First 100 Days: Can Psychoanalysis Help Us To Overcome Paranoid Politics?

By Stephanie Heck



It’s an understatement to say that America has been divided by the most recent presidential election.  I frequently see posts on social media that show people debating their side of the political divide, or pleading for people to come back together instead of bickering with each other online.  It’s becoming increasingly clear that the divisiveness of our political structure is not doing any of us any good.  We are less and less able to bear listening to each other’s perspectives, and this is contributing to extreme rifts among people.  Prior to the most recent presidential election, if I had a patient in my consulting room who was describing an ongoing pattern of relatedness characterized by rifts and splits between themselves and others, I would devote much of our work to helping this person come to a more complex, less victimized/victimizing way of interacting with the world.  That would be my top priority.  However, since the election, I find myself feeling inclined to join my patients in their rifts with others whose politics disagree with my patients’ and mine.  As I have become increasingly aware of this, it has become a red flag about what I am, and perhaps many of us therapists are, doing in the consulting room.

One thing that I have always loved about psychoanalysis is that it gives clinicians a frame for helping people to step out of their fixed ways of being and learn to relate to others in a new way.  We use models devised by theorists like Melanie Klein and Jessica Benjamin to help us to understand certain dynamics that occur within individuals that can impact the ways they operate in the world.  Clinicians use these models to understand what is happening in a patient’s inner life so that they can aid in altering this dynamic to have more fulfilling relationships.  I would like to make a case here that the work of Klein and Benjamin offers us insights into what is happening currently in American society.  If the political rifts we are experiencing can be understood in terms of these concepts, then perhaps we can also use our understanding of psychoanalysis to help us to find healthier ways of relating to each other.  In other words, perhaps psychoanalysis can be used not only as a healing tool for individuals, but also as a healing tool for broader society. This is not to say that I believe that we should support people tolerating mistreatment or oppression, or that we should ever discourage a person becoming invested in their own activism, but instead that we should continue to encourage complex understanding over black and white thinking.

Melanie Klein defined two “positions” (think, states of mind) that people take in relation to the world around them.  The first position, the “paranoid-schizoid position,” is formed during infancy and represents a more immature part of our psychology.  This position is characterized by a tendency to view the world as a split between all-good and all-bad.  It involves a sense of fear, or paranoia, that there is badness in the world that could annihilate you if you are not watchful.  Klein’s other position, called the “depressive” position, is formed as the child grows, and represents a more mature way of relating to the world.  In the depressive position, the good/bad split disappears and the individual is able to appreciate greater complexity.  Klein considered attainment of the depressive position to be a developmental milestone.  Current theorists, such as Wilfred Bion and Thomas Ogden, have written more extensively about the equilibrium between these two positions, and have noted that as adults we can occupy either seat.  At our best, we can appreciate the complexities of the world around us and approach each other with less defensiveness, less paranoia, more curiosity, more openness, and more acceptance.  At our worst, we can adopt an “us versus them” attitude that leads us to feel attacked, blamed, defensive, paranoid, and xenophobic.

Jessica Benjamin, a contemporary relational psychoanalyst, wrote about this dynamic using different language.  She described the “doer / done-to” dynamic that happens in relationships. She emphasized that we can easily fall into a victim-perpetrator way of being together.  I think of her theory as describing a kind of togetherness that can be described using a traffic analogy (Benjamin herself uses this analogy in her description of her theory).  For example, the done-to/victim position consists of a one-way street of feeling used or attacked or taken for granted by someone else, which happens when we forget that there is another side to every story. When we are in this mental space, we readily forget there is more than just us. We find it difficult to remember that the “perpetrator” has a one way-street of his own, and is likely feeling as “done-to” as we are.  And, to complicate matters further, in any relationship, there is more than two one-way streets. There are two-way streets and, especially in families, there are highways! The psychology of how people come together is endlessly complex and multiply determined; given that truth, how are we supposed to get along?  I have come to the conclusion after years of clinical practice that the best we can do in these instances is to step out of ourselves in order to get perspective.  We essentially need to get a birds eye view of the situation, as if we are hovering above our relatedness in a helicopter reporting on the traffic below.  It is often only after getting some perspective that we can restore our empathic understanding and improve our relatedness.

What is more, to Benjamin, the attainment of “intersubjectivity,” or, “a relationship of mutual recognition,” is a goal of relatedness.  In an intersubjective space, we see another person as someone who is separate but who can be related-to, or “felt-with.”  The attainment of an intersubjective space requires people to recognize that they are not the only subject in a dyad, but, instead, that their dyadic partner has a subjectivity of their own.  In other words, we must appreciate that each relationship consists of two separate people with minds of their own.  She goes on to say that maintaining an intersubjective space requires a form of surrender, i.e., “being able to sustain connectedness to the other’s mind while accepting his separateness and difference” (p. 7).  The doer / done-to dynamic that I described above represents a total break-down in this type of surrender.  In that dynamic, there are only two options for relatedness:  resistance to the perspective of the other, or submission to their perspective.  You either join them or oppose them.  There is no third option.  This doer / done-to dynamic describes the current state of our nation’s political divide.  I believe that increasing our understanding of these dynamics can, in and of itself, begin to repair this rift.

As a psychoanalytically-trained psychologist, I often think about how relationships could be helped by analytic concepts.  Today’s stark political divide is no exception.  As clinicians working under an analytic frame, I believe that we can use what we know to help our communities to abandon the doer/done-to (Benjamin), paranoid-schizoid (Klein) ways of relating in the service of coming together in a more mature stance of appreciating the complexities of multiple perspectives.  We should think about the relational tools that we use in our offices to help our patients to move into a more sophisticated way of relating to others in their lives, and we should find ways to apply these tools to our current society.  We need to think creatively about ways that we can inject these concepts into the larger culture, which needs them now, perhaps more than ever.

It does not seem unthinkable that analytically-oriented psychologists can begin to take a more active role in their local communities by bringing groups together to have open discussions.  We can also find ways of facilitating dialogue between people that encourages openness to the perspectives of the other.  Even in our offices, in 1:1 sessions with our patients, we can encourage (as we often do) a willingness to take the perspective of the other instead of splitting off the other as “all bad.”  I can imagine that it may be difficult, or even painful, for many of us to do this since we are likely to believe ourselves that there is a “wrong” political stance to take.  If we are able to model for our patients that appreciation for another’s perspective in the service intersubjective relating is important for uniting our nation and moving forward, then we ourselves are doing an activist duty; we are working toward building a nation that functions on a more complex level of relating to and appreciating one another.  I believe that infusing these notions back into the broader culture is critical at this point in history, and to do so is to bring psychoanalysis to life in the service of the greater good!