The ego, understood as a separate, isolated entity that develops apart from others, is an illusion. The human personality is constructed only through its relationships with other people. These relationships can be of the two-way kind, that is, a narcissistic, dyadic relationship in which two people mirror each other (Jacques Lacan‘s other with a lower-case o); or they can be a communal sort (Lacan’s Other), involving many people who interact and share, but also respect each other’s autonomy.
Everyone who is healthy goes from the dyadic, one-on-one relationship (i.e., parent/child) to the communal sort, with varying levels of success, depending on how well one can get over the traumatic transition from the child’s primary narcissism (ego love) to object love, or love of other people. Those who fail to get over this trauma are in danger of developing secondary narcissism (the pathological kind that upsets so many of us), or they suffer a psychotic break with reality, a fragmenting of the personality. These failures, in their mild to severe forms, are part of the basis of social alienation.
In previous posts, I have written about the problem of social alienation, in its socioeconomic and psychological forms. I have also written about how the development of the personality is based on its relations with other people, and that there is a dialectical relationship between self and other.
I have compared the healthy and unhealthy relationships between self and other (or Other), as well as the traumatic, fragmentary state of alienation, to different points on a circular continuum that I symbolize with the ouroboros. The biting head and bitten tail of the serpent represent the meeting extreme opposites on the circular continuum, while the coiled length of the snake’s body represents all the intermediate points on the continuum, the moderate tints and shades of grey between black and white.
The unhealthy relationship between self and other, placed at the biting head of the serpent, is of the Oedipal, dyadic, one-on-one sort commonly seen between parent and child, who look lovingly into each other’s eyes as if no one else existed. Their looking and smiling at each other is like a mirror reflection, for both of them are narcissistic extensions of each other. This is Lacan‘s Imaginary, a world of literal and metaphoric mirrors, respectively the mirror stage and the dyadic parent/child mirroring.
The healthy self/other relationship is that of the individual with society in general, where the individual acknowledges, recognizes, and respects the individuality and autonomy of every other person he or she encounters. Here, the Other is not a mere extension of one’s narcissistic self. This healthier area is represented all along the coiled length of the body of the ouroboros; the healthier the relationships, the closer one comes to the head (without reaching the narcissistic biting teeth), while the more dysfunctional they are, the closer one comes to the bitten tail. The whole length of the serpent’s body, preferably towards the head, of course, is Lacan’s Symbolic register, the realm of language, culture, and society.
The most dysfunctional realm, the traumatic one, is at the bitten tail, where reality is too painful to bear, and one attempts to escape the pain through a psychotic break from reality and enter a world of fantasy. This is the undifferentiated world of Lacan’s notion of the Real, a state of being that cannot be processed because it cannot be symbolized or put into words; there are no differential relations in the Real, as there are in the Symbolic. The healthy escape from this traumatic state is through talk therapy, a putting of trauma into words, a moving from the bitten tail along the length of the serpent’s body towards its head.
Note how this traumatic realm is right next to the narcissistic, dyadic realm, where the serpent’s head bites its tail; this is where, originally, parent and child mirrored each other, a kind of Oedipal Garden of Eden, if you will, as I’ve described that mental state elsewhere. My point in describing all of this, metaphorically in terms of places on the ouroboros’ body, is that there is a point where happiness, pleasure, and ‘good health’ go too far. Sometimes, happiness is too happy, and fulfilled is too fulfilled. It’s Spenser‘s bower of bliss.
To be truly happy, one has to allow oneself to be at least a little unhappy. Happiness and sadness must be allowed to coexist, to be brought together, to flow into each other like the waves of the ocean; if we don’t allow this unity, this intermingling of opposites, they will come together in another way, typically one for which we aren’t prepared; for one way or the other, the serpent’s head is always biting its tail.
The excess of pleasure that one gets in the dyadic, narcissistic relationship comes from enjoying the self-other dialectic in the form that Heinz Kohut described as the grandiose self mirrored by the idealized parental imago, which is the original, Oedipal parent/child relationship, but whose idealized aspect can also be transferred onto a lover, a spouse, a therapist, or even a political demagogue. One wishes to see, mirrored in the other, an idealized version of oneself.
Needless to say, it isn’t healthy to use another person to reflect one’s grandiosity onto oneself, to use another as an extension of oneself, as narcissists do in order to defend themselves against the fragmentation that is so dangerously close to the narcissistic state. This perilous proximity is symbolized where the snake’s head (narcissistic, illusory paradise) bites its tail (Sartre‘s hell of other people, whose critical glances and remarks imprison one’s self-concept in a never-ending need for external validation and approval).
The ego is formed through illusory mirror reflections, literal ones or metaphorical ones as described above. One strives to be the ideal-I one sees in the reflection, an ideal that one loves and hates at the same time, precisely because it’s an unattainable ideal. Through all of this striving, though, one forgets that the ideal isn’t a real representation of oneself–it’s an illusion.
Similarly, the idealizing of the metaphorical mirror reflection–that of, say, the parent a child smiles at and who mirrors the smiles back at him or her–the idealization of this parent, or the objet petit a (as manifested in the lover, spouse, therapist, political demagogue, movie, sports, or pop star, or the pornographic model) who is a transference of the originally, Oedipally-desired parent, is also an illusion, a projection of the ego’s narcissism.
When both poles of Kohut’s conception of the child’s self–the grandiose self and idealized parental imago as described above, these two poles that say, “I am great, and I need you, O perfect Mom and Dad, to validate my greatness”–break down because the parents and general social environment fail to empathize with the child’s needs, he or she is at that dangerous area of fragmentation, symbolized by the bitten tail. The child either builds a narcissistic False Self to be protected from psychological disintegration, or the person falls apart emotionally.
Children need their parents’ love and empathy to help them grow and thrive in the social world, but they need to have their narcissistic sense of omnipotence let down and frustrated in tolerable amounts, too. This gradual, bearable letting down is symbolized by a sliding down from the Edenic head of the ouroboros to the upper middle of its coiled body. Traumatic, extreme disappointments will make the child slide in the other direction, from biting head to bitten tail.
A crucial part of this tolerable frustration of the wish to fulfill the dyadic, Oedipal parent/child relationship is what Lacan called the nom, or Non! du père, that is, the demand of the other parent for the child to end his or her fantasy of eternally having the Oedipally-desired parent all to him- or herself. This frustration, if dealt with well, brings the child out of the dyadic, narcissistic, one-on-one relationship and into the larger social world of interacting with many people, who aren’t seen as mere extensions of the self, but who are recognized as independent entities in their own right. This is a shift from the unhealthy to the healthy self-other dialectic.
My point in describing all of this, if my overbearingly academic choice of words isn’t giving you too much of a headache, Dear Reader, is that we must promote as much societal togetherness as we can. This may be a point so obvious as not to need making, but the purpose of the psychoanalytic concepts used in this post (click here for a fuller explanation of them) is to explain the psychological mechanisms that can shed light on how relationships go sour, how people revert to narcissism, become alienated, or lapse into psychosis instead of resolving their conflicts.
The narcissistic, dyadic relationship leads to envy and jealousy if a third party interferes with the duo; if not resolved properly (i.e., if the Name of the Father, in its literal or metaphorical senses, isn’t accepted by the child), we can have, at worst, the kind of scenario depicted in Psycho when Norman poisons his mother and her lover (a symbolic father). To avoid facing his guilt over the matricide, Norman has his internal object of his mother take over half, if not all, of his personality. He never escapes the one-on-one, parent/child relationship; she may be physically dead, but she lives on in his mind.
Part of the building up of a healthy personality in a child is encouraging his or her wish to seek out knowledge (Wilfred Bion‘s K) in the social context of interacting with people, or in making links (hence, Bion’s K, L, and H-links, standing for Knowledge, Love, and Hate–K being the most important link). Attacks on linking are a major problem to be resolved, for the resulting -K, a stubborn refusal to grow in knowledge through connecting with other people, when taken to extremes, leads to psychosis, as does Lacan’s notion of foreclosure, a refusal to let the non/Non! du père take one out of the dyadic relationship and into society.
Bion states that a thought is an emotional experience, something a baby doesn’t yet have the thinking apparatus (alpha function) for processing, so its mother must do its thinking for it, until it has built up its own thinking apparatus and can thus do its own thinking. Thoughts, understood as emotional experiences, start off as external stimuli (beta elements) that assail the consciousness; if they can’t be processed and used for thought (beta elements transformed, by alpha function, into alpha elements), they are ejected.
A baby ejects these overwhelming beta elements, and its mother receives and contains them for it; as a container of her baby’s agitated response (the contained) to the rejected beta elements, the mother soothes her baby through her capacity for reverie. Her comforting communication with the baby is a sending back of those elements, now alpha elements that are tolerable for the baby to receive.
This sending back and forth of beta and alpha elements between baby and mother is done through projective identification, which goes beyond projection‘s mere imagining of one’s own traits to be in another person, but involves actually pushing those traits and elements that are inside oneself onto the other, making him or her manifest them in reality.
Not only do babies and their primary caregivers engage in projective identification‘s trading back and forth of psychic energy, but so do patients (especially psychotic ones) and their therapists, respectively in the roles of baby and mother; for psychotics, as Bion observed, lose their grip on reality by rejecting beta elements to such an extreme extent, such an extreme level of -K, that they lose their ability to process external information properly. Their ejection of beta elements creates a beta screen that blocks off reality.
It’s this blocking off of the external, social world that is the source of mental ill health, willful ignorance (-K), and social alienation. A bringing together–union, integration–is the solution.
The blocking off is a characteristic of splitting into absolute good and bad objects, what Melanie Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position (PS). The integrating tendency, and bringing together of the good and bad aspects of an object, is characteristic of the depressive position (D). One tends throughout life to waver back and forth between splitting and integration, or as Bion notated it, PS<->D.
Since everything is interconnected, whether we like it or not, this means that whatever goes on without goes on within, too, in one way or another. So if we split external objects and reject the bad parts, we split their internalized equivalents, too, and eject these split-off bad parts. Hence, the attacks on linking, -K, and ejection of beta elements, leading to the erection of a beta screen.
The beta screen that refuses to let in any new experiences, knowledge, or social connections, and the fragmentation that results from the ejected, split-off parts of the self, results, in turn, in the creation of bizarre objects, which are hallucinatory projections of those split-off parts. What we look at or listen to seems to be watching and hearing us, too. This is another example of the psychotic break with reality that is caused by the breakdown of society.
A shifting back and forth between PS and D is inevitable, to an extent. The unity of everything will always be qualified by duality, hence dialectical monism, yin and yang. One must nonetheless strive to minimize PS, which is situated where the serpent’s head bites its tail, and try to maximize D, along the coiled middle of the body of the ouroboros.
As selfish as desire is, even it is oriented towards objects, or other people. WRD Fairbairn replaced Freud‘s drive theory with an object-seeking libido, or a desire to have relationships with other people, as over mere pleasure-seeking. Lacan said that desire is of the Other, a desire to be recognized by the Other, a desire for what (one thinks) the Other desires. So again, even in selfish desire, we exist in relation to others.
We never exist in isolation, as isolated as we may want to be from others. If we reject others, as Fairbairn‘s Anti-libidinal Ego reacts to the Rejecting Object (Fairbairn‘s replacement and approximation of Freud’s superego), we’ll still fantasize about imaginary, internalized people, as the Libidinal Ego does with the Exciting Object (approximating Freud’s id). We need to get out of this splitting mindset, and get back into the real world, engaging the Central Ego with the Ideal Object (approximating Freud’s ego), since being in real relationships with real people is the ideal of mental health.
We must allow the flow of energy in and out of ourselves, to grow in K, to contain beta elements and turn them into alphas. We must tear down the walls, or beta screens. We must replace narcissistic, dyadic, mirrored relationships with social ones. We must regard the ego as a drop in an infinite ocean of humanity, not a separate, walled-off entity.