The origin and the social solution to traumas



17-19 September, 2014 Kaunas, Lithuania.

THE ORIGIN AND THE SOCIAL SOLUTION TO TRAUMAS: the forming of character as suggested by E. Fromm.

By Mr. Giuseppe Battaglia, assistant headmaster, training analyst and lecturer at the Institute of Psychoanalytic Psychology E. Fromm, Bologna (Italy).

Fromm does not accept Freud’s anthropo-social vision regarding the origin of character and develops a theory placing psychoanalysis in an interpersonal prospect. In “Escape from Freedom” (1941) we can read:

Fromm starts from the assumption that, at birth, man is not self-sufficient and, to satisfy his own needs, he calls for environmental care.

As a consequence, character must have an essentially interpersonal origin in the social relation in which the baby first looks for a contact.

Traumas are an interpersonal derivation where the babyfirst looks for a love contact.

As Rainer Funk tells us on page 219 of his piece of writing Eric Fromm’s concept of social character (Erich Fromm Archive, Tuebingen – Social Thought and Research, 1998, Vol. 21, No. 1-2):

In an unpublished letter of December 18th, 1936 to Karl August Wittfogel, the central idea of Fromm’s re-vision of the instinct theory can be discerned clearly. He writes:

“The central point of this fundamental disagreement is that 1 try to show that drives which motivate social behavior are not, as Freud assumes, sublimations of sexual instincts. Rather, they are the products of social processes, or, more precisely, reactions to certain constellations under which the individual has to satisfy his/her instincts. These drives, which I divide into those having to do with human relations (love, hate, sadomasochism) and those having to do with methods of acquisition (instincts of receiving, taking away, saving, gathering, producing), are fundamentally different from natural factors, namely the instincts of hunger, thirst, sexuality. Whereas these are common to all human beings and animals, the former are specifically human products and not biological; they are to be understood in the context of the social way of life…”

Fromm maintains that the psychoanalytic theory as formulated by Freud and his followers is reductive, as it does not tackle phenomena having a social origin, which cause anxiety, fear, joy and all passions. Man can’t be a machine regulated by tension and relaxation mechanisms, as it happens with other mammals having biologically fixed motivation systems. Until 1897 Freud thinks his patients’ traumatic accounts are real, he believes the seductions and violence children are victims of. We can say that, until this date, his theoretic framework is interpersonal, afterwards, by what J. Bowlby called “a tragic U-turn”, he “convinces himself” that the accounts are childhood fancies and “disowns” the traumatic theory of seduction. This latter theorization differs from the former as it regards the processes of the mind, intrapsychic needs and the unconscious as “a melting pot of boiling excitements” driven by impulses which are out of control (Freud, 1932). To Freud, developing the theory of seduction meant acknowledging a far-reaching phenomenon of social perversion which would go against the authoritarianism on which the European behavior of the time rested. Conditioned by prejudices and a bourgeois morality, Freud is unable to acknowledge this reprehensible phenomenon, to side with children and stand up for their traumatic truth; this implied a radical criticism of the authoritarian ethos of a whole system which would bring about a racking question: “ Who are the liars: the children or the adults? ” Unlike Freud, Fromm has a boundless faith in the human power of progress, therefore he criticizes Hobbes’s philosophy, which regards men as wolves, and places psychoanalytic thought in an anthropologic context away from a pessimistic outlook on life. Fromm considers the traumatic distortions of character as a consequence of civilization caused by adaptation agents that are functional to the system, the most important of which is the family. He says we are confronted with a tragic dilemma: “In order to have a “sound” economy (…) we have to produce a sick man”. This belief led him to develop the theory of social character, in which he emphasizes the concept that “in order to matter, man must be socially significant”. Children, at birth, are strangers and, like foreigners, are a source of anxiety; for this reason parents, who have lost the fine ability to recognize their little ones through the senses (which is a biological fact), hasten to give them identification marks known to them (which is a cultural fact). In the adults’ perception, babies, at birth, must become familiar, so they have to look like members of the family, who are known to them. Therefore they detect grandfather’s nose, auntie’s mouth, a cousin’s eyes and so on: and through this modelling they dramatically establish whether the child belongs to the branch A or the branch B of the family, and which features have been inherited from the father’s side and which ones from the mother’s. Character similarities follow, so the child, besides being beautiful or plain, may already be violent, bossy, selfish. And so on, like his father or his grandfather whose features he has inherited; if he sometimes doesn’t make poo-poo, then he is a miser, just like his father-in-law, whereas if he does, then he is generous, like his great-grandfather. All imaginary resemblances place the children in precise, emotional areas which are longed-for or refused depending on the affections established with the relatives under discussion. In order to take root in the world, children need becoming integrated, but the feature-sharing system doesn’t go this way. Attributions outline a destiny for babies, they are already given social roles to abide by, and inside this emotional atmosphere the transferal system is organized which will be adopted in the future. As attributions often depend on the fleeting feelings the adults have about the relatives supplying the features, even the similarities change, this way originating dissociations leading to schizophrenia.

In the seventies the American sociologist Robert Merton (1910/2003) proved how expectations affect one’s character and behavior and talked about a “self-fulfilled prophecy”. Expectations are but predictions which come true just because they have been made. Predictions are in circular ratio to events: somehow a prediction fosters the event.

Some years ago, a colleague under supervision, who was following a case of adoption, told me that a patient of hers, transferred to another office around a year before, had brought her daughter, just a few months old, to make the acquaintance of her former colleagues. A circle of congratulating acquaintances gathered round the new mother and they all found resemblance to the mother’s face. Not to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding her, she didn’t pick up the courage to say that the little girl had been adopted and she had just come back from Vietnam a few days before. This mother, a victim of social convention and of the copy-and-paste trend, felt obliged to hide the story of the adoption and the real identity of her daughter, and we will never know up to what extent this fact will affect the maternal transference. In their “nakedness” children are subject to a wide range of adultomorphicattributions, to the extent that they are considered as endowed with conscious intentions. When the attributions belong to people they love, children conjure up good phantasms and theyare welcomed, otherwise they conjure up disquieting ones and will spark off rejection processes. Children are obliged to stand by their resembling phantasms, they are bound to realize the long-awaited behavior, even that of their dead forefathers, so they have to provide even proof of a “reincarnation” of character.

As we have just said, the resemblance method heavily handles the setting up of the transference system and the spontaneous search for one’s identity as it keeps the individual in endless doubt: “Who shall I take after?”, “Which expectations shall I meet?”, “Who do I really take after?”. This psychophysical, “copy-and-paste” practice triggers a process of traumas which are handed down from generation to generation. So, in the process of building the framework of a personality, it is necessary to take into consideration the interpersonal-relational atmosphere in all its complexity, and not only the single traumatic event.

One of my patients is unable to establish social relationships because she feels cut off from every environment; she tells me that her mother detected her grandmother’s physical and psychic features in her and so refused her. At work she feels hated, especially by her head clerk but she is unable to react to blames because she thinks they are right. Every time she calls on her mother, it’s a major tragedy: the latter criticizes her and she, devastated, admits her mother’s blames are right and says: my mother is right, I am an incompetent, I am unable to do anything, I have no friends, I am unattractive. She is worried because she thinks she may pass on to her three-year-old child her character traits. Her son was born with a malformation of his right hand, but he is a lively child and he can do all that the children of his own age do. The mother, who can’t stand criticism, finds it hard to push her son towards the world, she tends to hide him, as it happened to her, when her mother felt ashamed to take her along because she thought her daughter was unattractive and “malformed” like her maternal grandmother. Also the patient’s mother refuses her grandson, and the patient thinks she’s right. The child is insufferable with her and only calms down when her father (the child‘s grandfather) comes back in: the latter removes the child’s prothesis, starts playing with him and, in his company, he’s a different child. Both she and her mother are the victims of a distressing atmosphere which hasn’t allowed the development of autonomous creative forces: their relationships are mostly characterized by negative transferences, and the existential modalities both of the mother and of the grandmother now dramatically fall upon the child.

Psychotherapy, which sets itself growth, affective rooting and independence as a goal, must break the idolatrous prophecy of this “social calamity”, therefore it must establish a process of separation from the mother, loosen the terror of being abandoned and of the underlying anxieties. This aim will be achieved when the patient, helped by friendly therapeutic relations, will be able to part from the maternal ties and the parental ghosts she is haunted by. It is necessary to establish a process contextualizing differently the traumatic experience by differently problematizing experience and trying to demolish the opinion of “being unable to do anything” which she has as an overall view of herself. She needs facing and working through the unbearable hatred and the ensuing guilt she feels towards her mother, which she will have to become fully aware of through her adaptive aggressiveness; this will allow her to better cope with her wounds and feel a growing affection for herself.

Man draws his motivations and convictions from the historical-social context he lives in. Freud had a deep insight into the discovery of social hypocrisy and man’s ability to distort reality, but he made the mistake of ascribing this wrong conscienceto drives that are out of control. Human behavior is not the result of an uncontrollable endowment of antisocial instincts, man is not only driven by dark, cruel instincts, whose suppression –which is the consolidation of a persecutory Superego fuelling paranoid features of the character- civilization must ask for. Freud missed the fact that bio-psychic maturation needs a long period of protection, during which no end of social inputs will get mixed up with basic biologic endowments, and that passions will come out of this very medley. It is the historical-social receiving structures, whose main agency is the family, which connote the character, then nursery schools, schools and a crowd of teachers working for the institutions follow. It is the interpersonal story which makes the development of creative-productive or regressive-unproductive forces possible: it accounts for that essence of man which can be either human-life loving or inhuman-necrophiliac. The specifically human identity gets complete inside history, through the longest biological process of maturation among the species and is defined in the relationships with other people, on a social stage where it develops a symbolic language and emotional expressiveness. Before being born, the baby is fully mixed up with its mother’s bio-psychic world inside which the baby is:whenitis born, itis ready to interact socially and turns itseyes to its mother’s , which are to be its window looking onto the world. In Fromm’s opinion, during the process of growth, man necessarily clashes with the distressing living conditions and then he will experience regressive stimuli; the path may be going back to old ties. The return to the past, characterized by fear and doubts, hinders the process of individualization and keeps the traumatic condition alive. In Fromm’s interpersonal model, when life is dominated by powerful passions for escape, it suffers irrational drives towards regressive answers. Denial works by means of faith in magical saviors to be worshipped, who also act as false barriers. Man’s path starts from the search for harmony and follows a progressive process of separation-individuation which calls for the working-through of his solitude to result in the realization of productive capacity. In order to make out pathology or soundness of mind it is necessary to examine every individual story inside the wider social history whose features one bears. Thinking in parallel of the individual and social storyinside a psychoanalytic setting is a necessary step; no creature exists without a conditioning host world. Environmental comparison shapes the plastic central nervous system and the whole organism in which the psychodynamic phenomena of the mind are arranged and express themselves. In order to exist, every community needs individuals having characteristics that are functional to the system, therefore it generates inner pressure mechanisms.

Last century, until the sixties, western economic systems needed savers, consequently they produced savers; later consumers were required and consumers were produced. Social pressures have changed economic requests for saving and consumption and, as a consequence, for needs too, and with them also the way the world, emotions and passions are perceived as well as the consideration that the Self has for itself. In Fromm’s opinion, love and hatred, thirst for power, subjection, pleasure or fearing the pleasure of the flesh are social products. Human energy, properly manipulated, moulds man, who can be shaped either on a static-traumatic adjustment, produced by unchangeable mechanisms, or on a dynamic-creative one free from automatisms and therefore able to generate novelty.

Why on earth do people renounce themselves? On the one hand it is solitude and fear that are at work, on the other hand it is the reassuring social offer of roles they are obliged to accept, which Fromm defines as an escape from freedom. Therefore, in psychotherapy, it is necessary to intercept the escape routes as well as the underlying motivations so that, if the relational route works, solitude and fear may be modified. Early in life, dependent behavior is intrinsic and functional to development; when adults hold fast to their misleading childhood answers, they will be affected by what Fromm defines as a “socially modelled deficiency” or a “pathology of normality”. In order to really experiment with life, from the very beginning man needs being properly welcomed. In this passage, Fromm’s thought is similar to Winnicott’s, when the latter theorizes about the need for an adequately favourable social environment. It is true that children need food but, as Harlow’s tests demonstrate, when, as adults, young apes deprived of contacts were put in an unnatural climate of socialization, being traumatized, they turned destructive, refused sexual intercourse, even challenging their genetic reproduction codes and showed an autistic, antisocial behavior. A sound development is based on getting over primary ties. This will allow the establishment of intimacy, mutuality, and the acceptation of differences. Primary ties are necessary and functional to the beginning of life: adults will have to autonomously produce what they need; if this doesn’t take place, the necessity to stock up from the others stays on. Non-individualized people are unable to take on a productive behavior of their own, because they are unable to set the right value on what surrounds them; these people, who are trapped in their frame of thought, distort their Self and are only able to concentrate on their own “reality”. Traumatized people, conditioned by the loop of fear, remain in a state of dependence and emotional deficiency; being different, to them, means to fall into a state of terrifying isolation. As we have seen in my patient, the symptoms are kept up because they act as a link all the same, through which a utopian conviction of nearness -which is actually of dependence- passes, keeping a connection with a malignant case. In an analytical relationship, in order to have traumatic distortions come out, one must be able to think of what hasn’t been thought of and to say what hasn’t been said, it is necessary to support the construction of what can be entirely expressed in words and, as such, is new, of something laying the foundations of something else, absolutely inconceivable before. A participatory relationship, based on the “not yet” , pointing towards what is unrepeatable, allows the interlocutors to co-create something originating from the new emotional need produced by the relationship itself. Communication must be insightful and, as such, the result of the fit linguistic expressions the analyst has at his disposal. The suitable innovative words and all the other body expressions now must outline new shapes. While in therapy, patients do just what they can do, that is repeating the traumatic models of the past, tending this way to stay on in a magical illusion of salvation and force the analyst into an idolatrous role to submit to.

Inside the setting, like in any research laboratory, the instruments which are a “disturbance” to the field of research are: the therapist’s personality make up and his Weltanschauung. The transformation which is a mutation of the participants’ minds inside an interpersonal texturehas different results from the expected ones. Many of the waysthe patients behave in, influenced by the “personal interest”, may undergo alterations only when the “longed-for prizes” are different from the expected ones. When forecasts are up to expectations, there are no character alterations; this is the meaning I give to the concept of “necessary disturbance” inside the setting. The differences that arise between the traumatic past and the present point out that the break in the participants’ minds is due to “here and now”. The elucidation of facts, if successfully analyzed, explains but at the same time divorces the present from the past, and the traumatic experience that was near turns into something remote because something opposing the past intervenes; this disturbing transformation keeps close the anxiety due to the collapse of a model and the joy due to the creation of a new one. All of the analyst’s phrases must give clarity and force to the rising forms, so that they may turn into unequivocal facts. The analyst, by making use of his fine empathetic cleverness, at moments of divergence, must be able to choose between the “here and now” and the “there and then” where the patient’s mind wavers; he must choose which side to be on; therefore he can’t be unbiased, he must be participatory; he must be able to side against an archaic, traumatizing monolithic past and with the still weak revelation of the “here and now”, with the newly-born unity of sense. The analytical couple must continually experience new emotional units and create unprecedented meanings; this clarification is a divorce from traumas and brings about a growth of individualization. The target is re-making the relationship with one’s Self, which may come true with the introjection of what originates from the relationship or the relationships, if one belongs to a psychodynamic group. This way the emotional correcting experience plays an important role, in which the dynamic process of growth is connected with the remake ofthe experience had in emotional-corrective condition, where one is given the opportunity to interiorize the analyst’s personality constituents as an emotional, restraining point of reference. Then, as Fromm says, it is necessary to regard patients much more than they show, and always stick to the conviction that they still have great potential because, below the surface of adaptation, resources exist which await to be unveiled and traumatic centres which can be processed. For this reason an analytical-participatory relationship must be characterized by the hope forthe future. The therapist must be able to detect and exclude complaisant attitudes regarding the personal advantages deriving from traumas; when he realizes he sides with the trauma, he must intervene and demolish the early, magical waiting for salvation. A psychoanalytic path must restore the missing dignity, the patient cannot end up in the hands of external authorities who manipulate him/her, as it happened in the past, this behavior –leading to regression- could restore old ties, consolidating traumas. The analyst must follow a process starting from the acknowledgment of transference and counter-transference. A relationship must necessarily be established between the adult parties, whom one must be able to talk to and join forces with; being in psychotherapy emphasizes the presence of a good deal of hope and need for change which cannot be inhibited by technicalities and lack of warmth. We must never forget that the patient is an adult, even if infant constituents still exist. First of all persons, in order to have a view of themselves, must be looked at. Psychotherapy will have served its purpose when the patient finds a relational directness, a real expression of his/her emotional, intellectual and sexual faculties, when he/she is able to take care of his/her Self and of the world surrounding him/her.


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