I will try to resolve the contradiction between self and other, or subject and object, in order to help show the unity between people, and move us in the direction of a cure for the social alienation, disintegration, and fragmentation that plague our relationships. A unifying analysis of all human relationships, starting with the family and fanning outward, can, I believe, help us better understand how to deal with their ups and downs.
We start with the most basic unit, the mother and her baby. In the best of circumstances, the mother gives the most love and attention to the baby that she can, unifying them; in the worst of cases, she is terribly neglectful, even abusive to her baby, as Sandy McDougall is to her baby, Randy, in ‘Salem’s Lot, or as Margaret White is to her ‘psychological baby’ Carrie. Then, of course, there’s every intermediate circumstance between the best and worst along a continuum.
(Recall from my previous posts that I don’t conceive of a continuum as being in a straight line, with the extremes at either end, far away from each other; but as coiled in a circle, with the extremes touching and phasing into each other. I use the ouroboros to symbolize this dialectical conception of any continuum, including the self/other dialectic, with the serpent biting its tail at the extremes. We should strive towards a unity of the opposites, not an irreconcilable dichotomy.)
While allowing for various levels of parental imperfection, we can see a good enough mother (or, by extension, a good enough early caregiver of either sex) as lying anywhere along the ouroboros’s length from its head (the best mothers) to the middle of its body (average mothers); anywhere on the other half of its body, approaching the bitten tail, is where all the bad mothers, fathers, and other early caregivers lie, at every point of severity, from moderately bad to the very worst.
The dichotomy of a splitting into the ‘good mother’ and ‘bad mother’, where the head bites the tail, is the only way the baby is able to understand his or her caregiver; in fact, during the first few months, he or she is capable of conceiving only a part–object, a ‘good breast‘ that gives milk immediately on demand, and a ‘bad breast’ that frustrates the baby with its absence. Without yet a clearly-defined sense of self, the baby imagines the breast, later the whole mother, as an extension of himself, something he in his fantasied omnipotence can (or should be able to) summon at will to satisfy his needs.
Even the best of parents fail to satisfy the baby for extended periods of time. The baby, however, doesn’t understand the inevitability of at least some parental failures; it can’t differentiate between good enough parents who sometimes fail, and bad parents who fail by habit or by design.
In its frustration, the baby slides in its bad experiences along the length of the ouroboros’s body to its bitten tail, where frustrations are extreme. The baby experiences the paranoid-schizoid position as it hates, and bites the tardily provided nipple of, the ‘bad mother’; ‘schizoid’, because the baby splits the mother into absolute ‘good’ and ‘bad’, since it can’t yet conceive of a good and bad mother; ‘paranoid’, because after the baby has bitten the ‘bad’ mother’s nipple and/or attacked her in unconscious phantasy, it has persecutory anxiety from its belief of her wanting to get revenge on it.
Along with this paranoid fear of parental revenge is the baby’s fear of losing the parent (who is now understood to be separate from the baby), and her damaged internalized object, forever. Sometimes Mother leaves the baby for, in its opinion, inordinately lengthy periods of time; it has no way of knowing the real (presumably legitimate) reason for her absence, so it imagines all kinds of horrors. Is she dead and gone forever? Has she abandoned me after all my fantasized revenges on her? Have I killed her?
Now the baby goes into the depressive position, and yearns for reparation with the parent. This is represented by a move from the biting head/bitten tail of extreme conflict with Mother, to the upper-middle of the ouroboros’s body, where the baby learns to accept a good enough mother, who is a combination of good and bad qualities. This is the best we can do with regard to parent/child relationships, though we can always go down from there…and we way too often do.
The paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions don’t apply only to parent/infant relationships; we all sway back and forth between the two positions throughout life, and in our relationships with all people. The same universalizing can be done with the lord/bondsman dialectic in Hegel‘s Phenomenology of Spirit, as I discussed it here. (Examples of this dialectic being applied to many other human relationships, in particular those involving power imbalances, can be found in this video.)
In healthy families, conflicts–of the sort that lead to the placement at the biting head/bitten tail (paranoid-schizoid position, or Hegel‘s metaphorical ‘death struggle’)–are usually resolved fairly quickly; for example, in tribal societies (as opposed to our much more alienated ones), crying babies are typically picked up much faster and held, whereas modern families tend to leave the distressed infants to cry themselves to sleep.
In unhealthy families, power imbalances cause emotional conflicts to be constant, with only brief resolutions. Cycles of abuse, a passing round and round the body of the ouroboros, involve brief good times (‘honeymoons’ at the serpent’s head), then small episodes of conflict that grow and grow (moving along the serpent’s body, from the head to the tail) until there’s an explosive confrontation (the bitten tail) and a phoney resolution (biting head), and the cycle begins all over again.
This kind of abusive relationship can begin in the family, then be patterned in other relationships (school bullying, workplace bullying, cyberbullying, etc.). When children experience the primarily or exclusively bad parent, they internalize the parent, creating a bad object relation, like a ghost of that parent, haunting them and inhabiting their minds, and intruding into their thoughts. The bad object is like a demon to be exorcised.
WRD Fairbairn wrote of the bad effects of non-empathic parents on children, who as a result of this problem feel their egos split three ways. The original, Central Ego, connected to its external Ideal Object (for our libido is object-seeking, that is, wanting friendships and loving relationships with people, not merely pleasure-seeking [i.e., sex, drugs, etc.], as Freud would have had it), now internalizes object relations in unconscious phantasy with two new ego-object configurations, the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (e.g., idolizing of celebrities, lusting after pornographic models/actresses, etc.), and the Anti-libidinal Ego [formerly known as the Internal Saboteur]/Rejecting Object (our hostile feeling towards either real or imagined enemies).
Note how the self/other dialectic permeates Fairbairn’s total reorganizing of Freud’s id/ego/superego personality structure. Unlike Freud, Fairbairn correctly saw energy and structure as inseparable. We project, or give energy to, and introject, or receive it from, other people all the time; and because of our mutual alienation and isolation, we yearn for each other’s company, deep down inside, despite our pushing of others away.
Fairbairn’s Central Ego/Ideal Object (replacing and approximating Freud’s ego) would reside along the upper body of the ouroboros, towards the biting head, where the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (replacing and approximating Freud’s id) sinks its teeth into the serpent’s tail. The Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (replacing, but only marginally comparable to, Freud’s superego) configuration would be at the bitten tail. Note how these unhealthy latter two are in the same position as that of the paranoid-schizoid position, at the bitten tail/biting head, the splitting of idealized good, and hated bad, objects, the point of maximum alienation between self and other.
Everyone experiences the ‘biting/bitten’ area of human relationships to some extent, but if we have largely good internalized objects, we can shift back to the ouroboros’s upper half soon enough, and enjoy friendly relations with real, external objects for most of our lives. If those primal objects are bad, though, a child will experience the agitation of the ‘biting/bitten’ area for traumatically extended periods of time, scarring him terribly and possibly even giving him C-PTSD.
When threatened, we have four basic responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Fighting is the biting head of the ouroboros; the other three fs are responses to the bitten tail experience. Dysfunctional families may result in child bullies, the biting first of the four fs; or in the fleeing/freezing child victims of bullies, the bitten second and third of the fs…or in the last of the four fs, the fawning people-pleasers, but also (if they’re really successful at pleasing Cluster B types) sometimes narcissistic golden children, a combination of fight and fawn who tend to hover between biting and bitten (i.e., bully and victim), in my experience, at least (my sister, J.).
These object relations–whether in the good area of the upper half of the serpent’s body, or in the bad, hind area, near where the biting of the tail is experienced–are transferred from the family into the larger social sphere, a cyclical revolving around the ouroboros’s body to experience the same self/other dialectic, but in a broader social context. As the children grow older, they replay their particular versions of the self/other dialectic in school and among their friends or enemies in the neighbourhood.
So, if the child has loving parents who create a safe, soothing environment for him or her at home, subsequent social settings will tend to give off the same basic feelings for him or her, providing lots of friends and minimal enemies at school and in the neighbourhood. This is so because that soothing, loving home environment, providing positive object relations for the child, an internalized group of friendly Caspers, if you will, who make the child feel that everything is OK, gives him or her confidence and an easy-going nature that attracts mostly friendliness in other kids.
But if the child has neglectful, domineering, non-empathic, or outright abusive parents, the child will feel trapped in a hostile environment (haunted by the frightening ghosts of bad internalized objects); and his or her agitation will rub off on all the other kids at school or in the neighbourhood, attracting bullies if he or she is in flight or freeze mode (at the bitten tail), or making him or her into a bully if in fight mode (at the biting head). If he or she is in fawn mode (specifically of the golden child/flying monkey sort discussed above), this could make him or her into a socially manipulative type, or simply into a more benign people-pleaser.
Such observations should be obvious to most people, but we who were bullied by non-empathic families were typically blamed victims, told that it was our inherent nature that made us incapable of making friends; this is how abusive families avoid taking responsibility for their wickedness, and thus traumatize their victims all the worse.
Heinz Kohut observed that a lack of empathy in parenting can lead to splits in the child’s personality, a bipolar one with, in the best of cases, his grandiosity mirrored in an empathic parent self-object on one side, and an idealized parent self-object on the other side. This is the primal self/other dialectic expressed in the child/parent relationship. Normally, the child’s grandiosity and idealizing of his parents are let down in bearable steps; this letting down parallels the infant’s shift from the paranoid-schizoid to depressive position, a move from the biting head to upper middle half of the ouroboros. If the reader is unfamiliar with these concepts of self-psychology, please see these posts, scrolling down to where you see ‘Heinz Kohut’ to find the relevant explanations.
A lack of parental empathy can result in failed mirroring of grandiosity and traumatic disappointments in the idealized parent. This results in a dichotomizing of the child’s self-esteem, his narcissism hovering around the serpent’s biting head (pathological grandiosity/bullying attitude) and the bitten tail (toxic shame/victim mentality), a combination of fawning, freezing, and fighting. The child fancies himself as Superman to hide, or disavow, his self-hate, a vertical split; he grows up consciously idolizing his ideal parent (to the inordinate extent that he did in childhood), while also being unconsciously disappointed with that parent, a horizontal split, or repression of this disappointment.
If this kind of fragmented adult nonetheless has great talents in leading and manipulating others, he could become the kind of charming, smooth-talking psychopath/narcissist who sweet-talks his way into powerful positions in business, politics, or religion. Enter the capitalist, or the politician or religious leader who props up the system of class antagonisms.
The lord/bondsman dialectic can be seen most obviously in the class struggles of history (ancient masters and slaves, then feudal lords and their vassals), as well as in the authoritarian rule of the Church over its flock; but many today are still in denial over how it can be seen in the bourgeois/proletarian dialectic.
Now, according to Hegel, the bondsman should grow to see, through all of his work and his achievements, his own mastery and self-realization. This insight should inspire him to rise up against his lord and overthrow him. The problem is that, in our contemporary world, which has grown to have greater and greater pathologies of the self (as Kohut had observed back in the 1970s [pages 267-280], coinciding with the beginnings of the rise of neoliberalism, by the way), problems with increasing fragmentation and narcissism from children getting insufficient parental stimulation or empathy, people still aren’t self-aware, and therefore they don’t have it in them to rebel.
Problems of fragmentation and narcissism mean we weren’t getting our childhood grandiosity empathically mirrored, resulting in a “lack of initiative, empty depression and lethargy”, as Kohut saw it (p.284), so we, for example, just stare at our phones or play online games. On the other side of the bipolar self, the other side of the primal psychic bridge, the ‘other’ of the self/other dialectic, our traumatic disappointment in our idealized parent imago means we need a new figure to idealize. Here’s where the smooth-talking politician comes in.
That idealized father figure, who could be Trump, Hitler, Mussolini, or any of a host of other demagogues, reinvigorates our once-sluggish grandiosity, and in following our leader, we feel a phoney sense of community in wearing our MAGA caps, or our brown or black shirts. We enjoy collective narcissism, and become the flying monkeys of our new ‘parent’, smearing and scapegoating anyone who challenges the validity of our new ideal.
This is how fascism and quasi-fascism work to destroy our ability to rise up against the ruling class, by redirecting our rage away from our true masters and towards those labelled as our scapegoats: Jews, Muslims, illegal immigrants, etc. Opposition to the likes of Trump must be seen in its proper light: these narcissistic leaders aren’t in themselves the problem, but are mere symptoms of a much greater social and political pathology.
Our psychological fragmentation stems from our sustained experience, from infancy to adulthood, of the self/other dialectic in its painful biting head/bitten tail manifestation: the paranoid-schizoid position (splitting); the Libidinal Ego/Exciting Object (idealizing Trump, Hitler, etc.) and Anti-libidinal Ego/Rejecting Object (hating Jews, Muslims, Mexicans, etc.) configurations; the bipolar self’s idealized imago of the fascist/authoritarian demagogue on the one side, and the collective grandiosity of being in the fascist followers’ in-group on the other side, and repressing any self-doubt about the wisdom in choosing to follow such a leader blindly.
To go to the psychological roots of the pathology of the leader, we must go back to his childhood, and his tempestuous relationship with his parents. Let’s take Adolph Hitler as an illuminating example (Trump, by the way, is also a good example).
Adolph’s father, Alois Hitler, was a bad-tempered, domineering, authoritarian type. A civil servant (customs officer), he hoped little Adolph would follow in his footsteps; but the boy had different dreams for his future (to be a painter), so father and son fought all the time. Here we see little Adolph in a sustained ordeal of the paranoid-schizoid position, with no hope for reparation with his father.
As a child, Adolph had a beloved brother, Edmund, who died. The loss of this important good internalized object caused little Adolph to go from being a confident, happy boy to a sullen, lonely one. His family was drowning in dysfunction; Alois, a bad internalized object, used to beat him.
While his doting, indulgent mother, Klara, would have mirrored his childhood grandiosity and encouraged his dream of becoming an artist, little Adolph’s grumpy father traumatically disappointed him by failing to be an ideal parental imago for him. Alois died when Adolph was 13, and though it is said that the whole family was plunged into grief, considering the endless father/son fighting, I doubt that Adolph was really all that heartbroken; but Klara’s death in 1907 devastated him, and he felt that pain for the rest of his life. He needed new mirrors to feed his ego, and an ideal to adore.
That ideal, a looming danger for the world, would be German nationalism, which for Adolph was a gratifying contrast to the Austrian nationalism of Alois, something Adolph naturally despised. The mirrors of his pathological grandiosity would be the members of the German Workers Party, to whose name would be added “National Socialist”…to divert the German working class from real socialism.
One problem with someone whose mental state suffers sustained experiences of the biting head/bitten tail area of the ouroboros of the self/other dialectic, as young Adolph surely did, is the constant feeling of emotional dysregulation. This means that one’s emotions go up and down like a roller coaster, affecting one’s ability to think rationally. This mood instability can lead to delusional, paranoid thinking, even to hallucinations and psychosis, because one is feeling first and thinking later, all while emotionally distraught: one’s turbulent inner world is thus projected onto the external world, where one sees threats and dangers that aren’t actually there.
It’s easy to see how a paranoid-schizoid minded Adolph–already living in a Europe that was getting increasingly, even virulently anti-Semitic, embracing Jewish conspiracy theories as if they were scientifically proven fact–could go from idealizing Germany, and enjoying the mirroring fandom of a clique of fellow German nationalists, to scapegoating Jews and Communists, whom he and his coterie blamed for putting Germany into the economic mire it had found itself in back in the early 1920s, egged on by the spurious stab-in-the-back myth of how Germany lost WWI.
The capitalist class found people like Hitler useful for turning workers away from communism. The ruling classes had encouraged Mussolini to keep Italy fighting in WWI, and later, through his fascism, to crush Italian socialism in the early 1920s; they were content to leave Spain in the fascist lurch from 1939 to 1975; and they were willing to let Nazi Germany extend its genocidal ambitions well into the USSR. It’s only when the Axis Powers were threatening the capitalist West, and public opinion demanded that the elites of the West resist Hitler, that they finally began to fight fascism.
If you are getting dizzy from my jumping around from one idea to another, Dear Reader, I’ll try to link everything together now. My point is that we need to focus on the psychological origins of fragmentation, emotional dysregulation, and alienation to change our world from one ruled by narcissistic capitalists, including those bordering on (or lapsing into) fascism, like Trump or Hitler, to one ruled by empathic socialism. We start with the individual, grow from there to the family, then to society, and finally to business hierarchies, nations, and the whole world.
Our current world is like a storm at sea: the high crests of an economic elite come crashing down on the troughs of the poor, splashing us, the water, everywhere in fragmented drops. The contradiction of rich and poor causes this social alienation, which in turn causes our internal fragmentation. What’s true of the outside is true on the inside. We’re broken away from each other, and we’re broken inside.
Understanding the self/other dialectic–that the other is in ourselves (introjection), and what’s in the self is in other people (projection)–can help us to build mutual empathy. To understand the self/other dialectic, an opposition whose unity can and must be found, we need to understand what dialectics in general are, even before dialectical materialism. That means going back to Hegel’s philosophy.
Hegel’s dialectic, popularly described in terms of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” (though he never used those terms, nor did he present his philosophy in so formulaic a way), can be seen as beginning with the ouroboros’s bitten tail (the ‘thesis’, an abstract, untested, theoretical idea, such as ‘being’); then we shift over to the biting head of the negation of that starting idea (the ‘antithesis’, such as ‘nothing’); then we continue moving along the length of the serpent’s body (the ‘synthesis’, such as ‘becoming’–see Hegel, pages 82-83), in a process of resolving the contradiction confronted at the bitten tail/biting head area. Once the contradiction is fully resolved (and thus concretized), we have a new, refined idea to be negated again, then resolved again, in repeated revolutions around the ouroboros’s body. This is the unifying of opposites.
This, basically, is how we must resolve these emotional and social problems: not by stubbornly staying at the point of irreconcilable opposites (the head biting into the tail), two people facing each other in hatred; but by going beyond all binary thinking (moving along the middle of the serpent’s body) and turning hate into friendship. This is how we resolve the contradictions in our relationships, through a synthesis of the self and other, from conflict to harmony and solidarity.
We start this unifying by replacing the bad internal objects of our parents with good ones. This can be done through psychotherapy, through object relations therapists or self-psychology ones, or, I believe, through meditation and hypnosis, as I described it in my previous post, Beyond the Pairs of Opposites.
We can also do inner-child work, by imagining ourselves in the role of the soothing, empathic parent, consoling the wounded inner child in ourselves (since psychological pain tends to cause greater levels of self-centredness, because one is forced to be focused more on one’s own pain than on others’, then healing that pain should generate more selflessness). Self-compassion can help us to realize more fully and deeply that everyone feels the same pain, that we all deserve to hear words of kindness, and we must be mindful of our feelings, to make sure we are neither suppressing nor having negative thoughts in excess.
I’m not trying to be a sentimentalist here; this won’t be easy work. It will take a long time to master such a profound inner change as we fight against our inner critic, the collective of bad internal object relations that will try to sabotage our progress; but in the end, it will be worth it, for ourselves and for our neighbours.
(I’m not trying to say that this brotherly love will be an absolute one, felt by each and every person for each and every other. Some people simply cannot be reconciled, if only because some others won’t be reconciled with us, no matter how hard we try to merge with them. That’s certainly true of my relationship with my family, as I’ve explained so many times before; for a narcissistic parent’s flying monkeys will do all in their power to keep old power imbalances intact. This irreconcilability is especially true of the people’s relationship with the 1%, who will never be legislated out of their wealth; but such reconciliation is possible, I believe, between the common people in a general sense, and that’s the basis we all need to work on, to build up a sizeable amount of solidarity.)
From this healing basis, we can meditate on our oneness with everyone else, and project our newly-built self-love and compassion out into the world, to all the others we now identify with; and we’ll introject the love of the outside world. This projection and introjection will repeat and repeat in our meditative trance, where our suggestible unconscious will be more open to these healing feelings. Finally, we’ll come to an understanding of the dialectical monism in everything. This, in turn, will inspire solidarity in the people. No longer alienated, we’ll unite against the ruling class.
Then, instead of having the ever-stormy seas of interpersonal and class conflict, with their clashing and splashing of water that breaks and fragments us into a myriad of tiny droplets that chaotically fly out in all directions, we’ll have calm waters, with gently moving waves of slight crests (“from each according to his/her ability”) to slight troughs (“to each according to his/her need”).
This is the Unity of Space, an infinite ocean where we’re all one. The self/other contradiction will be a unity.
It’s time for the calm after the storm.
43 thoughts on “The Self/Other Dialectic”