Rainer Geissler, MA, MFT | Article

The Other Within or Enemy Mine (Part Iii) - by Rainer Geissler, MA, LMFT (C) 2003

III. The Case

The patient, whom I will call P, is a, 30-year-old male, born in Aruba, who came to The Netherlands when he was 4 years old. He identifies himself as gay, is charming, attractive, and always friendly. Ten month before he enters treatment, he tested positive for HIV infection whereupon he attempted to commit suicide. (However, after 3 month in therapy he says to merely have had intense preoccupation with suicidal thoughts for a prolonged period of time.) He consulted a psychiatrist who prescribed ‘Prozac’ 500mg, which P takes on a daily basis since. He decided to seek psychotherapy because “Medication alone does not seem to help me.” P’s primarily problem is his engagement in mainly short-term sexual relationships due to his difficulties to trust others. P’s mother was addicted to alcohol and his father ruled the family in authoritarian style. Father would not accept an-other’s opinion besides his own and ignore those of his children –in fact rendering them non-existent- who would not submit to his rules. P, the youngest of six children and convinced that he was unwanted, was brought up by a nanny. Even so his nanny could fill the empty space of his emotionally unavailable mother (the lack created thru the emotionally absent father was never filled), P felt as “growing up in an empty space, no one around really cared about me. It often felt as if I would not exist.” From age six to eight, his mother takes him and his two-year-older sister with her during her drinking tours thru local bars. Meanwhile she is in the bars drinking, however, the two children are ‘locked’ in the car for hours and hours. P often went to get her out of the bars and bring him and his sister home, however without much success. His parents divorce when P turns nine; P’s father remarries two years later. P addresses his stepmother as his (m)other,
P suffers from intense feelings of inferiority, describes himself as insecure, and often feels treated like “an object to others they play with and (ab)use.” What bothers him, however, is his discovery of treating others not very differently as he feels treated. On second thought, however, he finds always good reasons why those others did not deserve better: they betrayed his trust, would try to force their will on him, could not deal with the fact that in his life P comes first, in his own words: “My way or no way. If somebody has a problem with that – too bad for him.” If he feels not comfortable anymore with people, he simply disappears out of their life, as he says, “I do not talk to them anymore.” Talking about the other seems to be a defense mechanism P needs in order to keep himself together and not fall into pieces. He uses similar defenses against his feelings of inferiority and insecurity by putting a $-label on everything he speaks about, especially possessions like his car or the cloth he wears: “I ruined my $500 sweater yesterday in the dryer” or “Do you like my pants? $250, from Armani” or “I will buy a new $30000 car next week.” He seems to need this to demonstrate his independence, however, he also uses money as a tool that provides him with the feeling to be valuable: “Look at me, I can afford this, I am worth it.” P always makes sure that he pays for expenses when going out with people.

IV. The case in light of the discussed theory
“…the analytic relationship provides some experience with the kind of intersubjective space that allows us to use identification to bridge difference, to hold multiple positions, to tolerate nonidentity rather than wipe out the position of self or other.”
(Benjamin, week V, p107)

P’s deep narcissistic injury is key in his therapy for coming “…closer to the subjective experience of the patient through the acknowledgement of our not-so-different subjectivity … an internal mental space created through a dialogue that recognizes the other.” (Benjamin, week V, p 109) P does not do what he does because he is mean and heartless but because he is deeply insecure and most likely feels painfully worthless. He seems to be convinced not to be of any real interest to others, symbolizing his internalized experience of the relationship with his parents. Hiding his insecurity he takes on his fathers’ dominant behavior and his mothers assumed disinterest, does to the other what was done to him and expects the other to submit to his rules. Being hurt by his parents he now hurts the other, which is a narcissistic defense to protect the ‘I’ that is not ‘Me’ from being hurt again. The other is different and therefore an unpredictable “…threat to the identity of the self or ego that wants to be all there is, that wants to assimilate everything into itself…” (Benjamin, week V, p111) because there is nothing that feels like self – there only is the painful emptiness inside. P’s only way out of his narcissistic emptiness is difficult and a process in which he is again dependent on the other and therefore an extremely dangerous process to him. His narcissistically centered self only can accept otherness “…when the attempt to psychically destroy the object is resolved through the other’s survival.” (Benjamin, week V, p111) It seems that so far no other ever survived P’s destruction, which additionally is obstructed by P’s deep fear to be objectified by the other.
Since there is no trust, there is also no security – there only is the painful awareness of the emptiness inside, which is the basis on which the other is experienced. His ‘I’ that feels worthless puts the responsibility for those feelings on the ‘Thou’. And because he punishes and despises himself for what he is, he does the same to the other: he expects the other to treat him the same way his parents did, and he will do everything to not let this happen again. His defenses are that strong that they prohibit him to make different experiences. At the same time, in his experience, it is not him hurting others but the other hurting him. Lacan sees this tendency as attempt “…to incorporate the other as a mental object primarily in its defensive, “cannibalistic” and imaginary aspects … as inimical to recognizing difference.” P needs to acquire a capacity for what Benjamin emphasizes as “…the intersubjective relationship in which one goes beyond identification to appreciate the other subject as a being outside the self.” (Benjamin, week V, p108) For P, there is nothing outside himself, everything happens within.
Affective recognition is “…central in infancy, but it is followed by confrontation with the tension between assertion and recognition: the clash of independent wills, the negotiation of conflict beginning in rapprochement in the second year of life.” (Benjamin, week V, p111) Girls and Boys have a “…need for a father who represents separate subjectivity and desire for the outside world. The idea of recognition … has to contain within it the aspect of the assertion of separate subjectivity – else there is nothing to recognize.” (Benjamin, week V, p111) P’s subjectivity was never recognized but abusively objectified by an unpredictable other, leaving his self too fragile to survive any confrontation with the other. Castration is fatal for the self that consequently castrates the other already in advance. The disinterest his parents demonstrated towards P rendered him nonexistent to himself and others and left him feeling powerless. In his experience, there is nobody who sincerely would be willing or able to contain his fear, anxiety, and pain.
P’s presence is his absence, in other words, his desire is founded on and structured by the experience that he only is present for others when the subjectivity that makes him an unique individual is absent and he becomes an object. His experience of the mirror stage is one of complete humiliation: as his mother looked together with him into the mirror she not only told P ‘This is you’ but as well ‘I am not interested in you’ which his ego translated into ‘I am not interesting for others.’ This huge narcissistic wound, which P carries with him ever since, was constantly reinforced in the symbolic (his mothers alcoholism, locking him up in the car, ignoring his requests of bringing him and his sister home; as well as his father who renders all of his children nonexistent who wont completely submit to his rules). P’s desire is the desire of recognition, and his predicament that it is recognition what he is most afraid of. “…the apparently isolated subject constantly assimilates what is outside itself. … The ego is not really independent and self-constituting, but is actually made up of the objects it assimilates; the ego cannot leave the other to be an independent outside entity, separate from itself, because it is always incorporating the other, or demanding that the other be like the self. … the self is nonidentical … it is constituted by the identifications with the other that it deploys in an ongoing way, in particular to deny the loss and uncontrollability that otherness necessarily brings. … it is reciprocally constituted in relation to the other, depending on the other’s recognition, which it cannot have without being negated, acted on by the other, in a way that changes the self, making it nonidentical.” (Benjamin, week V, p 79) P’s narcissistic self, in the attempt to master its anxiety, pushes affective recognition over the edge and renders it into mastery and domination over the other. That way, everything is possible under the condition it happens, to use P’s words, “My way, or no way.”
Being unsuccessfully castrated by his father, P never possessed the phallus: “The castration complex institutes the superego as its representative and as representative thereby of the law. … it governs the position of each person in the triangle of the father, mother and child; in the way it does this, it embodies the law that founds the human order itself.” (from Mitchell, week VII, p 14I) It is “…the mother-father-child triangle with the father [whereby the role of the father can be fulfilled by any male or female] occupying the summit of the triangle…” (Kristeva, week VIII, p75) It is this triangular constellation that makes the Oedipus universal, not the gendered role inscription often assumed in the Oedipus complex. The signified law of the father protects the child from livelong omnipotence, which “…is and has always been a central problem for the self, disavowed rather than worked through by its position as rational subject. In fact, if the other were not a problem for the subject, the subject would again be absolute – either absolutely separate or assimilating the other. Therefore, the negativity that the other sets up for the self has its own possibilities, a productive irritation, heretofore insufficiently explored.” (Benjamin, week V, p85)
Seeking the approval he so desperately needs, P is unaware that he constantly runs away as soon as the other is about to give him that what he is looking for. The fulfillment of his deepest wish needs to remain in the imaginary because the gratification in the real is too threatening. His arguments with his short time partners are symbolic for the abandonment they are followed by, which mirrors P’s abandonment by his parents. His own satisfaction seems to be most important to P, who seems not to be aware that he only will receive real satisfaction when he is able to address the needs of the other.