Thou Shalt to You Shalt: Returning Internal Conflict to Its External Origins
In The Economics of Libido: Psychic Bisexuality, the Superego, and the Centrality of the Oedipus Complex (Pederson, 2015) I re-examine Freud’s writings to approach psychoanalytic characterology and narcissism from a new angle. At the two ends of narcissism, the auto-erotic stage and the phallic Oedipus complex, Freud was quite clear what was at stake. The latter concerns what we call the person’s image or his or her reputation in the community. Freud points out that the relations to the parents become depersonalized into social anxiety, in which an individual only fears having his reputation ruined and doesn’t have a full conscience (Freud, 1930, p. 125; 1926, p. 139). Passionate love, or anaclitic object-choice, is in full bloom in the Oedipus complex (1917, p. 417). Freud also discusses how a person may be “loved by fate,” or feel that he might be regarded as a success by others, and that so long as he has this feeling, he ignores his misdeeds and doesn’t show any bad conscience (Freud, 1930, pp. 126–127; 1933, p. 64). The oedipal ego ideal represents the youthful idealism that a person will find success, and be regarded well in his community, or find “true” love.
Success, is a very abstract concept and means very different things to different people. I’ll get into how Freud’s model might express different levels of ambition or success, but at the oedipal level, his examples point to relations in work groups. Freud (1921) discusses how a work group can have a “father-substitute” in a teacher or boss and that this shared “ego ideal” can allow friendship and soften competition (p. 116, 127). In “The Economic Problem of Masochism” Freud (1924) refers to this process of taking a parental substitute into the ego ideal with the term imago. He writes that in “the Oedipus complex… [the parent’s] personal significance for the superego recedes into the background’ and ‘the imagos they leave behind… link [to] the influences of teachers and authorities…” (Freud, pp. 167–168). Thus, a desire for success or honors in one’s field of work or study is the oedipal level drive goes along with desire for passionate love, and to have a reputation as a good moral person. Lastly, sexual difference, such that a man might be ridiculed to be like a woman for backing down from a fight, being bashful around sexual topics, etc. might “lose face” in front of other men, is another possible injury to his image-ego.
What a moral person does in the community, what a man and woman might be expected to be like, and the possible professions a person might be able to have, are obviously contingent on the sophistication of the political-economy one lives in and the values of the culture. However, so long as the difference between elder, with socially acknowledged Prestige in some skill or knowledge, and neophyte, who is going to be directed, taught, or mentored, exists in given political-economy, then it registers oedipal level interactions. Although this isn’t Freud’s use of the term, the non-ambivalent relationships to father-substitutes who represent maturation in one’s work life is most logically termed the Oedipus complex. Something can happen with a parental-substitute, or one can have a disappointment in love, and this will lead to the ambivalent relation. In the ambivalent relation, in which one tries to be one’s own father, and rivals the parental-substitute in triangulated moments punctuated with anxiety, the term “castration complex” or “masculine protest” seems more applicable (Freud 1937, p. 250).
At the other end of narcissism, in regression to the auto-erotic, one can be satisfied with love and success in fantasy alone. Instead of dismissing schizophrenia as something wrong with the brain, or something organic, Freud (1914) instead sees it “as giv[ing] us an insight into the psychology of the ego” (p. 82). The ego and object drives that push us to find love and success return to a state in which they aren’t measured against our efficacy of securing these ends in the real world. Many people misunderstand Freud’s designation of the auto-erotic and primitive narcissism as saying that this is an atomistic, or one-person psychology, in which the infant doesn’t have an object. Freud wouldn’t deny the infant’s impulse for the mother or her breast, but these id instinctual relations in the child aren’t his focus. Rather, the ego drive that is created from the renunciation of the infant’s id instincts, describes a functional relation. In the act of masturbation, for example, a person can fantasize about an object and satisfy himself without the object there. An author can similarly fantasize about imaginary characters and make a whole series of novels about them and spend more time thinking about his characters and their actions than really living a dynamic life himself. There is an analogy here to the psychotic person who doesn’t set himself goals and is preoccupied with his delusion.
Now, this isn’t to say that people suffering from psychosis are merely inveterate daydreamers; there’s a lot more going on in their illness than this. However, the economic emphasis of their phantasy life, in their delusion and psychotic certainty, in contrast to the economic emphasis on their drives for work and love, is very clear. I’d also like to add here that there are earlier stages than the auto-erotic. Freud (1923) sees epileptic seizures as a defusion of aggression in an earlier form of the body-ego and I’ve worked with many patients whose dreams and descriptions of their feeling states don’t involve the imagination of objects (people) in their fantasies (p. 41). Abstract qualities like light and darkness and the sense of being alone with nature are what have emotional significance for them.
Freud also indicates that there are stages that follow the phallic-oedipal stage. While “castration anxiety develops into… social anxiety,” he writes, there is a “later portion of the superego which has been formed on the basis of social prototypes” (Freud, 1926, p. 139). An individual can go on to form post-ambivalent ties to culture that anchor him to others in the form of linguistically mediated group identities. Thus, when a man, for example, encounters “disappointment over a woman” (object drives) or “a mishap in social relations with other men” (ego drives) he may regress from the phallic to an earlier stage, but doesn’t have the same withdrawal or self-absorption of those without post-ambivalent ties to culture (Freud, 1911, p. 62). However, my interest in this article isn’t to theorize the stages preceding the auto-erotic, or those that follow the phallic-oedipal.
In this article I will review the stages between the auto-erotic and phallic that I discuss in (work, year) and show their clinical value in the form of a technique I use with patients. First, however, I will remind my reader that Freud (1933) explicitly holds that the superego exists throughout development:
nor must it be forgotten that a child has a different estimate of its parents at different periods of its life. At the time at which the Oedipus complex gives place to the super-ego they are something quite magnificent; but later they lose much of this. Identifications then come about with these later parents as well, and indeed they regularly make important contributions to the formation of character; but in that case they only affect the ego, they no longer influence the super-ego, which has been determined by the earliest parental imagos. (p. 64, emphasis mine)
Second, the ego ideal is part of the superego which deals with self-directed criticism or the “dictatorial thou shalts,” in relation to a “demand for ever greater perfection” (Freud, 1923, pp. 54–55; 1933, pp. 64-5). In Economics (Pederson, 2015) I consider how the demand for perfection deepens past the phallic image-ego desire for a good reputation in the community, to increasingly deeper levels. These deeper levels are linked to increasing estimations of the power of parental-substitutes. Although I don’t have space to go into detail, Kardiner (1939) draws attention to how sociological processes may be required to anchor the earlier superego transferences to parental-substitutes of higher estimated perfection. This idea also reminds me of Nietzsche (2000) and his view that “[e]very smallest step on earth has been paid for by spiritual and physical torture” (p. 550). In other words, humans were first in small social groups and it took many generations in different eras of slavery to break down their natural sociality, have them sublimate some of their impulses, and accept leaders and rulers they have never met as figures of great power whom they shouldn’t challenge.
Although there are idiosyncratic inputs from one’s particular political-economy, a deeper notion of perfection is easy enough to understand. At the anal stage, the representations of the parental-substitutes are people who have much more wealth, a much higher class, and traffic with, or are, those at the top of power hierarchies. As opposed to just having more Prestige, these individuals receive a transference in which they are seen as Superlative in their skill, knowledge, and general power. The individual relates to these people and to the institutions that make up his or her political-economy, of which they are representatives or commanders. Some criminals, for example, fall away from caring about their reputations at the phallic level, and can regress to an anal level of Being in which breaking laws and being part of society, or being removed from it in prison, is enacted. As someone who works with the chemically dependent and many criminal offenders, I can often see an intense preoccupation with the police as parental-substitutes.
Organized crime challenges the laws of civilization and seeks to be a power hierarchy behind the official or legal power hierarchies.
In the preceding narcissistic stage, the parental-substitutes are represented as people who are partly divine, magical, and above humanity in general. A king is a good historical example of this transference. However, his partly-divine status can also be combined with the anal transference as well because of the political power which he has. The magical transference of the narcissistic stage involves the ego ideal of Time. This is based upon recognizing the development and importance of a subjective sense of Time in the child, and Freud’s link of this to the omnipotence of wishes to the stage of narcissism (Freud 1909, p.235; Freud 1913, p. 88). In magical thinking a person shows a rivalry with Time and testing the efficacy of what he or she can do. One brings others good luck or somehow affected the outcome of events with one’s willpower alone. In relation to ambition and seeking admiration from others for one’s potency, a person can go past wanting to being recognized as the best in their field, to being the best there has ever been. There are people who are immortal in the sense that they will be remembered forever for their achievements. Thus, a person can be a genius but that doesn’t mean that they’ll be an Einstein or Nietzsche and be remembered forever.
If a certain type of criminal is concerned with the anal level of being a part of law-abiding society or not, then the narcissistic stage concerns being part of society at all. As opposed to the criminal who can still be part of organized crime at the anal level, this individual usually can’t accept any boss or master and can end up a drifter or homeless if he isn’t able to be self-employed or find the right person to work for. For example, one patient on government disability got comfortable with me to the point of boasting about not paying taxes for most of his life, not having a boss, and his “complete freedom” in doing what he wanted. Of course this didn’t last long before his unhappiness and fears began to surface, but the ideal remained so, nonetheless.
These increasing levels of reputation: in the community; the top of social hierarchies; and in relation to society in general, often show up in the fantasies of patients. One patient talks about the president in a way that goes beyond criticism of policies and betrays a transference to an anal parental imago. Another patient talks about a hobby of collecting rocks and spins a fantasy of how he thinks about being the only human being to walk out in the fields and touch a given rock there. Another is preoccupied with his poor upbringing and how there are good families from his community who look down on him. Moreover, there are some individuals who can openly avow that they want to be the best, the toughest, that they have unlimited potential, or that they’ve figured out the secrets of God. With the last, I’m again reminded that there are earlier levels to be theorized, but it’s outside of the scope of this article.
In order to introduce these levels of Being, I’ve stuck to a straightforward power-based and competitive part of subjectivity. Along with this vertical axis, in Economics (Pederson, 2015) I also introduce a horizontal axis that considers different motivations than this under the auspices of psychic bisexuality, but I won’t examine this here. A schematic presentation of ambition seems like the best way to show the relation to community, civilization, and society at large that can illustrate how the pre-phallic superego can be understood. With this reference to deepening levels of perfection, and the ego ideal providing different demands for perfection and self-criticism (i.e. inferiority, self-hate, etc.), a new vista opens for psychoanalytic characterology and understanding how pathology can manifest.
At the different levels of Being, loss of the non-ambivalent ties to the father see the individual feeling compulsive “thou shalts” of the ego ideal. Additionally, these levels of ego ideals also link to certain ego functions. Conflict with parental-substitutes, and in some cases sibling-substitutes, can trigger primitive id aggression or affection that has to be defended against and sometimes brings about the loss of certain ego functions. Again, I’m not claiming that egoistic motivations for admiration or respect for one’s skill or knowledge are the only ones, nor the only ones at play in the examples that follow. They were only used to sketch how the levels of Being can be seen to function.
A patient suffers from an auto-immune problem and has been sick regularly for months. I was impressed with the way she had some splitting with her husband's mother who was seen as a horrible figure whom she hated, while her husband was idealized. He would "fight off" her mother and her mother's partner for her, but he was also the reason that they were involved in my patient’s life. I asked her to associate to “fighter” and she said boxer. I asked her to imagine her body was a boxer fighting another boxer representing the viruses from which she was getting sick and to tell me how she'd describe her body. She said her body was "a sissy, a scared little girl". I asked her to use these as self-statements: “I am a sissy, a scared little girl” and whether that described how she interacted with anyone. She said it felt true and it was with her mother-in-law and we went on to talk about the situations this arose in and new issues with desires to depend on her came to the fore.
Another patient complained about having a horrible memory. I said that this was a bad thing and that it's very important and precious to be able to remember things. He agreed. I asked him to think of something precious and important to him. He said his cat. I asked him to imagine that he was reaching out for the cat, but that he couldn't reach her and she wasn't coming closer. I asked him how he’d describe the cat and he said "gone" and "irritated by me". I asked him to say these as you-statements (“you are gone and you are irritated by me”) and whether any person came to mind. He said his ex-girlfriend and discussed how he'd call all the time and she'd never answer or make up an excuse to get off the phone right away and this led him to feelings of being angry with her.
Another patient brought up self-criticism and procrastination regarding feelings that he should live as efficiently as possible. He felt like he should get up early in the morning and be prepared for work, he should not eat out and shop so much and save money, he should go fishing because he likes it, etc. However, he often pushed the snooze button and told himself "5 minutes" (which usually turned into an hour), he also talked himself into buying new things, and convinced himself that he should stay in town to do things at home and then ended up watching youtube videos. I asked him to talk about the procrastinating part of himself, the cleverness of this part of himself, and then how this part might think of the dictatorial part of himself. He said that the clever part saw the tyrannical part as “weak and irritating”. I asked him to put these into you-statements and he said that the person that came to mind was his father who he thinks is weak for “lacking conviction” and irritating because he said he cares about him and his brother and would be around more but he never was. His anger is palpable and the complaints of procrastination don’t show up in future sessions.
In a different instance a patient complains about obsessing about some of his creative ideas. The complaint isn’t strong, but he expresses that he can sometimes feel like he can’t be in the moment because he’s turning some thought over in his head or want to work out how he could represent it as a picture or painting. Moreover, he carries around a journal because he worries that he’ll forget his inspiration or its thought out formulation. These complaints aren’t part of his presenting problems and in some ways they strike me as ones that may be exaggerated to showcase his identity as an artist. Still, I ask him to anthropomorphize the journal and think about it as if it was a person who he was telling his ideas to and what that person might think of his mind. He comes up with the adjectives “dependent, intimate, weak, and trustworthy” and gets into the relational aspect even more than I anticipated. I ask him to turn these into you-statements and whether anyone comes to mind. He says that his male roommate is the first one who comes to mind. We explore this relationship in a new way so that elements of dependency feelings, which were previously unspoken, give way to power dynamics. My patient believes that although they complement each other and learn from each other, that his roommate/friend couldn’t live his creative life whereas he could live his life as a salesman if he wanted to. The roommate is also seen as “overly charming” and “trying to hard.” This exploration goes on to both the study of my patient’s relationship with his grandmother (who had raised him) and then bringing his judgmental eye onto me by asking him for his thoughts about me as a person.
In the last example, a female patient complains of being “institutionalized” and believing that she does best when she is told what to do. She has brought up a few times the idea that she is “missing part of her brain” and “doesn’t know how to do anything on her own.” I ask her what other words she would use to describe the missing part. She says, in an almost exasperated way, “not there, dead, empty.” I ask her to say these as you-statements and who comes to mind. She responds that her father does. She goes on to say that if he would have been around when she was younger that she would “know how to handle herself and how to behave” and begins crying as she talks about it. I ask her what he would have done and she uses general expressions like “give me structure”. She opposes this to her mother who she says would ground her and then later give her money to go to the store to get something for her and give her money to get something for herself too. With the lack of authority spelled out, and her internal sense for what she needs, I ask her what her father would tell her if he was alive today. She says that he would tell her to think positively, encourage her to do something, and be harsh with her when she needs it. This becomes something I use in the transference. I ask her if I should be harsher with her when she misses a session and I ask her if I should be encouraging her to do more as she waits for a call back from her job applications.
If these internal conflicts or losses are returned to their external origins with parents or parental-substitutes, then the overwhelming feelings can be re-experienced and worked through. This saves a lot of time in comparison to a historical search for what happened between the time the individual felt like they had the precious part of themselves, or weren’t in conflict, and when the problem arose. This technique is also extra-transferential and doesn’t require waiting until the analyst begins to be put into the patient’s ego ideal, re-enactments are made with him, or aggressive or affectionate id drives show up. However, in maturational matters, it also supplies the analyst with the patient’s own desired needs and the proper words to use when the patient brings goal oriented work into the analysis on his or her own.
These problems also reference what can appear as abstract instantiations of the superego as Time and Space. The third patient was dealing with ego ideal demands for the perfect use of Time and fits classical descriptions of the compulsive patient being a “living machine” (Reich, 1933). However, another form of the obsessional concerns the person paying excessive attention to details in his environment or ideas. He may talk about his self-critical tensions in relation to paying attention to people or events around him instead of being caught up with the details or with the subject matter he obsesses about. This points to an ego ideal conflict with Space, although, it may be that we must go beyond Freud’s four stages to do this justice. It seems to me, that the necessity of differentiating the interest in details or an idea that come into conflict with being attentive to others is probably different than paying attention to external Space in general vs. getting caught up in one’s fantasy life. However, this is a topic for another paper.
Some schizoid patients can be impressively candid about their ambition. Others bring up interests that indirectly point to primitive ego ideals and require some work to develop, like the rock collector I mentioned above. Exploration of these ego ideals and how they cause the individual to compete or relate to the social body provide some needed containment for the individual. This containment can result in some of the transferences that Kohut (1971) has outlined but, by keeping Freud’s metapsychological framework, the self-criticisms of the ego ideal can be used extra-transferentially and more quickly for short-term treatment.
Lastly, when trying some of the self and you-statements with patients, it is important to sometimes explain to them that people are made up of many parts. I explain to them that people can be ambivalent and love someone and hate him or her at the same time. I explain that the healthy and good parts of them don’t need to be explored and that we have to get into their dark side or the pockets of bad feelings. I assure them that for the self-statements to feel true in regards to some part of them, doesn’t mean that can’t feel other ways about things in other parts. Many have admitted afterwards that something came up for them and they didn’t say it. Of course, it may sometimes go nowhere, in which case it is good to cultivate the sense that in analysis we set up experiments and if they don’t work, then we move on. I also believe that it goes without saying that some patients are inhibited in letting themselves even think in this way, and one must meet them where they are at.
Freud, S. (1909). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. S. E., 10: 151–318. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1911). Psycho-analytic notes on an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (Dementia paranoides). S. E., 12: 1–82. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1913). Totem and taboo. S. E., 13: vii–162. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1914). On narcissism. S. E., 14: 67–102. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1917). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. S. E., 16: 241–463. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1920). Beyond the pleasure principle. S. E., 18: 1–64. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1921). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. S. E., 18: 65–144. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1923). The ego and the id. S. E., 19: 1–66. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1924). The economic problem of masochism. : S. E., 19. 155–170.
Freud, S. (1926). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. S. E., 20: 75–176. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. S. E., 21: 57–146. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1933). New introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. S. E., 22: 1–182. London: Hogarth.
Freud, S. (1937). Analysis terminable and interminable. S. E., 23: 209–254. London: Hogarth.
Kardiner, A. (1939). The Individual and His Society: The Psychodynamics of Primitive Social Organization, NY, USA: Columbia University Press.
Kohut, H. (1971). The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders, Madison, USA: International Universities Press, 1989.
Nietzsche, F. (2000). On the genealogy of morals. In: W. Kaufmann (Ed. and Trans.) Basic Writings of Nietzsche (pp. 437-600). USA: Modern Library (Originally published in 1887).
Pederson, T. (2015) The Economics of Libido: Psychic Bisexuality, the Superego, and the Centrality of the Oedipus Complex. London: Karnac
Reich, W. (1933). Character Analysis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.