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Medusa Moments in Psychoanalysis | Weblog of the APA


It wasn’t lengthy earlier than Lev and I had what I name a Medusa second. In such moments, the scientific environment turns into stone-like, frozen in silence.

Lev was a forty-year-old psychoanalytic affected person of mine, an engineer, who requested firstly of remedy for a option to obtain a long-lasting erection. (Treatment was off the desk per his physician.)

Dialogue along with his associate was additionally off the desk. He assured me the difficulty wasn’t disgrace, however duty, specifically his; he had angered his spouse by avoiding intercourse, till she demanded he search assist. Now he was (implicitly) demanding I assist him through some literal treatment for what I noticed as an emotional and relational downside.

Quickly I too felt deflated, as if my emotional curiosity, my analytic stance, was merely insufficient, our dialogue inert as gravel. I made some sensible solutions; he’d tried all of them. By no means thoughts Lev’s latest hernia process (ouch), or his former associate’s shock divorce. He wanted to repair this now, his spouse was murmuring of separation. 

            I stated to Lev, “I think about this type of stress ain’t precisely attractive.”

            Lev: “So what are the instruments to make it attractive?”

I had little to supply, it appeared, just like how he felt along with his spouse maybe, in a parallel course of eluding dialogue. She took his deflation as a literal abandonment, “proof” of his lack of need for her, an environment cool as granite, cementing their deadlock.

However what turned my tongue to stone? Whose snaky gaze was I responding to? The affected person’s? His spouse’s? Was this my “inside critic,” provoked by the affected person’s disappointment, a stony disgrace I couldn’t title even to myself? This was an anxiousness with out phrases, notes and not using a rating, a “vibe” hostile to analytic thought.

This situation represents an acute however not rare scientific dilemma, the place sufferers search aid from emotional or relational knottiness through mechanical means alone, with language drained of subjective emotional which means, in favor of verbal “prescriptions” that can unfreeze emotional stuckness, although “emotion” isn’t a time period of significance. Right here the affected person’s framing of the issue displays the issue, phrased in machine-like phrases (“rewiring”): language video games drained of the vitality wanted to convey dyadic dialogue to life. As Wittgenstein put it, “to explain a language sport is to explain a type of life.” However such types in these situations are more and more lifeless.

Easy methods to re-animate such a drained corpus of communication, communicate of the hazard of the concrete, the vitality of emotion: analytic language video games akin to a international tongue? My very own incapability to “translate” results in an anxious silence, like a creeping frostbite on the tongue. Such “translation” in spite of everything is as much as the physician, is it not? 

But notions of “subjectivity,” not to mention “transference,” nevertheless plainly spoken, appeared ineffective. Lev’s earlier therapist had dwelled on his previous at size; he now sought goal suggestions in regards to the current, as if I had or ought to have a God’s-eye view, above fairly than inside an affectivity he appeared allergic to expressing.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who coined the time period language video games, states that philosophical issues are situations whereby we appear to not “know our means about,” analogous to scientific moments the place the needle of my compass appears frozen in place, with speak of such lostness additionally enshrouded in ice. Can’t you simply inform me what to do? 

Wittgenstein describes how language acquires enlivened which means in lived utilization, in advanced contexts of tradition, politics, household—the residing community of speech, contexts of idiom, slang, or assumptions, the rhythms of connectedness. To stay is to talk, and vice-versa; language shapes expertise which supplies form to language. 

Sufferers comparable to Lev usually come from non-responsive environment, conditions that didn’t heed the kid’s “ouch,” devaluing the kid’s self-expression, and thus (given the ability of emotion) the kid’s very presence, a withering insignificance (as with Lev’s physique, alas.) Youngsters right here study their phrases are venomous to others, omnisciently harmful. This results in metaphysicalized life, phrases stripped of context, in favor of omni-meanings imposed by the caregiver-system, the place there’s by no means greater than one perspective, or perhaps a “perspective” in any respect—merely reality, just like the language of a cult.

The kid begins to equate private narratives with monochromatic “incidents” fairly than tales, a life turned to stone, beneath caregivers’ monolithic gaze. Lev’s downside as he noticed it was a failure of erection—the tip. I noticed a means of married life in disaster. But emotions had been inappropriate, as “subjective” appeared like “egocentric,” in mild of his spouse’s dissatisfaction, because of his failure alone (one other omni-meaning), which he may solely redeem performatively, as with kids inflexibly tasked with provision to chronically sad caregivers. 

Such restriction towards subjective significance may end up in moebius-like confusion, as it’s onerous to make analytic sense of what’s taking place, when the analyst’s language video games are frozen out in undetectable methods. But we sense the windswept hole between language worlds, stubbornly unnamable, through a collapsed relationality that itself holds little significance in dialogue. Analytically relational ideas are extra lived than described, the place “description” (like interpretation) is itself contextualized in a dyadic world or empathic encompass.

Making this extra sophisticated is the complexity of language video games normally, embedding expertise in methods unseen because of their familiarity, but proof against what Wittgenstein referred to as a seductive “longing for generality,” or the God’s eye view—as after we confuse the mechanics of the mind with “consciousness” or “thoughts.” This gave the impression to be what Lev was in search of, a need to face outdoors the issue fairly than to know from inside, sustaining the very alienation that deflated him. However once more, the reflective language on view on this paragraph was of little to no significance: he merely needed the prescription, reduce to each different week, wrap issues up.

In reality, the imperfection of language, and our embeddedness in it, undercuts our need for grand comprehension, which stays humanly tempting. Phrases are potent, in methods that may seduce, a “bewitchment of language by way of our intelligence,” as Wittgenstein famously places it.  

It appears logical for example that I may provide an professional opinion on the issue, because it says “Physician” on my enterprise card, the language sport of authority, at the same time as my solutions to Lev flopped, undermining my very own need to play the position of professional, as if I ought to be capable to clarify away the issue. Lev sought assist from self-help books, carrying their very own cultural caché; his failure to implement them provoked his personal Medusa skepticism. We had been unseen siblings in paralysis. 

Thus, the hole persevered. Easy methods to clarify that the “resolution” requires a brand new perspective on the issue, in noticing (for starters) our viewpoint and that of others as views, when just one perspective is foregrounded, on this case Lev’s spouse.

Our personal theoretical video games are additionally rife with a complexity straightforward to overlook, till we attempt to put them into play. Our viewpoint turns into acquainted, taken without any consideration, like a portray we stroll by day by day and after a time miss out on, till we spot it anew, our gaze alighting with recognition. Some can’t make it out, although we would suppose we are able to “get” them to see. (However what “causes” anybody to note a brand new facet?)

Lev’s downside was additionally an answer, for example, in its distancing him from a spouse who spoke of separation, one other facet of the difficulty—as in an optical phantasm, although Lev noticed solely a face there, not two. Might the professional clarify this unseen facet?

Some sufferers speak about changing detrimental ideas—borne of early neglect, injured vanity—as if swapping out a lightweight bulb. The presumed insignificance of emotional expression, its originating context, virtually ensures its continuation, with language stripped of such context, when “emotionality” can be mechanical, like rubbish to be hauled to the curb. That rubbish is analytic gold, I need to insist! Can the professional one way or the other illuminate that facet? 

Effectively, isn’t that my job? Temptation abounds. There’s at occasions an inclination to think about “pondering” as tangible. However what in spite of everything is a thought, and the place does it happen? Is it a firing of neurons “inside” the mind? In on a regular basis use we are saying we “have a thought,” a lived familiarity giving sense to “thought.” Notions of “inside” or “thought are in different phrases themselves language video games. Plucking the phrase from context turns it to stone, a (fantasied) bulwark towards the Medusa-stare of uncertainty, an archaic demand to get it proper, have “solutions.”

We’re embedded within the vastness of our video games, the oceans wherein we swim. We can’t stand outdoors with the readability we would like, as language too is fallibly ambiguous. Our solely selection is to lean nearer, discover what happens. There’s energy within the unusual, Wittgenstein believed. But the unusual turns into overly acquainted, together with the assumptions of our language world; unsettling when a unique world challenges such assumptions, like arguments inside analytic “households,” or impasses of dyadic which means.

Cavell factors out how terrifyingly fragile our language worlds may be, dependent as we’re on others for dialogic weaving, spoken understanding, a method of our very coexistence and relational survival, releasing us from solitary confinement.

It’s thus disquieting when a affected person seeks solely materials options, bypassing our phrases of artwork, two foreigners misplaced in translation. To some, “empathy” is a monadic “repair,” not a “course of,” because the latter may be like explaining to a baby what paper cash represents.

But a affected person would possibly arrive with hope I can ship the phrases to persuade a liked one to cease consuming, for example, as if the precise phrasing can “de-spell” some demonic compulsion, exorcise self-destruction. Lacking once more is any relational background.

Such a closed-system usually hints at an archaic demand to handle a complete caregiver-system, an inheritance of compliance, wherein nothing is “performed” however fairly commanded—video games not open to query, dominating the kid’s thought. 

That is one instance of bewitchment. Others embody denial, as one’s dependancy will likely be dealt with “sooner or later.” Additionally both/or questions, the place solely the “excellent reply” will un-spell the anxiousness upsetting the query: a snake devouring its personal tail.

Sufferers struggling inside concretizing, addictive, or accommodative methods (that’s to say, the vast majority of my caseload) turn into entrapped in bewitchingly coercive language worlds, the place bewitchment is contagious, even because the “proper reply” eludes as long as emotionality is unexpressed: surrounds stifling or destroying a baby’s capacity to find subjectively spoken which means, the lived concept-game of “subjectivity.”

Such methods camouflage any notion of “methods,” beholden to a darkly magical “script”, written from a God’s-eye view, which caregivers too might have inherited. Right here a baby’s “unsuitable phrases” are venomous, traumatizing to caregivers and the kid’s capacity to name it as she sees it.

Right here is Ogden’s collapse of potential house. Traumatic misattunement collapses transitional speech: the little one’s discovering or “authoring” of their very own language world, ossifying beneath the stony stare of expectation. Some sufferers have advised me they by no means actually felt needed, valued, or liked. 

Most tragically, then, the kid involves view their spoken spontaneity as evoking the Medusa head. That is prime stage-setting for dependancy, as in my very own case, the place “alcohol” grew to become bewitching, un-stoning by getting me stoned, obscuring the snaky gaze; booze thawed the tongue, in talking of yearnings and fears. An archaic demand to forego embodied existence spurs the God’s eye view—implanting within the little one’s thoughts the perspective of an overbearing grownup. 

Such overbearing in my very own case can repeat in any number of methods clinically, an enigmatic pull to “repair” the issue through phrases, as if I may, a temptation of density, a replication of calls for to “magically” soothe others, such seduction sliding in beneath the radar. The unsuitable phrases alternatively might singularly hurt the affected person, resulting in awkward silence.

After I was in middle-school, I introduced dwelling a library guide on alcoholism and households, in hope of understanding the insanity at dwelling: a terror unmentionable to caregivers. My father was deep in his cups, clashing explosively with my mom. One night time I left the guide on the espresso desk, as if I lived in a free atmosphere. Within the morning my father noticed it, eyes widening with anger. “Don’t depart that mendacity round!” he stated, as if the guide’s very existence threatened his vaunted status as a social employee. I snatched the totemic quantity from view.

Right here his personal terrified perspective disappeared as a perspective, as if I alone (in in search of such harmful textual content) appeared to “trigger” his panicked rage. The world re-presented its guidelines: thou shalt not communicate out of flip…. as if a need for textual aid, to appease and make clear a terrifying household chaos, had been alone chargeable for the hole between us, haunting nonetheless although he’s gone, his phrases hanging like breath in winter.

In intersubjective repetition, it’s as if an unstated, unnamable canyon lies between us, which I could once more be tempted to consider I alone can “fill.” The failure to take action turns into threatening, as my phrases alone can rescue. I may even sense impatient friends and mentors on the sidelines, awaiting implementation of our cherished video games. 

One other affected person of mine, Jonathan, encountered his personal Medusa-head within the type of his boss, a associate at a prestigious Beverly Hills regulation agency. Jon too hoped for excellent language, through correctly written emails to VIPs or flawless authorized briefs: phrases shielding him from his boss’ prickly displeasure. The boss’-eye-view remained foregrounded, obscuring Jon’s underlying need for recognition, too shameful to notice.

This meant that he couldn’t communicate to the Escher-like impossibility of his job, of summoning approval through phrases alone, an exterior validation confirmed “inside.” But this was his focus with me, him speaking round and never about the shortcoming to discover a relational dwelling outlined non-relationally, validated solely by a strong different. Jon couldn’t communicate from inside such craving, as such an affective mom tongue had by no means existed for him; he floated above, a satellite tv for pc distant from his personal usually “poisonous” subjectivity. He associated a nightmare of being an astronaut in house, suffocating in his go well with.

In the meantime, I attempted to maintain up with the slow-motion sandstorm of his ruminations, misplaced in a vastness of element. What he failed to appreciate, what I one way or the other couldn’t convey to him, was that the weak, even endearing a part of him (to my thoughts) had one way or the other turn into harmful to others. His vulnerability froze in orbit, lest he tempt his boss’ suffocating Medusa-gaze (I would like that by tomorrow Jon, and no failures!) 

This grew to become our conundrum, as he agonized about assignments, fearing errors he had but to make, with a mounting dread that I too felt, even because it remained unnamable. He feared his boss would once more humiliate him in a employees assembly. This exacerbated a hope to suppose his means out of his personal paralysis, at the same time as her mounting hostility befogged his capacity to suppose! Such paralysis in the meantime was additionally shameful.

Jon’s dad and mom had been distant, his father semi-warm however immersed in his profession. His mom was depressively unstable, leaving Jon (the one little one) to “take care of her,” foregoing the wants and needs that appeared to disturb her: a Medusa-gaze of terrifying panic, burdening him with a duty that ossified his personal wants and skill to talk them. 

However this view of a “poisonous” vulnerability that I noticed as important, failed to interrupt by, as he strove to suppose his means across the situation through anguished monologues.

Stabs at empathy even prompted his agitation, i.e., “Okay I’m solely human, however this submitting is due tomorrow!” Or, “If she doesn’t promote me, I’ll have wasted 5 years of my goddamn life!” (I had seen him for roughly two.)   

Notions of “transference” had been equally ineffective, nevertheless merely said. You’re saying my boss is my mom.” He usually heard my curiosity as critique. “You suppose I blow issues out of proportion…?” His opaque craving for approval provoked self-hatred, as any dialogue of his anxiousness solely postponed its circumvention.   

I pursued co-engagement with Jon, oblique validation of my analytic stance, a lot as Jon pursued his boss. In such a means we each futilely pursued recognition. Ultimately I detected this parallel, with an isolation that was seemingly analogous to his. Our round pursuit was like a snake consuming its personal tail, as if such futility was ours alone, individually, “inflicting” the opposite’s Medusa stare, paralyzing us in tandem, each of us indignant at ourselves for upsetting the opposite’s disappointment: as if such different stated to us about our personal hopes, Don’t depart that mendacity round! (Jon was terrified he was seen as needy and weak.) I typically backed away from Jon, unable to discover a means in, cautious of the futility of my “incorrect” phrases, halting investigation of joint futility.

I started to see that Jon was no extra “accountable” for his boss’ response than I used to be for my father’s, or for Jon himself, in our unseen mutuality. Maybe I even left that guide in view as a flare of defiance, upsetting a father who may or wouldn’t declare the misery inflicted on us. Jon then grew to become brother-like to me, illuminating the craving to please a grumpy authority determine, as his boss (like my dad) swung wrecking-balls of self-protection, each of us sifting by rubble fairly than inspecting the ache of impression.   

In reality, there was nothing Jon may say to dispel her venom, simply as there was nothing I may say to Jon to appease an agitation I wanted to know, humanizing our asymmetrical anxieties. My very own self-muzzling resulted from the traditional notion that I may verbally present a path to appeasing his boss, as he sought the right phrases. We had been each enjoying an unimaginable sport, whose very impossibility illuminated the issue, sight unseen, me making an attempt to suppose my means into serving to a person pondering his means into altering his boss’ pondering—fairly than me addressing such a requirement to completely suppose, a sport neither of us may win.   

The Medusa picture in truth has haunted me since childhood, instilled from numerous unseen but burdensome calls for. Seeing such calls for as emanating from overwhelmed caregivers, fairly than some summary best I had to satisfy—inflexible language video games wherein fallibility was disallowed—eased the Medusa-terror. Jon’s disappointment in me misplaced its edge, as I mirrored upon this, as fallibility grew to become constitutive of our course of, together with our makes an attempt to speak round such roadblocks. 

Ultimately I advised Jon how conflicted I felt, struggling to assist him to seek out the popularity he deserved, at the same time as I sensed there was nothing he may do to alter his boss, who more and more sounded to me like a bully. I identified the latest reward he obtained from her, simply earlier than she (once more) denied his promotion… a complicated sport reflecting her must really feel highly effective, at his expense.  

Jon determined she was a narcissist who detested vulnerability, although I actually discovered him endearingly earnest. (This moved him.) We mentioned “gaslighting,” which invalidates expertise, devalues the expression of damage, abandoning us in shit, as if we had been too silly to determine a means out by ourselves.   

He sighed after a second. “That is sensible.”

I remarked I ought to have stated this sooner, that I feared dashing his hopes, in my incapability to say the precise factor till I spotted there was no proper factor, and “possibly you relate?” He chuckled… earlier than a bitter unhappiness settled in. He talked of the dwindling hope of filling the footwear of his father, a semi-famous regulation professor and speaker who preferred admiration from a distance. Thus a frozen paternal hole, which Jon hoped to fill by “being good,” as if he may magically summon the validation he craved. We had been siblings in Sisyphean pursuit.

Jon reluctantly sought one other job, at a smaller agency that nurtured his skills. Nonetheless his unhappiness lingered, although we may at the least deal with it as unhappiness, with disappointment in me as properly, since he hoped I’d present a option to victory. We couldn’t fill that hole a lot as communicate and illuminate its which means, together with Jon’s hope of closing such a wound; in such a means our phrases gained dialogic foreign money.

At occasions he would say, when overwhelmed, “What do I do with all this?” At first, I chafed (was he deflecting?)—till I spotted, how may he know what to do, when he had by no means been inspired to talk from the anguished heart, a subjectivity he was at all times advised to not depart “mendacity round”? He couldn’t know what to do with these emotions or our relationship, as a result of nobody had ever proven him! I understood this and spoke to such a yawning absence. The “shit” of his scenario grew to become fertilizer, with fallibility welcomed in. Jon grew to become conscious that such wrestle was the method, not a symptom of catastrophe that was his alone. I inspired him to be extra demanding of me and never solely of himself; I preferred him as he was, irrespective of how tough he thought he was. 

I thus heard not a requirement (what do I do with this?) however the little one’s name of misery. This query, what do I do?, is the place so many therapies start. The Medusa right here turns into the instilled, little one’s-eye-view of caregiver expectancy, a concern of upsetting harmful contempt, resulting in a retreat from the very supply of relational home-building. Jon distanced to guard others in self-protection, remoted within the course of, as I self-muzzled to not disappoint him, growing the hole we felt however couldn’t title. What do any of us do certainly, our spoken fallibility, the huge finitude of unknowns. 

There’s in the long run a typical language to be discovered, if we’re sensible sufficient to look silly, relating to the impulse to “fill” the emotional voids of trauma with metaphysical prescriptions, tempting safety towards painful voids our phrases illuminate, such haunted canyons, seen in a context of expressiveness. We don’t fill our sufferers’ existential vacancy however communicate of the agony evoked, a clean web page for extra personalised tales and self-portraits, as we welcome even the darker shadings. 

Our phrases usually fail us as a result of we’ve got been failed by ossifying silences that persist unnamed. It’s onerous if not unimaginable to talk of “emotion” or “expertise,” when any language of expertise is frozen over. Analytic persistence turns into thawing, producing empathic warmth, as we lean into fallibility and its impression on sufferers, our dedication to the heart beat of presence through unusual trade, language video games collectively lived fairly than simply described.

Darren Haber

Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT, is a psychoanalyst in Los Angeles.  He has printed on-line on the LA Overview of Books and steadily seems within the journal Psychoanalysis, Self and Context.  He blogs recurrently on, Psychology Right this moment and different websites.  His guide Circles With no Middle seems this winter from Routledge.


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