Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in North West London


The Purgatory of Self-Analysis.

There are always misconceptions I come across in myself which, in a now lengthy period of analysis and self-analysis, I have from time to time to try to face up to. First I will say what I mean by self-analysis. The phrase ‘health by hook or by crook’ is attributed to Donald Winnicott, and has something of a characteristic tongue in cheek quality as one often encounters in his writings, for example his ‘there is no such thing as a baby’. But when these catch phrases are unpacked they may be perceived as having a depth of wisdom and experience. One thing the hook or by crook thing seems to me to infer is that we are all initially endowed with an innate capacity to gauge, even unconsciously, what is and what is not conducive to our development whether or not we are in a position to do much about it. Because of setbacks from the outset this faculty may become clouded. Even so and sometimes because of such obstacles human beings to a more or less extent possess the motivation to find their way towards a sense of a rewarding humanity. That is what I want to call self-analysis, a case of ‘what next!’

By using that term I do not imply that it is a case of alone I did it nor on the other hand that a full analysis does the trick. My own experience of analysis would be regarded by many as a good deal short of ‘full’ considering its length and intensity or my readiness for what it entailed. What I can say is that without it I may never have been launched on the years of self-analysis that developed after the sessions came to an end some six years ago. A good-enough analytical therapy gave impetus to what had kick-started the unacknowledged need to seek it out in the first place. And, as Winnicott has famously pointed out ‘good-enough’ is all that is required of a mother. Yet even without that collaborative work there is, I believe, something innate in us that seeks expression and will pursue it ‘by hook or by crook’.

Phrases like ‘getting better’, ‘letting be’, ‘knowing one’s limitations’ ‘acceptance’ come to mind and contrast with ‘cure’ or ‘completeness’. Even ‘knowing yourself’ leaves out an essential proviso, namely, that psychically we are creatures who seem to be made up of parts that are always to some extent in conflict with one another. To say ‘by hook or by crook’ makes reference to the state of an internal family struggling to be able to lie down with one another like the lions in the repetitive dream of the ancient fisherman in Hemingway’s fable.¹

But also implied is something close to purgatory. I like the idea of using this term because it appears to be outside of the language of psychoanalysis yet carries a hint of the inescapable drawback in trying to face the truth. The concept is an illusion which belongs, not so much to the corpus of Christianity with its prevalent idea of a once-and-for-all at-one-ment (though such a reading would be contested by many Christians of integrity), but more to the province of superstitious determinism and is more in keeping with what strikes me as a pernicious fundamentalist zeal, responsible for the stunting of many promising lives.

Certainly the word has its roots in the idea of purification, but in religious terms this is thought to take place after death, not for those who have been saved from it and can enter into the Kingdom, but for those who have remained unconverted. In that context purging is regarded as punitive—punishment delivered at the hands of tormentors. Fundamentalism of that sort turns amounts to exalting a form of masochism (so-called self-sacrifice) which in turn is sadistically passed on to its children to their detriment.

In contrast there is a sort of purgatory that takes place in the analytical process. The following passage begins to make this clear:
    The basic procedure of analysis, due to Freud, is well known. The patient tries to convey his conscious thoughts and feelings to the analyst who, in virtue of his own previous analysis, believes that in many of them he can recognize the influence of other thoughts and feeling which are repressed. When he interprets this connection, the patient may himself recognize it as correct or he may not do so for one of two reasons; either he may understand the interpretation but reject it as untrue, or he may fail to understand it. In both cases, if the analyst still believes the interpretation to have been correct and lucidly expressed, he will attribute the patient’s failure to accept it as affective resistance which he will try to analyse in turn.²

It is the degree of resistance, holding back the ability to recognize our own truth, that can be compared to purgatory in two ways. One in the pain of admitting something in our nature that has been refused for many a long year and which is a source of guilt, shame or humiliation. The other aspect which we may be settling for is the grinding sense of a joyless vicious circle driven by feelings of persecution covered up and parried by resentment and fearfulness. The first is the sharp sword of the truth while the other is the misery of its refusal muddied by confusion.

¹ Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea.
² Roger Money-Kyrle: The World of the Unconscious and the World of Common Sense.



I start by searching for the right word to say sorry. What’s wrong with ‘sorry!’? ‘An innate preconception, then, if it exists, is something without our being able to imagine it. I think of it as having some of the qualities of a forgotten word.’¹ Saying sorry, far from being an innate preconception (a capacity for recognition we may be born with—as if to say: 'this is not the same as the womb!’), is something that has (has it?) to be drummed into us along with ‘say thank you’; in other words it may well have become detached from any innate feeling which in the course of early development makes itself manifest in what Winnicott famously marked a stage of development, namely, ‘the capacity for concern'. Melanie Klein, Winnicott’s analyst, differed, inventing the term ‘depressive position’ a potential of which, according to her, there was evidence much earlier and is not quite the same as concern, rather a profound anxiety about one’s own badness.

But this little essay starts with my hunch that I have forgotten the right word. I hesitate to admit that I may have forgotten, or not ever really known how to say sorry and mean it. In that case I will be hovering on the edge of Klein’s ‘depressive position’ (owning up) in opposition to her ‘paranoid-schizoid position’ (covering up). In the latter position ‘sorry!’ has a purely placatory significance, a fearful attempt to please to avoid retaliation for an ineradicable sense of badness in us and which can be mistaken for concern. In my mental effort to get just the right word I have trawled through ‘apologise’ which, however, has its root in defence, and with emphasis on ‘speaking’ and ‘getting off the hook’ (Greek) and is close to what was thought of in psychoanalytic terms as a reaction formation and thus as a pretence, an attempt to make something bad plausibly good. That is close to ‘making amends’ (mending) though it leaves the idea of something one-sided which remains broken. I disqualified ‘recompense’ as offering compensation. There seemed to be another word I needed, knew, but that would not occur to me. ‘Restoration’ was not it, with its connotation of requital, nor was ‘retribution’: giving in return for taking, paying tribute. And then ‘atonement’ which is not the word I was looking for although the sense of at-one seems to be at the root of saying sorry and meaning it.

The word that kept knocking at the door and being discarded because my sense was the syllables themselves were awry—that word was ‘reparation’, and of course here again is the obvious link with repairing. I have to throw my hands up and admit that there is no other word and that perhaps my imagination has been playing tricks. Or is it? I prefer to think that there exists in the imagination a primitive illusion, home-made preverbal symbol that captures the true nature of saying sorry in a way that feels deeply right. In that case I will accept ‘reparation’ for now as its collectively accepted representative.

Reparation then, it seems to me, exists as an innate preconception, and can be seen in action in infancy. To place it in the classification: ‘reaction formation’ is perhaps to define it as contrary to a developmental canon unless the need to split off a destructive urge is considered, as indeed Klein did, to be a primary priority for the integrative urge. A progressive stage in her thinking was marked when she linked reparation to mourning. The distinction here, however, is that mourning is the acceptance of irrevocable loss; it does not bring back the object that has been lost, whereas reparation is a move to restore dependence which is felt to have been put at risk of being lost by the expression of emotions of hatred and more pernicious and recalcitrant states such as envy. In a primary sulk there is no leeway to make autonomous reparation. It takes maternal intuition at its finest to perceive the palm branch being offered in the tiny gesture of her infant beleaguered by the pain and rage of perceived abandonment. Sorrow is an essential part of both reparation and mourning. In the case of reparation the emphasis is on harm done to the other. This may also be a factor contributing to the loss of a loved one, part of the work required in letting them go.

Yet one consideration remains to be taken into account when it comes to saying sorry and meaning it. It is necessary to define ‘dependence’ in a way which distinguishes it from a state at variance with an authentic self. ‘Infantile dependence’ acknowledges a fundamental need in the early chaotic state in which the newborn arrives. It is essential for the development of coherence and the establishment of a growing ‘capacity to be alone in the presence of the mother’ as Winnicott termed a stage moving ahead towards weaning. To be weaned is not to have done with the need for others. That would be the misapprehension of omnipotence and of self-limiting ‘certainties’ such as manifests itself in maladjusted parts of ourselves and on analogy with the meretricious ‘safety’ the gang presumes to give its members from the terrors of trusting. Here there is no saying sorry, only obedience and the threat of severe punishment; a crushing of integrity, a morbid fearful clinging together in mutual hatred and humiliation. Call that dependence!

To say sorry and mean it is to see the other with joyful astonishment. Where before there was watchful suspicion the true act of reparation ushers in surprise and playfulness, a sense of seeing things perhaps for the first time, a valuing of the other who beforehand was held off from a position of armed neutrality. It is the harbinger of valuing. To say sorry and mean it carries an innate preconception that to be surprised is of the essence of life. The tiny hand that goes out to the mother after the killing² tantrum is a sign of the basic search for the capacity to love. So what is the word I am looking for? It is not a word, but a sense, or an absence of a sense that is missed, perhaps it is a sound, detected in a single bar of music or in silence, a sound of silence or an echo in a space of which a baby’s being is integral. In grown-up terms it might be ‘seeing the other in us’. Is there a word for that? Perhaps 'longing'. That seems separate from moods of wistfulness in which there is little hope. Longing entails compassion and, to my mind, prepares the psychic soil for saying sorry and meaning it.

¹ R. Money-Kyrle: Cognitive Development.
² D.W. Winnicott: Playing and Reality.


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