Five days a week on the couch may be a rarity, but in our quick-fix culture, where we are more inclined to "manage" behavior than to understand it, psychoanalytic thought is more important than ever. There is an ongoing discussion in the psychoanalytic community about professional standards. One person raised the question "What is psychoanalysis?" The answers in the ensuing conversation for the most part refer to on-the-couch long-term therapy, a valuable but marginalized form of treatment.
As a non-psychoanalyst treating children and families in the "real world," I hope that the psychoanalytic community will keep an eye out (or both eyes out) for the goal of insuring that psychoanalytic ideas continue to be part of mainstream thinking. One colleague of mine refers to this approach as "psychoanalysis off the couch."
Towards that end, I was moved to compile a list of what I think are the most important psychoanalytic ideas (along with the person to whom the ideas are originally attributed.)
1) Symptoms have meaning
This meaning is often out of awareness, or "unconscious." This idea is particularly important in a culture where symptoms are managed with medication without effort to discover meaning. For example, the current issue of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology News has an article entitled "The Use of Pharmacological Agents to Treat Aggression: Is it Time to be Thinking about a Mechanism?" The author acknowledges the lack of evidence for efficacy of drug treatment, and suggests further exploration of the biochemical mechanism of action of the drugs.
Every young patient I see with aggressive behavior has a complex history. This may include biological vulnerabilities represented by sensitivity to sensory input, environmental stressors such as marital conflict or witnessed domestic violence, or even a history of abuse. The idea that we can address these problems simply by finding the drug that affects the pathway in the brain for aggressive behavior is, at this stage in our knowledge of neuroscience, pure fantasy. We can only address the symptom of aggressive behavior by understanding the underlying cause.
2) The holding environment
The original holding environment is that provided by the primary caregiver, where the whole of a child's experience, including both loving and aggressive feelings, is tolerated and contained. In providing this holding environment, the caregiver helps the child to make sense of and manage his or her unique experience of the world.
In clinical work, the holding environment is the setting; a quiet space and time with a trusted person who accepts and contains difficult feelings. In my office at Newton-Wellesley Hospital's Early Childhood Social Emotional Health Program I have a special room for mothers and babies that has pastel rugs and soft chairs. It is quiet, private, and filled with light from a large window. One of my young clients called it a "feel better room." I think of it as a holding environment, where both mother and baby can feel safe, contained and understood.
3) All psychotherapy is about mourning
This does not necessarily mean a death, but may refer to a range of issues including troubled past relationship or even war trauma. I vividly recall the first case that led me to understand my work in this way, and since then I have come to recognize that tissues are my most important piece of office equipment.
When I first began studying psychoanalytic thought as a scholar with the Berkshire Psychoanalytic Institute, I was working with a five -year-old boy in my general pediatric practice whose intense sibling rivalry with his younger sister was a source of great stress for his mother. His relentless need to be first was increasingly disruptive to the day, often making it difficult get out of the house. His mother knew me well, as I had taken care of both kids since infancy. At a full hour visit devoted to discussion of this issue, she suddenly became tearful. She told me that her older brother had been killed when she was a young child. Her family had never mourned this loss and had simply tried to run away from it. The task of mourning her brother had in a sense been deposited in her son, and was now represented by his symptom. Once her feelings were put in their rightful place, the intense sibling rivalry subsided and returned to a normal level, which she was well able to manage on her own.
4) Disruption and repair
Embedded in this construct is another important contribution of Winnicott's- the good-enough mother. I summarize both ideas in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind:
Research by psychologist Ed Tronick and his colleagues provides evidence that supports Winnicott’s idea that the good- enough mother, the mother who fails at times to be attuned to her child, facilitates her child’s healthy development. Tronick refers to moments of disruption, similar to Winnicott’s “failures of attunement.” Tronick and his colleagues videotaped minute-by-minute interactions between infants and their mothers. His research has demonstrated that these moments of disruption can actually enhance development of emotional regulation. Mismatches, when they are recognized and repaired, increase a child’s sense of mastery and confidence in his ability to cope with difficult feelings. The accumulated experience gained from dealing with and repairing multiple mismatches, or disruptions, become part of the infant’s way of relating to other people.
Puting all four ideas together, it is important to recognize that behavior has meaning, and that to discover that meaning, which is often linked to loss and/or trauma, there needs to be a holding environment. Things will inevitably go wrong in relationships, but if people can reflect on what went wrong and repair the disruption, they will have the opportunity to grow through the process, and will likely end up in a better place.