Friday, April 20, 2012

The Limits of Desire

In the Development course of First Year at the Tampa Bay Institute for Psychoanalytic Studies, the paper Aggression and Sexuality in Relation to Toddler Attachment: Implications for the Caregiving System by Alicia F. Lieberman (1996, Infant Mental Health Journal, 17(3) 276-292) was recently discussed. I recommend this paper for its elegant vignettes which readily illustrate how parents might enhance a child’s sense of self and self worth by their responses to a toddler’s aggressive or sexual strivings. But it is its applicability to the psychoanalytic situation that cause me to quote from what Lieberman describes as the outcome of well or poorly handled responses.

She writes that when negative feelings are generated in the attachment relationship around sexuality or aggression, there occurs

a constriction in the areas of experience where the child can rely
trustingly on the attachment figure’s emotional availability …
Attachment loses some of its richness and range because certain
domains of experience must be kept secret from the parent for the sake of not risking rebuke and disapproval.

And its corollary:

When aggression and sexuality are appropriately accepted, modulated, and socialized by the attachment figures, in contrast, there is an expansion in the range of affect that becomes permissible to experience and to share. Toddlers acquire a visceral [procedural] sense of pleasure in who they are and how they are made when their parents cherish and celebrate their body and its accomplishments…when appropriate limits are being set that allow the child to learn what is permissible and what is not in a clear and nonpunitive manner.

Certainly, the analyst hopes to invite in to the consulting room the broadest range of affective experience and to eschew rebuke and disapproval for what a patient brings. We want our patients to cherish and celebrate a broad range of self experience. Likewise in the psychoanalytic situation it is incumbent upon the therapist to remain emotionally available to analysands even when they bring potentially unwelcome strivings, to remain emotionally available by empathizing with and remaining sensitive to the patient’s strivings, keeping open the elaboration of wishes and desires without unduly frightening a patient and without foreclosing the transitional space for play by reifying or concretizing patient’s wishes through action. Keeping the elaboration of desire alive while holding sensitively to the limits of its permissibility is a very difficult balance, reminding me of what a medical school, surgery mentor used to say when things got unpredictable and potentially dangerous on the operating table, “We’re in tiger country now.”

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