Discussion Group Dissociation and the Observing Ego Barry Magid April 21st 2018

Standing in the Spaces: The Multiplicity Of Self And The Psychoanalytic Relationship Philip M. Bromberg, Ph.D. Dissociation and the “Observing Ego”

This brings me to the question of the so-called observing ego. The extent to which one's individual self-states are simultaneously accessible to awareness (what has been called the relative presence of an “observing ego”) is the traditional criterion that analysts have used in determining whether a patient is “analyzable.” From my own perspective (Bromberg, 1993, p. 162), the difference between patients who have classically been defined as analyzable and those who have been seen as unsuitable for analysis is a matter of the degree to which self-states are dissociated from one another. What I call the structural shift from dissociation to conflict is clinically represented by the increasing capacity of the patient to adopt a self-reflective posture in which one aspect of the self observes and reflects (often with distaste) upon others that were formerly dissociated. This differs from what classical conflict theory would call the development of an “observing ego,” in that the goal is more than the pragmatic treatment outcome of a greater tolerance for internal conflict. There are always self-states that are enacting their experience because they are not symbolized cognitively as “me” in the here-and-now of a given moment. For the most part, this creates no problem within normal, healthy human discourse. It is where these self-states are experienced as “not-me” and are discontinuous with other modes of defining self and reality that the trouble occurs. For most patients, though to different degrees, I see the goal as being able to first accept, as a valid mental state in itself, the experience of observing and reflecting upon the existence of other selves that it hates, would like to disown, but can't. In some patients this initial shift in perception is dramatic, and involves a major personality reorganization. In its most extreme form this transition is paradigmatic in the successful treatment of severe dissociative disorders, but the basic transition is one that I have encountered in every analysis during all phases. If the transition is successfully negotiated, an opportunity has been provided for an internal linking process to take place between a patient's dissociated self-states by broadening his perceptual range of reality in the transference-countertransference field. In the linking process, fantasy, perception, thought, and language each play their part, providing the patient is not pressured to choose between which reality is more “objective” (Winnicott, 1951) and which self is more “true” (Winnicott, 1960, 1971b).

Consider, in this context, a clinical vignette presented in an article by Searles (1977) that vividly illustrates the creative synthesis of this perspective within routine analytic process. Searles writes:

It may not be deeply significant if a patient occasionally begins a session with the statement, “I don't know where to begin.” It may be simply a realistic attempt to cope with, for example, the fact that much has been happening with him of late. But I began to realize some two years ago that the patient who more often than not begins the session with this statement (or some variation upon it) is unconsciously saying, “It is not clear which of my multiple ‘I's will begin reporting its thoughts, its feelings, its free associations, during this session.” That is, it is not basically that there are too many competing subjects for this “I” to select among to begin the reporting, but rather that there are too many “I's” which are at the moment, competing among “themselves” as to which one shall begin verbalizing. . . . A woman, who had become able, over the course of her analysis, to integrate into her conscious sense of identity many previously warded-off part identities, began a session by saying, in a manner which I felt expressive of much ego strength, in a kind of confident good humor, “Now let's see; which one of my several identities will materialize today?” (pp. 443-444)

I recently thought of this example from Searles after a session with one of my own patients that began with an uncharacteristically lengthy silence, broken by her saying quite matter-of-factly, and without any discernible anxiety or defensiveness, “I'm having three different conversations with you today.” I replied, “Different in what way?” My question was followed by another silence, this one more obviously organized by self-reflectiveness. “Good question!” she stated. “First I thought that the topics were different. But when you asked that question I started to realize that I didn't want to answer because there are really three different moods all at the same time, and I don't know which one I want to answer you from.” There could be no clearer evidence than this moment to show that dissociation is not principally a mode of self-protection (even though it serves as such in the face of trauma). It can be seen here in its intrinsic form as the basis of creativity, playing, illusion, and the use of potential space to further self-growth. It was shortly after this session that, following a typically unsatisfying phone conversation with her father, she described looking at herself in the mirror, hating her father, and watching her face while she was hating—playing with the facial expressions, trying them out, enjoying the hateful feelings, but, as she put it, “still feeling like ‘me’ all the way through it.”

Next Talk

Barry Magid April 28th 2018 Standing in the Spaces

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