Reading Alessandra Lemma's Introduction to the Practice of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in August 2010 was what, at one level, occasioned what has now been 15 months of exploration into psychoanalysis. This from the early pages - humans are messed up, life is pain, it goes deep, we deceive ourselves, we are not God, conflict is inescapable. It should surprise no-one that depth psychology is a fruitful line of reading for Reformed theologians.
The core message of psychoanalysis ... a rather unflattering picture: we are beings driven by sexual and aggressive urges, we are envious and rivalrous, and we may harbour murderous impulses even towards those whom we consciously say we love. This is a mirror that we would rather not look into.
At its core, psychoanalysis is about the vagaries of desire, our recalcitrant renunciations and the inevitability of loss. It shows us that we can be our own very worst enemy ... conflict is inevitable. Whichever way you look at it, someone somewhere is always missing something in the psychoanalytic drama. Psychoanalysis suggests that disillusionment and frustration are intrinsic to development. Within Freudian theory, renunciation is a necessary evil if society is ever to survive. Freud, the bearer of bad news, starkly reminded us that we simply cannot have it all our own way. The hard lessons begin at birth. As reality impinges on us, the experiences of frustration, disappointment, loss and longing make their entry in the chronicles of our existence. The reality is that the breast - that archetypal symbol of never-ending nourishment and care - eventually dries up. These very experiences, however painful, are those that have been singled out by psychoanalysis as privileged in our development towards adaptation to the so-called real world. Even if it were possible to create a situation in which our every need could be satisfied, this would not be desirable since it would not equip us with the resilience born of the endurance and survival of moments of frustration and disappointment. Our capacity to delay gratification, to withstand absence and loss, are hard-won lessons that challenge our omnipotent feelings while also reassuring us that we can face reality without being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.
Psychoanalysis also challenges our preferred belief in conscious thought as the ultimate datum of our experience. Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of us prefer to believe that what we see and experience accounts for all that is important in life. All too often we rely on our sense impressions and make little or no effort to probe deeper. Psychoanalysis, however, suggests that we are driven by conflicting thoughts, feelings and wishes that are beyond our conscious awareness but which nonetheless affect our behaviour - from behind the scenes as it were. The possibility that we may not know ourselves undermines our wish for self-determination and casts a shadow over our preferred belief that we can control the future.
The notion of the unconscious is hard to digest not only because it suggests that we may not know ourselves but also because, even more provocatively, it proposes that we deceive ourselves and others. From the very start, psychoanalysis questioned the trustworthiness of human beings. It teaches us never to trust what appears obvious; it advocates an ironic, sceptical stance towards life and our conscious intentions. This is because, Freud suggested, we are beings capable of self-deception. Our mind appears to be structured in such a way that it allows for a part of it to be 'in the know' while another part is not 'in the know'.
The picture of human beings that we see through psychoanalytic lenses is a sobering one. Strive as we might to be in control of ourselves, psychoanalysis tells us that we will never be wholly successful in this endeavour. Strive as we might to be happy and to overcome our conflicts, psychoanalysis tells us that conflict is an inescapable part of life. It reminds us that the best we can hope for is to find ways of managing, not eradicating, the conflict that is an inherent part of what it means to be human - and that will be £50 per session, [DF - published in 2003!] thank you very much.