On Human Goodness: From Super-Ego to Idealization
By Claudia Kogan
More than two decades ago a very dear patient presented me with a parting gift at the end of her treatment. Since then this gift has accompanied and heartened my thoughts and heart.
It was a splendid edition of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
Over the years her symbolic act has received various meanings, in accordance with my winding professional journey; and so I have looked upon the magical narrative as analogous to the therapeutic process. Initially, I perceived the therapeutic constellation as resembling the journey taken by Dorothy and her friends to seek that which from the start lies hidden deep inside them, but which they ‘mistakenly’ try to find outside themselves, in the belief that it will be given to them by someone else.
As I grew personally and professionally however, I looked more closely at the same journey itself, almost from the opposite angle, at the way in which significant experiences and encounters enter our lives, constituting a foundation from which to discover ourselves and realize our hidden potential. I mean of course, the presence of selfobjects.
Now, I have become intrigued by another aspect of the book: Dorothy and her friends, who captivate all our hearts, together constitute a description of all the fundamental components that create the person as a whole. Thus, the Scarecrow, who is seeking his brain, his intelligence and rationality; the Tin Man, who is seeking his heart, the ability to feel emotion; and finally, the Lion, who is yearning to find his courage.
Rationality and emotion, or reason vs instinct/drive, can be seen as the central foundations that totally define the individual.
The presence of courage however, is more difficult to understand. How can one explain the fact that this is the third request? Outwardly it does not seem to have the same level of importance as rationality and emotion. It appears to be too specific a trait in comparison with the two other basic components of our human existence. However, is this true? Are we talking about just a small, local caprice of the lion? In this article I shall argue that the opposite is true, that what occurs in The Wizard of Oz is that the Lion’s wish , significantly and radically alters the picture by introducing the loftiest and most sublime, that which defines our human quality, the foundation that emphasizes the best of mankind, that which distinguishes those who wish, as did the Lion, to find the ability to go beyond their own narcissism, beyond their own limits in order to be there for their others for meaningful purposes, and for the sake of their values and ideals.
The Lion symbolizes the way in which man is able, and even needs, to expand his ethical capabilities as a fundamental act of being alive, of living a life derived from listening to the core of his self(6) in order to create a life that enables the fullest realization of the human potential hidden inside him.
Thus, too, has Self Psychology, rescued our perception of mankind from the cyclical/repetitive-mechanistic perspective (instinct vs reason), and succeeded also to include man’s ideals and values as an essential component.
Thus, being a good-hearted person, or attempting to live according to one’s values / principles is not an artificial occurrence or a complex product of one’s attempt to curb or repress drives; but rather, it might be the very meaning of one’s being, and as such it requires recognition and nurturing. Now, following this introduction, we must not forget that which Dorothy herself sought on her journey in the Land of Oz. Little orphaned Dorothy’s greatest wish was to return home. However, it is only when both heart and head are in the right place, and the possibility to believe in human solidarity returns, that she can return home, for it is only there that her complete existence as a human being is enabled.
The present paper provides a clinical and theoretical examination of the relation between goodness and human nature through the clinical illustration of Michelle:
A young woman in her early twenties, impressive in her outstanding intellectual abilities, arrived for treatment in the wake of heavy feelings of depression, lack of vitality, a sense of not belonging, and constant overall suffering. Prominent in her initial presentation was the feeling that she was flawed and “wrong”, as well as a critical view of others.
What became apparent during the course of therapy is that her parents, who later divorced, created an atmosphere that was highly critical and chaotic. There was never a consistent basis for criticism; it was something that could descend on anyone at any time for any reason. This phenomenon weakened the entire home, which became a battlefield in which sarcastic comments and hurtful remarks flew in every direction. This phenomenon can be conceptualized as a chronic deficit affecting the selfobject needs for both mirroring and idealization.
Michelle oscillated between guilt feelings and outbursts of rage, leaving her with the sense that she was alternately wicked, flawed or crazy, or worse yet, all three simultaneously.
Treatment illuminated many of the prosocial activities Michelle engages in within her community and society as a whole: she volunteers, demonstrates for causes, and is involved in various projects close to her heart. She frequently sheds tears when speaking about the suffering of others to whom fate has not been kind. These activities and traits of her personality are of course all subjected to criticism and scorn by the family. On many occasions they attack her and force her into unpleasant reactions .The gap between her empathic stance for the suffering people that she meets as an activist, and the rage that erupts from her during the attacks on her in her home, is the source of the rupture within herself and results in her experiencing herself as forever damaged.
The therapeutic approach taken here focuses on recognizing and appreciating her willingness to act according to her principles. In the complete version is a clinical vignette from two sessions that occurred during the first year of Michelle’s therapy.
The topic of goodness and human nature constitutes an essential concern for therapists and patients alike. In particular, the concept of idealization within the framework of psychoanalytic self psychology is contrasted with the structural-model concept of the super-ego. Self psychology postulates that the need to possess a purpose larger than oneself and to become an integral contributor to the human tapestry is a fundamental and inherent self need, and not a product of external influence that is in opposition to primal instincts and impulses as conceptualized by classic psychoanalysis. This theoretical shift has wide-ranging implications for clinical practice. To explore these implications, developmental and psychopathological perspectives concerning the concept of idealization in self psychology are considered and illustrated via clinical cases.
The paper is based on the theoretical assumption that the individual is a product of other individuals’ presence, who offer themselves as selfobjects. When these selfobjects provide a nurturing presence, the individual can exploit the human potential hidden within him or her.
The therapists should observe the human ethical stance not as something that is contrary to human nature, but rather as a manifestation of the fundamental essence of human self-motivation. It suggests that accepting values and ideals as essential elements in human existence may considerably advance the therapeutic process. This is why the paper rejects the categorical understanding of people who try to do good as “pleasers”. For goodness is not a side-effect but a cause and reason that stimulates different actions independently. Therefore, the clinical approach presented in the article regards the patient’s generosity, courage, kindness etc. as a central subject in therapeutic interventions.
Based on clinical experience as shown in the clinical vignette, the paper shows how the therapist may create a calming presence, and a mirroring of the patients’ beliefs and values, which can bring about the transformation of their self-understanding.
The therapeutic process assists patients in recognizing their own goodness as a trait, and not as reactions to something, enabling them to enhance and develop these traits as a goal of its own. This leads to the avoidance of possible feelings of guilt that may derive from regarding acts of goodness as motivated by self-interests or personal gain. Therapy can guide the patients in this process of transformation, helping them accept the trait of goodness as an essential part of the Self.
Recognizing human aspiration to do good is part of what the therapeutic process should offer. Once patients perceive themselves through the understanding that goodness is a vital component of their psyche, they can move on, using their goodness, not as an external action but as a goal, with no other interests besides the aspiration to help, contribute, and assist others.
If we adopt the position that our holding and believing in values and ideals is inherent in being human, then psychotherapeutic practice must recognise our patients’ expressions of idealization as a way to acknowledge their ethical stance as basic to their existence, and that such expressions reflect their deep desire to live in a position of supra-individual participation in the world. Their being good people does not cover anything else, at least most of time. To interpret for our patients the unconscious motives for their values and ideals conveys a message that these are only ‘a story that man sells himself’ in order not to see his own naked drives, and that those same ideals are an alien product to the human psyche. Rather, the position suggested here is that this is an essential need.
I believe that it is important to observe this individual, the patient, as one whose dominant basic component is that of sensitivity and empathy towards other human beings. Consequently, it is possible that sometimes this is an individual who in childhood was ‘exploited’ by his environment for the selfobject needs of those surrounding him. Thus, even if there is something that has become distorted in his personality, one should not doubt the deep and real basis of his kind heart.
Consequently, deriving from the conceptual infrastructure conveyed here, a clinical approach is constructed that locates the patient’s generosity, courage, desire to be kind to those around him, and the human warmth that emanates from him, as a central subject in therapeutic interventions.
Claudia Kogan is the chair of IASPS, a Ph.D candidate in Psychoanalysis and Philosophy in the Psychoanalysis and Hermeneutics track at the Bar-Ilan University. Claudia has been a clinical psychologist and supervisor in psychotherapy and psychodiagnosis for the past three decades. She had studied, taught, wrote and supervised within the framework of Self Psychology for the past 16 years. For the past 7 years she has been in charge of establishing and directing the 3-year program for Studies of Self Psychology in the Israeli Association of Self Psychology. She is a lecturer on Self Psychology at Human Spirit Program at Bar Ilan University and at Tel Aviv University.