Psychoanalytic Thinking: The Language
Psychoanalytic thinking is complex because people are complicated. Every human being is different. These differences are not simply genetic: they are also the consequence of our own experiences, which mould us from before we are born, and continue to shape us throughout our lives. As we start to form our personalities, we each develop different ways to respond to our experiences - so that no two human beings will respond to the same experience in an identical way. This is why we can sometimes find it so hard to understand one another.
The experience of being face-to-face with another human being is something which we all know a great deal about, but which can be surprisingly hard to describe. We can record the words, we can take photographs or videos, but that’s never the same as meeting someone in person.
That’s because being with another person involves an exchange of feelings not only at a conscious level, but also at an unconscious one.
Psychoanalysis has developed its own technical language to describe the unconscious communications between one human being and another. This language can be helpful as a short-hand way of expressing complicated concepts. But it’s rather like musical notation. You can’t learn to read music without hearing the sounds: someone has to teach you how to link the written notes to the sound they make, and even then you won’t get an idea of the music unless you hear it played by a good musician.
So psychoanalytic language doesn’t really make sense without someone explaining it to you who understands the experiences it describes, and can make it come alive for you.
But if you have an interest in exploring further, it’s worthwhile making a start by learning the meaning of some of the technical terms that you’re likely to come across, and how they relate to the psychoanalytic understanding of child development.
So here are a few explanations of some of the terms you may meet as you explore this website, starting from the most basic concept of all: we each have our own, unique ‘internal world’.
The Internal World (or the Inner World):
Although the terms ‘internal world’ and ‘inner world’ are often used interchangeably, the ‘inner world’ is more likely to be used for that part of the internal world that is accessible to your conscious thoughts, while the ‘internal world’ tends to be used for those parts that are too wild and dangerous to be easily explored.
From the earliest time of our existence, each of us absorbs what we experience; and through these experiences we each build up a personal map of the world, complete with its own climate, geography, beliefs, laws and traditions. This unique world is populated by simulacra of the people who have been important to us, and about whom we have strong feelings - both good and bad. Increasingly, as we grow older, our perceptions of the external world are filtered through this picture of our own past experiences: that is, we tend to elaborate on the map we’ve already established, rather than trying to redraw it altogether. So we usually see the external world as a reflection of our internal world: we see what we expect to see.
For this reason we tend to assume that the people we meet will be like other people we have met in the past. When we form intimate relationships we are drawn to people who share characteristics with figures in our internal world, or to imagine that they do. This means that the people we grow close to as adults will be likely to have something in common with the people who surrounded us when we were small.
This is why psychoanalytic thinking involves an understanding of the past: without it, it’s impossible to understand the present. We all accept that you can’t understand a country without some knowledge of its history. In the same way you need to understand the history of another person if you want to make sense of their internal world, and the way they think and behave.
Projection: A baby transmits its needs and feelings through a wordless, instinctive process that depends on its carer’s capacity for empathy. It pushes its feelings into the adult, who then feels what the baby is feeling and - hopefully - responds to make the baby feel better. This is the first way we communicate, and although as we grow older we learn to use words to describe our feelings, we continue to transmit feelings at this wordless and instinctual level throughout our lives.
Containment: If a baby’s carers are empathic, they will welcome the baby’s wordless communications; they will intuit the baby’s feelings and needs, and respond with the appropriate comfort, help and reassurance. In psychoanalytic language the successful decoding of these wordless communications, coupled with the appropriate and helpful response, is called ‘containment’: the needs and feelings have found a safe and welcoming home, where they can be understood and met. But it’s important to recognise that even the best parents won’t be able to provide perfect, all-round containment. So no baby can avoid painful feelings for which it can’t find a welcoming home.
Splitting and Dissociation: When a feeling is too uncomfortable, or when the need for containment isn’t immediately met, a baby will learn to dissociate - that is, it will numb itself to that particular feeling or need - and it will try to get rid of it.
Splitting and Projection: How does the baby get rid of these unwanted feeling? When containment fails, the need and the feeling don’t disappear. They are ignored, split off and ejected from the baby’s sense of itself. But in order to prevent their return the baby has to push them into a receptacle outside itself. This adds an extra layer of meaning to the term ‘projection’: the baby’s split-off needs and feelings are projected into the external world. The feelings become displaced. The baby no longer recognises those feelings as belonging to itself, but sees them as being elsewhere: in another person or in an inanimate object.
Phantasy: Feelings and needs are not concrete things. You can’t get rid of them permanently by denying their existence and putting them somewhere else. So the baby’s belief that it can get rid of them in this way is a fantasy. But it is a fantasy that persists for all of us at an unconscious level throughout our lives. This concept of an unconscious fantasy is distinguished from a conscious fantasy by a differentiation in spelling: a ‘phantasy' is an unconscious fantasy.
Introjection and Internalisation: The baby doesn’t only transmit wordless communications and phantasy projections, it also receives them. And babies are highly sensitive and empathic. So a baby will absorb the quality of response it receives from everyone in its environment, along with their unconscious projections, and these experiences will form the bedrock, landscape and native population of its internal world. This process is called introjection - and sometimes internalisation. These two processes aren’t always differentiated, but introjection tends to describe the more passive process, while internalisation is more often used for an active and willing process of absorption.
Introject: In parallel with the concept of introjection, the earliest figures to populate the baby’s internal world are often referred to as introjects. But here things become more complicated. Because no parent is perfect, these introjects are not identical to the real-life carers or family that surround the baby: they are suffused, for the baby, with the split-off feelings that the baby has disowned and projected. The feeling communication between a baby and a parent - and indeed between any two human beings - is two-way. And because parents also project their unacknowledged feelings, needs and phantasies, along with their capacity to contain painful feelings, the baby may also internalise the parents’ unconscious projections.
Projective Identification and Introjective Identification: Projective identification is an important concept in both the practice and theory of psychoanalytic thinking. It describes the impact of projections on the person into whom these split-off parts of the self are projected. We may find ourselves ‘channeling’ aspects of the other person, feeling their feelings rather than our own, or entertaining opinions and ideas that feel unfamiliar. The ordinary human attribute of empathy means that we are likely to attune ourselves to unconscious communications, and will respond instinctively with similar feelings and fantasies. It is only when we stop and think about these wordless communications that we can disentangle our own ideas and feelings from those of the other person. If we aren’t able to do this, we may find ourselves acting in accordance with a message that we haven’t properly understood - for good or for bad. This takes us to the concept of Introjective Identification. While projective identification assumes that the other person is actively projecting split off feelings, introspective identification describes the process whereby you may find yourself absorbing the feelings and phantasies of another person, and ‘channeling’ them, for unconscious reasons of your own - again without realising what is happening.
Transference and Counter-transference: In the consulting room, it’s the job of the psycho-analytic clinician to allow the client to create a relationship of intimacy without the intrusion of the therapist’s own agenda. This allows the client the full use of conscious and unconscious fantasy, so that the two of them can explore the client’s internal world together. Without the interference of too many extraneous facts, the client can relate more freely to the therapist, and they can join together in trying to make sense of the pattern of relating that was established in the patient’s very first experiences of other people. What they find themselves feeling and thinking about one another can be thought about and discussed as clues to what went on in this earliest relationship. The client transfers early patterns of relating onto this new relationship, and the clinician reflects on what feelings have been projected - what emotions and fantasies they find themselves experiencing in response. These accumulated projections are called the transference, and the clinicians responsive emotions are called the counter-transference. They are communicated through the process of projective identification, and have to be understood as containing a combination of the client’s phantasies and introjective identifications.
If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is.
But this process describes something that occurs outside the consulting room, just as much as within it, and anyone in a position of authority, or offering a caring relationship, is likely to find themselves the recipients of unconscious transference projections, and to experience an emotional response that has more to do with their client’s past history than with anything happening in the present.