In the1980’s, psychological theories about how peoples identities were formed began to change quite radically. Before that the importance of relationships between individuals, families and society did not play such a major role. But by introducing the family into the equation, as a social bridge between children and their societies, these relationships took on a new importance. 

Relational models of psychotherapy created new inroads for the improvement of mental health and language - being the medium through which relationships developed - likewise gained greater importance. Distinctions between social psychology and personal psychology grew ever more blurry with the dawning realisation that in a sense they were two sides of the same face. 

For this reason our politics and the ideas it contained were taken more seriously and thought about in new ways, particularly in how this shapes our unconscious life. A new generation of pioneering therapists, people like Jaques Lacan for example, went as far as to say that, ‘’…politics is occupying, contaminating even, the unconscious itself…’’ 

The relational view is basically that our sense of identity depends on who we are with. In one social group we might behave one way, whilst in another we might behave completely differently. Our social groups invite us to think about this; that because we’re all doing this with each other and all the time that we all play many parts depending on the needs of who we are with. We do this, says the relational view, not just because we thrive on affection with others but at a much deeper level; that actually good relationships are the recipe for good emotional health. 

The questions I am asking in this post are what happens to our sense of emotional health when the relationship itself no longer feels real? The other question is what do we do then? for these relationships are vital to us. I am saying that this is going as the result of the way our politics, specifically capitalism, is shaping our expectations of each other. Through this our sense of completeness (of feeling real) is being wedded to the incorporation of things we own or possess, and that this is a problem for us if we wish to stay emotionally well. 

Erich Fromm, a world renowned social thinker and therapist, himself felt that the reason for this lack of feeling real in modern relationships was that “Through the rather cunning manipulation of desire, the discourse [language] of reducing it [desire] to demand,… creates the illusion that, … it is able to provide the complement of being that he or she is lacking by transforming the subject’s lack of being into a lack of having.” 

As therapists we might return to the infant phase of life to understand the origin of this created illusion. At a certain age all infants take into their mouths the things that they want, that they desire. This is their way of possessing things, of controlling them. Later they realise they cannot posses all things physically; they can however in magical or symbolic ways. Father’s prohibitions for example are taken in by the child symbolically, later forming a developing conscience. This spreads to all authorities and institutions in the same way.

This basic attitude ‘’of swallowing the whole world,” says Fromm, is one formed in childhood and as we grow naturally shapes our social characters. I return to Erich Fromm to comment on this possessive style of social character, one that in modern life we might call patriarchal.

“Perhaps the greatest enjoyment [in a patriarchal society] is not so much in owning material things but in owning living beings….over whom he can have absolute power…in his relationship to his wife, his children, his animals, over whom he can feel he is absolute master.” Fromm is not just saying that what is considered normal in society has been refashioned by capitalistic ideas but that the basic attitude of childhood possessiveness that underpins it is more appropriate to an earlier phase of life; that of childhood. This is a simple definition of what pathological means, an extreme example of an otherwise normal behaviour. This attitude now includes friends, lovers, even one’s own identity can be felt as an object, a product to sell; as something that is owned. This creates the sense of lack, the loss of feeling real, that I am talking about. One that, or so we believe, can only be filled by ‘products thrown on the market’, as the dominant political ideology is gradually taken in.

It is a pattern that, like any other, is encountered in clinical work, reaching back through generations. Although families may carry the political attitudes of not just their own generation but their antecedents we might agree that what is restricted in each case is “…the free, spontaneous expression of the infant’s, the child’s, the adolescent’s and finally the adult’s will.” 

Of course it goes without saying that in order to do this the child’s resistance must be overcome. This is because much of the force needed bends the child in directions that are ‘detrimental to [their] growth. It follows then that society, through its families has to solve a difficult problem. “How to break a person’s will without his being aware of it”

One answer is through the transformation of their desire from ‘an expression of being [to one of] possessiveness’ as Fromm said earlier. What this transformation also achieves is the gradual eroding of our social bonds and this is felt as yet a further lack as our sense of feeling real with each other is diminished. It’s an individualistic orientation and one that I suggest results in an unempathetic and erotically sterile relation to the world. A world that for many of us, once felt rich with relationships has now become a world where we find ourselves alone.

Whatever view we hold as therapists as to how neurotic symptoms form, one thing we can largely agree on is that “The predominant orientation occurs in the period before the achievement of full maturity…is pathological if it remains permanent”, that possessive orientations originate in childhood and in adult life are an expression of attitudes that have outlived their usefulness. In other words, “The consumer [has become] the eternal suckling crying for the bottle”, creating of course neurotic illness in both individuals and society as a whole.

For Jaques Lacan “one can be guilty of only one thing….that of having given ground relative to one’s desire”. Thinking about this desiring nature we can refer back to Fromm’s simply stated “the free, spontaneous expression of the… will” as a potential clue as to what is missing and the answer of course is free will and desire, whether our children’s or our own.

Here I am saying that this freedom is a freedom from a possessive orientation and a freedom to express desire. The possessive orientation in adult life denies this, objectifying both the other and one’s self. This provokes a reaction for “The tendency to grow in terms of their own nature is common to all living beings….we resist any attempt to prevent our growing in the ways determined by our structure.” Whether this resistance is passive, aggressive, conscious or unconscious the point is that it is provoked in response to being used, to “being bent in ways that are contrary to our given structure.”

As therapists we are deeply involved with our clients in this process of ‘being bent’ hearing or sensing their unspoken desires underneath, buried in the heart of their symptoms. For each one isn’t it this unheard desire to be free that stares out at us through the bars of their plight, their symptom. Isn’t it the capacity to be free that ultimately provides the remedial back to emotional health? I would argue that it is.

Culturally, in a similar way, disenfranchised groups are likewise feeling provoked by their own need for freedom. The freedom to not be objectified, to grow as they wish to. Their symptoms too might have been partially misunderstood for now, however expressed, they become symbolic of the entirely sane voice of protest, of rebellion against an objectifying discourse. One that has failed us in our need to sustain authentic relationships with each other and through this to stay healthy. 

One of the simple ways that we see this today is in our culture’s attitudes toward mental health. Stigmatisation, under-funding, unfair measures taken toward minority groups, many of whom are seriously ill. Looked at this way their rebellion can be seen as a sign of health and in this one can see great hope for symptoms whether personal or cultural. They become expressions of a conflict between these possessive cultural ideals and the efforts of the psyche to communicate its need to be real, to grow according to its nature. In other words the symptom is the sign that something is wrong and has to come before it can be put right. The symptom is forward-looking in this, for it initiates a process that outgrows the cultures possessive attitude, one that belongs to infancy. To stigmatise such a desire to ‘grow up’ is simply ridiculous. As James Hillman puts it, “What was once a symptom is now a figure with whom I can talk.”

I have attempted to put across the idea that, unpleasant though they can be, our symptoms are necessary to us and must come first, pointing the way out of our dilemma back to emotional health. One could even think of the journey in-between as the growing pains that must come before emotional wellbeing is found again. This as an attitude of being with people and not in possession or ownership of them. This to me is their meaning. If we can trust this they lead us ultimately toward a desired maturity both for our society and for ourselves.


Further reading

Meet the therapist: Nicholas Malik 

Tribalism in politics and therapy

Why dishonesty in politics affects us on a personal level 

Disability and society: how have things changed?