AS A psychoanalytic psychotherapist who often works with couples, I regularly witness intransigent and extreme states of mind. The way the Brexit debate is being conducted seems to mimic these conflicted couples. So, I am now wondering if psychoanalysis and its application to understanding conflicted relationships might enhance our understanding of our current divisions and, perhaps, lead us back to a politics that feels more consensual and collaborative?
At the root of Brexit, as writers such as Barnett have observed, are betrayals of trust that date back to the deceptions around the Iraq war to the 2008 crash and the 2009 expenses scandal. These shocks led to a loss of faith in government. Added to this, austerity from 2010 onwards meant more people began to experience real hardship in their daily lives; money was short, job security was lost and services that had been depended on, disappeared. Could we think about these events as a national trauma? As we know, trauma isn’t good for people. It produces a lack of trust and creates fear and then anger. Trauma increases our wish to be self-sufficient and not depend on others. Trauma makes it hard for us to work out where our best interests lie. Trauma makes us retreat and avoid collaboration with those on the outside; those who are other and therefore at times of insecurity felt to be a potential threat. It pushes people into polarised positions; it makes it more challenging for people to tolerate ambiguity. In psychoanalytic terms we would say that it is likely to generate paranoid-schizoid ways of thinking, which is a state of mind where rigid beliefs dominate and where it becomes harder and harder to stay in touch with empathic, generous feelings. It’s a dog eat dog state of mind. And one could propose that this state of mind has arisen because we have become a dog eat dog society.
Driving this less tolerant, less empathic and less generous state of mind is a feeling of insecurity. When we feel we have little ourselves, sharing with others can become tricky. And while the consequences of the global 2008 crash were very serious, what followed was worse. Just when people needed to feel secure, government enacted policies which did the very opposite. When I talk about security here, I’m emphasising that we cannot separate seemingly external pressures such as financial security and physical safety from the internal feeling of emotional security. When we feel threatened or are actually threatened, we need a sense that there is someone to turn to who will take care of us. Government can provide that underpinning confidence and good leaders can serve as parental figures who, in times of heightened anxiety, we can turn to in our minds. Governments can help people accept suffering; they can encourage us all towards the common good and can create solidarity around hardship. But when we feel that the common good is replaced by self-interest and manipulation, then trust is lost and the establishment becomes not a protective parent but rather a rapacious and neglectful one to be distrusted and resisted. This blending of inner and outer realities is going on all the time inside each of us, and when we are calm and secure, we can usually distinguish between the two. However, when times are not calm, nor secure, helping people to distinguish what is real and what is felt, is the task of mature leadership and this is something that seems to be sorely lacking.
In response to the crisis of 2008, the coalition government failed to provide this assurance, rather it went about undermining the services and institutions that underpin that felt sense of security; cutting children’s centres, thereby destabilising ordinary families (a very effective way to help people feel more secure is to strengthen services that support relationships and families) and reorganising and commercialising our most important institution, the health service.
Thinking about the way traumas affects whole societies is a relatively new concept in public health. Mostly, it has been applied to more grossly traumatising experiences such as slavery, war and genocide. But it seems to me that our politics needs to include more understanding that undermining felt security has an impact on whether we remain tolerant, inclusive and yes, sane as a society. Politicians, in my view, undermine felt security at their peril.
Vamik Volkan, a Turkish Cypriot psychoanalyst who is internationally known for his work on bringing together conflictual groups for dialogue and mutual understanding, has described how after large group societal trauma individuals can feel a sense of victimisation and a feeling of being dehumanised. As a result of trauma, people can, at first, feel a sense of humiliation and hidden shame about their circumstances and can find it difficult to be appropriately assertive. It is interesting to note therefore how little overt protest we saw after the 2008 crash and how long it took for a sense of injustice to crystallise. Perhaps, many people felt more ashamed than angry about their reduced circumstances, and the rhetoric about ‘the underserving poor’ compounded this.
Volkan also says that in response to large group trauma one can see an increase in projection. In projection, we tend to place blame outside ourselves and see the “other” as responsible for our misfortune. In the face of the shame and humiliation that is created such as when you need help from a system (the DWP) that is contemptuous and toxic towards that neediness, projections that blame ‘others’ can increase as a way of protecting and defending oneself against a pervasive feeling of failure. The sense that ‘others’ were bringing the nation down and were the source of individual and societal problems was most stark in the increasingly hostile attitude to immigrants and refugees.
And, Volkan also reminds us that trauma also increases the need for an investment in a large group identity as a way of shoring up the inner sense of fragility. The feeling of being small and powerless can be eased by identifying with a large group and this large group can then be invested with strength, nobility and pride. Englishness perhaps? Here Englishness becomes the repository for all the good, and ‘others’ carry the unwanted and discarded ‘bad’.
OpenDemocracy.net, February 6. Susanna Abse is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and organisational consultant and chair of the British Psychoanalytic Council. During 2006–2016, she was CEO of Tavistock Relationships when she worked closely with successive governments on family and relationship policy.
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