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Empathy as presence – online and in shared physical space

Review: Gillian Isaacs Russell, (2015), Screen Relations: The Limits of Computer-Mediated Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Karnac Books: 206 pp.

Granted in-person physical meetings are impossible when the health risks become prohibitive, that is no longer the case (Q3 2021), at least temporarily. Therefore, the debate resumes and continues about the trade-offs, advantages and disadvantages, of online telecommunication (“Zoom”) mediated therapy sessions versus physical in-person work.[1]

Gillian Isaacs Russell’s book in a powerful and important counterforce to trending technological optimism that online therapy is the wave of the present and of the future. This optimism compels those of us who are digital immigrants to align with digital natives in privileging screen relations over physical presence in the same space in engaging in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. By definition, “digital immigrants” were educated prior to the explosion of the Internet (and world wide web on) or about the year 1999 and “digital natives” came up with “online everything” such as pouches for their smart phones in their parents’ baby strollers. 

The cyber rush to judgment is slowed if not stopped in this hard-hitting critique of online screen relations. Isaacs Russell wisely asserts skepticism that meeting online (even in a pandemic) and meeting physically in person are “the same.” One may eventually go ahead with online therapy in many situations (especially in a pandemic), but if you are hearing “they are both the same” that is reason for a good healthy skepticism that the purveyor of the online approach is being straight with you. One also needs to be skeptical as online therapy starts out being “better than nothing” only quickly to slide in the direction of “better than anything.” As usual, the devil – and the transference – is in the details, and Isaacs Russell provides insight in abundance to the complex issues. 

Speaking personally, in my own work on empathy, published in 2015, the same year as Isaacs Russell’s book, my Preface concludes with the ontological definition of empathy as “being in the presence of another human being without anything else added” – anything else such as judgment, evaluation, memory, desire, hostility, and the many factors that make us unavailable to be in relationship (Agosta 2015; see also 2010). Though Isaacs Russell uses the word “empathy” in a specific psychological sense, I would argue that her work on “presence” is consistent with and contributes to an enlarged sense of empathic relatedness that builds community.   

Isaacs Russell has interview psychoanalysts, clients (clients), over several years and reports in a semi-ethnographical style on the trade-offs between online mediated relations and those which occur in the same physical space, such as a therapist’s consulting room. Her arguments and narratives are nuanced, charitable, and multi-dimensional. The reader learns much about the process of dynamic therapy regardless of the framework. 

What she does not say, but might usefully have called out, is that the imperative is to keep the treatment conversation going, whether online or physically present in person. When someone I am meeting with in-person asks for an online session, after controlling for factors such as illness of a child at home or authentic emergencies, then my countertransference may usefully consider the client’s resistance to something (= x) is showing up. In contrast, when an online client asks to come into the office, one may usefully acknowledge that the individual is deepening his commitment to the work. In neither case is this the truth with a capital “T,” but a further tool and distinction for interpretation and possibility in the treatment process. 

Isaacs Russell makes the point (and I hasten to add) that no necessary correlation exists between the (digital) generation divide and enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for online screen relations of baby boomers versus millennial or gen-Xers. Some digital immigrants are enthusiastic about online therapy, whether for authentic professional reasons, including economic ones, or to prove how “with it” they are, and growing numbers of digital natives are becoming increasingly skeptical about the authenticity of online relations, craving physical presence without necessarily being able to articulate what is missing. 

Isaacs Russell provides an informative and wide-ranging briefing on developments in baby watching (child development research). Child development is a “hands on” process of physically relating to another emerging human being. Her point (among many) is that we humans are so fundamentally embodied that in some deep sense we are out of our element in reducing the three dimensional, heat generating, smell-broadcasting mammalian body to a cold two-dimensional video image. Though she does not do so, Isaacs Russell might usefully have quoted Wittgenstein: The human body is the best picture of the soul (1950: 178e (PPF iv: 25)). As the celebrity neuroscientist A. Damasio notes: [We need] “the mind fully embodied not merely embrained.” What then becomes of the relatedness when the body becomes a “head shot” from the shoulders up on a screen?  

The answer is to be found in the dynamics of presence. Key term: presence. Physical presence becomes tele-presence and the debate is about what is lost and (perhaps) what is gained in going online. The overall assessment of Isaacs Russell is that, not withstanding convenience and the abolition of distance, more is lost therapeutically than gained. 

Although Isaacs Russell does not cite Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty loom large in her account of the elements of presence. Much of what Isaacs Russell says can be redescribed as a phenomenology of online presence, including the things that are missing such as smell, the ability to physically touch, aspects of depth perception, and the privileging of “on off” moments over against gradual analogical transitions. The above-cited philosophers were, of course, writing when the emerging, innovative, disruptive technology was the telephone, and Heidegger himself went “off the grid” physically (and morally!) with his semi-peasant hut in the Black Forest near Freiburg, Germany. But even though they never heard of a mirror neuron, the distinctions these thinkers lay down about relatedness are fundamental for work in communications and human understanding.

Isaacs Russell gives the reader a generous tutorial in breakthrough developments in neuroscience, including the discovery or mirror neurons in Macaque monkeys and a neurologically-based mirroring systems in humans, which account for key aspects of empathy, intersubjectivity, and human social-psychological relatedness. 

Since this is not a softball review, I must inquire, following detailed descriptions of embodied cognition, the primacy of movement in empathic relatedness, faces as emotional hot spots (which nevertheless incorporate full-bodied clues as to the exact emotion), kinesthetic and proprioceptive feedback: do we need a psychoanalysis or rather do we need an aerobics class (okay, at least a class in Tai Chi, moving meditation)? The point is that both participants may indeed “forget” about the computer-mediated relation, but the unconscious does not. The (unconscious) transference is also to the technology and needs to be engaged, interpreted as such. Isaacs Russell provides the distinctions to do so, which is what makes her contribution so valuable, even if one disagrees with her ultimate skepticism that online is the wave of the future. 

Amid many useful distinction and nuances, as noted above, the key-differentiating variable for Isaacs Russell is presence. She connects this closely to D. W. Winnicott’s seminal work on enabling the client to recover the ability to “go on being” in integrity and individuality, even in the presence of another person. The model for this therapeutic process is the young child’s breakthrough in individuality as the child is able to be alone (e.g., playing) in the presence of the mother (or care-taker). 

This process of becoming an individual being gets operationalized and tested when the client tries to destroy the therapist and the therapist [demonstrates that s/he] survives. Here “destroy” is a technical term, though it does indeed invoke hatred and the possibility of aggression. The paradigm case is that the client expresses hostility – even hatred – towards the therapist and the therapist does not retaliate. The therapist “takes it,” metabolizes the aggression and responds appropriately setting an empathic boundary in the relationship. This advances the treatment, expanding the integrity, autonomy, and individuality [mostly] of the client. 

According to Isaacs Russell, this is the key moment – the differentiator: “In ‘screen relations’, the client can never really test the analyst’s capacity to survive” (p. 37). 

Why not? Isaacs Russell quotes an astute client (in so many words) that without being in the same shared space the potential for the client or therapist “to kiss or kick” the other is missing. The potential for physical desire or aggression has been short circuited. Since the treatment must engage with these variables, the treatment is stymied and deprived of essential enriching possibilities of transformation.

Isaacs Russell is adamant that the ability of the therapist to survive, in Winnicott’s sense, cannot be test in the online context. If it could be significantly tested, then much of what she writes about the inadequacies of online presence would be invalidated or at least significantly reduced in scope. As noted, Isaacs Russell makes much of the potential to “kiss or kick” the other person in the same physical space; and it is true that such acting out rarely occurs but what is needed is the potential for its occurring. 

However, what has been overlooked is such acting out bodily is not the only way of testing the separation and survival of the therapist. Many examples exist in which the client tests the limits by means of a speech act – seductive or aggressive language. Speech is physical and would not occur with the sound waves impacting the biology of the ear. This is not merely a technical point. Tone of voice, rhythm, and timing are physically available. 

The distinction “speech act” is one that is critical path in any discussion of the talking cure, even if the latter is understood in an enlarged sense to be the encounter of two embodied (not merely “embrained”) talkers and listeners. Speech act theory includes pragmatics that allow for the illocutionary and perlocutionary force of speech.  Speech does not merely describe things – it performs things, building connections and relations. People get other people to do things – change the physical environment – by speaking to them: close the door! Pick up the kids at soccer! Persons invested with certain kinds of conventional authority, powerfully change relationships and other aspects of the human world. For example: “I now pronounce you man and wife” spoken by the officiating authority at the wedding. This is a new reality – in so many ways. The empathic response of the therapist, spoken to the struggling client, is another such example. 

Language is powerful, and we humans both wound and heal through our words. Heidegger, who is usefully quoted by Isaacs Russell as inspiring the work of Merleau-Ponty regarding physical spatial dynamics also noted, “Language is the house of being.” That is, presence – physical, mental, poetical, historical – emerge in the conversation that we have individually and in community in language.  

Recall that Winnicott’s point is that when the client acts out – in this case verbally – the therapist demonstrates his survival skill by not retaliating. Thus, s/he remains in integrity as a “good enough” partner in empathic relatedness and becomes independent. This likewise rebounds to the expanding integrity and independence of the client. 

If the therapist does retaliate – say by moralizing or withdrawing or blaming or becoming aggressive or seductive – then the possibility of treatment in the relationship is short-circuited. Absent significant repair, the relationship ends, even if the conversation continues in an impasse for awhile longer. 

Speaking personally, and omitting confidential details, I recall an instance online where, being clumsy with a relatively new online client, who was vulnerable in a way that I did not appreciate, I triggered a challenge to my survival. I triggered a combination of panic, retraumatizing flashback, and panic, in the client that resulted in an extended and seemingly automatic combination of verbal abuse. It threatened me professionally and the safety of the client such that I seriously thought of sending emergency services to the client’s address. The screen is always the screen, in this case, but the screen was no protection against the impact of the hate. It is a further question whether the same thing might have happened if my clumsiness had occurred in person. Perhaps the client would have kept quiet and never returned. We will never know. 

So while the client might not effectively have been able to throw a pencil at me (to use Isaacs Russell’s example), the individual would have been able to inflict self-harm in a way that would do more damage to me than a kick in the shins (another Isaacs Russell example). Never underestimate the ability of clients to innovate in acting out around the constraints of an apparently firm therapeutic framework. 

The good news is that, without making any commitments I couldn’t keep, by a combination of soothing statements, placating statements, self-depreciating humor, apologetic words, and deescalating inquires and suggestions, I kept my wits about me, and was able to restore the integrity of the therapeutic process. S/he agreed to continue the conversation. I survived and so did the relationship. It actually was a breakthrough, and, without everything being wonderful, the client demonstrated capabilities that had not previously had going forward. 

Thus, the counter-example: Survival was tested online, not by physically throwing a pencil, but in reciprocal speech acts and the enactment of presence in speech, a physical media not to be underestimated. One learns that the environment is safe when safety breaks down. To Isaacs Russell’s point, the potential for non-survival also includes non-survival as an actual enactment and outcome – and neither online nor physical presence has a privilege in that regard. 

In a real world emergency – a credible threat of self-harm – there is a difference between sending emergency services to the client location and summoning them to one’s own office. But perhaps not that much. The point about survival, safety, and containment (different but overlapping issues) and their respective breakdowns is the same. Many distinctions exist between an online and physical encounter, but the risk of survival or non-survival occurs in each context. 

One may argue back that the risk of a meltdown is less extreme in the warm and cozy confines of one’s own office, but maybe you never met a borderline client like this particular one or a client as suspicious or deeply disturbed. If the client takes out a box knife on camera and starts to carve up her or his inner thigh (or threatens to do so), one may fervently wish that s/he kicked one in the shins instead.

Thus, in answer to the potential for “kicking or kissing,” the answer is direct: Oh, yes the client can – can indeed test the capacity to survive and do so online. The example “kiss or kick” is not a bad example, but many counter-examples exist that provide useful evidence to the contrary as cited above. 

Positively expressed, plenty of evidence is available that the analyst’s survival can indeed be tested in an online session and s/he may survive or not. Ultimately even “kiss and kick” can be enacted as verbal abuse on line, perpetrating boundary violations with hostility or seduction that can be grave and survival threatening, either in imagination or reality, including the survival of the therapist as a professional and the therapy itself. 

To give the devil his (or her) due, it is true that there are some cases that are decidedly unsuited for an online engagement. Marion Milner engaged in a celebrated analysis of a deeply disturbed and regressed client, in which the client was silent for long periods of time.[2] The client finally was able to recover significant aspects of her humanity in producing hundreds of drawings and sketches that expressed a therapeutic process of pre-verbal recovery. It is true that, though these were visual artifacts, and presumably might have been communicated remotely, the client herself was already so “remote” from reality that another layer of virtuality was not going to work (nor was it possible mid-20th century).

Heinz Kohut has a celebrated example that he presented in an lecture made a few days before his death. Kohut was working with a deeply regressed and suicidal client (client) in years gone by. In a desperate moment, Kohut offered to let the client, lying on the couch behind which he was sitting in his customary straight-backed wooden chair, hold two of the fingers of his hand. The point of this potentially life saving (and boundary testing) gesture was Kohut’s association to the client’s desperate grasp with her hand being like that of a toothless infant sucking on a nipple. An empty nipple or a life giving one? Powerful stuff, which of course, would never be possible online. Far be it for me to be the voice of reality, nevertheless, these two cases of Milner and Kohut are outliers, albeit deeply moving one, that are completely consistent with the sensitive and dynamically informed application of online analysis and dynamic therapy.[3]

Though the uses of extended moments of online silence should not be underestimated or dismissed, Milner’s and Kohut’s cases were ones that privileged physical presence. It in no way refutes the power or potential of online engagement. What are missing are criteria for telling the difference. No easy answers here but the rule of thumb is something like: do whatever is going to further the treatment in the proper professional sense of the words. What is going to sustain and advance the conversation for possibility in the face of the client’s stuckness? Do that. Winnicott has been mentioned frequently, and rightly so. He spoke of the “good enough” mother. Here we have the “good enough” therapeutic framework including the online one. 

Another part of the narrative that was particularly engaging was Isaacs Russell’s discussion of ongoing online psychoanalytic training with the colleagues in China. There are few psychoanalysts in China, so in addition to significant culture and language challenges, such remote work would not be possible without online analytic therapy sessions and supervision. The nearly unanimous consensus is this is valuable work worth doing. The equally unanimous consensus, about which one may usefully be skeptical, is that this work is “functionally equivalent” or in other ways “just the same as” work done physically in person. 

The author provides examples, whether from the Chinese colleagues or other contexts is not clear, where neutral observers are asked to evaluate transcripts of sessions where the online versus physical feature and descriptive details have been masked. The result? They can’t tell them apart. What more do we need to say?

Apparently much more. With dynamic psychotherapy and related forms of talk therapy if you can tell the difference between an online and an in person meeting (other than comments about traffic or Internet connections), then you are probably doing it wrong or there is some breakdown that interferes with the process (in either case). Abstinence is easier online – no hugs. But if we are talking boundary violations, maybe some people – exhibitionists? – are tempted to take off their clothes on camera. (This has not happened to me – yet.) Anonymity – just as one’s office has clues as to one’s personal life, so too does the background on camera. Neutrality – being on camera suddenly causes one to adopt a point of view on social media or politics or nutrition or economics or education? Perhaps but I am not seeing it. 

However, what Isaacs Russell does not discuss is the “other” transcript – the unwritten one, which is only available as a thought-experiment. There is another transcript different than the verbatim account of what was said or even what a web cam could record. It is a transcript that is just as important as the recoding of the conversation, and why verbatim recordings of the conversation are less useful than one might wish. Both participants may “forget” that the session is being recorded, but the unconscious does not. There is the transcript of what the people are thinking and experiencing, but remains unexpressed or expressed indirectly. Such an aspect of the counter-transference or thought transcript is harder to access and includes the therapist’s counter-transference. 

One thing is fundamental: When the context of the encounter between people is an empathic one, then both an in-person encounter in the same physical space and an online encounter via a video session are ways of implementing, applying, and bringing forth empathy. 

The online environment and the imaginary thought transcript present new forms of client resistance and therapist counter-transference, and it is these that now are the main target of the discussion of this essay. 

Moving therapy to online opens up a new world of symptomatic acts, parapraxes, “Freudian” slips, and acting out. 

I had one online client who stands up in the middle of a session to check on what this individual had cooking in the oven, carrying her camera-enabled device with her. Was I amazed? Indeed. 

I acknowledged to the client that clients sometimes have mixed feelings about their therapists, and nothing wrong about that as such. Yet I was wondering did she believe I was perhaps half-baked? Key term: half-baked. Further discussion occurred of whether this individual was expressing her unconscious hostility towards me – while, of course, also preparing a baked dish. 

The breakdown in empathy may be a thoughtless remark by the therapist, a mix up in the schedule, or a failure of the computer network. The empathy – and transmuting internalization working through it – LIVEs in restoring the wholeness and integrity of the relatedness. Empathy lives as spontaneous relatedness, a form of transference and vice versa. This is not limited to psychoanalysis versus psychodynamically informed psychotherapy. This is not limited to online versus physical therapy. 

Other than candidates for psychoanalytic training, few people are calling up practitioners are saying: “I want the most arduous, rigorous, time-consuming, expensive treatment known – I want a psychoanalysis!” I tend to agree with Isaacs Russell that the possibilities for doing full-blown remote psychoanalysis are – how shall I put it delicately? – remote, but not necessarily due to any features of the online environment.

After all the dynamics and debates are complete, Isaacs Russell ends her book with a masterpiece of studied ambiguity. She gives an account of a conversation in an online session with a client in London, UK. Isaacs Russell has relocated to Boulder, CO, USA. Having worked together in physical presence, the client misses her and Isaacs Russell misses the client – yet the therapeutic conversation continues. One cannot help but agree with the sentiment – there is something missing – and yet the conversation continues. Thus, we roundly critique cyber therapy – and go off to our online sessions.


[1] Acknowledgement: This reviewer first learned of Gillian Isaacs Russell’s penetrating and incisive engagement with all matters relating to online psychoanalysis and psychotherapy from my friend and colleague Arnon Rolnick in Q2 2021 as the 2020 covid pandemic was waning, at least temporarily. Thus, I am catching up on my reading.

[2] Marion Milner, (1969), The Hands of the Living God: An Account of a Psycho-analysis. London: Routledge, 2010.

[3] Charles Strozier, (2001), Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst, “Gentle into that Good Night,” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 376–377.

References

Lou Agosta, (2010), Empathy in the Context of Philosophy. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lou Agosta, (2015), A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge. 

Narcissism gets a bad rap: On empathy and narcissism

Narcissism has gotten a bad name. “Narcissism” has become a euphemism – a polite description – for a variety of integrity outages and bad behaviors. These extend from antisocial, psychopathic actions through bullying and domestic violence all the way to bipolar spectrum disorders or moral insanity. “Narcissism” has become the label of choice when an individual is behaving like a jerk. 

In the face of narcissism’s bad name, I am not here to give narcissism a good name,  but rather I suggest the matter is more nuanced than that presented in the popular psychology press today. Like Mark Anthony commenting on Julius Caesar in his funeral oration after Caesar’s assassination, I come not to praise narcissism but to bury it – and to differentiate narcissism from more serious forms of bad behavior with which it is confused. This article suggests that if a person behaves in an anti-social, bullying, boundary violating or other problematic way described above, then narcissism is the least of the worries. 

Whip-sawed as the narcissist is between arrogant grandiosity and vulnerable idealization, the authentic narcissist will reliably provide a positive developmental response to empathy. However, if repeatedly providing empathy to the alleged narcissist just gets you more manipulations, bullying, integrity outages, and broken agreements, then you may really be dealing with an anti-social person and personality, moral insanity, psychopathy, or undefined lack of integrity, in which case, empathy will not work. Neither will compassion. Limit setting is the order of the day. Fill out the police report and get the order of protection. 

The truth of narcissism is that people need and use other people to regulate their emotions. When Elvis sang “I wanna be – your teddy bear” (Elvis Presley, that is), he was bearing witness to the truth that we use other people to sooth our distressed selves, provide emotional calming when we are upset, and give us the empathy we need to fell good about ourselves. 

“I wanna be your teddy bear” means “I wanna give you the empathy, recognition, acknowledge that you need to feel good about yourself.” If the other person subsequently does not respond to you as a whole person, then that is surely a disappointment but the shortcoming is not necessarily in anything you did. The other person did not keep their commitment. 

People want people who respond to them as a whole person. People want people who appreciate who they are as a possibility. People need that sort of thing. People are vulnerable to the promise of such satisfaction because it feels good when it actually shows up.  

Of course, the big ifs contained in such a proposal are that the other person is capable of providing such empathy; the other person is reciprocally acknowledged as being someone from whom empathy is worth receiving, and then the other actually behaves in a way that is understanding and receptive. 

If the other person expresses hostility, withholds acknowledgement, does not honor his or her word, perpetrates micro aggressions (“narcissistic slights”), manipulates in subtle and overt ways, or behaves in a controlling or dominating way, behaves like a bully, then is that narcissism? It might be – but it might also be a lack of integrity (dishonesty), anti-social personality behavior, criminality, boundary violations, and abuse. It might or might not be narcissism – but it is definitely behaving like a jerk [just to use a neutral, non vulgar term].

The person who survives such an encounter or relationship with the alleged psychopath in narcissistic sheep’s clothing then has two problems. The first problem is that the individual has been deceived, manipulated, or cheated. The second problem is that he or she blames himself. 

Narcissists are supposed to be excessively self-involved, self-centered, self indulgent. To succeed in life, most people need to have a dose of healthy self confidence. By a show of hands, who reading this article lacks a strong sense of self-interest? Get some help with that. Okay – that’s narcissism, but not pathological narcissism.

When I read the latest denunciation of narcissism in the pop psychology magazine, I wonder where are all of these people who are not self-involved, self-centered, self-interested, looking out for “number one”? 

I go to social media where self-expression is trending. My take-away? Freedom of speech and self expression are flourishing – no one is listening! Is such lack of listening narcissism? Perhaps. But more likely is not lack of listening rather just lack of listening? Lack of commitment of expanding listening skills, inclusiveness, and lack of community?

So suppose the popular press is all mixed up about narcissism. What does the disentangling of this mess look like? 

People who are described as narcissists have [some] people skills. Even if one’s empathy is incomplete and defective at times, most people crave an empathic response and are able to provide one, at least on a good day. The challenge is that the narcissist’s empathy breaks down in emotional contagion, conformity, lack of perspective taking, and messages getting lost in translation. 

Most people want to look good and avoid looking bad, and narcissists are especially prone to doing that. Most people are committed to being right and, while we theoretically acknowledge we might be wrong, few people actually behave that way. Most behave like “know it alls,” especially in areas about which they literally know nothing. Narcissists are especially prone to that too. So we are all narcissists now? 

The differentiator is that the narcissist ends up feeling like a fake, experiencing an empty (not melancholic) depression, even in the face of authentic accomplishments.

Even when the narcissist actually performs and wins the gold ring, he (or she) still feels like a fake. There is a kind of empty depression, lack of energy, lack of vitality. This lack of aliveness may cause the narcissist arrogant, cold, haughty withdrawal or acting out using substances of abuse or sexual misadventures. In spite of actual accomplishments, the narcissist may feel that life is passing him by. A pervasive sense of lack of aliveness, vitality, or apathy dominates the narcissist’s emotional life. 

The one thing that narcissism is not confused with is autism spectrum disorders. The narcissistic has access to empathy, values it, “gets” it, craves it, even if the narcissist’s empathy is distorted and incomplete. I speculate that the psychopath is good at faking empathy, like an empathy parrot, prior to his perpetrations, whereas the narcissist is just not very good at it. He may seem to be faking empathy, but that is his clumsy effort to get it right, which is not working. 

It seems as though the narcissist has an exaggerated self worth and, if in a position of authority, has the power to enforce his or her distorted view on others. The narcissist shares his suffering in a bad way by causing pain and suffering to the people in his environment. When such a person has authority, the result indeed can be dysfunction behavior, which is hard to distinguish from bullying. 

As with most forms of bad behavior, the optimal first response is to set a limit to the bad behavior by pushing back, calling it out, expressing concern, or using humor to deflect: such behavior (bullying, bad language, physical or financial abuse,  etc.) is unacceptable. “That doesn’t work for me.” “Stop it.” Without establishing a context of safety and security, we do not have a set up for success in which empathy can make a difference. Few people are in a position to up and quit their job. No easy answers here. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, then document, call for backup, and escalate to the authorities, including a call to 911 or a police report as applicable. 

At this point, the narcissist may get the idea, “Hey maybe I need someone to talk to – professionally.” 

While every case is different, no one size fits all, and all the usual disclaimers apply, the intervention with the narcissist often consists in a conversation for possibility. Talk to the person. Give him or her a good listening, and she what shows up. The person’s experiences as a child of tender age show deficiencies in the areas of empathic response, opportunities for emotional regulation, or distress tolerance. This is no excuse for bad behavior; never will be; however, it can point to transformation if the person is open and willing. 

The narcissistic encapsulates his true self into a cocoon, hiding behind a fake self, in order to preserve the hope of aliveness and vitality if an empathic environment were ever to show up. If, in a context of safety for all, the narcissist is encouraged to lay back and to take a look at the precursors, triggers, and behaviors that he experiences as narcissistic insults and injuries causing him to break down or act out, then something starts to shift. They did not get enough empathy, did not get feedback on their own empathic responses (or lack thereof), got empathy but the responses were distorted or flat out crazy (causing the above-cited retreat into the emotional cocoon). 

If the intervention gets off to a good start and the narcissist has a therapeutic response – that is, he feels better and stabilizes – then the work consists of trying to provide empathy, restoring understanding when empathy breaks down, restoring communication when communications break down, and restarting the development of positive personality traits such as empathy, humor, creativity that got lost in the narcissist’s deficient environment coming up. 

The bottom line? Like most human beings, those with significant narcissistic tendencies and behaviors are susceptible of improvement. Sometimes there is no way to know for sure except to attempt the intervention in a context of safety and security. Unlike more serious forms of bad behavior exemplified by anti-social personality disorder, significant bullying, or boundary violating behaviors in which people get hurt, many narcissists are sufficiently in touch with their feelings and cravings for empathy that they will respond positively to an intervention in a context of safety and empathy. 

Bibliography

Heinz Kohut, (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press. 

Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator), (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pears Press.

Go to all A Rumor of Empathy podcast(s) by Lou Agosta on Audible by clicking here: [https://www.audible.com/pd/A-Rumor-of-Empathy-Podcast/B08K58LM19]

Okay, I have read enough. I want to get Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, a light-hearted look at empathy, containing some two dozen illustrations by artist Alex Zonis and including the one minute empathy training plus numerous tips and techniques for taking your empathy to the next level: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Conversion Disorder: The Human Body is the Best Picture of the Soul

Jamieson Webster writes like a combination of an Exocet missile and a feline feather tease. Webster has previously published on The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis (2012) and with Simon Critchley on Hamlet (Stay Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine (2014)). Her latest contribution is Conversion Disorder: Listening to the Body in Psychoanalysis (Columbia University Press, 2019, 303 pp. ($33)).

Between Jacques Lacan, Giorgio Agamben, and Michel Foucault, Conversion Disorder is

Cover Art: Conversion Disorder

Cover Art: Conversion Disorder

a challenging read, though the effort will be rewarding for many.  The audience for this book is largely academics engaged by the some version of psychoanalysis, drawing mainly on Lacan and Freud. Much is to be admired in this courageous work, but since this is not a softball review, I have some criticisms, too. Webster has given us a brilliant work, though a deeply flawed one.

After such a significant effort, I am going to have some fun with this one.

Webster exemplifies a kind of postmodern writing that assumes one has read everything and therefore context is not required. Ideas streak through the text like ciphers from the Oracle of Delphi, whereas the statements are just ideas of university graduate level complexity being quoted out of context. Summaries are sometimes provided at the end of arguments, resulting in a benefit to those who decide to read the text backwards. Nothing wrong with that as such, but the approach does seem to be limited to intellectual haunts in Southern Manhattan, The New School For Social Research, the academic suburbs of London, and comparative literature seminars at the more prestigious universities.

With any book on psychoanalysis, the recommendation is to read the Appendix and endnotes first. They are the equivalent of a literary slip of the tongue, a symptomatic action, a parapraxis, revealing the subtext. Reading the book backwards works well in this case.

Webster recognizes that her relationship with her own body is troubled – the work is acknowledged as an attempt at self-help. It takes courage to make oneself vulnerable by this manner of self-disclosure: Diets, Pilates, yoga, purges, mega-purges, and more purges. Within the realm of the fundamental unity of mind and body, psyche and soma, this self-treatment triggers a full-blown appendicitis in the author. Literally. What happened? A powerful demonstration of the inseparability of, yet tension between, psyche and soma?

The final three words of the book (p. 272) assert that the conversion disorder in question is “my conversion disorder” – i.e., Webster’s. The microcosm is the macrocosm. “Conversion” is writ large. Very  large. Many other conversions and conversion disorders are engaged along the way.

Webster asserts that her work has aspects of a memoire, and the reader does eventually get to meet the parents (who had their own struggles to survive) in the last ten pages of the book. However, I was disappointed in that I got no sense of the “good parts” of the memoire – what the author had to survive or how she ended up becoming a psychoanalyst, which is surely a courageous project, and not an undertaking for the faint of heart.

Webster repeatedly calls out psychoanalysis as an “impossible” profession, notwithstanding the paradox that she credibly claims to  practice it. Here Webster walks the semi-sacred ground mapped out by Janet Malcolm in a book of the same name (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, Alfred Knopf, 1977/1981). Webster might usefully have invoked Janet Malcolm and whether her (Webster’s) contribution is a debunking in the same or a different sense than Malcolm’s.  How about a footnote? This is the sort of thing I would have expected the editor (Wendy Lochner) to catch, but editing is not what it used to be.

Another editorial pet peeve: The words “abjection” and “abject” are used as if they are clear to the reader. Context? Julia Kristeva is not in the references, though she is the one who gave “abjection” currency and a certain popularity. It is not otherwise defined. A criteria: If you do not already know what it means or are prepared to live with this uncertainty of not knowing, then this text is not for you. Once again I would have hoped that the editor would have intervened with guidance: “Please define one’s terms.” Once again, editing is not what is used to be.

Meanwhile, on how psychosomatic physical symptoms – migraines, lower back pain, headaches, which are notoriously difficult to diagnose – get “hijacked” by the emotions and become the source of substantial psychic suffering, there are more recent treatments, including Webster’s, but there is quite simply no better one than Arthur Kleinman’s The Illness Narratives (1988). An engagement with Kleinman will decisively change one’s listening – as, of course, will reading Lacan or being hit in the head with a rolled up newspaper – but Kleinman will also deepen one’s empathy, humanity, and toleration of uncertainty, which the former will not do.

Webster engages with biopolitics (key term: biopolitics) and the institutional dynamics around psychoanalysis. On the professional issues confronting psychoanalysis – and there are many self-inflicted wounds here – Kate Schechter’s The Illusion of a Future (2010) deserves honorable mention and more – and Schechter provides a far superior treatment of psychoanalytic gossip than Webster – very juicy indeed and funny in a satirical sort of way – albeit in the context of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. While Webster talks a lot about “courage” and she demonstrates much, noticeably absent is any trace of speaking truth to institutional power that might ruffle any feathers in the local establishment. Courage indeed.

My complaint? There is something fake about “I don’t want to be a psychoanalyst” – if one does not, okay, then stop and do something else – practice CBT, DBT, ACT, primal scream therapy (joke!) or take up water colors. At no point does the two ton elephant in the living room get noted – the dirty little secret: most of the psychoanalytic “patients” are behavioral health professionals (graduate students in psychology or psychiatric residents) aspiring to be enrolled in the pyramid. Nothing wrong with that. These good folks need help too. And it is a shame that psychoanalysis has fallen on such hard times as it can get results that no other intervention seems able to produce. But what does one have to do to get a piece of the action – a piece of the objet (petit) a? If one has doubts about the viability of psychoanalysis, this text will do little to dispel them.

Therefore, get ready for – biopolitics!? Webster follows Giorgio Agamben, who, in turn, follows Foucault off the biopolitical cliff into the abyss of – what? The objet (petit) a– we are now speaking French – which, according to Lacan, is not to be translated, the unattainable object, the part object (penis, breast, foot) – perhaps the Kantian thing in itself. Another cipher = x,  that which is being converted in somatoform disorder?

If one wants to bring biopolitics into the vicinity of hysteria, then ditch the Agamben. Take a look at Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which is a re-telling of the Salem Witch Trials using a lens from the 1950 McCarthy Hearings on House Un-American Activities. Politics and hysteria are front and center. Once the authorities agree to admit spectral evidence – not unlike fake news or alternative facts – including the hysterical utterances of over wrought pubertal girls, then the audience of The Crucible knows things are not going to go well for the adults. If one is going to make a deal with the devil, be sure to read the fine print. The pact with the devil results in a commotion – a literal witch-hunt – and a slaughter of innocents. The emotional anguish and suffering is wide spread and the audience is vicariously traumatized.

Webster has considerable “skin in the game.” Webster is suffering, too, though admittedly not to the degree of John Proctor (protagonist of The Crucible). Webster is engaging with conversion because she has a contribution to make in disentangling the complexities of the phenomena. What really  interests her is how the [counter]transference of hysterical symptoms occurs from patient to analyst (e.g., p. 74). Webster is Exhibit A – and proud of it.

Webster tells the reader as much: “Who would want to make themselves the vessel for so many others in this way? To have them repeat their pain and unlived life in your flesh?” [P. 54.] This is her “day job.” Once again, there is nothing wrong but there is something missing – empathy.

The lack of well-regulated empathy leads to compassion fatigue, burn out, and empathic distress. Apparently it also leads to an appendicitis. Her own appendicitis (see the Appendix) is not a hysterical pregnancy, but then again her patient is confronted with one of those – and see Freud’s comments on Negation. (When the patient says “now that is not my mother,” then strike though the not: not. Who do you think it is?)

The word “empathy” plays no explicit role in the text, though I suggest empathy’s breakdown is the underlying mechanism is many examples of conversion. I am not saying Webster has too much empathy. I am not saying Webster lacks empathy. I am saying: expanding empathy is hard work. Webster is no natural empath, as near as I can see from here, but a committed professional – and a celebrity academic. She is on the path of bearing witness and self-disclosure, but something is off the rails. Webster suffers from a breakdown of empathy specifically in the regulation of empathic receptivity.

Webster “picks up” the patient’s somatization – whether it is mirror neurons, neuropeptides, the adrenal pituitary axis or simple muscle mimicry (which is not so simple). The emotional receptivity breaks down into an individual form of emotional contagion so the therapist suffers too. The educated guess is that, being all-too-human, some unprocessed sex and aggression lurks near by, but mostly unprocessed narcissism, a term conspicuous by its absence.

People seeking dynamic psychotherapy (and its extreme form in psychoanalysis) are suffering. Sometimes after much work and effort and self-overcoming these same people become therapists. All well and good. The process is daunting and not to be made light of. However, Webster is so overwhelmingly taken with the significance of the process that no room remains available to enjoy a lighter moment. In addition to expanded capacity to love and work, Heinz Kohut (dismissed by Webster in the closing pages) pointed out how a successful psychoanalysis of the self may expect to transform frozen narcissism into expanded humor, empathy, and even wisdom. Here the narcissism is ultimately untransformed – and unconverted?

Webster quotes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Version 5 (2013), the deeply flawed but consensus-forming, boundary defining “bible” of the behavioral health world. Webster “gets it” that something essential is missing. “Hysteria” in the narrow sense of a signification (representation/symbolization) of an underlying sexual or aggressive content was removed from the manual several editions ago. Yet hysteria in the narrow sense lives on in Webster’s practice, in her transference, and (here is the courageous part) especially in her counter-transference.

In the DSM itself, mental and emotional disorders are described at the level of behavior and constellations of symptoms. It is a check list manifesto (with apologies to Atul Gawande) that enables the therapist (or prescribing psychiatrist) to map symptoms to treatments without having to unmask, go “under the hood,” or seek for hidden causes = x. Ideal for those prescribing psychotropic medications.

While Webster is a strong advocate for a close reading of Freud, this is precisely the area in which she is significantly at risk. The hazard of  Jacque Lacan’s guidance of “getting back to Freud” is that what Lacan really means is “replacing Freud with Lacan.”

In a separate interview, the Webster notes: “When I read him [Lacan], it changes the way I listen.” Of course it does. So does being beaten about the head with a rolled up newspaper (once the ears stop ringing).

My concern? I believe that it is possible for one to read too much Lacan or Foucault – like sniffing too much glue – it does make one high, but after a certain point the consequences are irreversible. [See Webster’s interview with Cassandra Seltman (01/05/2019 https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/interviews/cost-alone-cassandra-seltman-interviews-jamieson-webster/ )].

For Webster, “conversion” is not restricted to the somatization of psychic or emotional conflict into physical systems that present in a human body. “Conversation” also refers to religious transformation as might have interested William James or Giorgio Agamben or any radical discontinuity in experience that profoundly shifts the experience of the subject in a lasting and sustainable way. So it’s all fair game and whatever comes up, comes up. Quite a lot comes up.

“Conversion” is writ large, as noted, but I suspect most readers will require more guidance than is provided by Webster. For example, a person is under extreme stress. The person develops irritable bowel syndrome, lower back pain, or migraine headaches. That is direct somatization – conversion of the stress into a physical symptom (pain) – depending on whether one has a weak head, intestine, or lower back – depending on whether one has a disposition or microscopic, subclinical injury that is exacerbated by the stress.

Next comes extreme stress resulting in hypochondriasis – now called “illness anxiety” – where the person is not in pain but is literally worried sick, for example, believing the sebaceous cyst in his neck is incurable cancer or the headache means an inoperable brain tumor.

The third form (which is the one Freud engaged with most insightfully) is exemplified as the conversion disorder takes on an unmistakable symbolic expression. The patient’s

Jean Martin Charcot working with a hysterical patient

Jean Martin Charcot (one of Freud’s mentors) working with a hysterical patient

hand is neurasthenic – loses feeling and the patient is unable to control it. The paralysis ends at the wrist, which confirms that the paralysis does not map to standard neural anatomy. The patient’s leg is paralyzed, but in such a way that his paralysis does not map to standard neural anatomy. The patient is asked to free associate and her reflections go in the direction of her shame and conflict over masturbation – with the hand in question.

In a different example, Freud’s patient Frau Emma von N is accused by her late husband’s relatives of poisoning him (an accusation that is fake and self-serving). Emma develops a persisting burning on her face – on her cheek – as if she had been slapped!? Insulted? Trigeminal neuropathy? Freud after all was a neurologist. (Note this is Freud’s example, not Webster’s.) She talks about it with Freud, and it gets better.

For Freud when libido (desire) is directly transformed into bodily symptoms, the result is an “actual neurosis” (better translated as a “contemporary neurosis,” but, in any case, a technical term) – the body directly translates the psychic suffering as physical symptoms – paralysis, cramps, in extreme cases symptoms like epilepsy – except there is no anatomic lesion.

In some cases, these symptoms are painful; in other cases they are just disruptive of daily life – as when the patient loses consciousness. However, for Freud, when libido (desire) is unable to be directly expressed in bodily symptoms due to repression, then the desire (libido) gets expressed in bodily symptoms that enact sexual  representations. Desire finds a way to become articulate, symbolizing forth what it has to express by means of bodily signifiers (i.e., symptoms).

For instance, the patient is conflicted over marrying her brother-in-law (once again Freud’s example, not Webster’s), the husband of her late sister (who has just died). The patient is free to remarry and (a crucial condition) such a thought is abhorrent to the patient. It has no where else to go to be expressed than to be translated into a bodily symbol.

Although I believe Webster gives examples of this third kind, to the best of my knowledge (and I have read every word), no where does she make the point that the symbolism expresses sexual or aggressive or a conflict-inspiring violations of conventional community standards – which is precisely what has fallen out of the latest editions of the DSM.

By the way, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was a tortured soul for reasons completely unrelated to conversion disorder, wrote: “The human body is the best picture of the human soul” (Philosophical Investigations, 1950, tr E. Anscombe, p. 178e).

Perhaps it is so obvious to Webster that it does not require mentioning; yet unless one is steeped in these matters, this loss in the DSM is of the essence. In short, if one is looking for a book on conversion disorders that does for them what the late Oliver Sacks did for migraines, Tourette’s syndrome, music, or diverse anomalous neurological disorders (a high bar indeed!) that work has yet to be written.

References

American Psychiatric Association. 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. DSM-5, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association.

© Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project