A man sits in a conference room, chatting collegially with a pair of co-workers, ostensibly leading a meeting. Technically, the man is in charge, but he prefers to keep things informal, not throw his weight around. Soon they will be joined by another man—everyone’s boss—who appears to not have such reservations. As a kid, he will have been a problem, this man: if not an out-and-out bully, then maybe just a nuisance; tagged as having attention deficit disorder, and needing a good dose of meds in order to follow directives, play well with others. Today, an observing psychiatrist might say he has poor audience; meaning, a blind spot keeping him from knowing where he treads. A less generous opinion would be that he doesn’t care. He walks into a room and simply expects people to drop what they’re doing and focus on him. It’s how he got to where he is, he might say. His turn to give directives, direct play. That is, if he notices.
The first man has had a different life. Until now, his once subordination to either bullies or the inattentive has been dormant. He’d worked hard, quietly achieved a certain status within the organization, and earned his graduation to civil society, mostly spared the obnoxious company of autocrats whom he’d suffered plenty enough as a younger man. When the boss walks in he begins talking louder than anyone else, instantly turning the heads of everyone present. That other collegial exchange is now relegated in importance, which immediately stirs in the first man a dreadful anger. What is this feeling? the man wonders…later. In the moment, his thoughts go blank as his adrenaline surges, followed soon by a chill sensation. Bad, implicit memories. Anxiety. The resultant compromise between states is a halting, passive, as in barely discernible complaint: “I guess we’ll postpone our talk until later.”
In models of psychoanalytic psychotherapy, espoused by the likes of James Masterson, treatment proceeds with the following assumption: that individuals develop self and other representations, based upon an accumulation of experience of ourselves in relationship with others, which in turn forms a psychological structure that is activated in times of stress. Our explicit (conscious) and implicit (unconscious) understanding of ourselves and others is an aggregate of our object relations (experience with caretakers), derived from early development, and nurtured over time. The task of therapy is to make sense of one’s own mind and that of a therapist, even though manifest content tends to eschew focus on the therapist, especially early in the process.
Self identities—meaning, strategies of being in relationship—are often fixed and rigid by the time therapy begins. They constitute a way of getting by, but not of growing, or of being happy. A kind of quantum phenomenon collapses time, disorienting the distressed patient, who experiences new stressors with an old psychological structure, and therefore people are dimly reminded of unfinished business, though presented with fresh choices. Though I am few people’s idea of an autocrat, I might tread on toes this day, and look into fleetingly bewildered, scared eyes; hear the opening strains of quickly defended selves. I wonder what they’ll say.