Openness and Rigidity
Clifford Yorke : Training Analyst and Child Analyst of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He was a Fellow of the American College of Psychoanalysts and was Co-director of the Anna Freud Centre from 1977 to 1987. His published works include some sixty professional papers and two books.
Those who seek to assess a prospective patient for psychoanalytic treatment will look for various qualities that are independent of illness or health in any conventional sense. Among these is a feature that may be just as readily discernible in everyday life: namely the degree of openness, of ease displayed in talking about oneself, in circumstances where this is appropriate.
The qualification matters: for in day-to-day exchanges even the most 'open' person will show discretion. The open character is at its best when gauging the sensitivity of the listener. It may not be fitting to discuss in a casual and brief encounter, personal views, recollections and opinions as one would to a close friend. But an open character may reveal itself, even when formalities alone are enough, through an air of frankness, lack of artifice, spontaneity of expression, and even an amusingly appropriate remark. But these abilities never amount to the recklessly gregarious.
At the opposite end of this character spectrum is the person who never gives anything away; who never saps more than the bare minimum called for by the occasion, who is reserved even with friends (rarely close, and acquired on grounds of common interests rather than personality), who avoids any truly personal reference to himself, and unwittingly or not, debars even from his own awareness any thoughts he finds distasteful or incompatible with his amour propre. These very different kinds of people may not commonly be found in pure culture: every degree between the two extremes exists, and even then the admixture of characteristics shows all kinds of variation. Sir Karl Popper talked of open and closed societies; it seems equally justified to speak of open and closed personalities.
Rigidity of character must be distinguished from massive social inhibition, the causes of which are many, a condition by no means incompatible with a wish to change and with a willingness to try to speak more freely under the private and confidential conditions of the psychoanalytic situation, though the unconscious will certainly have a say in the matter. The trouble with character, however, is that its possessor may not see anything wrong with it or, if he does, has no internal pressure to put it right. No one can change a character that affords complacency.
Can psychoanalysis make any contribution to the understanding of the open and the rigid character? I believe it can if we keep in mind the notion of the 'repression barrier'.
While the unconscious has a very long history, all the tempestuous times of the first five years or so of life become subject to 'infantile amnesia' and quickly become inaccessible to memory or to searching personal introspection. That is why few people can remember more than isolated fragments of their childhood, though family portraits and recollections may have partly filled out the picture. But what happens in human psychological development to bring this about?
Part of the explanation appears to lie with the passing of the Oedipus complex, when the most disturbing aspects of the, "Child's first great love affair' (Glover) and all its antecedents pass into oblivion. Closely involved with that formative event is the final formation of the childhood superego that reinforces and strengthens a divide between two psychological phases: early childhood on the one hand and all that follows it on the other. But it is memory that is cut off, for those first few years continue to exercise a compelling effect on all future development. Thinking feeling and acting all retain the influences of those first few years - they do not begin de nouveau at the age of five or so. But they are unconscious and form part of an unconscious system that follows its own language and obeys its own laws.
Unconscious mental content exists, of course, long before the repression barrier is finally laid down. Rut psychoanalysts who have treated a child less than five years old know how much easier it is to get in touch with unconscious material than it is in a child who has passed into latency and whose 'mental divide' is established. But if the is too firmly structured, and is almost totally impermeable, a rigid character structure develops that impairs both social and personal adaptation. If the barrier is less impermeable, and open to breaches acceptable to the superego, and compatible with ego functioning, then the more comfortable adaptations permitted by open-mindedness are available to the personality. Infantile amnesia is intact, but freedom of social intercourse, the use of otherwise unacceptable material in jokes, the ability to play with young children and enjoy the interchange, a capacity for healthy and comparatively fearless introspection and, in those suitably gifted, the emergence of otherwise unconscious material in the guise of art, become invaluable personal qualities.
Copyright � 2000 British Psychoanalytical Society & Institute of Psychoanalysis.
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