Tag Archives: heinz kohut

Remember the Big No

ImageMasterson criticized Kohut’s theory of an independent line of narcissism, his idea that the self matures from infantile forms to mature forms through the self-object functions of parents (mirroring and idealizing) who, once again, don’t exist so much as separate individuals as much as they represent functions in a strictly vertical line of development. In Kohut’s model, which would appear to have influenced the latter day Strength-based movement which is aimed at kids in schools (and also kids in special needs programs), the individual seeks mirroring and idealization in an effort to correct prior deprivations. These ‘efforts to correct’ reframe the discussion of therapeutic intervention. They de-pathologize the defensive actions of the narcissist, in keeping with a positivist, ‘non-judgment’ ethos, and the reader might consider the shadow side of this bias.

Years ago I created a different kind of drama centered around the so-called unempathetic mother. In The Big No, Jill Evans, my first and only female protagonist, is living a protracted separation/individuation from her mother, a Romanian immigrant now living in Northern California. Jill’s mother is religious, somewhat narcissistic in her own right, and protective of a secret past. From within Jill’s disturbed sleep the reader glimpses a world parallel to her own. Her recurrent ‘Cinderella’ dream plucks beta elements from her everyday life and posits her as a step-child of a controlling mother, and an absent and/or abusive father. Ugly sisters are jealous and venal, and the father is a humiliated failure with sinister, exploitative friends. The dreams, like Chris Leavitt’s shadows from Crystal From The Hills, portend the future, or else they call out the guilty in the present. Like the culpable mothers that informed Masterson’s theory, Jill’s mother has maintained libidinal availability as long as Jill has been dependent. As the story begins, Jill has returned home after a relationship failure and a job transfer, with her tail between her legs. But it’s her dogged unconscious combined with later efforts to uncover family secrets that bristle against the family order: the mother’s comfortable old-maiden-like existence, living in proximity to Jill’s two conformist sisters; the secure knowledge that the past has been stashed, and that everyone is safe. A confrontation ensues, creating casualties out of each character’s false selves, their stifled existence. Society must set limits on some things, and liberate others. Everyone has something or someone they must covet. Everyone has something to fight against.

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The Mirror Defense

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Within the branch of psychotherapy that is self psychology, which is derived from Object Relations Theory, which in turn is derived from classical Psychoanalysis, Heinz Kohut was pioneering. He was the first to emphasize the clinical manifestations of a grandiose self and an omnipotent object representations of a narcissist personality disorder. He also suggested the existence of a ‘healthy’ narcissism, and posited psychotherapy as a restorative exercise in which afflicted patients receive “correctional emotional experiences” through what Kohut termed transmuting internalizations.

He prescribed the technique of mirroring, in which a therapist repeats back what a patient has said, then amplifies its importance to the individual. The therapist doesn’t necessarily elucidate the defensive purpose, which was a problem in places like Thunder Road, the adolescent drug rehab in which I worked for fifteen years, and which I depict in my book, Working Through Rehab.

At Thunder Road, the first order of business was the containment of acting out behaviors, especially destructive behaviors like drug abuse and violence. Mirroring alone wasn’t sufficient to contain this acting out: it failed to acknowledge reality, both of the consequences of destructive behaviors, and also the reality–meaning, the thoughts and feelings– of other individuals, including that of helping professionals. I mean that therapists aren’t fantasy parents. They reject, disappoint, criticize, as anyone does. Sometimes they love, but they don’t really correct. The Kohutian therapist focuses on the inner experience of the patient, more or less ignoring the possibility that what is “needed” may be a distortion, a need with a defensive purpose, such as an expression of helplessness, which may in turn justify apathy. If the therapist doesn’t confront this response (which might be a behavior as well as an internal event) the defensive purpose may be reinforced and treatment may reach an impasse. As a therapist in a residential milieu, it is easy to become overwhelmed, consumed with the day-to-day lives of patients, the hand-wringing, fretful concerns as to whether these individuals will “make it”. This plus the volume of work is the reason that many burn-out, or so management assumes. In my opinion, it’s not. The reason there is high turnover among staff in drug rehabs is the sense of objectification and futility: the experience of being used by patients, and by management, for the mirroring of their insatiable needs. It is the sense that problems never stop, that business never stops, and finally, that some interventions are iatrogenic–not only unhelpful, but also counterproductive. The whole process seems a reenactment of an insidious, circular pattern begun long before treatment started. For the concerned and astute helper this is demoralizing. In actuality, it’s this that leads to burn out.

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