Australasian Journal Of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022
Australasian Journal Of
Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy
NO.1&2 - 2022

‘I am given to myself - from a dark and doubtful presentiment’

- the symbiotic phase of development and group process.1

O H D Blomfield2

1. Argument

The development of a training programme for group-analytic therapists in the Department of Psychiatry of the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne has highlighted the need for a sound theoretical foundation concerning group life. The work of Margaret Mahler at Master’s Children’s Centre, New York, which lays emphasis on the symbiotic phase of child development gives a hopeful starting point in the understanding of human interaction.

‘Individuation-Separation’ implies a non-individual, non-separate matrix of personality in the beginning which remains as the ground for the figural and operative schemes and actions of individual life. This ‘ground’ carries with it, through the struggles which culminate in adolescence, the need for, and susceptibility to, group membership organized in the style of rapprochement but resonant to the original problems of differentiation and practicing.

After a brief introduction setting out the implications of a structuralist approach, the idea of ‘individuation-separation’ is here explored with the aid of two concepts (Centricity and Positionality) derived from approaches to philosophical biology developed by Marjorie Grene. Kurt Goldstein’s classic observation on the mirrored smiling of mother and infant is illustrated and linked with the ‘mirror-stage’ discussed by Lacan as the ‘cross-roads at which awakens the infant’s desire for the object of desire of the other’. This is the nucleus for the development of firstly symbiotic and later, group life and its symbolic structuring. This leads to a translation of Freud’s conclusion that ‘the psychology of the group is the oldest human psychology’ into the terms of Mahler’s onto-genetic framework.

‘Intersubjectivity’ is a central concept in Merleau-Ponty’s development of Husserlian phenomenology and he gives it extensional definition in his discussion of the child’s growth in understanding the ‘Other’. Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, although developed from a different philosophical base, coincide at several key points with those of Freud, Goldstein, Mahler and Lacan. Merleau-Ponty’s ‘I am given to myself’ as an expression of individuation is linked with Plato’s reference to man’s ‘ancient need’ for ‘meeting and melting into one another’ out of ‘a dark and doubtful presentiment’ to express concisely the leitmotif of this paper.

Foulkes’ concepts of ‘group matrix’ and ‘resonance’ make it possible to see the relevance of this developmental framework to the phenomenology of the group-analytic setting. The group matrix restores the non-individual, non-separate ‘ground’ against which the developmental work of individuation and separation is renewed. As the parents engage themselves in this task, their previously disturbed children may be freed, within the limits of their own resources, again to respond to the rhythm of their maturation and find more authentic expression through their own experience, rather than, vicariously, that of their mother or father.

Clinical application is brought together in four hypotheses which are illustrated by brief clinical examples. Diagrams are used to clarify the argument.

2. Text

(ii) Prelude

Wilfred Owen addressed these words to a child –

But soon your heart, hot-beating like a bird’s,
Shall slow down. Youth shall lop your hair;
And you must learn wry meaning in our words.
Your smile shall dull, because too keen aware;
And when for hopes your hand shall be uncurled,
Your eyes shall close, being open to the world.
(Wilfred Owen – Sonnet to a Child)

Children are thrown into a world, where adult attitudes, of which they at first know nothing, have for them the causal force and danger of the inanimate world. They must discover these attitudes, arguments and differences as they must discover the restrictions and potentials of the world and somehow accommodate to them or alter or assimilate them. The presence and attitudes of others is part of a pervasive aliment that they must digest – or reject or avoid. They are the living future thrown into a net of dead attitudes. In a quite literal sense thay are always at risk, like Walter de la Mare’s ‘Poor Jim Jay’ who ‘Got stuck fast in Yesterday’.

But –

not the aim
of this earth, in exciting lovers,
to stir all things to leap with their ecstasy?
(Rilke – Ninth Elegy)

and in freedom be –

Able to approach the Future as a friend
Without a wardrobe of excuses, without
A set mask of rectitude or an
Embarrassing over-familiar gesture.
(Auden – In Memory of Sigmund Freud.)

(ii) The structure of development

Every adult is, to some extent, protected from the pangs of childhood. We have developed elaborate mechanisms to shield ourselves from aspects of our personal history. We forget our childhood; the sayings of young children charm us briefly, but if we do not write them down we forget them in a remarkably short time – and then we forget that we have forgotten. In this way a boundary is formed, the so-called ‘amnesia of childhood’ which helps to guard the illusion of individuality.

It is only when we see the individual against the group, or the group in action in its contrast with individual members that we arrive at some understanding of the essence of individuality. We usually behave as if there were no question about the separateness of our individual lives and existence. We treat each other, in A.D. Hope’s words, as ‘Wandering Islands’ of a fixed topology and, in ordinary life, turn a blind eye to a whole range of individual differences in degrees of psychical separateness. One could describe this dimensional range as varying from the solipsistic to the intersubjective. It finds part-expression in the structuring of communication from the strictly unemotive to emotively powerful bodily changes, language and comportment. Although it includes the emotionally cold schizoid sort of person, whose understanding of others is largely based on a type of delayed intellectual inference at one end, to an emotionally warm person, whose intuitive gifts provide the basis of immediate empathic understanding at the other, the distinction is not simply in terms of emotional responsiveness .but more fundamentally in ‘psychical distance’. The position of the parents, especially the mother, on this dimension has a decisive bearing on what possibilities the child can find for the development of his own strength of individuality and separateness.

Development is a function of Maturation (i.e., the progressive unfolding of bodily structure and capacity through genetic inheritance) and Experience: where Maturation and Experience are themselves contingent variables, and Experience for the infant, is the progressive expansion of the central relationship with mother. (Diagram 1)

Diagram 1

Simple ‘associationism’ does not do justice to the complex way in which during the early developmental period of life, we construct a ‘world’ while at the same time we integrate a ‘self’ by a process of symbolic elaboration.

Some form of structuralism (Piaget 1968) gives a better metaphysical basis for an adequate theory of development. Thus ‘Experience’ may be said to involve the Structuring of Memory and Anticipation – in their most general sense into ‘Past’ and ‘Future’, into a secure sense of temporal continuity. (Diagram 2)

Diagram 2

Whitehead (1927) developed the thesis that human symbolic activity involves the interplay between ‘direct recognition’ in experience – infallible in the sense that ‘what you have experienced, you have experienced’ – and ‘symbolic reference’ which induces ‘… actions, feelings, emotions, and beliefs about things which are mere notions …’ and hence open to fallibility.

Whitehead understood symbolic activity as the way in which we bring together our contact with the primitive pressures of the world, its ‘causal efficacy’ and the organized appearance of the moment, the world’s ‘presentational immediacy’. It is the way in which each child constitutes his ‘world’ arid includes therein the integration of his ‘self, built outwards by the metaphoric extension of the experience of his own body. To adapt Whitehead’s phrase – the child-at-one-moment concentrates in himself the colour of his own past and he is the issue of it. (Diagram 3)

Diagram 3

But emphasis on Structure (Structuralism) of course carries with it the implicit recognition of inter-related Process and Function. (Diagram 4)

Diagram 4

In Margret Mahler’s (1975) consideration of the psychological birth of the human infant, she sees the first stage of ‘normal’ (developmental) autism as an extension of interuterine development. She then describes several different processes of ‘hatching’ as the child emerges from one succeeding phase to another. After physical birth, the child is insulated for a time in developmental autism and is then ‘hatched’ into a symbiotic union with the mother, out of which the child develops as an individual (‘hatches’ in its second sense) through the work of individuation and separation. This whole process is what Mahler describes a psychological birth. (Diagram 5). Not the least virtue of Mahler’s developmental scheme is that it not only fits with common sense and with biological knowledge but also in the main, with more detailed descriptions of special aspects of development given by other theorists, including Benedek (1949), Bowlby (1969), Escalona (1963), Klein (1948), Piaget (1951 ), Spitz (1965) and Winnicott (1958).

Diagram 5

Individuation and Separation are intertwined processes. From Margaret Mahler’s use of these terms it seems fair to see Individuation in terms of the development of Centricity (Diagram 6), a term introduced by Marjorie Grene

Diagram 6

(1965) a translation or Adolf Portmann’s conception of a pervasive and essential characteristic of all organisms in their ·relation to the environment through inwardness’. It is the equilibration of ‘… an inner core that holds together the threads of organism-environment relations’. (Grene p.29). This seems to correspond to an implicit essential process in the Sartre an concept of ‘being-for-itself’. (Sartre 1956)3

Individuation is built around the development of a stabilisation of ‘inwardness’ and is necessarily connected with the question of boundary formation, or Separation. Here again, Marjorie Grene (1965) helps us to bring this aspect of Child Development into the context of a general philosophical biology. We can see Separation as an example of what she calls Positionality. Positionality is a term of Helmuth Plessner’s quoted by Marjorie Grene as indicating ‘ … the whole way in which an organism takes its place in its environment, arises in it, is dependent on it, yet opposes itself to it. It is the way an organism bounds itself.’ Through ‘its relation to its boundary, [it is] both directed out beyond the body that it is and back into it again’. (Grene, p.78-9)

The ‘body [of the organism] takes up a relation to its own configuration, to its boundary. It stops … before it comes to an end and sets its boundary beyond itself as its own limiting area.’ (Grene, p.88)

‘A living body is indeed a body; it occupies space; but its center is nevertheless not a spatial center, it is a core which transcends spatiality and at the same time controls the spatiality of the body whose core it is.’ (Grene, p. 90)

‘Positionality … generates a relation between the organism, on the one hand, and on the other, a positional field which is the environment in the broadest sense; internal as well as external, organic as well as inorganic.’ (Grene, p. 96)

Margaret Mahler’s concept of the symbiotic phase in human development describes a positional field in this sense, out of which the child through the process of individuation-separation establishes his/her positionality and centricity. (Diagram 7)

Diagram 7

Separation-Individuation proceeds through overlapping stages in which particular processes are dominant. Differentiation involves the progressive stabilisation of the distinction between ME, THOU and IT reinforced by imitation (Piaget 1951) and practicing. The infant finds the exploration and constitution of the world an enchantment provided he/she can constantly return to the mother’s side for emotional ‘refuelling’. Mother is subsequently rediscovered as a separate individual during the rapprochement phase of the 2nd year, with the toddler loving to share possessions and experiences. (Diagram 8)

Diagram 8

Although all these processes overlap there is a sequence or emphasis and in this sense we may speak of phases. They are more strictly descriptive of continuous aspects of accommodation/assimilation (Piaget 1951) whose acceleration peaks at differing times. (Diagram 8)

Aspects of development brought out by different theorists contrast qualities dominant in the symbiotic phase with their antitheses, taken as typical of adulthood. (Diagram 9)

Diagram 9

Henri Wallon (1931) drew attention to the importance of the self-image in the behaviour of animals and in the development of children. He refers to ‘… a kind of syncretic intuition which blends the individual with his environment and makes him feel any diminishment of this environment as an amputation …. It is a state of sensitivity prior to that in which the person is able to dissociate himself from his environment and distinguish in his impressions what his sensitivity attributes to himself and to the external world.’ Later in the same paper (p. 29) Wallon comments ‘… Between immediate experience and the representation of things, an association must necessarily intervene, detaching the objects, qualities and existence from the impressions of actions in which it is at first involved, attributing to it, among other essential characteristics, those of exteriority. No representation is possible except at this price. That of one own’s body, in the measure in which it can exist, must necessarily respond to this condition. It can only be formed by exteriorization.’

The notion, initiated by Wallon (1931) of the central part played by mirror-function in the development of individuality and self-image was not taken up specifically by Schilder (1935) in his classic study of the Image and Appearance of the Human Body but was subsequently developed by Lacan (I 949) in terms of the moulding effect of the child’s awareness of the view others (and particularly mother) have of him. His own desires and intentionality are reflected in and by the desire of ‘the (M)other’ and later ‘Others’ more generally. Wall on ‘s approach was also developed sensitively by Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945, 1956) as a special aspect of his phenomenology of perception.

In discussing ‘Lacan and the discourse of the Other’, Wilden (1968) notes (p.160) – ‘Through his perception of the image of another human being, the child discovers a form (Gestalt), a corporeal unity, which is lacking to him at this particular stage of his development. …Lacan interprets the child’s fascination with the other’s image as an anticipation of his maturing to a future point of corporeal unity by identifying himself with this image.’ It is a primordial experience which becomes the source of all later identifications.

A classic paper is that by Kurt Goldstein (1957) – The Smiling of the Infant and the Problem of Understanding the ‘Other’. It is illustrated by a photographic study made by the author in 1975 of an eight week old baby girl and her mother. Goldstein says –

The first smiling of the infant has always met with particular interest, and not alone because it is the most beautiful phenomenon of infancy. It became an object of scientific investigation because it seemed to represent that first contact of the infant with another human being and thus to be well-fitted, for clarifying the very complex problem of mutual understanding. (p.175)

… the first smiling of the infant belongs to an objective, adequate relationship between the infantile organism and the world, especially the world as represented by the face of the mother. … (p. 178)

Goldstein goes on to say that this condition of adequacy is produced by the adequate behaviour of a loving mother.

… in the first stage of development, adequacy and well-being are presented in the unity with the world (so produced).

… in the second stage the unity occurs with the conscious experience of another person and of objects separated from the infant. (pp.181-2)

In the first stage ‘ … the world is organized by the abstract attitude of the adult …’ that is it derives from the ‘other person’

– later … the individual himself organizes the world by his own abstract attitude. (p.186)

In Mahler’s terms it is the contrast between the early entry into symbiosis and the later development of rapprochement.

Goldstein makes as the third hinge of his argument the following point –

Man always lives in two spheres of experience, never in one alone. The experiences are related to each other in the form of figure and ground. What stands out as figure depends on the particular significance of the one or the other experience in respect to the process of self-realization of the individual…’

… [which] … begin[s] with an organization of the ‘world’ by means of the abstract attitude, through which the organism comes into a situation … (p.185)

That is, the later achievements (in separation/individuation) of the symbiotic phase stand always as figure/ground to earlier symbiotic struggles.

Concomitantly with the experience of ‘oneness’, the infant in the second stage of development, after the separation of subject and object has taken place, experiences the separation between the self and the ‘other’. This also occurs in the encounter of the adult when he sees that the ‘other’ smiles or weeps in relation to explicit conditions in the outer world …’-For at that moment he experiences what is taking place in ‘the other’, he feels what the other feels, what he thinks, what he denotes by an action, by a word. (p. 189)

Goldstein goes on to say –

This experience of the same adequate world is the presupposition of the understanding of the other one, of all our knowledge of what is taking place in the ‘other’. This is the foundation of understanding language. It is the basis of all friendship, of all love, where with surprise and astonishment we recognize that what is taking place in the ‘other’ is identical with what is taking place in us. (p. 190)

Good poetry derives its power from accurate phenomonological description and one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portugese makes the point in a moving way, although ostensibly speaking of a later love –

Go from me. Yet I feel that I shall stand
Henceforward in thy shadow. Nevermore
Alone upon the threshold of my door
Of individual life, I shall command
The uses of my soul, nor lift my hand
Serenely in the sunshine as before,
Without the sense of that which I forbore –
Thy touch upon the palm. The widest land
Doom takes to part us, leaves thy heart in mine
With pulses that beat double. What I do
And what I dream include thee, as the wine
Must taste of its own grapes. And when I sue
God for myself, He hears that name of thine
And sees within my eyes the tears of two.’

(iv) The inner sense of unity and the group.

In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Freud (1921) remarked:

We must conclude that the psychology of the group is the oldest human psychology; what we have isolated as individual psychology, by neglecting all traces of the group, has only since come into prominence out of the old group psychology by a gradual process which may still, perhaps, be described as incomplete.

Nearly two and a half thousand years earlier, Plato (Symposium) put into the mouth of Aristophanes a marvellous fantasy of the origin of mankind’s earning for social and sexual fulfilment; a perfect illustration of the thesis of infantile sexuality, symbiosis with the mother, and omnipotence. The myth is too long to quote in full and in any case has been quoted many times by other writers – suffice it to say that in it Zeus threatened to destroy mankind, but decided instead

‘to cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling … ‘And now’ … the intense yearning which each … has towards the other does not seem to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment.’

… this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, is … the very expression of … [an] … ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole … we were one, but now because of the wickedness of mankind, God has dispersed us …. (p. 356)

The notion of ‘group mind’ in various senses, including the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, has often been taken (as here) in its relation to phylogenesis. Hut implicit in the mainstream of psychoanalytic thought is the more accessible notion that people interact and show group-dominated behaviour through the shared structure of the body and the potential this brings for resonance during ontogenesis. This theme has been developed also in a particularly unique and explicit way by Merleau-Ponty (1945, 1956).

Piaget’s (1951, 1966) central concept of assimilative and accommodative processes related to developing structures may be seen as complementary to Margaret Mahler’s account of the psychological birth of the human infant. Together they may be taken as an ontogenetic theory of the emergence of the infant as an individual from a pre-individual phase of symbiotic psychic unity with the mother; a stage dominated by primitive ‘group’ (i.e.: transpersonal or intersubjective) processes.

Winnicott (1958) with great subtlety and depth, also deals with special aspects of the symbiotic (pre-individual) stage of human development. His concept of primary maternal pre-occupation links the infant’s drive energy, his omnipotence, to the real world; not only as he finds it, but as he makes it, via the facilitating aspects of the ‘good-enough’ mother. (Diagram 10)

A translation of Freud’s conclusion (that the psychology of the group is the oldest human psychology) into Margaret Mahler’s ontogenetic framework, summarises the thesis of this paper. That is, we must conclude that experience of the pre-individual symbiotic phase is the primary human experience: what we isolate as the experience of ourselves as individuals, by neglecting all traces of the pre-individual phase of development only becomes apparent in our consciousness by a gradual process which must always be described as incomplete.

A genuine approach to group life means taking seriously not only this notion of a pre-individual emergent view of ontogenesis but also the notion of intersubjectivity, a concept central to the phenomenological movement derived from Husserl and developed in a biologically based philosophy by Merleau-Ponty (1956).

The perception of other people and the intersubjective world are problematical only for adults. The child lives in a world which he unhesitatingly believes accessible to all around him.

He has no awareness of himself or of others as private subjectivities, nor does he suspect that all of us, himself included, are limited to one certain point of view of the world. (p. 355)

The mutuality of experience, intersubjectivity, is founded in the body and its shared intentional organization as an evolutionary fact. Merleau-Ponty says –

I am given to myself merely as a certain hold upon the world: now, it is precisely my body which perceives the body of another person, and discovers in that other body a miraculous prolongation of my own intentions, a familiar way of dealing with the world. Henceforth, as the parts of my body together comprise a system, so my body and the other person’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously …. (p.357)

An obvious point but one that is easily overlooked is that the language we use has already built into it adultomorphic defences against the full realisation of the implications of symbiosis and thus contains a pre-supposition of individuation, which will be quite misleading when applied to an infant. Thus in an infant observation seminar we were discussing the reactions of a baby a few weeks old. Some of us thought that rather than saying ‘she did this’ or ‘she did that’ we should more strictly be saying ‘this or that (action) shows an increasing “she-ness”.’ This would be more in line with the Piagetian notion of accommodative and imitative actions being assimilated in to schemata, which are in fact the texture of personality. But, and this is the point to be emphasised here, this texture has from the start a grounding in what Whitehead called the sense of ‘causal efficacy’ – that is, at the most primitive level, a growing conformation to the causal matrix of the world and a sense (largely coenesthetic) of location in it. This includes a sense of the commonality of experience with others – that is, intersubjectivity as a basic fact of life.

This commonality of experience can be seen in the infant and very young child at first in relation to inanimate or animate movements, then small creatures, domestic pets and other children, but always through mother and the symbiotic circular connection with her. ‘Identification’ is always identity formation on the ME – NOT ME axis.

To quote Merleau-Ponty (1960)-

Always the child transfers to the other the intimate experience he has of his own body. The actions of another have a meaning because they are scenes of possible activity for his own body. (p.177)

In perceiving the other, his body and the other’s are coupled resulting in an action which pairs them. The conduct which he is able only to see, he lives somehow from a distance. He makes it his. Reciprocally he knows that the gestures he makes himself can be the objects of another’s intention. It is this transfer of intentions to the other’s body and 0f his intentions to the child’s own, [against] his alienation of the other’s alienation of him that makes possible a true level of subjective life. (p.118)

This makes possible an ‘anonymous collectivity’, an undifferentiated group life, from which there occurs a segregation, a distinction of individuals – a process which is never completely finished. The growth and stabilisation of awareness of a psychical boundary between oneself and other persons is another way of describing this process of individuation-separation.4

In company with Piaget, Merleau-Ponty describes how there is in the young child no distinct conception of the moments of time, nor is there any distinct perception of causal relations. The child confuses himself with his situation and becomes immersed in it. For example, after holding a glass in his hand, his identity persists as someone who has had a relation with the glass, so that the sound of breaking glass, much later, agitates him as if he still held it in his hand. On the social level this shows itself as a state of indistinction from others, a merging of the other and himself at the heart of a situation which both inhabit; or conversely, as the presence of the same subject in several roles.

We can recognise here phenomena apparent also in the adult small group situation. This syncretic sociability (as Merleau-Ponty terms i.t) appears to accompany basic assumption activity described by Bion.

(v) Individuation/separation and group analysis.

The clinical experience and teaching of S. H. Foulkes has been very influential in the development of a systematic approach to group therapy as a derivative of the psychoanalytic movement and the hyphenated term ‘group-analysis’ now bears his trademark. The Group-Analytic Society and Institute of Group-Analysis in London carry on his work.

Based on an implicit acceptance of psychoanalytic ideas on child development and the relationship between adult behaviour and personal history, Foulkes introduces the important concepts of ‘group matrix’ and ‘resonance’ as aids in our understanding of what happens in a therapy group.

Foulkes (1957) says –

At the centre of all our thinking about communication in groups is the concept of the group network or group matrix … The group is a matrix of interpersonal relationships, and the events which occur in it are interpersonal phenomena. These relationships and these events exist literally in between two and more people; they do not occur in one person or in another, but can only come into existence through the interaction of two or more people. We have here a new element under observation. (p. 258)

It is this common ground which ultimately determines the significance of all communication and interpretations, verbal and non-verbal.

The group, as it were, avails itself now of one speaker, now of another, but it is always the transpersonal network which is sensitized and gives utterance, or responds.

Individual members of a group contribute and respond to the developing group matrix in a session as nodal points in a trans-personal network (i.e.: on an intersubjective level). Foulkes introduced the term ‘resonance’ to refer to this phenomenon, using the analogy of a physical system.

The idea behind the concept of resonance is that an individual exposed to another individual and his communications in behaviour and words seem instinctively and unconsciously to respond to them in the same coin as it were. It may well be that the response is for instance in the nature of a reaction formation or a defence against the underlying instinctive impulse of the other person, though consciously this impulse has not been understood nor expressed manifestly. It is therefore as if a certain tone or chord struck a certain specific resonance in the other receptive individual, in the recipient. (Foulkes, 1964, p.290)

As an extension of group-analytic theory, in line with the biological philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, it is argued here that the basic resonance, (inevitably expressed through many defences) of every individual in a sustained group situation relates to their symbiotic phase of development and its vicissitudes. In one way it seems quite platitudinous to say that an ‘individual’ when put for a sufficient period in a suitable ‘non-individual’ (group) situation finds that he has to struggle anew with the unsolved, or partially solved, problems of his separation/individuation in original development. However, man’s whole psychic organization appears to have the central intentionality of supporting narcissistic illusions of rationality, individuality and objectivity and we should not be surprised to find that we have developed a marvellous ability to ignore uncomfortable evidence which threatens this narcissism.

In relation to our group-analytic work5 with the parents of some of the disturbed children referred to the Department of Psychiatry of the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, I would like to put forward four hypotheses6

(vi) Four hypotheses

Hypothesis 1.
The symbiotic stage and the separation/individuation process is central in human development.

This hypothesis is perhaps more rightly an axiom implicit in, and central to Margaret Mahler’s work.

Hypothesis 2.
Other persons, especially children, may be involved in attempts at vicarious completion of separation/individuation.

Examples illustrating this hypothesis are seen in bizarre form in folie-a-deux where another individual (often a child or adolescent) is used to complete and confirm delusional ideas. For example, a school teacher with an only child, born out of a liaison with a woman who had subsequently left him, believed his lover had formerly been a policewoman. He became convinced that police were visiting and searching his house at night gathering evidence that would be used to deprive him of his invalid pension. His ten year old son could not go to school as he had to stay by his father to protect him from the police.

However, these exotic cases can be seen as exaggerations of a common phenomenon, end-points on a dimension of development with endless subtle modes of expression. The tendency towards a truly circular reaction is inherent in the symbiotic phase and not only do parents naturally resonate with their child’s needs by varieties of regressive behaviour but children support or attack, according to the moment, their parents’ developmental vulnerabilities.

Hypothesis 3.
Incompleteness of the separation/individuation process becomes a factor in the individual’s participation in group life and may determine role in the family, choice of mate and subsequent attitude to child-rearing, with a reactivation of the original problems by closeness with infants and young children.

This is really a more specific extension of hypothesis 2 in the direction of group and social life. Perhaps it should be reworded more in terms of vicissitudes (and/or styles of solution) of the symbiotic phase rather than completeness or incompleteness.

Clinical examples may be found on the schizoid dimension where a lack in the development of individuation (i.e.:’ in stability of centricity) is made up for by increased boundary emphasis. Thus, an isolated man who worked as a book-keeper in a ware-house had a very disorganized mother who had had numerous admissions to hospital for psychotic episodes when he was a young child. During therapy he described haltingly his longing for closeness and his doubts and suspicions about trusting anyone. He had lost touch with all the other members of his family. His only social contact of which he could speak with any warmth was achieved by dressing in women’s clothes and meeting other transvestites. He was however in constant dread of discovery. One could speak of this type of organization as involving compensatory moves in positionality, with pseudo-separation by psychical distancing or isolation.

In a second case, a woman whose mother had died during her infancy had been brought up by a succession of foster-parents. In the foster families she seemed to have needed to seek out the role of scape-goat and ended by experiencing repeated painful rejections. In later life she was drawn to work in several orphanages, in each case being dismissed because of attempts to run away with one of the children. Her two marriages were to men of an obsessive type of character who seemed to represent stability but who disappointed her by being unable to provide the sense of containment and warmth that she sought. She allowed herself to be talked into terminating her only pregnancy.

By contrast, in the narcissistic direction, centricity is emphasised to make up for poor boundary formation with a concurrent deficiency in the ability to see things from another’s point of view, to empathise. For example, a very self-centred man referred his wife for therapy. During interview he spoke almost entirely of himself. Oh his own account he was involved in a number of dubious financial deals from which he was making a great deal of money. He spoke freely of several extra-marital sexual liasons which seemed to have been quite parasitic in nature. He could not understand his wife’s anxiety about these and other matters. He rejected suggestions that exploration of the situation in joint marital therapy might possibly be useful. He was an only child with a close, almost incestuous, tie to his mother. His omnipotent narcissism may be seen as making up for his lack of boundary formation.

Hypothesis 4.
Participation in a properly conducted group-analytic type of therapy group may enable parents to give up using a child as a mode of completion of their own symbiotic needs and may free the child to make progress with his/her separation/individuation tasks within the limits of the developmental situation.

The end result of the separation/individuation process is the development of the ability to be alone – as Winnicott (1958) suggested in his paper of that name. It is not the aloneness of schizoid isolation but a mature feeling linked with a well-founded belief in an environment that will not let you down – a belief that has been internalised from exactly that experience. It is the core of the feeling of identity expressed succinctly by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the phrase – ‘I am given to myself’ as an intersubjective reshaping of the Cartesian cogito. To link this with the diffuse experience of pre-individual symbiotic origins I have borrowed the phrase from Plato’s myth: ‘I am given to myself – from a dark and doubtful presentiment’.

In hypothesis 4 ‘properly conducted’ therefore means a group that will facilitate this experience for the individual members, in a setting of reliability and constancy; to this end it needs to be conducted by someone with sufficient expertise, available and intelligible to the group members. This faculty depends on a certain level of maturation and intuitive capacity in the conductor, developed by suitable training and supervision.

The living matrix of the group, session by session, provides a secure base from which exploratory excursions in thought and feeling lead gradually and safely to increased autonomy and self-reliance, to the capacity to be alone.

Siegfried Sassoon described the essence of it, with beautiful simplicity in this poem –

‘When I’m alone’ – the words tripped off his tongue
As though to be alone were nothing strange
‘When I was young,’ he said; ‘when I was young …..’
I thought of age, and loneliness, and change,
I thought how strange we grow when we’re alone.
and how unlike the selves that meet, and talk,
and blow the candles out, and say good-night.
Alone … The word is life endured and known.
It is the stillness where our spirits walk
And all but inmost faith is overthrown.

(vii) Clinical group experience : an example

The phenomena seen with most of the mothers who join parent groups appear to be indications of a re-awakened separation/individuation process – the working-through process in the group sessions showing aspects of differentiation, and of practicing and rapprochement. All the mothers show a compulsive searching and insistence on finding an authority who will direct and solve the problems they are struggling with, but also show a practised facility for undermining authorities who in fact respond to this need. During the group work, the refusal of the group conductors to be drawn into this role leads (in the interactive work ‘in close proximity’ to the others) reluctantly to the discovery of autonomous functional capacities. Almost against their wills the mothers discover that they have the resources and power within themselves that they envied and sought to activate and control in their compulsive searching.

The members of the groups, like Ulysses, seemed faced with the problem of Scylla and Charybdis; in one direction there is the danger of being swallowed up, engulfed, by symbiotic fusion with the group attitude or opinion, ‘the many-headed creature with the dreadful bark’ in the other direction of being rejected or denied and suffering extinction as an individual through lack of recognition or acknowledgement, to disappear into a whirlpool of nothingness. This dilemma seems to frame the typical anxiety associated with unsatisfactory symbiotic phase development. (Diagram 11)

Over a period of four years, several groups of mothers, who worked consistently with an acknowledged commitment to the therapy, showed gains in independence, self-reliance and confidence obvious to the therapists and commented on by themselves and by other members of the group: they themselves reported similar gains by their children.

In the groups, interpretation is largely (but not solely) confined to elucidation of common group themes and their referral to current experience in the here-and-now of the group. Discussion of children’s behaviour and problems of management comes to be understood as also referring to current group experience with demands for holding, reassurance, explanation on the one hand and complaints about restrictions, deprivations and failures of the group on the other. There is a constant interplay between the struggle for individuation and separation, beset by anxieties of abandonment and loss, and the pressure to maintain group life and membership with the threatening possibility of engulfment or crippling dependence.

Diagram 11

These boundary problems are frequently expressed in anal terms, for example in one session, after some discussion of encopretic and behavioural problems with the children, several group members complained about themselves feeling in a ‘mess’. The group had been ‘messed-up’ as well by the absence for several sessions of a particular member. The theme then turned to money; how hard it was to cope with inflation, ‘you just couldn’t spread it around’. One member, then spoke of now having her own cheque-book and how independent and ‘separate’ it made her feel.

There was then much discussion of tidiness in dress, one member always changed into good clothes for when her husband came home from work, another seemed embarrassed at the sexual implication. The one father present brought the reference back to the house getting in a mess and that everyone should clean up their own mess, this led the same mother to emphasise how she liked to be tidy for her husband, whereupon the embarrassed one voiced her objection to couples having sexual intercourse in the lane near the house at lunchtime. One of the co-therapists then drew attention to the general theme of difficulty in defining boundaries, especially in relation to sexuality and to control over what was going on – this had found expression in terms of feeling tidy and wanted, or in a mess and unwanted, and in anger at absences.

A further comment was made on the missing group member and some expression of envy at the good time she would be having on her holiday. immediately there was the expression of fears that the absent member had been driven away by aggressive remarks. Perhaps someone had touched on some sensitive topic. A feeling of helplessness then found expression in the complaint ‘what was one expected to talk about?’ – Eventually a discussion of stage fright and the experience of panic when faced by the expectations of a crowd followed. But then the one father remarked that you had to learn to stack up for yourself, you must learn to face up to pressure from others. In the last ten minutes the dilemma posed by the children was again discussed – unruly children had to be controlled or they made the neighbours angry. but what about the kids’ rights to be themselves, to be individuals? Anyway it was intolerable that neighbours should interfere.

The interplay between the phantasy life of the members and the life of the group, and the life of the group and the outside world hardly needs emphasis. The meaning of the behaviour of the children is entangled in the two boundaries so defined.

(viii) Summary

This paper is concerned with the problem of neurosis, in the sense of arrested or distorted development, as a trans-generational phenomenon. The child is born into a field of expectations, fears and hopes, of parents who are delegates of their surrounding culture. For each infant, as experiencing and acting subject, the successful symbolic structuring of a stable, unthreatened ‘I’ is a gift from a mother who is ‘good-enough’ to protect him/her from the destructive aspects of her own. symbiotic needs ( expressed as distortions of narcissism) and the needs she carries as a delegate of the culture. Well conducted small therapy groups can establish a dynamic and creative subculture which enables parents to grow stronger in their own right and to release their children from being used to make good the painful deficiencies in their own narcissism.

Starting from a psychoanalytic orientation, I have tried to bring together an outline of the phenomenology of human development as it bears on the establishment of an inner sense of unity and an effective capacity for group life. Explicit hypotheses derived from this standpoint have been used with some success in group analytic therapy with parents of disturbed children.

At the beginning of the paper I made reference to Walter de la Mare’s poem about ‘Poor Jim Jay’ who ‘got stuck fast in yesterday’. This apparently light-hearted bit of verse takes on a painful meaning when seen in the context I have sketched. It is hoped that development of the hypotheses may, sometimes, help to avoid the unhappy ending –

Come tomorrow
The Neighbours say,
He’ll be past crying for –
Poor Jim Jay.


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1. The original version of this paper was read at the 9th International Congress of the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions; Melbourne 1978.

2. O H D Blomfield is a Member Australian Psychoanalytical Society, Member Australian and New Zealand Association of Group Psychotherapists, Fellow Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, formerly Psychiatrist Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.

The author wishes to express his gratitude to Dr Winston Rickards, Director, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Science, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne and colleagues in the group therapy training programme who participated in the on-going experiential groups and clinical workshops; especially those who shared the bulk of the work as co-therapists ~ Dr Martha Anderson, Mrs Valerie McLaine, Dr Ann Morgan, Dr John Tiller, Dr John Williams.

3. The clinical importance of the concepts ‘being-for-itself’ and ‘being-in-itself’ (often quoted as ‘pour-soi’ and ‘en-soi’) is seen in the contrasting situation in, on the one hand, the hysterical disowning of a limb, where the experience of being-for-itself is contracted, say to the shoulder, leaving the arm as a purely en-soi phenomenon with only the characteristics of an external, foreign, object: this, in contrast to the phantom limb phenomenon, where the experience of being-for-itself has not been contracted to the en-soi reality after the loss of the limb.

4. This must have a bearing on the appropriate use of the terms ‘projection’ and ‘introjection’ and particularly of the term ‘projective-identification’, for it becomes necessary to distinguish between primary states of lack of differentiation, (with fluidity of centricity) and secondary defensive psychical actions following some degree of boundary formation. Thus it seems important to distinguish clinically ‘primary fusion states’ from both types of ‘projective-identification’ – the unloading of unwanted parts of the self or the question of envy-driven vicarious existence in the (m)other. See Klein M. (1955).

5. The inspiration for this work was also derived from Durkin (1954).

6. These are put forward simply as ‘source’ hypotheses. Research design for particular derivative studies would require more specific hypotheses to be framed within the context of the design.

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