Psychodynamics – one take on it

My take on psychodynamics is interest in thought, and thought process, which absolutely involves feelings, or emotions. It is often more associated with therapy. I happen to believe the ideas are far too good to ‘belong’ to one field only. So here goes, from my perspective.

Psychodynamic theory now has a public understanding:
* we wonder if behaviour, decisions and actions might be motivated by hidden personal agendas, e.g. by unconscious patterns from past or present;
* we know that many words: ego, self-esteem, idealistic, paranoid, defensive etc., have definitions concerning mental emotional states, even if we do not know the particular definitions, nor what kind of inner world they represent;
* we know it is important that people (babies, children, adults) are offered human relationship as well as physical care and mental stimulation, even if we argue about who or what kind of offering;
* we know that there is something some people do, the ‘talking cure’, counselling or psychotherapy or psychoanalysis or whatever, which is supposed to get people in touch with parts of themselves they had not consciously known about before, and create an actual change in their well-being;
* we know we have feelings: hope, fear, trust, doubt, curiosity, scorn, interest, disinterest etc. or an ambivalent mixture of many feelings

However, psychodynamics also has a public distrust, which might be well-founded in the “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” model, as well as fear of madness. People, including me, know we have got to where we are by cobbling together ways to survive emotionally as best we can. We do not take kindly to the instinctive realisation that changing those patterns would leave us adrift for a while and further, adrift without knowing where we would end up. The devil you know is better than the one you don’t know.

This reminds me of the Irish joke about the visitor who asked the way to Ballybeg. The local replied that of course he could tell the visitor the way, “but if I was going, I wouldn’t be starting from here“. Distrust is neither wrong nor stupid. It knows the field called ‘psychodynamics’ is about going to the unknowns of the ‘psyche’ and the dynamics of change within a self, and unknown effects on others. It might be more sensible to stay where one is, rather than ask the way, especially as when one does ask, each of us hears that it would be better to have started differently somehow. The information received is somewhat ‘Irish’. Psychodynamics is about ‘being human’, accepting ‘not-knowing’ and ‘not being in the best place to start’. Psychodynamics is evolutionary, moving and changing from the place one is at. It involves RISK, not an idea of risk, but really stepping out of the frame which has been what one knows already.

Psychodynamics is mutual, not outside something objectively, looking into it with words and ideas, but inside it as a whole self, with feelings and emotional processes, phantasies, observing this as it happens. The effect is that a sorting out of ‘your response’, ‘my response’, ‘the way we interact’, can take place, at least partially, a view of the present moment we are in. This is a change in thought perspective, analogous to the change in perspective on motion offered by Galileo when he found a way to consider instantaneity, studying velocity rather than speed. We are in the dynamic we are studying, rather than looking at consequences of the dynamic from elsewhere. This is the essence of psychodynamic practice, the place where we begin is here and now. (If the ghosts of the past are there, if personal intrusion or need or greed is there, it is because we bring these with us, into now.)

We realise that human beings have an ongoing unconscious conflict as they need to bond with others to survive, and they also need to establish themselves as individuals. The dilemma cannot ever be resolved but instead forms the impetus to maturation, that is to the ability to relate dynamically and dialogically with ‘other’, without being permanently taken over by other or permanently taking over and using other as an extension of oneself. Paradoxically, health and continuing to grow happens when we can bear this internal ambivalence about dependence and independence without trying to resolve it. The processes of identification (two-way communications between self and other) and the present-day understanding of the Oedipus Complex (three dimensional relations, self and other and their relation to other others) describe what happens, and give a way of understanding the processes of thinking, or of learning to think..

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...

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The psychodynamic way of regarding creativity or difficulty in thought takes account of dualities and dialogues expressed in epistemology, philosophy, or education, say, yet it is of a different order. Bion put this difference into words when he declared that the thought came first, before the thinker. The mind of the person, baby or adult, takes something in (is impinged on by the environment, or by something more physiological, say), then, thinking is a process which has to develop to cope with the thought. A variety of such processes are possible. Some will link the thought with TRUTH, that is thinking will be in relationship with reality of self and other. However, some will LIE, which is not the logical opposite of ‘truth’, but just a different process, one which has no regard for reality. For example, a ‘lie’ would protect a phantasy of self, such as omnipotence. A child might learn to read to keep this phantasy, not to understand or enjoy what was in the book. An adult might research a doctorate thesis to keep this phantasy. Whether the phantasy is omnipotence, or some other narcissistic need, for emotional purposes the intellectual discovery is secondary and split off from caring for the truth.

Thus the inner motive of the thinker matters. Although it is quite possible to create considerable cognitive achievement and/or technocratic skill by amassing ‘knowledge’ through the ‘lie’ process, such knowledge cannot develop or adapt in use. This sort of knowledge might be arranged and rearranged, trotted out to please parents or appointments boards, but the meaningful connections with something other are missing. New discovery cannot be made. Understanding thought in this way is in agreement with findings regarding more conscious cognitive processes of strategic or deep thinking, and with findings that learners who are emotionally attuned learn in ways which enable critical and creative thought.

This is a very brief survey of some wonderful ideas. The background – notions of symbol formation, say, or Winnicott‘s ideas on play and culture in the ‘in-between’ space, or Christopher Bollas‘ distinction between Fate and Destiny,  and the whole range of how people form pictures of their world and the world – bring life, value and hope into dark and dreary spaces. Daily news bulletins are often despairing, or worse, destructive of human good, but perceiving thought and play and culture and science together as ‘truth’ activities makes meaning and hope re-emerge.

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