secret doors of the human organization. Our intention is, similarly, to debunk another ill-fitting key, the concept of our “having” a mind, and to try out a no-mind approach.
Certainly, many great thinkers have been, and still are, busy solving the mystery of mind and body. Many important discoveries have been made and many excellent theories have been brought forward, but, as the cat always falls on its feet, they always come back to the mind as if it were something that existed somewhat isolated from the body. True enough, on purely theoretical grounds, they will defend the thesis of an organismic unity or of a psychosomatic oneness. Often they will fall back on another split: Consciousness versus the Unconscious; or they postulate a psychological cause for a somatic event (or vice versa). But once it comes to debating, then they have “thoughts” in their “minds.” Consequently, we have not yet achieved a true and consistent concept of the human being as a coherent whole, although we already have some sound theories about it. The names of Whitehead, Goldstein, Angyal, Whyte and Korzybski will bear this out.
How is it, then, that all these keys do not open the door to the so much needed theoretical simplicity which alone can lead to a full understanding of human behavior (and misbehavior)?
In my Opinion, the fault lies in neglecting to examine the obvious. To wonder about events which everybody takes for granted is always the Source of new viewpoints, discoveries and inventions. The Obvious, in our case, lies in our use of language. We take for granted that we think up or use existing words and are a priori convinced of their sense. Since we use these words, we are convinced that we have a consciousness and that we have a mind. The richness of their connotation has prevented us from examining their denotation.
Let us do this now and see whether or not these terms are good keys. I believe they are not. I believe they are — hybrids — as if we were to dream up a “Horsemobile,” which would have the functions and properties of a living animal and a mechanical vehicle at the same time.
There were times when people took the existence of ghosts for an actuality, and children still do. Now just imagine that we took the Horsemobile as a reality and fed him hay when he needed gasoline, or expected him to do ten miles per hour and could not believe that he would do seventy miles per hour. Or we might start arguments in learned societies as to whether he were an animal or a machine, or discuss his Mind and Unconscious (or perhaps he has none). However we look at him, if we believe in him, he will be the source of utter confusion to himself, to the owner and to the world.
It’s hard to believe that “mind” and “consciousness” are just such Horsemobiles. We could call them Fantattention and Willaware: hybrids of Fantasy and Attention — which we now denote Mind — and of deliberate Willing and Awareness — now spoken of as Consciousness. “Now you see it, now you don’t!” Our hybrids can make themselves invisible, become real Paltergeister or even dei ex machina. As such, they are called the Unconscious.
What would happen if we did not fall into these verbal traps? What would happen if we deprived these hybrids of their power? What is their power? Under the mask of helping us to understand ourselves, they merely contribute further confusion, as though we had not enough areas of confusion to deal with as it is. As Goethe said, “Just strive to confuse your audience; it is hard to satisfy them.”
The advantage that will accrue from re-examining “mind” and “consciousness” is that it will get us out of the blind alley in which we now find ourselves. It will, as I hope to show, cast new light as to the nature of the Ego and prepare the way for a unified-field theory that is consistent, coherent and applicable.
As suggested before, “mind” has at least the two meanings of attention (“I put my mind to it”) and of fantasy (“I saw it in my mind’s eye”). The use of mind as another term for attention provides no difficulty, but we have need of a mare extensive discussion about the connotation of fantasy.
When Freud set out to debunk the then current opinion that Consciousness or the Ego (both terms are fairly synonymous for him) was the master in its home and was the ruling agency of the personality, he was undoubtedly referring to the equation of Consciousness = Deliberateness. Will-power was the prerequisite for self-control, and the conscious mind or the “I,” was endowed with the ability to exercise it. But by increasing the other side of Consciousness, the awareness (as he set out to do), we improve our orientation, but we don’t increase the will-power. By decreasing deliberateness we increase spontaneity, we diminish self-control, which is all to the good.
What we have to do is to abandon the confusing terms of Mind and Consciousness and be satisfied to operate with the cleaner terms of attention, fantasy, awareness and deliberateness.
The psychologist or psychiatrist may mourn the loss of two of the apparently most important words of his language, but he will grieve still more if we consequently leave the Unconscious to the same fate. If this be a consolation, we use the word “unaware,” but give it a much wider scope than what was designated by Freud as the unconscious. The latter is identical with the Repressed, that is, with the once conscious material. Freud compares the Conscious and the Unconscious with an iceberg. Rather, we compare aware and unaware with the surface of the globe, and say that what we don’t see must not necessarily have been on the surface before. In other words, we say that what we are unaware of now might have been in awareness before, but that there is much more which never has come into awareness or which has faded or been assimilated or built into larger Gestalten, such as many skills or patterns of behavior. We also might call it the unknown or even the unknowable.
Generally, the trend in language is from the literary to the more and more abstract and symbolic meaning. For instance, if I call someone a bastard, I am not insinuating that he is an illegitimate offspring. I use that term to hurt him by classifying him as something despicable. Not so with the bastard-words (note the return to the original meaning): Consciousness and Mind. Rather than remaining the abstract terms which they are, they have been concretized; they have assumed the meaning of actual objects, mainly of geographical places in which certain events take place. This has been carried to such a degree that Freud unashamedly speaks of a topological orientation, a notion not less absurd than angels dancing on needle points.
All of us have upon occasion had experiences which make us feel hellish or heavenly. But we do not pretend to concretize these feelings and are certainly not convinced that, at those moments, we are in places where real devils torture and angels sing cantatas. If we do, we either admit to fantasizing or we project these images into the post-mortal future.
“I have a notion in the back of my mind;” “my mind was teeming with ideas;” “there is nothing in my consciousness;” “I have an Oedipus complex in my Unconscious”–in all these expressions Mind and Consciousness apparently have body and substance, and the thoughts and dreams do all kinds of things within that body, with peculiar traffic regulations between the conscious and unconscious thrown in. The mind/body dichotomy is not solved by making the mind a bodily container of the “mental;” it is merely further obfuscated. The soul/body dichotomy has returned, though admittedly in a very modified form.
We are not engaging in idle philosophical speculations, for these fantasies (called concepts) about the concrete mind are precisely the reason why the genius of Freud has failed and why psychoanalysis so often is bound to fail. As long as repression is considered the only method of disowning one’s thinking and feeling, while other means of dissociating the mental and the physical are maintained, no true integration of the personality can take place. The Mind and Consciousness concepts are precisely the means whereby the dissociation survives in most cases all the prolonged efforts of psychotherapists of nearly all denominations.
How much better off are we if we replace Mind by fantasy? Are we perhaps generalizing and taking a genus for the species? Isn’t fantasy one of several domains of Mind? Is it not on a par with reasoning, remembering, dreaming, and other activities of the mind?
Admittedly, there is a difficulty here. The connotation of fantasy is that of imaginary, unreal, not being identical with a true copy of the actual world. On the other hand, fantasy also has the aspect of novelty, of uniqueness, of creativeness. This, too, is not specific for fantasy. Any true contact of the individual with the world has the character of novelty, if it is experienced. This is so much the case that we can describe human development as a continuous transformation of novelty into routine.
The method of defining and pigeonholing seems to get us nowhere. So let us try and start from simple observations. I see a tree. To do that I need the eye and the registering brain. I have to direct my attention or pay attention to it; then I become aware of something that I can recognize and, if I wish, label “tree.” I then shut out the environment, close my eyes, or stare into the blue. I visualize a tree. We easily could say that I imagine a tree. This can, but may not be, the exact replica of the previous tree; in any case it is an actuality, but not a physical reality, of which I am aware. I imagine “looking” at a tree. This is important because it is not the tree which is relevant in this case, but the fantasized activity of looking.
Furthermore, very little introspection will suffice to convince one that most of what one calls thinking is fantasizing of “talking to some person known, unknown, or to oneself.” There is no second nose to smell with, no third ear to hear with, once we are engaged in these imagined activities.
The purpose of these fantasy activities is to provide a substitute for the physical activities which they represent. Freud called the activity of the mind Probe handlung— “acts of trying,” which is a brilliant observation. The task of fantasizing, especially of rational fantasizing, is indeed to restrict our physical activities up to the point where they appear as homeopathic or diminutive actions.
The advantages of “acting in effigy” are manifold. A great amount of time and energy is saved, as typified by even the crudest examples of planning or shopping. Instead of physically going to place after place, store after store, you imagine the activity and the contents of the store, and narrow down your choice. Suppose you hesitate in the choice of the right word or its spelling. You don’t run to the dictionary or thesaurus every time; often it will be sufficient to search your word reserve for the correct answer. Or if you have mislaid something, it is frequently more efficient to search for it in fantasy than motorically.
Look at those expressions which we use to describe our fantasy-life: “we grasp an idea;” “we grope for a word;” “we search for a memory.” We don’t move our hands, except perhaps for a gesture. This process is known as fading; Metaphors lose their original literary meaning and assume more and more symbolic connotations. The clasping of the hand, which once was a ceremony of non-aggression, is in Europe reduced to a trivial everyday gesture; so is the kissing of the hand, once a sign of deep devotion. “Gentleman” was previously a title of distinction. Today the inscription on a lavatory door tells you that you are one.
Children don’t think first and then talk. The whole process is a very complicated one which involves subvocal talking, formulating and verbalizing. Children first form sounds, play with sounds and soon with words. Later they learn to whisper and to conceal their speech by fantasizing their speaking (“children should be seen, but not heard”), by making the vocal “sub”-vocal.
A similar process takes place with a good memory. If we disregard the vague, often purely verbal, recall, we realize that in any experienced moment of the past we actually transport ourselves to the place and time of the event, as though we had a fantastic time/space machine at our disposal. But note: we do not and cannot go back into the past in physical actuality. The whole process is taking place here and now and in imagination only. The same holds true with our futuristic thinking, be it planning or daydreaming. All attempts to predict and thus annihilate the future are taking place here and now in our, or our teacup reader’s, fantasy.
It is paradoxical that Freud, who was so preoccupied with the past, should have coined the term of Probe-handlung, because the purpose of such rehearsing in fantasy is precisely “futuristic thinking,” e.g., preparing for the moment of committing oneself to speech or other physical action. The greater the dread of the unknown of the future, the more intense is the safeguarding and preparing in physical actuality as well as in one’s fantasy life.
At this point, we need not say much about psychopathology. The discrepancy between the neurotic’s imagination and the physical actuality has always been assumed to be the essential symptom. Seldom, for instance, are the laws of a country even half as stern and vindictive as the Super-ego of a melancholic or obsessional character.
If I say to a touchy person, “Maroube,” he will react with curiosity. If I say, “You son-of-a-bitch,” he will claim that he feels hurt, without having received any physical injury whatsoever. (But of course he feels hostile; he wants to hurt; he first projects his need to hurt onto me.) Proof? He could not localize the hurt in any part of his body, but he feels “as if” I had slapped him, that is, he imagines a physical assault.
In a paranoiac or paranoid character there is the inability to discriminate between observation and the projection of his imagination. He has suppressed his own fantasies of attack, injuring and pursuing, has externalized those fantasies and made himself the abject “hurt” from the outside.
Let us now return to the saner occupation of rational thinking. Is this also “merely” a product of our fantasy? I believe that this is so to a great degree. Thinking is essentially the manipulation of symbols, be it numbers, words or other symbols. Here, too, the transition from physical actuality to fantasizing can easily be traced. For example, it is characteristic of the genius that he can make complicated manipulations or calculations in his fantasy where others have to do the work with paper and pencil in a physical actuality.
We could continue ad infinitum. We could talk about the self-concept, that imagined ideal one wants to achieve; we could discuss those fantasies we make up about what the world is like, fantasies which we call hypotheses or theories and which actually are miniature models or maps; we could’ consider the religions of the aborigines and other weltanschauungen, and we would discover that all these are fantasies designed to approximate physical reality.
What have we proved and how can our approach lead us to a unitary concept of the human? We can progress toward this concept by applying the dialectical law that changes of quantity or degree can produce changes in quality. This can also be said of intensity. A difference in degree of temperature changes the quality of ice into that of water. And with a differing degree of intensity, physical behavior changes into mental behavior. For want of a better label and in order to make a break with the dangerous use of the word “mind,” we call this mental behavior “fantasy”–rational or irrational (for physical behavior, too, can be rational or not); Our formulation is now that the human organism acts upon and reacts to the environment in greater or lesser intensity. Overt behavior changes into latent, private activity.
The diminished intensity is of tremendous advantage for the development of human beings. The saving of energy otherwise consumed by “acting out” can now be invested in enriching the possibilities and choices. But the development does not stop here. The ability to abstract and to combine abstractions, the capacity for inventing tools and symbols, the creation of art and science, further demonstrate that the ability to fantasize made possible the great step from the animal to the human.
The origin of fantasy lies in frustration. If there is satisfaction, the Gestalt is closed and no excitement is left for continuing the event in question. The daydream and often the dream, which are ersatz satisfactions and denials of frustrations, bear this out. To understand the relation of fantasy and frustration we have to turn to the other content of “mind”; we have to examine the nature of “attention.” Such investigations will bear out something else, namely, the recognition that we need integrative concepts like the one demonstrated above.
Any living organism shows two all-important tendencies: to survive as species and, as an individual, to grow.
Let us oversimplify the situation and postpone the discussion on growth. Let us further assume that we have shown that the human being is an organism with many abilities, such as breathing, digesting, feeling, moving, using its senses and acting in minute quantities, that is, fantasizing, etc. As it is not a mechanical thing, the organism uses up much of its substance in the process of living, and this has to be replaced. We speak of homeostasis as the term indicating the precious balance in which the optimum of well-being is maintained.
Such an optimum means: neither too much nor too little. A lack of water leads to dehydration, a surplus to aedema, a lack of thyroid to mongolism, a surplus to Basedow’s disease. The organism is so “organized” that it tends to replenish the lack and shed the surplus in order to maintain the required balance. We correctly speak of a balanced diet to point to the need for proteins, fats, carbohydrates and vitamins. What holds good for the diet applies to every need. We conclude that it is too arbitrary to confine human needs to an enumeration of instincts, be it the Freudian Eros and Thanatos or the McDougall fourteen. Any constellation in which the organismic balance is upset produces the urge to restore it. Thus, we do not assume that an instinct is something situated somewhere in the organism like a gland. If we could classify all the disturbances of the organismic balance, we probably would find many thousands of instincts, and even these in themselves differ in intensity.
Let us exemplify this in a simple organismic event: the loss of water. Physiologically, we call this dehydration; sensorically, thirst, with its symptoms and restlessness; psychologically, wish to drink; chemically, loss of x units of H20.
Now no organism is self-sufficient. It is situated in an environmental field. As a matter of fact, we consider the relatedness of the organism to its field the essence of psychology. Not the study of the organism–this is a matter of anatomy and physiology; not the study of the environment–this belongs to the physical, geographical and social sciences–but the relatedness of the organism to its field. Harry Stack Sullivan has covered a large part of it under the name of “Interpersonal Relations,” and Freud made a great contribution with his notion of cathexis.
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The concept of cathexis or Beasetzung (occupation, possession) was a new light illumining much of the relatedness of the organism’s instincts with its environment. It rectified an error which biology had introduced: the theory of the reflex arc, a semi-mechanical concept which biology cherished and still clings to.
The persistent basic philosophical question whether man is ruled by forces from without or within is once more confusing us. As is so often the case, the “either-or” approach, the need for a simple causality, the neglect of appreciation of the total field, makes problems and decisions out of situations which are essentially indivisible but in which the introduction of any split is artificial. Such an example was discussed above in relation to the mind/body split.
The split concerning us here is based on the fallacy that the inside/outside experience consists of two parts. True enough, on the verbal level I can divide the sentence, “I see a tree,” into an act of seeing and an object. However, in actuality the process of seeing cannot possibly exist without something that is seen. Likewise, hearing or any other sensing makes no “sense” if there is nothing to be sensed; However, if I see a tree, I might equally well exclaim, “A tree!” thereby bracketing off the seeing and accenting the external object, the tree; In that case, I take the sensing for granted and I shall refer to it only when its absence becomes apparent: “Don’t you see? Are you blind?” I can also shift the emphasis on the process of sensing by using slightly different terms: “I look at, or for, the tree,” or “I listen to the whistle;” Obviously, these vocables indicate a greater participation from my side and do not take for granted that the objects automatically send their light rays or sound waves mechanically into my system, as the reflex arc theory would have it.
If such a theory were correct, if the receptors were open for whatever rays are there to excite them, then we would only mirror the chaos of the millions of colors, shapes and so on which confront us simultaneously;
The situation changes completely if we reverse the established order, which reads: first receptor, then intermediate system, then effector, into one which sees a central agency with two branches connecting us with the world: the sensoric and the motoric systems. As anatomical terms these are nothing new; we call their psychological equivalents the systems of orientation and manipulation. (We use these terms as abbreviations for the execution of acts. Unfortunately, manipulation has for many people some unsavory tinge, but we mean to apply it without moral evaluation, likening it to the manipulation of the keys of a piano.) The principle that the organism reaches with both systems towards the world gives us another step towards the concept of the organism coping with the world.”
For the experimental proof of this new orientation, the reader is referred to the work of Kurt Goldstein and other modern neurologists. However, for practical purposes let us acknowledge that the low order reflexes, such as the patellar and the iris, will keep their places, as the gas stove keeps its own, in spite of the thermodynamic theories in modern physics.
With the new outlook, the environment becomes a function of the organism rather than its victim; the organism selects actively what it needs, rather than reacts mechanically to the world. Objects of the world receive, as Freud puts it, a cathexis. This means something is going on between the organism and certain objects. The Latin word for this is interest; the Gestalt terms are that some foreground figure stands out against a background.
When we deal here with the relatedness of the organism and its field we are, so far, thinking (imagining) a situation with no mind (fantasy). We are not yet dealing with the sophisticated citizen of the modern world. We are dealing, so to speak, with the centipede before he becomes confused when asked which leg he moves first. Such a question obviously interferes with his moving, as a unit, within his field toward his food, which had received a cathexis, aroused his interest, stood out against the indifferent background of soil.
The relatedness of the organism to its field is exactly that of a dialectical opposite. To achieve the homeostasis the organism has to find its required supplements in the environment. The system of orientation discovers what we want. We sense the satisfying stuff; we look for what we need (without intellectual knowledge, without visualizing, imagining) directly. Instead of coping with the millions of shapes and forms and noises, we merely go for whatever becomes foreground figure. Think of a mother who sleeps through the loudest street noises, but is awakened by a slight whimpering of her baby.
Once the orientation has done its job, we still have to manipulate the cathected object in such a way that we can achieve the organismic balance, that we can close the Gestalt in question. The mother will not be satisfied with merely hearing her baby whimper; she will do something in order to eliminate the source of disturbance. In the best case she will satisfy the acute need of the baby, and with its satisfaction achieved, she, too, can resume her sleep.
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We have previously assumed that there ore thousands of instincts, thousands of constellations which can unbalance the organism. If they all simultaneously produced a cathexis, we would be confronted with a confusion no less than if there were no facilitation of orientation. We would be driven to do too many things at once.
Perhaps you have wandered why science and we, in general, are so keen on unified concepts, on integrative ideas.
If our attention is only divided between two objects of interest, we already experience “lack of concentration,” a frequent complaint of the neurotic. If there are more, or if the object of “concernful interest” is hazy, we feel confusion. If there are two incompatible situations requiring our attention, we speak of conflict. If these are persistent and apparently insoluble, we regard them as neurotic conflicts.
We must assume, therefore, that there is more involved in the relation of the instincts and their objects of satisfaction than merely cathexis. We have to presuppose that there is an organismic self-regulation which tends to prevent the appearance of more than one attention-demanding item at a time. We must presuppose such a selective operation, for we see that the organism can effectively deal only with one thing at a time, that we can focus on only one object clearly.
This kind of organization is advantageous for survival from two points of view: the organism con always, if required, concentrate all its faculties towards the focus of attention, and it can deal with first things first.
The benefit that results from concentrating all one’s abilities, the clearness of orientation, the freedom of choice, the mobilization of one’s skills, hardly needs to be stressed. Yet in our civilization of safety we are so seldom confronted with emergency situations that the survival value of this kind of concentration has become rather dim. People who live in full security and without even neurotic dreads are likely to feel that their lives are empty and dull. However, some manage to introduce artificial stimulation (gambling, racing, etc.), which produces some need for concentration.
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Greater difficulty is provided by the other problem: first things first. We cannot assume that we have an instinct in ourselves that makes deliberate decisions as to the sequence of actions. This ability to organize ourselves according to plans is a very late acquisition. The organism, in order to survive, must do this kind of regulation instinctively.
In Africa I have observed deer grazing within a hundred yards of sleeping lions. When a lion awoke and uttered its hunger sound, however, they took speedy flight. Here is a model for all autonomous instinct regulation. We have a hierarchy of instincts in order of their survival value. Could we form a fantasy (hypothesis) of how this kind of selectivity might take place?
We could, for instance, imagine ourselves in the deer’s place. Suppose we were running for our lives. Such extreme situations produce tremendous excitement, an excitement that would work itself off by the run. We might soon run out of breath; in this case, we would have to slow down or stop altogether until we got a second wind. In other words, breathing would become a greater emergency than running, just as running previously became more important than eating. We do not have to stop and decide that we need a breath. The organism automatically attends to the most urgent life-supporting function. To run well, we need the support of good muscles, coordination, increased output of energy. This means increased metabolism, burning up of stuff that produces the energy. Burning is oxidizing. The material to be oxidized (carbohydrates, etc.) is stored in the organism, but the oxygen is not stored; it is inhaled as the situation demands it. This is why breathing plays such an enormous part in all situations of increased activity, especially in increased motoric and emotional activity.
About the relation of breathing to anxiety we shall talk in another context. Here I merely want to point to the relation of breathing to excitement and indicate that in an integrative theory one might call the basic psychological energy “excitement” as equivalent to the physiological term “excitation.” Again let me emphasize something mentioned in connection with “manipulation.” No evaluation is meant. Some people see in excitement something valuable; some reserve it for some forms of excitement and exclude others. “Now don’t get excited.” “Oh, it was so exciting!” These two phrases alone show the inconsistency of our approach to excitement as something desirable or the contrary.
“Excitement” is a more general term than Freud’s “libido”; “excitement” is also more concrete; it can be felt specifically and leaves open the kind of excitement which is experienced, from the hazy feeling of “nervousness” to the clearly perceived fury. Bergson’selan vital is close to this meaning, but it still has, at least for me, same sense of a dichotomy, as if a body were contrasted with an energy, as if somehow the body and the elan vital were two different kinds of “stuff;” Furthermore, as will be seen, taking excitement as the base, we can arrive at a consistent theory of emotion.
In spite of Freud’s brilliant and precise formulations, we find a number of areas of confusion. So with the relation of libido and emotions. On the one hand, according to Freud, affection “is” libido; on the other, grief “liberates” libido, not to speak of all the other functions which are attributed to libido. At best, libido is a part of a dualistic weltanschauung, of the struggle between Eros and Thanatos.
But we have seen that the organism can cope only with one thing at a time. Thus, an integrative orientation, as long as it is coherent, will save much confusion. The primitive polytheistic myths and religions seem to contradict this, and only the notion of the abstract X, the unspeakable, the not concrete (for instance, the God of Moses) seems to provide such on integrative concept. But, as Cassirer has shown, the primitive experiences life and himself in it as a coherent oneness. In our time we have such an integrative concept again, at least as far as the inanimate universe goes, in Einstein’s unified-field theory. No one will deny that this facilitates the orientation within the universe and its “energies.” Likewise, we need for individual psychology a unified-field approach, in which time, space, mass, energy and behavior appear as mere abstractions of a central concept: the organism embedded in his surroundings. Our school hopes to make its contributions toward this goal mainly by eliminating splits such as psychology and psychopathology and other dichotomies, which were discussed in previous publications.
So far we have treated homeostasis as a semi-static concept. We have seen that there are many instinct circuits which originate through on imbalance of the organismic substance. The organism “needs” something. The needs are, as supplements, perceived in the environs, and the organism sets out to cope with such needs. We also saw that according to our organization we can cope best with one situation at a time, that there is a precedence of the more life-supporting need over the lesser; This means that the less important ones have, so to speak, to wait. Again with his uncanny intuition, Freud dimly realized this, and, as a projection, called this delaying tendency the reality principle.
To form a picture of how in our fantasy (hypothesis) this kind of figure-background principle works, we have first to make a step toward “thinking in processes.” It is convenient, as psychoanalysis does, to think of instincts or complexes as “things” that can be repressed or transported from one locality to another. But actually there are so many processes grossly and subtly going on all the time, forming together an atmosphere or mood, that again we would lapse into utter confusion, if it were not for the preferential treatment of the uppermost needs. These contain enough excitement to get into the foreground, with many more unsatisfied needs–nay, in the human, with many more “unfinished situations”–waiting for the foreground to be emptied, in order to obtain the closure of their Gestalt, that is, to achieve satisfaction. Thus, with satisfaction, both the need and the cathected object disappear from the foreground. This, in a nearly mathematical way, becomes obvious in the example of thirst, where the exact number of units of fluids the organism requires can be measured. The same amount added to it from the environment will add up to zero. Or if, without any deeper involvement, a man’s interest is centered around sexual gratification only, he will, after completed orgasm, look at his watch. Any affection demanded from him post festum will be a bother, i.e., receive a negative cathexis; he will dread it.
Man is suspended between impatience and dread. Each need requires immediate gratification without any lapse of time. Impatience is, thus, in the presence of frustration, the emotional form which excitement assumes first. Dread is the basis of all negative cathexis; it is the anti-survival experience. If the immediate gratification is not forthcoming, the organism will increase its excitement, which is then experienced as anger. “I am impatient with you,” shows already the tinge, sometimes the clear color, of anger.
If all the needs have this impatience, how can the organism achieve the dominance of the most urgent?
If during a “talky-talky” party (phrase from Paul Goodman) a lot of verbal noise fills the room and I want to understand what somebody says in the other corner, because I became interested in the intensity of his gestures, I might hush the other talkers. As it is, his words don’t stand out against the general noise. They can stand out in clearer relief only by contrast. He either will have to raise his voice, or the general noise has to be subdued. If I am not successful the first time, I will increase my energy, became more impatient or angry.
Something similar is done in radio. If the required station is tuned in, the hissing of the background is subdued; the contrast of the foreground music to a background of complete silence is what is desired.
The subduing of the background can go up to the point of its complete annihilation or disappearance. With no background in existence, the “object” is born. We can now deal with “things” without considering the context in which they appear. We also can go a step further and use the objects as background and have common characteristics standing out as foreground and isolate them by annihilating, or bracketing off, the background. Such a process is called abstracting. Objects and abstractions are artifacts which give us some permanent usable events in contrast to the hazardous appearance of figure/background events. They are further fixed by specific sounds (words), which are then used (as symbols) to create new constellations (anecdotes, stories, poems, theses).
In the two processes of eating and of abstracting, we appropriate the world. In eating, however, we take something out of the world, which then actually disappears from the field. In abstracting and objectivizing (these being activities of the fantasy), we leave the field intact. Abstracting is not subtracting. (During these processes the background receives a negative, the foreground a positive cathexis. In these processes we say “yes” to the foreground and “no” to the background. The Cybernetics people have acknowledged the yes/no principle as the basic selective function of the organism and have succeeded in building very complicated and efficient machines on this principle.)
And indeed (though this is not visible at the first glance) we have two kinds of cathexis of the field: the positive attraction of “impatience” and the negative repulsion of the “dread.” We also have a great number of combinations of the two.
The “dreadful” is experienced as vague, undifferentiated danger. As soon as there is an object to cope with, dread diminishes into fear. As the positive cathexis indicates the life-supporting supplements, so negative cathexis indicates danger, indicates diminished support, or even death. In any case, it threatens that some or all of our existence is at stake, be it the physical being (illness), sexual integrity (castration), self-concept (humiliation),weltaunschauung (existential confusion), security (economic depression), and so forth.
The positive objects have to be appropriated, owned, and assimilated for homeostasis and support. (But, of course, homeostasis itself is a most powerful support for further development.) In contrast to this, we have to annihilate whatever has a negative cathexis; we have to remove it from the field. This applies to the actual field as it is involved in our fantasy. Bad thoughts, unwanted emotions, have to be removed from the danger field “as if” they were actual enemies.
The safest way to annihilate the enemy is to destroy him or render him harmless. This means destroying those means that support his threat to us. The next best thing in our “moving against” (Karen Horney) would be to frighten or threaten him, to chose him out of the danger zone. But this requires permanent vigilance. The pious person is always an guard against the devil.
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In addition to destruction, we can cope with the negatively cathected situation by magic annihilation or by flight from the danger field. Both are means of withdrawal.
Magic annihilation corresponds to the proverbial ostrich, and is well known in psychoanalysis under the name of scotoma, that is, “blind spot.” Children who don’t want to listen to the sermons of the grown-ups like to cover their ears with their hands; if they don’t want to see what they don’t want to see, they shut their eyes tightly and, lo, the unpleasant thing has disappeared. Later they learn to “make their minds a blank” or to “forget it.” Once such an attitude becomes widespread and habitual, then they become largely desensitized; they lose their senses, often when they need them most, as in recognizing danger.
Magic annihilation is a partial withdrawal. It is a substitute for actual withdrawal.
Withdrawal is another of the misunderstood problems of modern psychiatry. In this respect, it resembles the condemnation of sex in Freud’s time and the disapproval of aggression in our time. The re-evaluation of sex is very much in vogue. The issue of aggression has been dealt with extensively in a previous publication. A reorientation of the withdrawal phenomenon will be more readily acceptable.
Common to all three phenomena is the fact that they are normal healthy occurrences, but that they all lend themselves easily to pathological distortions. Thus, if we talk about a withdrawn person, we have to realize that withdrawal per se is not a sign of neurosis or psychosis. We have to ask: withdrawn from what; permanently or temporarily withdrawn; withdrawn to what?
The same applies to the opposite of withdrawal, namely contact. We must emphasize that not all forms of contact are good. No doubt you have known people in your experience who have to stay in continual contact with you, the hangers-on. Every psychiatrist knows that they can make and have as much trouble as the deeply withdrawn. We know that some people just have to stay in contact with their fixed ideas; they cannot let go. Here we also have to ask: contact with what and for what? We have called the contact with irrelevant activity the “dummy complex.”
Not every contact is good and not every withdrawal bad. On the contrary, it is essential for every neurosis that the person cannot organize his withdrawal. The best example for this, perhaps, is the phenomenon of boredom. Boredom occurs when you try to stay in contact with a subject that does not hold your interest. You quickly exhaust any excitement at your disposal and get tired and lean back; you want to withdraw from the situation. If you cannot find a suitable excuse, the over-contact becomes painful–you are bored to tears or to death. If you let the tiredness take over, you will withdraw to your fantasy, to a more interesting contact. That your tiredness is merely a matter of very temporary exhaustion will be apparent from the enlivened interest when you suddenly find yourself leaning forward toward a more fascinating speaker. You will find yourself once more “all there.”
We cannot consider withdrawing out of context. We must view it as a part of the contact/withdrawal process. Similarly, magnetism exists only in a context of a positive/negative field. Indeed, in the organism/environment field the positive and negative cathexes behave very similarly to the attractive and repelling forces of magnetism. As a matter of fact, the whole field is one unit which is dialectically differentiated. It is differentiated biologically into the organism and the environment, psychologically into the Self and the Otherness, morally into selfishness and altruism, scientifically into subjective and objective.
It is no wonder, then, that we experience any cathexis either subjectively or objectively. Weeither desire something or this something has an attraction for us; we are disgusted with something, or it is repellent.
For those interested in Gestalt psychology, we might add that the notion of the figure standing out in relief against the more indifferent background needs some amplification from the same point of view. The outstanding figure is already a result of the pull between organism and positive cathexis. In negative cathexis the background becomes the foreground and the figure becomes background; it is pushed back; we want to remove the disturber from the scene. We feel like pushing someone’s face, throwing him out of the window; we wish he would go away, for instance, to hell.
Linguistically, the positive cathexis is often indicated by the derivatives of the Latin ad, e.g.,acceptance, affection, affinity, appetite; the negative cathexis by re, such as rejection,regression, repulsion. Of these, “acceptance” and “rejection” have become part of everyday psychiatric jargon. They certainly belong to psychopathology, once they appear as projections–such as the need to be accepted and the fear of being rejected. They will be discussed later in the context of “external support.”
To accept and to reject are the dialectical components of discrimination and, as such, the most important functions of the self, that is, of contact/withdrawal functions, the rhythm of life. During the day we are in touch with the world; at night we withdraw. In summer we are more outgoing than in winter, when some animals take to a nearly complete withdrawal, to hibernation.
Of great importance is the amplitude of the contact/withdrawal rhythm. If the contact is over-prolonged, for example, in looking, vision becomes staring and, as such, ineffectual. One does not look any more, one looks through, one actually withdraws into a hypnotic trance. Similarly, in fighting: after he has contacted the jaw of his opponent, the boxer does not leave his fist there; he withdraws for the next blow, but he withdraws only out of reach. In sexual intercourse, too much contact is hurting; too much withdrawal is “interruption of the ongoing process.” The stronger the orgasm, the greater is the amplitude of the jerking of the pelvis, with deep exhalation and sound production alternating with relaxation and deep inhalation.
We are still left with a number of questions. Contact with what and for what? Withdrawal to where? To answer these questions, we have to return to the discussion of the instinct circuit and we have to take up the notion of support. But first, one more word about emotions.
Just as we debunked the notion of “mind,” so science has done with the totality of our feelings which was called the soul and given the status of immortality; Any revolution, including the scientific one, behaves cybernetically, that is, it first swings too much to the dialectic opposite. This happened, for instance, with ideas about sex. Where previously all neurotic evil was attributed to sex, now it is often relegated to the repression of it. So with the soul. Its divinity has been turned into a nuisance. A mother who grieves loudly about a lost child “has an emotional breakdown.” Emotions nowadays have to be discharged as if they were a bothersome surplus.
Indeed, nature is not so wasteful as to create emotions for such a purpose. The ideal might be to make well-adjusted robots from feeling humans, and parents and psychiatrists might think wishfully that one could get rid of emotions by discharge. But look at the results: empty personalities who are a bore to themselves and everybody around them.
No, emotions are the very life of us. Many theories have been brought forward to explain and interpret emotions. But emotions do not have to be explained, much less interpreted. They are the very language of the organism; they modify the basic excitement according to the situation which has to be met. If you want a label for my fantasy about the total process, you might call it “The Transformation Theory.” Excitement is transformed into specific emotions, and emotions are transformed into sensoric and motoric action. The emotions energize the cathexis and mobilize the ways and means to complete the instinct circuits. It is amazing, when the process is carried through, how the felt emotions disappear and how the blind emotions turn into a clear appraisal of the opportunities of the field.
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In the organism’s pursuit of the cathected object, we come across another of the ever-intruding philosophical questions, another of the either/or situations. Do we live by free will or by causal determination?
Freud’s investigations were motivated by his lack of will-power, by the weakness and passivity of his Ego. And indeed, if we look at our New Year’s resolutions or the determination of the alcoholic to stop drinking, we can take only a dim view of man’s capacity to control himself.
On the other hand, the law demands full responsibility for our actions lest we be declared of unsound mind. And we ourselves demand it. Otherwise we would not be so full of excuses and rationalizations. We seem truly to be caught between necessity and freedom.
I believe a look at the manipulation of the instinct circuits will provide an answer to this dilemma. The goal is fixed; it represents the necessity. The supplement needed by the organism to restore its balance does not leave us much freedom. However, we have a certain freedom in the means of achieving this goal. Not the freedom of the will, although there is the deliberate “interruption of the on-going process,” but a freedom of choice, an opening up of possibilities. In other words, our freedom does not stem from the system of manipulation, but from better orientation, from a perspective, or seeing possibilities.
The necessity may be to send a message to a relative. The possibilities are to send it by wire, by telephone, by letter, or through another person. Which possibility one selects depends on decision, natural preference, or habit.
Right now I feel such a choice. I feel very much tempted to talk about decision, confusion and despair, all of which have to do with a bad technique of selecting. I also feel the wish to discuss semantics and to point out that meanings are “means” and not goals. Thus, in order to get the just-mentioned message across, one has to select the means–technical as well as symbolic–that is, one has to choose the right words.
How can we speak of the instincts working as necessities if we are not even aware of them? We have spoken of the futility of trying to classify instincts. But is our assumption of a great number of instincts not just a mere personal fantasy? How do we know that instincts exist at all?
We don’t know, but we take the striving toward or against and away from the cathected object as an absolute necessity, and we do the same with the symptoms, the signs of the assumed instincts. We do not feel the dehydration, but we feel a dry mouth and we feel the pull toward some fluid. That is all we are aware of. Peculiarly, though the needed supplement has a positive cathexis, the symptoms are of a negative character; the dry mouth or whatever indicates the need is felt as painful and has to be annihilated, so much so that we frequently go astray in our endeavors and deal with the annihilation of symptoms without achieving the required homeostasis, without finishing the situation as required. Unfinished business which has insomnia for a symptom is not completed by taking sleeping pills.
Consequently, the whole theory of Freud about repression of instincts collapses. We can never, never repress any instinct whatsoever, because it is out of reach of our awareness and thus out of reach of any deliberate action. However, we can, and do very frequently, interfere with the signs and symptoms, with the consummation of those unwanted strivings. This is done by “interrupting the on-going process.” Such interruptions can be effected at any stage of the (often very intricate) execution of the instinct circuit. We can and do interrupt the contact as well as the withdrawal needs. It is important to note that the neurotic suffers not only from inadequate contact, but likewise from incomplete withdrawal; for instance, he remains tense, where he could relax his vigilance; he suffers from insomnia, when he requires rest.
Self-interruptions can readily be observed. The “er..er” and “uh” of any self-conscious speaker, the incomplete sentences, the gaps within sentences, may irritate you as much as an interrupted gesture. Your neighbor at the dinner table stretches out his hand for the sugar and stops it in mid-air, asking you whether you take sugar with your coffee. He looks at you and immediately interrupts the visual contact by withdrawing his eyes, for he begins to feel embarrassed. A very important interruption is interfering with the transformation of basic excitement into specific emotions. Again the interference is executed against the aware symptoms, since all the self-preaching (“now, don’t get excited !”) helps not one whit. Instead, one stops breathing, holds the diaphragm, diverts one’s attention. And then one of the fundamental neurotic symptoms, anxiety, comes into being. Thus, anxiety is not repressed libido, or repressed aggression, or repressed death instinct, or repressed exhibitionism; or repressed expressionism; it is any one of these or other possibilities. It is, practically speaking, the inability to take the step to any emotional involvement. One is anxious to be oneself, but afraid to, for the self is the ever-flowing, ever-changing emotional engagement and disengagement with and from the world about us. Love, hate and peace; impatience, dread and interest; appetite, frustration and satisfaction; expectation, disappointment and appreciation; guilt, resentment and gratitude, are some of the triangles of our life; they are the dialectical opposites and their integration.
Freud’s attitude toward self-interruption is most relevant. Of all possible interruptions, he chose a very decisive one, and called it the Censor. He said: “Do not interrupt the free flow of your associations!” But he also assumed that the censor was the servant of embarrassment, and thus spoke Freud. “Do not be embarrassed!” Precisely with these two taboos he interrupted the experience and dissolving of embarrassment, resulting in a desensitization of it, or even (and this applies even more to the Reichian patients) in overcompensating brazenness. What has to be tackled in therapy is not the censored material but, in this instance, the specific form of interrupting, namely, the censoring itself.
Self-interruption is not a human invention for the sake of self-control. What is human is the retroflection, turning toward oneself the dreaded element. Interruption is thus another way, besides destroying and withdrawing, to cope with a true or imagined danger. To get the full significance of interrupting, one may look at the examples of warfare. Bombers are sent out to interrupt the flow of supplies by destroying railways and trucks; artillery and rifles are used to stop the enemy from personal (for instance, bayonet) contact. The enemy, on the other hand, will not only do the same; he will also interrupt the interrupter.
You have experienced telephone interruptions. You have experienced what a nuisance people can be when they interrupt your work (but only if you are really interested; otherwise, the interrupter is welcome) or your dreaming or your sleep. You have come to dread such people and are impatient to get rid of them.
Do interruptions always leave us with the need to finish situations? According to the homeostatic principle, yes. And yet we know that there is another possibility open in many cases-a withdrawal from the unfinished situation, for instance, in the form of resignation. There is a false resignation, a giving-in with a sigh, but this is a form of self-interruption, leaving the situation still open to be resumed at a later date. True resignation can be accomplished with pseudo-instincts by withdrawing, and it can be accomplished with true needs, with a part of the self, by genuine grief, by accomplishing a thorough assimilation, by what Freud calls the mourning labor. Grief is necessary, internal destruction, de-structuring a part of the self, for instance, that part that was in close relationship with a deceased friend.
Take the case of a man who has lost a leg and bears it with a smile and a stiff upper lip. Any depression or unhappiness he begins to develop is cut short with a grim determination to “adjust” himself. He still considers himself a two-legged man with one missing leg and will find himself again and again in positions where he feels this loss and bears it. If he goes through the mourning labor, however, his present self will die. It is not sufficient to bear the cross; he has to go through the crucifixion in order to be resurrected as a new and different organism, as a one-legged organism with a difference balance and potential than he had before. Now his energies are no longer tied up in his heroic struggle; now he is free to grow again and to transcend his handicap; as for the new self, this is not much more of a handicap than that we feel in the absense of six octopus legs.
Another man had lost his father and had not shed more than a trickle of tears over him. He said he felt relieved that the old man who had regulated his life was dead. But just the opposite is true. By not mourning he keeps him alive; he has “introjected” the old man; he phantasizes him still around within himself, phantasizes him still giving orders, and he still needs him for support on decisions. He is no more free of him than before his death. Only after working through his loss, his aloneness, perhaps his loneliness, can he be reborn as what he is, not a rebellious orphan, but a lost soul without opinions of his own, an adult man, but in need of the “external support” of guidance.
Both persons had chronically interrupted the on-going process of the self. Both had interfered with their development.
Note the inter in interrupt and interfere, also in intervene and intercept, the putting of something between. It is obvious now that the therapeutic procedure (which is the re-establishment of the self by integrating the dissociated parts of the personality) must be the teaching of “non-interruption.” How can we do this without making the mistake of interrupting the interruption? We have previously mentioned Freud’s command: “Do not censor,” which is itself a censoring of the censor, an interruption of the process of censoring.
In a neurosis we (in psychoanalytical language the Ego) interrupt our selves (usually spelled ourselves). To interrupt the enemy is, as we have seen, an essential survival activity. When we interrupt ourselves, we may also succeed in disrupting our selves, even if we are not “our own worst enemies.”
Just as in the Freudian case, where we censor ourselves rather than the “other,” so with interrupting. A boy gets a moral sermon from his headmaster; he wants to interrupt him. Or a beating: he would like still more to interrupt that. Instead, in both instances he interrupts the expressions of the self (and there is nothing unconscious about this), which in the first case would be a sentence like: ” I resent your bawling me out,” or in the second instance, a wish to kick. He has to interrupt, but he interrupts his own expressions; he “controls himself,” since he cannot control the headmaster. He has to stifle his impatience (anger), for he is in dread of the consequences of self-expression.
We interrupt, of course, not only the “moving against” but likewise the “towards” and “away” tendencies. We interrupt not only the contacting but likewise the withdrawing.
For example, your host has buttonholed you and bombards you with a lot of ” Why’s ” and ” Doctor-how-do-you-explain-that’s?” You feel very much like withdrawing from him, but your politeness or, if you are neurotic, your fear of hurting his feelings intervenes. If, in addition, your withdrawal is meant to find a more fascinating contact in the next room, your self-interference will turn into resentment. But resentment is, as will be shown later, a no-man’s-land emotion. As the situation is, you cannot make contact with your host, which would mean playing the wise guy who knows all the answers, nor can you withdraw from him, nor can you make the contact that appears to be relevant at this moment to you. You are stuck in a no-man’s-land; you are ” neither here nor there.”
What is the advantage of changing over from considering the censor to dealing with interruptions? First of all, psychoanalysis is not very much concerned with the censor, that is, with the aware part of the on-going process, but rather with the material which is being censored. Even though Freud points to the importance of embarrassment, little is said about the phenomenology, experience and treatment of embarrassment and many other emotions, though one has to record some notable exceptions, such as grief and affection. If one deals with interruptions, however, one deals with the clinical picture right in front. There is no need to guess and to interpret. We hear the interruption of a sentence; we notice that the patient holds his breath. We see that he is making a fist or swinging his legs “as if” he felt a desire to kick and did not complete it; we observe how he interrupts the visual contact and looks away from us. When the psychoanalyst interprets the unconscious for the patient, he aims at increasing the patient’s awareness, but he diminishes the patient’s tendencies to increase that awareness and the initiative to do so. On the contrary, by doing the run toward the train or the bus, but we block that by our reason, or by the dread that we might miss it altogether. At the same time we cannot withdraw from this impatience (for our omnipotence is at stake), keep the fact of waiting in the background and, in the meantime, find some interest in the posters or a book or in the other people waiting. Of course, the less impatience, the easier for another interest to occupy the foreground. We become aware of our impatience on account of the frustrating situation; we become aware of it because the transformation of impatience into activity is interrupted.
The impatience about the train definitively shows all the signs of a dominance over any other activity, and we behave thus I as if ” this was the most important survival instinct at that moment. This again seems to be inconsistent with our biological concept of homeostasis and instinct circuit. Yet once the train has arrived, the tension is transformed into gladness and relief, just as with any instinctual satisfaction. It would be rather absurd to assume that we are born with a “subway instinct.” It would likewise be no less absurd to regress to Freudian symbolism and assume a libidinal excitement for witnessing the phallic train rushing through the maternal vagina. Many analysts, bound by the necessity of their training and squeezed into the Procrustes-bed of their theories, have opportunistically taken such a view.
At least two instances are known to us where objects receive a cathexis equivalent to instinctual cathexis. The first are events which during our lifetime have acquired an existential significance, events which have produced imperatives which are on a par with biological instincts. These are, however, not grounded in physiology but in phantasy; they are articles of faith. We could call them pseudo-instincts, because they behave as if they were absolutes, necessities. Under favorable circumstances notwithstanding, they might turn into choices. One might discover that me can do without satisfying them and the roof still does not cave in. Perhaps the best example of this is the taboo of the primitive. The vagueness of the dreadful is fastened onto some possibility, and these are as numerous as tribes in existence. But once such a possibility is chosen as the seat of the dreadful, there is hardly any choice except to obey or to perish. In other words, the taboo assumes the importance of the only means to avert an “existential crisis,” a significance similar to any of the survival instincts of the living organism.
Rituals, for instance those of the obsessional character, have a similar but somewhat faded intensity. Obsessions, sexual fetishism, fixed ideas, superstitions, self-concepts, moral principles, and many more rigid forms of behavior fall into the same category of pseudo-instincts.
Especially significant for our purpose is the fact that every neurosis is, like the taboo, a device designed to avert an existential crisis. Therapy is the facilitation of the development of the patient, who has to learn to cope with the exigencies of life in such a way that the phantasy of the “existential crisis” collapses.
Before we discuss the notion of the existential crisis, we have to take up the second instance of situations which receive a cathexis equivalent to instincts. These situations are, in the language of John Dewey and F. M. Alexander, the “means whereby” for the “end gain”; they are, in our language, the support functions for adequate contact and withdrawal.
In the movies recently I saw a beaver defending himself against a wolf. The wolf, afraid of the very sharp teeth, ran around the little fellow with great agility. The beaver’s means of orientation were good enough; he perceived well every movement of the enemy, but he could not turn around quickly enough to use his only means of protection, his teeth. He was too clumsy; his coordination, though sufficient in water, was inadequate for this fight on land. His turning-around speed was not good support for defense, just as the speed of his legs, previously, was insufficient for flight, for withdrawal into the water. It was no match for the wolf’s.
Here is an excellent illustration that it is not only ungratified instincts that lead to an existential crisis, with the possibility of what Goldstein calls a catastrophical reaction. We have here the frequent case of the “means whereby” or the support of the instinct cycle having the same significance as the instincts themselves, because insufficient support is as much a threat to life as are ungratified instincts. A chain is as weak as its weakest link. In the completion of the instinct circuit, every step in orientation as well as in manipulation must be readily at our disposal. For good living, good coordination, timing, grace and ease of performance are needed. We have to develop good habits of perceiving and acting.
The human organism is a highly complicated organization. The advantage of the human compared with other animals is that he has tools and symbols at his disposal. This certainly helps him in his fight against other animals, and it helps him to plunder Mother Earth. It prevents many existential crises by giving him safety, protection from epidemics, etc., and it gives him security such as insurance policies.
But on the other side of the ledger, we have two facts: the individual safety is bought at a price of collective insecurity, and the individual ability to handle emergency situations degenerates swiftly, so much so that people are becoming more and more helpless and less and less self- supportive. In short, they become neurotic, for neurosis is the illness of lacking self-support.
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Growth and development are characterized by at least two phenomena, by the transformation of novelty into routine, as in habit formation or acquiring skill, and by the replacement of environmental support by self-support. These two tendencies overlap to a considerable extent, for instance, in discovering where after a time we can dispense with the external support of the teacher and select and devise our own course of study.
The replacement of external by internal support applies to all animals. The more differentiated they are, the longer they rely on external, mostly maternal support. The gradual replacement of external by self-support is the essence of maturation, that is, to be one’s age. Thus, another of today’s psychiatric dichotomies has to be rejected: the maturity/infantilism split. A child of seven might want to be spoon-fed or carried when he should be able to feed himself and to walk. But he does not behave according to his age. The maturity/infantilism split concept is largely due to the Freudian idea of infantile regression, which in plainer English means withdrawal to a state of childhood. Freud also realized that this regression was incomplete, and he designed his treatment accordingly. He wanted to reach the point in the child’s development where the hitch occurred that had stopped further growth.
Our objection here is merely the confusion of genus with species, of some” and “all.” “Some” neuroses show this withdrawal to infancy but not “all”; on the other hand, “all” organisms withdraw and not just “some” neurotics. As can readily be observed, some withdrawals occur behind very elaborate and mature defenses. Infantile regression can also be a very deliberate action. Playing the baby is a trick often used by platinum blond “babes” to get fur coats from “sugar daddies.” There is nothing unconscious about putting on such an act.
The same can be said about infantile trauma. A trauma is an injury, and an injury heals, if there is no permanent disorganization to keep it alive. “Some” traumata produce such a state, mostly via creating states of confusion, but not “all.” “Some” permanent disorganizations are created not by traumata but, for instance, by inconsistent behavior of parents by making demands the child cannot cope with. These, too, are likely to create areas of confusion, which are about as important with neurotics as they are with psychotics. They are only better dissimulated. To become aware of and to dissolve such areas of confusion is an important part of psychotherapy.
Areas of confusion are bad support for good contact. They show symptoms such as embarrassment, panic, de-“cisions,” even despair. The patient very often is unaware of such states of confusion, but the therapist apparently has two signs at his disposal to reach these areas: the blotting out and the psychosomatic manifestations. We shall have opportunity to discuss them in greater detail in connection with therapy.
We have, of course, the need to encapsulate such disturbing events as confusion. They, like many other events (mainly retroflections, introjections and projections), interfere with good support. They considerably diminish the organism’s potential. We cannot apply ourselves to the best of our abilities, nor can we enjoy life as we could without the neurotic ballast. This ballast, however, is a nuisance only as long as it is dissociated from the self. Once integrated, it contributes to the self-support to a truly unbelievable degree.
Imagine a kitten climbing a tree, enjoying the experimenting with balancing and testing, but the mother cat insisting that it will break its neck. How much this would interfere with its pleasure in hunting! But cats, of course, are not that stupid. They leave the pursuit of safety and the deadening of the self-preserving instincts to the humans. On the contrary, the cat, like any other animal and any sensible human being, will consider as the essence of up- bringing the facilitation of transforming external into self-support. It is not mainly affection that the infant needs. Too much affection will spoil and suffocate the child, especially when the parent is loaded with too much libido and possessiveness. Then, instead of encouraging self-support, the parents win condition the child to rely too much on their help.
The newly born kitten can neither feed, transport nor defend itself. For all this it needs its mother. But it will develop the means to do these things itself, partly through developing its inborn instincts, and partly through environmental teaching. In the human being, the transition from external to self-support is, of course, more complicated. Consider only the need to change diapers, to dress, to cook, to earn money, to choose a vocation, to gain knowledge.
Since we are forced to learn so much more through education than by using our inherited instincts, much of the intuition as to what is the right procedure is missing. Instead, the “right” procedure is established by composite phantasies which are handed over and modified from generation to generation. They are mostly support functions for social contact, such as manners and codes of behavior (ethics), means to orientation (reading, weltanschauungen), standards of beauty (esthetics), social position (avocation). Often, however, they are not biologically orientated (they are even sometimes anti-biological), thus disrupting the very roots of our existence and leading to degeneration and, finally, to the downfall of those nations who overdo the anti-biological education. The different languages express their attitudes toward such interfering processes. In English what is not “right” has to be “left” -abandoned. The French gauche stresses the awkwardness of such halving and malcoordination. The German linkisch means the same, actually disjointed. The Romans underlined the scotoma nature and called the left sinister, the dark.
In therapy, we shall have to reintegrate the social and the biological functions, if they are contradictory. We have to establish ambidexterity, so that right and left support each other. Even with the left-handed, a great deal can be done by finding and removing the interruptions of the right. Much more frequently we find suppression of left-hand activities. Let the left hand know very much what the right hand is doing. There is no need to fight life “single-handed.”
Just as we need coordination of right and left, we need (probably much more) the coordination of the upper and lower parts of ourselves.
Dr. Laura Perls, who first worked out the relationship of contact and support, found an especially interesting case in human posture. Here something exists that at first glance looks like another dichotomy, an apparent division of contact (for the upper) and support (for the lower part). Let us, for the time being, follow this pseudo-split, but emphasize that always there is a development from contact to support, for the ” end gain” to become “means” for new “end gains.” And let us further state that from now on, we shall refer to the contact-withdrawal rhythm merely as contact. Withdrawal is the disengagement from contact and requires good support as such. For an orderly withdrawal, an army requires as much food, roads, coordination and morale as for advance. Without such support, there looms the threat of an “existential crisis,” the danger of disintegration. The army may cease to be an army and become a mere flock of soldiers. The classical example is Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, when the Russians won merely by depriving his army of its life-supporting requirements. Only those soldiers survived who managed to support themselves.
I believe that the evolutionary leap of homo sapiens was due to his change of posture, though preceded in the ape by an important differentiation of the hands. While most animals use their limbs for walking and standing, the ape can walk on his hind limbs, and he can climb and hang on the tree with one or more limbs. At the same time, the hands differentiate into a four-and-a-thumb finger division, thereby making the hands into very useful tools. In the human being, the differentiation goes further. The hands can now take over many “mani”pulations which were previously done awkwardly by the mouth. This is probably due to a better use of the senses, as with the erect position the senses are geared for better perspective. They are freer, removed from the closeness of the ground. Due to removing his head from close to the ground, man sees more, but he smells less.
Man’s erect position makes for greater alertness and agility. To appreciate the importance of this, could you imagine walking for just one day on all fours? How little would we accomplish with our hands; and we would have to re-install the mouth for many actions. It is also a provocative experiment not to use the thumb for a while; one soon realizes that it is as important as the other four fingers together.
Instead of the solid support of four limbs, we are relying on a more precarious balance. Now balance is a very subtle action requiring a great deal of fine coordination. Any chronic muscular contraction, such as occurs in what Reich calls the “motoric armor” endangers this coordination, especially when the center of gravity, the pelvis, is unfree, mostly due to anal and genital contractions and desensitizations.
If ease of balance is missing, if there is insufficient self-support, we look for external support. In extreme cases we need braces and crutches; otherwise, frequent leaning against the wall or the furniture or sitting down relieves the strain which bad postural habits induce. Healthy striving is always in the direction of self-support. The baby relies first on his mother’s hands or holds onto the playpen. The man who needs a crutch after a leg injury will discard it as soon as possible, unless he needs it for neurotic reasons (to secure external support, for instance, attention, pity, service, or health insurance payments).
Not every instance of external support is pathological. The middle aged person needing glasses because he has become too far-sighted, the truly sick person, the man who realizes that a job cannot be done single- handed-they should not all try to be self-supportive.
In these and other cases we would have to use another word: self-sufficient. To be self-sufficient is often a matter of spite, however: “I can do it all by myself.” Masturbation, for example, is a demonstration of self-sufficiency, but it can also be a symptom of lacking libidinal support for adequate contact. It is not always easy to distinguish whether we deal with a symptom of self-sufficiency, that is, of withdrawal, or of self-support, that is, of contact.
The essence of good contact/support relationship lies in its promotion of growth and development. What is contact today will be assimilated via routine or habit formation and will serve as good support for tomorrow’s contact. This applies to all aspects of organic life, to the physiological functions as well as to emotions, intellect, skill, habits, etc. To make good visual contact, that is, to see well, we must have the support of good structure and function of our optical system. To have good inter-personal relations, we need the support of interest in other people and of self-expression. For otherwise, how can we reach each other? The therapist who considers clients as “cases” will not be successful, as he is not in contact with his patients but only with his academic gown of dignity and superiority.
Often when he, or any person who is wearing a front, wants to be himself, he has to interrupt whatever he is doing or feeling. Such masks or pretenses very often amount to the formation of an anti-self, which likewise requires the permanent support of the person. Such anti-self formations, for instance, an ego-ideal or a self-concept, are mostly reaction formations to the true self; but as their support does not come from deep biological layers, they are anti-survival and interfere with good contact. One is withdrawn behind one’s mask, and only the mask is in contact with the world.