Format: audio only
Running time: approx. 31 min 15 sec.
Summary: What can psychoanalysis teach us about how we Americans understand our place in the world? Dr. Stephen Soldz talks with Pinky about narcissism, projection, and an enormous lost opportunity of our post-Cold War era.
Note: The following is a verbatim transcript of the program's spoken dialogue.
[ phone ringing ]
Pinky: Hi, is this Dr. Stephen Soldz?
Soldz: Yes it is.
Pinky: Hi, this is Pinky... from the desert.
Soldz: Hi, how you doing?
Pinky: Um, fine thank you. Dr. Soldz, may I ask you some questions about psychoanalysis and fear and... empire building and stuff?
Pinky: Okay... Um, maybe first can you please tell me about psychoanalysis - like, what's it for? And what is the objective of therapy?
Soldz: Well, psychoanalysis is based on the assumption that in addition to the things we're aware of that there's a lot of mental life that we're unaware of, you know, the concept of 'unconscious'. In particular, wishes and motives that we're unaware of because they conflict with other aspects of life - with reality, with the way we think we should be, and that these unconscious wishes and motives frequently get in the way of us having a enjoyable, meaningful life. So, the essence of analysis is to get people to talk and to try and find out why people are avoiding certain areas. Technically we call it resistance, but what it is that people are avoiding and why they are avoiding it, and to try and reduce this resistance to knowing yourself. So that people then develop greater flexibility and can live their life with less compulsion and a wider range of thoughts and feelings guiding them. So that is sort of the essence of what the process is about.
Pinky: When people construct these kinds of - can I call them self-narratives? - if these narratives differ from outward 'reality' too much, is this merely annoying or can this be dangerous?
Soldz: That's a good question. I mean, all of our self narratives, as you put it, differ from reality in various ways. None of us lives totally 'in reality'. So, but, if too much of it differs from... and especially the internal reality, for example, someone who thinks of themselves as only being a nice person who never gets angry, that can be very limiting. There are many things in the world that do get one angry and if one has to keep that out of awareness that one never gets angry, then it can express itself in various other ways that can cause problems. So no, it's not always a problem, but it often is.
Pinky: In one of your talks, I heard you characterize America as suffering from a sort of 'social narcissism'. Can you please explain what you mean by this?
Soldz: Well, I'm sort of using a metaphor from clinical narcissism, which involves a self-absorption, a general unawareness of other people. It's not that you don't know that there's physically another person and they, you know, they've got a different body and a different name, but you're not really aware that they're different than you, that they have different thoughts, different wishes. You think that they're just like you. You know, like a patient who says "I know what you're thinking!", and it's what they're thinking. It doesn't occur to them that you might be thinking something different than what they're thinking or you might have different feelings than them. So, in a clinical sense narcissism involves this sense that others are just like oneself, and therefore an unawareness of others as real, separate people.
In some sense I think the United States suffers from this at a social level. We have this ideal that we're the best people on Earth. President Reagan described it as the, I think it was "the shining city on a hill" from the New Testament, you know, we're this beacon to the world and all and the rest of the world should just realize that and emulate us. They should aspire to have our cars, our political system, our Coca-Cola, and there's very little interest in or concern that different cultures have different values, different interests. You know: "Why are they so weird?". And I think that, you know, it's true of all countries to some degree, but I think the United States has been particularly true partly because we've been relatively isolated by the oceans and by being such a big country, you know we've had a huge influx of immigrants over the centuries. And we've been relatively spared from internal wars, at least since the Civil War, and... many Americans do not travel overseas, knowledge of foreign languages is like much lower than most other countries, at least most other industrial countries, and there's just a lack of curiosity about other people. I mean, the most extreme of this is our president, you know, I believe who just about never traveled outside of the country, he can barely stand to sleep in a bed different than his own, he needs a very controlled environment, and he just doesn't seem to be curious about anyone in the rest of the world. It never occurs to him that maybe Iraqis have different interests. Maybe they don't want what exactly what he thinks we want. But I think it's true of a lot of Americans in general.
Pinky: Okay, so I assume that these kinds of problems are only compounded when the individual or the nation is very powerful, is that correct?
Soldz: You probably can only keep it up either in isolation or when you're extremely powerful. You know, those at the bottom of the rung probably don't have the luxury of really believing that because they're constantly impinged upon by others. So, in that sense, I think you're probably right.
Pinky: In one of your talks I was listening to, you cited a very interesting statistic re: trust in America. You said that from 1960 to 2000, the amount of people who would agree with the statement "Most people can be trusted" dropped from approximately 55% to 35%, and something like 25% among high school students. What's happening?
Soldz: Well we seem to have a much more fearful society. Since 2001, we've seen the results of this, and the deliberate exploitation of it by certain politicians. But I think it's been true for a long time. There was this myth of this shining city on a hill that lasted through much of the Cold War to a great degree, and it got challenged. In the 60s, it got challenged by the Civil Rights Movement, by the social movements spawned in opposition to the Vietnam War. I know I'm of that generation. In the sense that our country was doing something pretty wrong in Vietnam. It was a pretty rude awakening for a lot of people. And, we've also had increased social tensions around the cities, and then, especially since around 1980, a large increase both in inequality, you know, it's now become accepted, but it's been true for a long time, there's been a large and growing gap between the upper few percent of the population and the majority of the population in income, in social power, which I think is probably almost as important as income. The institutions of popular power in the country have decreased, say, unions, neighborhood organizations, things that allowed ordinary people to exert influence over their lives have decreased radically. So there's much more of a sense of powerlessness, of being driven by external forces.
To a large percentage of the population, there's a decline of security. We know that, for example, retirement, that there used to be a good number of jobs which had pension plans that were guaranteed pension plans, and you put in your 20 or 30 or whatever years and you were taken care of pretty well. And that's gone. Now we have a fractured.. you take care of yourself with a 401k that's never anywhere near equal to an old pension plan. You know, the social welfare net has been frayed in various ways, and people sense it. They don't have a good understanding of it but, there's in many ways people just feel afraid. Unfortunately, I think people often end up attributing it to sort of the wrong things. For a long while the danger was from poor people, and essentially black people, that was exploited. You know, the fear of crime. And I don't want to say that crime isn't a real problem, but we've noticed that as violent crime has declined for the last almost 15 years now, fear of crime has increased. The amount of crime and the danger doesn't reflect your fear of it. I mean, it partially has to do with the media, but it also partially has to do with there's a reflection of an overall sense of just 'Danger', of that things are not safe. And we focus on particular things like crime or most recently like terrorists in order to give some structure to this sense that something's not quite right, that things are getting worse. You know, we've seen in recent polls that there's a radical increase in the sense that the nation is going in the wrong direction, and that leads to this general sense, well, it's easier to find a scapegoat in some sense than to live with that uncertainty and fear.
Pinky: So... into this era of instability and insecurity, from a psychoanalytic perspective, how does one control the population by manufacturing fear in the form of an external enemy?
Soldz: Well, it seems the structure the way people think and in certain circumstances it pulls people together. You know, you think of WWII and the sense of the nation 'being together'. In recent years, is this odd quality. We have this external enemy which is of a very unfocused character, you know, terrorism, which is - "What in the world is terrorism? Where is it located? Who does it manifest?" The administration if they wanted to mobilize, and I'm sort of the opinion that they had at some level consciously or not that unconsciously were aware of creating a new enemy to replace the Cold War enemy. I remember watching Bush's speech after 9/11, his speech to Congress, and I was struck how he defined terrorism in very vague terms, so that the 'war on terrorism' could never be won. I mean, how can you win a war on a tactic? Terrorism has been around for thousands of years. There's no way you can win this war, so therefore, you know, he didn't define it in terms of Al-Qaeda or any particular enemy. And, I think it was deliberate, but we have this war combined with this sort of lack of a war footing in the country because I think that they guessed that they couldn't sustain it, that opposition to their policies would have increased a lot if they actually asked for sacrifice. So if I recall correctly, the same speech told people to go to the mall and go shopping in order to prevent some economic collapse.
So you have this formless enemy. I mean, terrorism can be anywhere, can be anyone, and this sense that there's nothing concrete you're doing about it. This is in some sense the worst situation. If you remember you know you have these fears, go out and buy duct tape, and other nonsense like that that just leads to this increase in fear, but in a formless fear. It's not a fear of the Nazis which is much more concrete. So, it becomes our manifestation of all our worst fears, and it also becomes I think to some sense a manifestation of our guilt, that Americans in some sense know that we have this privileged status in the world, we use a far greater fraction of the resources of the world than our population, which suggests we should, and that it's built upon a world where other people have to be kept down if we're going to keep having these resources. So there is a real danger, and it gets focused but in it's undifferentiated way so that it doesn't work as well psychologically, as more traditional enemies, and I think it leads to greater anxiety.
Pinky: Hmm, this is really interesting. It kind of sounds like, sort of, a cycle, like we're projecting... Is that what you're talking about? Projection?
Soldz: Yes, yeah, I'm talking about projection, trying not to use the technical word! [laugh] But yes, projection. And remember, projection is projecting what's in us. Which doesn't mean, you know, there's the old saying "just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that someone's not out to get you" but, it's our own fears and our own hatred, you know, "it's not me who hate those other people for trying to get what I've taken from them or what I'm getting unfairly, but it's them who hate me" is the process of projection. And in fact, it goes to a further step, to what psychoanalysts now call 'projective identification'. Projective identification is where you project your feelings, wishes into another person and you then act in such a way as to get that person to enact it. So you act in such a way as to get the other person to give you grounds to be paranoid of them. You make them so uncomfortable, you know, "Why are you staring at me?" You say that and someone's likely to get hostile. Again these are somewhat metaphors. But in projective identification it's analogous to 'blowback' that Chalmers Johnson and others have talked about. We do things in such a way as to arouse others to take us on and to be a greater danger. I'm not trying to claim, I don't want to be misunderstood as saying that there aren't dangers, let's say Al-Qaeda, or certain Islamic extremists aren't potentially dangerous, but that we act in such a way as to magnify those dangers and increase them rather than to reduce them. Take the war in Iraq, which is you know, in every poll around the world has led to precipitous decline in respect for the United States. That can't be making us safer.
Pinky: Okay, in terms of your work, how would you go about trying to help someone who's suffering from these kinds of mental projections, or narcissism? How do you help them to overcome this?
Soldz: Well, that's a good question, and unfortunately it doesn't easily generalize to the social sphere. You know the first thing is you have to create a safe environment, and that's what we try and do in the office. One where a person can have any thought or feeling and not be afraid that's going to cause problems for them. So it's of course a gradual process. Then, you have to be not too challenging, you don't go telling people, "Hey, you're projecting! Why are you projecting on to me?" That doesn't usually work, that usually arouses greater defensiveness. So you accept whatever it is the person has to say, whatever it is they feel and at the same time you try not to be too alien to them, not to be so "good and understanding" that we increase the feelings a person has for themselves. And so then there's a gradual process of trying to get a person to put into words rather than act to experience. Because a lot of what people do is they act in order not to experience - in order not to feel angry, or not to feel ashamed, or not to feel terrified - they act. You know, it feels safer and more in control if I yell at you instead of having some feeling that I'm in danger or I don't understand what's going on. Or, I'm terrified of myself. It takes a long time for people to get to a point where they will admit that it's primarily themselves that they're most scared of - what they don't know, or what they think they shouldn't know about themselves that's most terrifying. I mean if you can accept that then you can deal better about the external world.
Pinky: Hmm. I know you started out by saying that it's difficult to generalize these kinds of things to the social sphere, but are there maybe like, at least general patterns that psychiatrists can see that might help us to approach these kinds of problems at a societal or international scale?
Soldz: Yeah, I mean we know some things and they're not profound. I wish I had the profound answers but I don't think anybody does. I think, you know, we psychoanalysts are just one small part of trying to piece together these issues. I don't want to foster the megalomania that any field has the answers to human problems. But we certainly know that belligerence is the opposite of understanding and it's not gonna lead to increased harmony. That you have to come to try and understand others and understand that they're different. Part of the problem that the Bush administration got into Iraq was that they had this image of Iraqis as children. I mean they wouldn't quite express it that way, but you know, there are phrases like "we have to help them grow up", "we have to educate them", "we have to teach them democracy" or whatever it is. And the problem is, Iraqis aren't children. They're grown ups. And they have their own wishes, their own fears, their own desires, and their own culture. And that psychological orientation, which is often been the one of colonialism, that the Natives are children who, you know, we need to be this paternalistic parent. It doesn't work very well, and in the modern world seems to work not at all.
So... I mean I don't know if we can generalize exactly from the consulting room, but we know that you have to develop a greater awareness of others, the ability to talk and to listen, and the acceptance, and this is for Americans a major major problem, the acceptance that our country, like all other countries, it's good and it's bad, and our motives are no less pure than any other countries' motives. This is something that Noam Chomsky has focused on a lot. You know, the myth of American exceptionalism, that the United States is somehow the only country in human history which only has pure motives. So for example, the history of the Vietnam War has been re-written in the school books and even in the newspapers and the press as one of American idealism that was sort of too idealistic and pure to deal with a dirty world. So we went in to bring democracy and all these good things to Vietnam and we couldn't really acknowledge that, you know, Vietnam was corrupt and had these dictators and things, but it was all the goodness of our motives, which is a total violation of history. The United State's motives were anything but pure and democracy was the last thing on the US agenda there as witnessed at the elections that were called for and a number of treaties were always cancelled under US pressure because the North Vietnamese would win them. And a similar thing in Iraq. There's this myth that the United States went into Iraq to bring democracy and yes, there's the language of democracy, but we know that in fact one of the first actions of Paul Bremer was to cancel local elections. And why did they cancel local elections? Because they didn't think that the pro-US factions who had been in exile, and didn't have local roots, they thought that they would lose. So democracy simply meant electing a pro-US government. So in that sense, one step is to become self-aware. To accept that the United States, no worse than any other country, but also not much different than other countries, has its own interests, and pursues them, and sometimes for good, and sometimes for ill, but unless we can recognize our own motives, how in the world are we gonna deal with other people with their complex motives?
So that's one lesson we have there, and certainly an increased belligerence toward the world that we've seen in the last number of years is little question that leads to increased belligerence on the other side. You know there was the belief that the United States was so powerful with its shock and awe, that we could overwhelm any country, and we see how well that worked - this tiny little country of Iraq with about a twelfth our population and no military to speak of has defeated the United States military. So, at some point you have to come to terms and listen to others, which unfortunately we're not ready to do in Iraq. I mean, we still have Congress debate "What's the proper government for Iraq?" It doesn't occur to Congress that it's not for the United State's Congress or anyone in the United States to choose that. [laugh] You know, whether or not federalism is a good policy, I don't know, but that's for Iraqis to decide. It's not for the US Congress to adopt. And until the U.S. learns that lesson, it's not going to have much success. So I don't know if I've answered your question there or not because I think, you know, it takes psychoanalysis, it takes years for an individual. And I wish I knew what the analog at the social level is, but it's hard to do that, other than to know that some of what we need to accomplish is the same.
Pinky: Yeah, thank you. I mean, I think that gives us something to think about because that's not the direction that public discourse is going over the last few years, to say the least.
Soldz: Yeah, and unfortunately it's on all sides. I mean, all a politician has to say is "Why don't we try talking to Iran?" and they're in deep trouble.
Pinky: Right. I was wondering if I could ask you this semi-personal question. Psychoanalysts are not popularly known as being very politically engaged. I mean, we don't generally see a ton of you guys on television protesting this or that. What has been the connection for you that's led you to be more public in your opposition to the so-called 'War on Terror', and to empire building in general?
Soldz: Well let me say two things. One, I think your assumption is partly wrong. Psychoanalysis was born as a radical set of ideas. It was a great challenge to the status quo and in fact almost all of the early psychoanalysts were political radicals of one stripe or another. In pre-war Europe, it was often allied with various social movements. But when it came to the United States, what happened was that psychoanalysts came from Europe as the Nazis took over and in this country, they sort of gave up their radical beliefs partly out of fear I think, and partly out of the general processes that it were occurring in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, and it became a much more sedate and established profession in this country. But that's not been its history everywhere and for example, in Latin America, there are long traditions of psychoanalysts working very closely with social movements in Argentina, in Nicaragua, in Brazil, and so in some sense the United States' form of psychoanalysis in its particular sort of social quietism is the exception, perhaps more than the rule. But even in this country, there's been an increasing number of psychoanalysts who are becoming more activist. There are a lot of people. It's not the dominant mainstream, but it's not a total excluded fringe either. So I think to some degree psychoanalysis gets a bad rap from some of the sort of Hollywood-ish stereotypes.
For me personally, I mean, in fact, my history is sort of the other way. I was a political radical first from very early in my teens and the social movements of the 60s. Now that said, that was a long time ago and I have been less active over the decades. I have a family and you know, like many of us, we're raising kids, and doing this and that, but when the Iraq war came, my activism came out. I could not believe that at the end of the Cold War, we had an opportunity to try and create a more peaceful world, to try and reduce belligerence, to reduce the number of, or even eventually abolish the nuclear weapons in the world, and I couldn't believe that the country and the world were launching into another round of belligerence and warfare. That without without much thought, without much opposition, without anybody really discussing "Why are we doing this?" I don't mean "Why Iraq in particular?", but realizing the magnitude of what we gave up. By doing this we gave up the possibility for a long time of trying to find more peaceful solutions. And this is an enormous loss, as I think people are just starting to realize. And so, I could no longer remain quiet and so I thought, well, where's the place to start? Well you know there are all kinds of activists but why don't I start among my own? Among psychoanalysts and more recently among other psychologists, and try and get them more involved, and try and take some of the tools that we have because I think one of the lessons of psychoanalysis is that we're all complex and that ambivalence is central to life, that no one is all good and probably no one or very few are all bad, that we all have anger, we all have destructive tendencies, and we all have constructive and loving tendencies, and the world has to accept that that's in all of us. And creating myths of us good, them bad is a recipe for failure as we've seen in the last ten years or so.
Pinky: Well, thank you Dr. Soldz, this has been really helpful.
Soldz: Well thank you, I appreciate it.
Pinky: Okay, take care.
Soldz: Okay, well thanks. Okay, bye bye.
Pinky: Thank you. Take care. Oh! Bye bye. [ laughs ] That was Dr. Stephen Soldz, Director at the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis in Brookline, Massachusetts.
guest: Dr. Stephen Soldz
drawings & illustrations: Pinky