Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Painting and projective identification

There are people for whom coping inter-personally requires (and there is no way out of this unless they can benefit from psychotherapy) a constant putting-out of un-wanted parts of themselves in order to maintain integrity of self.
It's the kind of claim that I would have been unable to interpret, or might simply have rejected, some years ago.

One way I have of describing this is to think of people who are constantly (sub-consciously) turning others - all others - into their parents, their ways of relating frozen at a moment when their actual parents were not available to receive them and acknowledge them. A little child is their emotions.
I think of the beautiful description of projective identification, due to Melanie Klein, that it is a pre-verbal communication, and as such it is communication of feeling, of affect, in which the infant "projects" or creates an intolerable "bad" feeling in(to) the parent and then "introjects" the parent's response. It is kind of symbiotic mechanism for self development, a very deep kind of learning, of acquiring self. "Symbiotic" because there needs to be a very deep bond between the infant and the parent to enable the infant to take over ("introject") the attributes of the parent that, if all goes ok, can show how to tolerate the destructive feeling. Becoming an "I" is something like this process of taking over attributes. There is a very fragile self. The infant's state is one of omnipotence, with no sense of boundaries between self and the world. Mum is that world.

In this way of becoming, which we are calling "projective identification", the bad feeling is carried by the other person and, through what we are calling "introjection", the other's way of carrying the feeling becomes part of "me", who "I" am.

But there are problems when the bond is not present and when the infant is compelled to carry really intolerable feelings. Painful feeling, depression, neediness, feelings that say "I want you mummy" may not be met with parental acceptance and care. A raging infant might be simply ignored, no less than a needy infant.

Without that other, it may not be possible to integrate a self-soothing part of into "me" so that I too can self-soothe, or tolerate threats or aggression. If "I am sad", or "I am great", or "I am angry" is not met with acceptance and empathy, but abandonment. What then?!
The unacceptable, rejected part of the self is "split off" and denied as being part of me. It's still there, but now I locate it outside me. Ok mum can't contain this feeling, then the world has it, anything has it that is outside me, so I do not have to contain it. What I cannot stand in myself, I now locate and fear (or nurture) in the other. That is the way of projective identification. The identification part is, what?....

I place the feeling in you, and then I am free of the bad feeling. It is yours now, "You are attacking", "I am under attack". Or there may be a complementary wave of projection "You are unacceptable!", "You are feeble!", "You are weak!". The other person may be such that he identifies with the projection. Some distant deep feeling is re-lived, of "I am bad" or "I am weak" or "I am guilty". And I, the one who was projecting, am vindicated. I identify too, now that he has received my projection. He really is weak! I really am strong! And the two are locked into a way of relating that props up the (false) "strong" self-image of the damaged person. They relate to each other in a damaging way.

So, for the damaged person, the person who cannot contain "bad" parts of himself, now an adult, there is a relentless projecting of his (sub-conscious) inward state of "I am weak and helpless" into others. He is scary or aggressive towards others, puts them in a state of fear and helplessness (and he can then adopt a pose of magnanimity towards them, of being a carer, borne of feeling superior) or he behaves in a way that makes of the other person an attacker.

I have been able to witness myself doing these things to avoid exposure, avoid being known, and to protect a fragile self. It is a way of being that is durable, possibly lasting a lifetime.

In my way of coping, it had become an automatic thing to behave towards the other person in such a way as to make them less threatening by rendering them (in my own mind) somehow in need of help, or in some way contrive (sub-consciously) to impose imaginative limits on them, and place them in a position of being in need of approval from some external, objective power, in order to make them understandable and less threatening to me.

I am very far from this state of being now. But it has been a very difficult journey.

One of the reasons for writing this is because I don't want to forget from where I have come, and how far. I think it is possible to relapse. One only has to be in the workplace, exposed to the pressure of performance and competition, to have the old defensiveness stirred.

Forces that were in me have so dissipated that I actually feel a sort of anti-climax. The struggle to break free of damaged and damaging relationhips is not there any more and I feel sort of directionless.

I don't experience or show the psychpathological behaviours I used to because I have changed.
(I am still in what has become a very long state of withdrawal.)

So what has all that to do with painting?

Painting my inner state of siege, isolation, fear.
Making the painting is a positive statement. It is out there in a form that is not itself threatening. But the qualities of the painting (everything abut it, scale, colour, gesture the way the paint is applied, the forms, the whole thing), the way I relate to it as its maker, these may all be contained by, or be an extension of, the inter-personal style that is projective identification. The large scale of the painting, and the boldness of gesture or colour may be uncontrollable precisely because it is a psycho-pathological mode of communication, unknown to oneself (unless one has been able to receive psychotherapy). Merely making the statement, confronting others with it, is a kind of demand to be looked at. It is (if I am making of myself an artist) a drawing attention to myself. And that narcissistic impulse may well be one of the "bad" things I can't tolerate in myself. I am ashamed of my "grandiose" propensities. ("Look at me mum! I'm great!" - "Stop showing off!" Abandonment.) Yet I am also envious of you who are being looked at an admired. ("Look at me! Pay attention to me!", "I can do it as well as he!")
Paintings offer a medium through which one can do all the things with projective identification (setting up states of feeling in others) but without the attachment and dependency that represents (to the pathological painter) only the risk of loss. And all this can be done in a socially acceptable way. Of course many artists have been prickly, wary, detached, withdrawn people. Cezanne did not want people to get their hooks into him. He was a marvellous painter.

I really don't want to labour this. Sure there is psychopathology, and painting is a means to outgrow it, such that it may be like a ladder one climbs then discards, especially if (as in a therapeutic setting) it is the meeting point for two persons and a relationship can offer the intimacy and trust that will defuse the aggression and hurt and loss which projective identification might enable us not to be aware of. Anthony Storr writes about this in his book "The Dynamics of Creation". But painting is not exhausted by Psychoanalytics. It is mysterious.

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