Trusting One’s Mind
I sometimes say to clients and often think to myself that one’s mind is not one’s own. While I consider myself reasonable, thoughtful, and capable of sustained focused activity, the periodic intrusion of obsessive ideas and vindictive phantasies, not to mention the nightly dream world casts my mind as a most intimate, yet seemingly autonomous other whose machinations, conceptions, and misconceptions seem to originate from some nether world.
Freud’s brilliance was to capture this unsettling uncertainty of mind by describing the intricate relationship between primary and secondary processes. The limitation in Freud’s approach was his privileging integration, stability, and the executive function of ego at the expense of vulnerability and fragmentation. Although contemporary psychoanalysis embraces the idea and theorizes about multiplicity, there is still a tendency to view fragmentation as representing a primitive mental organization. This tendency is present within the phenomenon of the Borderline Personality Disorder that tends to combine diagnosis with disparagement. Along side this conceptual tension, the individual continues to suffer the “slings and arrows” of this illusory notion of ego that holds tightly the embodied conviction of an integrated, executive self.
A client was trying to decide whether or not to move back with his girl friend after some time had passed following a break up. In one session he described obsessing about doing the right thing. The obsessions focused on seemingly unimportant decisions like does he go to see his girl friend immediately after work or does he first go home, exercise and then go. Simple choices overwhelmed him with indecision. While he felt that moving in with his girl friend was the right decision, the difficulty making this decision led him to doubt his general ability to make decisions. His increasing indecisiveness in making simple decisions led to a general feeling of self-doubt and paralysis. He felt that he couldn’t trust himself to make the right decision about moving in with his girl friend.
I suggested that he might be ambivalent about moving in with his girl friend. In other words he was of two minds. This formulation provided brief clarity to my client and helped him explore his reluctance to move back in. Before he could trust his decision-making and re-attune his relationship with himself, he needed to recognize this conflict and acknowledge his less acceptable feelings.
Understanding that the mind is intrinsically split, fragmented and organized more like the micro climates of San Francisco than the grid of Manhattan is central to establishing an ability to know and accept one’s self. Context sensitive emotional states structure the expressions of the self. One thinks, perceives, and acts differently when angry compared to sad, anxious or ashamed. Conflict exacerbates the intrinsic tendency of the mind to split. The individual deals with upsetting feelings by denying, splitting, and separating them, not so much from consciousness but from the idea of how the self should be. The experience of not feeling oneself is often a reflection of the emergence of a non-preferred aspect of the self. Paradoxically the splitting that occurs under the pressure to deny aspects of the self strengthens the need to feel integrated and increases the gradient of splitting. This protective process builds on the illusion of integration as health and involves a magical wish to rid the self of unacceptable parts in order to achieve wholeness. The effect of this process is depletion and discouragement.
Realizing that optimal development doesn’t lead to a unitary, stable, cohesive self but to increasingly complex, disparate, and context sensitive states enables a more realistic and less judgmental appreciation of the workings of one’s mind. Rather than a unitary, autonomous structure, it is helpful to view the self as a composite of multiple parts that represent different qualities, some parts complimentary and other parts contradictory.
Having the capacity to live with ambiguity, multiplicity, and conflicting feelings is critical to living well and wisely. Being able to hold and contain these disparate parts of self and examine them non-judgmentally is a signifier of health.
Within the muddle of multiplicity there exists the possibility of an observing ego, a valiant small-t truth-seeker and internal consensus builder. The most important function of the observing ego is the ability to reflect on experience, especially in times of stress. Gaining perspective involves identifying, listening to, and understanding the multiple feelings and conflicted parts of oneself. The simple yet daunting solution to the complexity of mind and life is to be open to self-experience, to invite all the disparate, contradictory feelings to the table.