On Human Goodness

On Human Goodness –From Super-Ego to Idealization
Claudia Kogan

The present paper provides a clinical and theoretical examination of the relation between goodness and human nature. This topic 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. 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 [1] (1). 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 (2,3,4,5)            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 own 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 question of ideals according to Self PsychologyAccording to Kohut(2,3,4,5) the human self ,flows between two main needs:  between the need to be present, to realize oneself, and the need to live a life that goes beyond oneself, a life imbued with an ethical stance directed towards the benefit  of others.            The first selfobject need is the need for mirroring, which nurtures the grandiose self and the ensuing ambitions that drive the self.  The second selfobject is the idealizing need that brings with it calm and tranquillity; and the ensuing values and ideals that guide the self.(7)            When Kohut formulated the idealizing pole, he understood that the human need to live by an ethical stance and to act according to ideals/principles is a basic need, deep, organic in itself, a component within the fabric of the psyche, not something imposed on it from without, not something that contradicts the psyche’s true nature and is obeyed solely from warped motives.  Rather, the idealizing pole represents the essence of what it is to be oneself.  This understanding offers an alternative to the classical psychoanalytic concept of super-ego in order to describe a similar range of phenomena, but to interpret them completely differently.  The super-ego is described as a structure representing the social dictates within the mental apparatus, and as such it always constitutes a stumbling block, and source of disquiet and disruption within the psyche, like a foreign body against which the body itself struggles.             In contrast, what is being argued in this paper is that the idealization pole might be the source of wholeness, tranquillity and calm.  When the super-ego unsettles the individual this can be interpreted as reflecting a failed idealization or pathological development.(8)            Kohut knew well that the seeds for a potential ethical existence reside at the very core of the individual and are at the very essence of his being.  When he established this theoretical basis, he declared that in our striving to accomplish our values, principles and ideals, we guarantee the possibility of fully expressing our essential human capacity.            In order for this essence to thrive, it is necessary from the very beginning of life to dwell in an environment that maintains an empathic and nurturing atmosphere that enables the self to come into existence.            The idealizing experience in infancy, and in adult life as well, evolves from the empathic merger between the self and the mature psyche of the selfobject, which allows the self to participate within the selfobject’s calming/soothing abilities.            The selfobject is capable of calming/soothing others as a consequence of his/her own idealizing selfobject experiences.  I refer to the mother as selfobject whose strength derives from the idealizing experiences she received in her life and which enable her to create a soothing matrix for her baby.             The idealization process leads to calmness, which is a preliminary step in achieving self-regulation, but whose influences are far-reaching, leading to an overall sense of participating in the world as a source of calm.            Following this occurrence the individual develops values and ideals which in turn enables him to turn his gaze away from himself and towards his fellow man, a developmental process that enables him to feel solidarity with humankind as a whole. And what about therapy?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. Many therapists, for example, term patients who attempt to get on well with their fellow man, and often also with the therapist, as ‘pleasers’.  Pleasing in this case is a reductive term, conveying that concern for the other’s well-being is not a deserving value, but rather the opposite, a response or defence of another sort that requires an interpretation directed at the unconscious hostile motives of the patient.             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.            Now, before the clinical illustration, it is important to complete what has been said so far by conceptualizing a highly important concept, that of transformation. (2,9,10,11,12)            Fittingly, Kohut presented this concept as one whose meaning opens up an infinite space for enhancing the human potential hidden within us.            One can perceive this concept as Kohut’s answer to a parallel concept but one that differs in purpose in drive theory, the concept of sublimation. (13,14,15,16).            Classical psychoanalysis theorizes that the human mind is in a constant state of conflict because it is always torn by unconscious drives.  Consequently, sublimation describes an achievement that remains defensive in nature, but which seeks to explain man’s ability to live a useful and adaptive life within the society surrounding him.            In contrast, self psychology declares that man at his best is not the result of successful sublimation, but rather the result of a transformative process during which the psyche moves from archaic narcissism or grandiosity towards ideals.            Progress towards achieving self-realization in its highest form, and to restoring the self, must take place through ideals.  Kohut notes: “In the therapy of  narcissistic personalities, a carefully paced analytic procedure leads to the improvement of the total functioning of the personality through the transformation of narcissism into ideals, humour, wisdom, creativity and empathy” (pp69, 17)             As opposed to repression, restraint and control, transformation proposed the infinite possibility of man moving beyond narcissism for the benefit of a “participation in a supra-individual and timeless existence”.(pp. 119, 9)             Psychotherapy that creates an atmosphere for transformational processes enables the awakening of joy, creativity and empathy, thus enabling the self of the patient to reconnect with the sources of its’ vital essence.A clinical illustration of a social activistMoran, 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.            Moran 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 Moran 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.  Following is a clinical vignette from a session that occurred during the early months of Moran’s therapy:            I tell Moran: “It’s very impressive and not to be taken for granted that you invest your time in helping these small children, it’s evident that these matters are close to your heart.”  Moran, in contrast, immediately contradicts my words with a statement of the destructive sort, albeit enveloped in the dangerous sophistication of high intelligence, and which mostly functions against herself. She says: “But it gives me a lot too, so perhaps I’m doing it only for myself, only in order to feel good with myself.”            I am silent for a moment, then I say: “Moran, you get up early in the morning, travel a long way in order to make sure that these children won’t remain hungry, you set aside other plans and tasks in order to do so. You are simply a good person…what can we do?!”  Moran raises her head in surprise, our gazes meet and a fleeting smile is born.  I continue: “By the way, the fact that it also makes you feel good doesn’t detract anything from your giving.  Quite the opposite….”  When I finish speaking Moran’s eyes look at me in gratitude.            Following about a year of therapy, Moran describes a family situation in which her younger sister is attacked by the family.  Her reaction to the attack upon her sister is important because it illustrates a shift from a sarcastic, cynical relationship with her sister towards a relationship characterized by greater closeness and empathy.             Moran recounts: “I feel good, good things are really happening to me recently, the problem is that things are beginning to irritate me, I don’t have patience and I think that I will simply snap, become annoyed with someone. It hasn’t happened yet but it could happen at any moment.  Why is it that as soon as things go well I begin to get annoyed?” I ask: “Tell me a little more about what you mean.  What has happened in the last few days?            Moran answers: “I was at the centre (as a volunteer) and they gave me a certificate of recognition for the project I led.”  She searches in her bag and I begin to look enthusiastically and happily for my reading glasses.  Moran makes a face of surprise, as if asking ‘What are you doing?’  I reply to the unspoken question: “I understood that you want to show it to me.”  Moran smiles and says with a wink: “You read me so well.” She hands me the impressive certificate that she had received and I slowly peruse it in admiration.              Moran says sadly: “I told my father about this and he said ‘nice’ and moved on, not even interested in seeing it.  And then he said to me in passing: “What’s the matter with you, are you intending to make a living sometime soon?”            I offer: “So perhaps you simply become annoyed when people annoy you…”  Moran smiles in agreement, and adds: “That’s exactly how I felt when my sister Ya’ara and I went on a trip and we were really enjoying ourselves together (a day trip, taken by the two sisters, who had had no close ties between them until now).  When we returned home we were subjected to a critical comment about how much money it had cost… we had hardly spent anything on ourselves.”            I tell Moran softly: “It’s hard to get such stuff thrown at you, perhaps it is easier when Ya’ara is there too and you both at least feel understood by one another.”   Moran adds: “The thing is that criticism is ‘hereditary’ among us, the entire family (she means the extended family) decided that we are spoilt.  That’s how they label us.  Ya’ara in particular, they crushed her completely.  She told them that she was going to South America, and they asked her how she would manage without a manicure-pedicure.”             I say: “They simply don’t know her.  It’s very hard and painful when people pigeonhole someone and aren’t ready to truly know them?…”  Moran enthusiastically agrees: “You’re right, that’s exactly what I told her.”  And in words uncharacteristic of her usual expressions regarding others, she adds: “This sweet kid was so miserable, I called her into my room and said to her: ‘Ya’ara, you’re a terrific person, I love you very much and they….simply don’t know you.’  Then I saw that she was almost crying, she hugged me and said ‘thanks, thank you my sister’.”              I say to Moran:  “Moran, sweetie, here’s your good heart again….you held your hand out to her when an icy moment surrounded her. And so…  you returned her self to her.”  Moran thinks for a while, then says: “Hey, I suddenly feel that I’ve got a sister, we aren’t alone anymore.”            During the therapeutic process presented here one can clearly see the acknowledgement and esteem that I held from the very beginning for Moran’s whole self,  in response to her longing for a deep  recognition that what lies within her is good.  This is a young woman who, because of the criticism and chaos surrounding her, has been left anxious and in constant fear that she is about to make a mistake, spoil something or destroy something.  The therapist creates a calming presence, and concomitantly an accurate and quiet mirroring stemming from her therapeutic and humanist beliefs and values, which enables the patient to experience transformation.             The lesser the extent of Moran’s  narcissistic urges,  and the more she believed more fully in her human values, which were decidedly her core assets, the more that Moran was gradually able to heal the  split within her self and add to the generous acts carried out outside the home, by offering her hand also to the home within.  This is what she does with her sister; and in place of the former battlefield, a moment of healing harmony occurs.            We could observe Moran’s generous deeds through classical conceptions, and perceive her offer to help others as a sort of defensive reactive formation to the unconscious destructive instincts.  Undoubtedly, at the beginning of therapy her values appeared to be a  constellation of a super-ego devoid of idealization(8).  While ideological subjects constituted the centre of her world, they did not provide a soothing source of quiet and calm.            Due to the damage to the idealization pole, her desire to help and be involved remained continually guilt-ridden, as if she wasn’t doing enough, and against this she was tormented by mistrust regarding her own hidden motives.  Following a therapeutic encounter characterized by empathic listening and recognition, Moran was able to broaden her kind-hearted self making it possible for her to become a source of consolation at home.            The therapy, and the transformational process motivated by it, enabled Moran to return to realizing her deep essence as a human being seeking to do good in the world.In conclusion            In this paper I have attempted to explore the question of basic human goodness, seeking to outline a developmental contour for human solidarity, according to the approach developed by the Kohutian school of thought.            To do so, I have based my approach on the theoretical assumption that the individual is actually a product of the presence of other individuals who offer themselves as a foundation for that person in their capacity as selfobjects.  When these selfobjects provide a nurturing and balancing presence, the individual’s ability to exploit the human potential hidden within him or herself, is born.            I would like to argue based upon the theoretical and clinical assumptions that I have presented here, that we should observe the human ethical stance not as something that is contrary to our deepest nature.  Rather, it is precisely the opposite, a manifestation of the most fundamental essence of human potential.            Our patients, like little Dorothy, have been thrown bruised into a search for the way to return to a place that can be called home, crying out for full recognition of all the hidden facets of their being.  Thus, while the injured mind seeks recognition and consolation for the injury it has sustained, it also requires unhesitating recognition of its desire and capacity to live as an individual who seeks to contribute to the world around him .             And finally, on a personal note:  throughout the years, in a bohemian neighbourhood in Tel Aviv, there had existed a mysterious shop, on the front door of which was carelessly affixed a sign with the following words: “Here we mend angels’ wings.”  These words always induced in me a moment of quiet, as one who stands in front of a heavenly occurrence, as if,  merely by standing there, the wings  of those who stand and gaze are mended; of those who perhaps were not even aware of their existence.            Perhaps we should embrace the idea of mending wings; wings that first present as small, injured or crumpled.  Sometimes they require extensive repair, other times all that is required is to oil them in order to ease their flight.            We, as therapists, have engaged for many years with the trinity of head, heart and guts.  It is time to say that therapy at its best must also engage with wings.  It is my belief that such an approach will constitute a basis from which our patients will gradually become ready to reach that place where they can realize the deep human potential hidden within them. 


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  1. . On leadership, In C. Strozier, Ed. Self Psychology and the Humanities. New York: W. W. Norton 

[1] Each number appearing in the text refers to a reference that appears in a separate reference list