LX:74 | The Trap of Life and Experience

Freud remarked that there is perhaps a kind of speaking that is worthwhile precisely because up until now it was merely interdicted – which means spoken between, between the lines.  That is what he called the repressed.

Lacan (1974-1975, April 8, 1975)

The Psychoanalyst’s first task is to listen and to listen carefully. Although this has been emphasized by many authors, there are surprisingly few good listeners in the psychotherapeutic world. Why is that? There are several reasons, some of which are primarily personal and others of which are more structural, but one of the most important reasons is that we tend to hear everything in relation to ourselves. When someone tells us a story, we think of similar stories (or more extreme stories) we ourselves could tell in turn. We start thinking about things that have happened to us that allow us to “relate to” the other person’s experience, to “know” what it must have been like, or at least to imagine how we ourselves would have felt had we been in the other person’s shoes.

In other words, our usual way of listening is centered to a great degree on ourselves– our own similar life experiences, our own similar feelings, our own perspectives. When we can locate experiences, feelings, and perspectives of our own that resemble the other person’s, we believe that we “relate to” that person: We say things like “I know what you mean,” “Yeah,” “I hear you,” “I feel for you,” or “I feel your pain” (perhaps less often “I feel your joy”). At such moments, we feel sympathy, empathy, or pity for this other who seems like us; “That must have been painful (or wonderful) for you,” we say, imagining the pain (or joy) we ourselves would have experienced in such a situation.

When we are unable to locate experiences, feelings, or perspectives that resemble the other person’s, we have the sense that we do notunderstand that person – indeed, we may find the person strange, if not obtuse or irrational. When someone does not operate in the same way that we do or does not react to situations as we do, we are often baffled, incredulous, or even dumbfounded. We are inclined, in the latter situation, to try to correct the other’s perspectives, to persuade him to see things the way we see them and to feel what we ourselves would feel were we in such a predicament. In more extreme cases, we simply become judgmental: How could anyone, we ask ourselves, believe such a thing or act or feel that way?

Most simply stated, our usual way of listening overlooks or rejects the otherness of the other. We rarely listen to what makes a story as told by another person unique, specific to that person alone; we quickly assimilate it to other stories that we have heard others tell about themselves or that we could tell about ourselves, overlooking the differences between the story being told and the ones with which we are already familiar. We rush to gloss over the differences and make the stories similar if not identical. In our haste to identify with the other, to have something in common with him, we forcibly equate stories that are often incommensurate, reducing what we are hearing to what we already know.1What we find most difficult to hear is what is utterly new and different: thoughts, experiences, and emotions that are quite foreign to our own and even to any we have thus far learned about.

It is often believed that we human beings share many of the same feelings and reactions to the world, which is what allows us to more or less understand each other and constitutes the foundation of our shared humanity. In an attempt to combat a certain stereotype of the psychoanalyst as a detached, unfeeling scientist rather than as a living, breathing human being, certain practitioners have suggest that the analyst should regularly empathize with the analysand, highlighting what they have in common, in order to establish a solid therapeutic alliance. Although these practitioners have a number of good intentions (for example, to debunk the belief in the analyst’s objectivity), expressions of empathy can emphasize the analyst’s and analysand’s shared humanity in a way that whitewashes or rides roughshod over aspects of their humanity that are unshared.

I would propose that the more closely we consider any two people’s thoughts and feelings in a particular situation, the more we are forced to realize that there are greater differences than similarities between them – we are far more different than we tend to think! In any case, the alliance-building supposedly accomplished by an empathetic response on the analyst’s part (like “that must have been painful for you,” in response to what the analyst believes must have been a trying life event, say the break-up of a long-term relationship) can be accomplished just as easily by asking the analysand to describe his experience (“what was that like for you?”), which has the advantage of not putting words in the analysand’s mouth. In the work I do supervising psychotherapists of many ilks, I find that the comments that are most often intended by the therapist to be empathic and to foster in the patient a sense of being “understood” generally miss the mark, the patient responding, “No, it wasn’t painful. Actually, it was a lot easier than I thought – I never felt better!” The analyst who succumbs to the temptation to respond empathetically often find that she is actually not on the same page as the analysand at that precise moment.

In effect, we can understand precious little of someone’s experience by relating it or assimilating it to our own experience. We may be inclined to think that we can overcome this problem by acquiring much more extensive experience of life. After all, our analysands often believe that we cannot understand them unless we look old and wise, unless we seem right from the outset to have had a good long experience of life. We ourselves may fall into the trap of thinking that we simply need to broaden our horizons, travel far and wide, and learn about other peoples, languages, religions, classes, and cultures in order to better understand a wider variety of analysands. However, if acquiring a fuller knowledge of the world is in fact helpful, it is probably not so much because we have come to understand “how the other half lives” or how other people truly operate, but because we have stopped comparing everyone with ourselves to the same degree: Our frame of reference has shifted and we no longer immediately size everyone else up in terms of our own way of seeing and doing things.

In the early days of my psychoanalytic practice, a woman in her fifties came to see me and tearfully told me a story about how she had gotten married, divorced, and later remarried to the same man. I was quite incredulous, thinking at the time that this sort of thing only happened in Hollywood, and must have had a surprised or bewildered look on my face. Needless to say, the woman felt I was being judgmental and never came back. She was right, of course: I was trying to imagine myself in her shoes and found it quite impossible or at least unpalatable.

Our usual way of listening is highly narcissistic and self-centered, for in it we relate everything other people tell us to ourselves. We compare ourselves to them, we assess whether we have had better or worse experience than they have, and we evaluate how their stories reflect upon us and their relationship with us, whether good or bad, loving or hateful. This, in a word, is what Lacan refers to as the imaginarydimension of experience. The analyst as listener is constantly comparing and contrasting the other with herself and constantly sizing up the other’s discourse in terms of the kind of image it reflects back to her – whether that be the image of someone who is good or bad, quick or slow, insightful or useless. The imaginary dimension concerns images – our own self-image, for example – not the illusion per se.

When operating in the imaginary dimension of experience, the analyst is focused on her own self-image as reflected back to her by the analysand and hears what the analysand says only insofar as it reflects upon her. Her concern here is with what the analysand’s discourse means to her and what it means about her. Is he angry at her? Infatuated with her? Is he depicting her as intelligent, trustworthy, and helpful or as dense, untrustworthy, and unhelpful? When he is ostensibly complaining about his mother, the analyst wonders whether he is not in fact leveling his criticism at her, she wanting to be seen as the good mother, not the bad mother. When he is discussing his grades, his GRE scores, or his income, the analyst is mentally comparing her own grades, scores, and income with his.

Listening for all this makes the analyst constitutionally incapable of hearing a great many things that the analysand says – first and foremost slips of the tongue, which, as they are often nonsensical, do not immediately reflect upon the analyst and thus are generally ignored by her. When the analyst is operating primarily within the imaginary dimension or register, everything that cannot easily be compared with her own experiences (her own sense of self – in short, her own “ego,” as I shall use the term) goes unattended to and, indeed, often remains simply unheard. Since only things that are more or less immediately meaningful can be so compared, whatever is not immediately meaningful or comprehensible – slurs, stumblings, mumbling, garbled speech, spoonerisms, pauses, slips, ambiguous phrasing, malapropisms, double and triple entendres, and so on – is set aside or ignored. Whatever does not fall within her ken, within her own universe of experience, is overlooked or disregarded.

This essentially means that the more the analyst operates in this imaginary mode, the less she can hear. Our usual way of listening – both as “ordinary citizens” and as analysts – primarily involves the imaginary register and makes us rather hard of hearing.

[1]This is true of most forms of identification: Certain facets of things or experiences must almost always be effaced or ignored in order for an identity to be established between any two of them. As Casement put it, “the unknown is treated as if it were already known.”

Casement, P.J. (1991).Learning from the patient.  New York & London: Guilford.


Fink, Bruce. Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique: A Lacanian Approach for Practitioners.  W.W. Norton & Company 2007. Pp. 1-6.

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