Sunday, December 8, 2013

Benjamin on Recognition and Regulation

In bringing front and center to psychoanalytic discourse the subjectivity of the mother (not just the mother as object to the infant), Jessica Benjamin, adding to Daniel Stern’s paradigm of play, elaborates the importance, the imperativeness, of mutual recognition in the clinical encounter. What an honor (made possible by a contribution from the Florida Organization for Relational Studies) to have such a gifted and renowned thinker at the December 7, 2013 local Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society program meeting.

Attachment and infant-caregiver research have shown that sharing of affective states, where one experiences and understands that another ‘feels the same as I do,’ co-creates a rhythm of interaction—what Benjamin calls the rhythmic third (formerly called the one in the third)—which diminishes existential fear and isolation. The rhythmic third, the up and down orientation of affect in the same direction— which is soothing in its recognition, lets the analyst, as well, know that s/he is not alone in the universe.

It is through recognition, of shared affective states, that affect regulation occurs. Intersubjectivity is the sharing of affective states. It transforms complementarity such that one can feel empowered  with a sense of agency because, not only is one recognized but, one can recognize the other’s feeling in a way that can be shared and creates joy. Mutual recognition can be effected and empowers the self by seeing the self as recognizer, more powerful than simply being mirrored (recognized). Benjamin says recognition and regulation are “twins,” that is, are interdependent. As such, mutuality needs to be in the foreground. Affect regulation is necessary but not sufficient, for we do not want only to keep affects within a tolerable, manageable range. We want additionally to create meaning, acquired within the communion of mutual recognition.

A cornerstone of mutuality is the recognition of impact.  It is the realization by the mother that the child actually needs to discover something about her responses, what it is like for her to be a real human being in a real world. Recognition adds to regulation when the analyst can manifest the impact of the analysand such that the analysand experiences both the analyst and her/himself as a subject with feelings and agency. Sometimes recognition of affects at all from the analyst is a new experience for the patient.

Incumbent on the analyst is survival (Winnicott) so that the analysand does not have confirmation of the fear that her/his feelings can destroy the other. Yet, as Benjamin notes, it is not always easy for the clinician to tolerate and bear the affective state of another, particularly the pull to despair. To help mark (Gergely ) –similar enough to help the patient know you are on the same page, but dissimilar enough so patient does not fear you yourself will be dysregulated and overwhelmed; the mother marks her response to the infant’s distress by showing that she is not distressed in the same way but also that she knows the infant is distressed— affect, Benjamin looks to the third.  By acknowledging what is happening [e.g. ‘Your expectation that I not disappoint you is not unreasonable, you deserve understanding; and yet I am not perfect and so cannot always live up to your expectation.’] creates  a sense of the moral third, a sense of a lawful world where meaning exists and, though expectations can be violated, attachment can be recreated.

Breakdowns in mutuality occur when complementarity prevails. It is as if only one can survive. It is the belief that only one subjectivity is in the room, as if the other is not allowed to have thoughts, or as if one is making the other feel something. This is a breakdown of the moral third where it seems the other can only submit or resist. Benjamin advocates the need for parents to implicitly communicate to their children (or analysts to their analysands) that there is a lawful world in which other subjectivities can exist, a world of mutual understanding where everyone has a right to live, called a moral third. Sharing of affect allows us a way out of an impasse.

[The third, an unfelicitous term which has not ‘jumped’ to common psychoanalytic  parlance, seeks, noted Benjamin, another word to capture that area where negotiation can occur, where two are united to transcend destruction, where the analyst is not under the sway of projective identification and can retain the capacity to think, and where the analyst can tolerate greater degrees of vulnerability. At dinner last night, Paulina Robalina suggested “intermedium.”]


Tim LaDuca said...

Why can't [we] speak in plain terms and accessible analogies?
I hate ideas I can't wrap my head around. The "third" falls in that category. The only terms really needed are "peerage", "connection", "respect", "kindness", and "intimacy". In analysis "we are peers". "I am your peer". "I can go intensely dark places with you."

And "moral third"? What does she have, like three different concepts of the third? If ideas cannot easily be translated to the mass public, there is a good chance they are pretty much useless ...

Erik Strom said...

I learned a lot from Jessica Benjamin. I learned that its okay to take care of your own needs in a relationship even if that creates guilt in yourself and emotions in the other as long as you talk about it. Logically this seems obvious but at a deeper level I'm not so sure I felt this way.

I feel this issue strikes to the very heart of the matter in relationships. Sacrificing your own needs for the other works great until one can go on no longer.

This simple and elegant solution might be a way to create durable long term relationships, what could be more important then that?

All this seems obvious after Jessica Benjamin's talk which is the mark of an extraordinary person.