Friday, October 30, 2009

Relational Psychoanalysis and Community Redevelopment

At USF Day Institute on Engaged Scholarship and Community Redevelopment, University of Buffalo Professor Henry Taylor served as keynote speaker. Dr. Taylor’s emphasis on the solving of problems of “distressed urban communities” and the “sprawling urban metropolis” resonates with contemporary psychoanalytic theory. Professor Taylor noted that any one social problem can only be resolved in relation to the total environment. Underperforming inner city schools, for example, can only improve when rebuilding efforts address the unsafe neighborhoods, limited familial resources, poor nutrition that affects attention spans, bitterness, and hopelessness that form the social context of the school.

Neil Altman’s pivotal thinking about the application of psychoanalytic practice to public health clinics relies on the relational perspectives of Fairbairn, Mitchell, Greenberg, Bollas and Ogden. Though Altman’s focus is on the therapeutic setting, several issues can be extrapolated to analytic consulting work in distressed urban environments.

Psychoanalysis had long relegated the poor to the position of the “analyzable” in a way that broke down along social class values. Poor people were seen as preferring affiliativeness versus rugged individualism; as suffering from limited verbal intelligence which increased the likelihood of destructive acting out in the therapy; and as focusing on here-and-now problems of hunger and physical safety rather than on unconscious fantasy and symbolization.

Contemporary psychoanalysis had moved beyond the rigid stratifications of ego psychology that discriminated against patients based on their ability to tolerate the frustration of analytic abstinence, the eruption of anxiety from the growing awareness of the drives and drive derivatives and ego ‘defects’ such as inability to delay gratification; a profoundly class-based evaluation procedure.

Though Altman credits Fred Pine with widening the scope of ego psychology, relational psychoanalysis offers more. For Pine, (in a break from ego psychology) the relationship between the analyst and patient is mutative. When the patient has the experience of the analyst as reliable, nonjudgmental, capable of helping the patient name and distinguish feeling states cures and this is independent of the patient's use of the insight developed through therapy.

Relational analysts offer several insights that can be extrapolated to apply to community problems. Relational approaches to community trauma and despair can offer community members ways to think and be-in-relationship with each other such that they can learn to make situations less anxiety provoking. Community demands to solve concrete problems can be taken at face value and away from pathological judgment. The ensuing countertransference that develops while working in distressed communities can be a method for feeling one’s way into the community’s internal (i.e. emotional) world. Psychoanalysts can assist community groups in increasing their ability to manage anxiety provoking situations and away from a reliance on constant crises and chaotic reactions that show themselves in therapy as frequent missed appointments, coming to therapy only in times of crisis, and an over-focus on concrete, bread and butter issues. Consulting with community groups in distress affords members access to ways of thinking about bread and butter issues that promotes an understanding of what these may be symbolizing for the community.

Altman, N. (1993). Psychoanalysis and the Urban Poor, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 3, 29-49.

Pictured are Gary Lemons, Ph.D., Department of English, USF; Nagwa Dajani, M.D., Ph.D. College of Medicine and Lycia Alexander Guerra, M.D., President, TBIPS and TBPS at the USF Day Institute.

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