Schopenhauer’s Porcupines – by Deborah Anna Luepnitz

For anyone wanting to understand how psychoanalytic psychotherapy works from within the consulting room, this book is brilliant. Whilst telling the intimate and detailed stories of work with her patients (who have all consented to her doing so, of course), Dr Luepnitz also draws on and elucidates complex psychoanalytic concepts from Winnicott, Freud, and Lacan, without it feeling tacked on or dryly pedagogical.

It is quite clear that these concepts are no longer cloistered within psychoanalytic circles. I am sure that most experienced practitioners, of all psychotherapeutic types, are fully aware of and sensitive to the ‘transference’, ‘splitting’, and ‘projective identification’ dynamics (to name a few…) that arise in their therapeutic work.

But what I think makes this book so special is how it demonstrates how psychoanalytic work not only brought to light and labelled these processes, but how the bulk of its therapeutic power lies in directly working with and through those processes as they arise within the therapeutic encounter. Dr Luepnitz guides us through not only what happened in her work with her patients, but also gives us the most admirable and diligent example of self-reflexivity by the therapist. Nothing she felt, said, or did, with her clients was left un-considered. And we see in each example, especially, how precisely that care and thought that she gave these experiences was what lead to the therapeutic ‘breakthrough’ and resulted in significant benefit to the patient.

For an example, with a Black female patient called Pearl, Dr Luepnitz finds herself wanting to break her policy of requiring patients to pay for missed sessions, with the thought: ‘How can I charge this poor black woman?’, but with reflection she then realises that this was more of a counter-transference problem on her behalf, a ‘simple rescue fantasy,’ and not one that she should act on, for the mutual benefit of both parties. I will quote at length now, as I don’t think these dilemmas could be worded more clearly:

‘As we have seen in other cases, a “resistance” to making the unconscious conscious belongs to the therapist as well as to the patient. For both, there is a yes and a no, always. I saw my not charging Pearl as a bit of resistance to doing the work. That is, sensing that Pearl was expressing anger or resentment through her no-shows, I nonetheless chose to let them pass, rather than invite her criticism. It was an act of self-protection. […] All therapists at some moment with every patient construct a kind of protective lining to shield themselves from what is going on in the patient’s head. One wants to know and yet also does not want to know… Unique to psychoanalytic training is the emphasis on disciplining oneself to face rather than disavow one’s resistances.’  (193-194)

Undoubtedly, and as she herself admits at the beginning, the limitation to this case-study approach is that she’s only describing the ‘positive cases’. It is unlikely that someone who got no benefit from her treatment and had a terrible experience would then agree to her publishing the details of their analysis. So, this book doesn’t go any way in proving or even supporting the idea that psychoanalytic psychotherapy is better or worse than any other kind. But I think we all have much to learn by seeing such honest and detailed therapeutic work between such a remarkable analyst and her equally remarkable patients.

Working towards What?

Do you know what your goals are? And if so, are you certain that if you achieved them you would be happier, or more satisfied, than you are now?

I think many of us might answer negatively to at least one of those questions, and I’m surprised that CBT thinks that most of us know what our goals are, but that we just have difficulty working towards them.

I’m closer to thinking that most of us would be able to work towards goals that we have identified that are meaningful to us (they would be inherently aligned with us and therefore more likely to be motivating), but our difficulty is more often rather in identifying what is important to us.

So while CBT sounds like it’s a therapy that believes in the agency of the individual, I think more exploratory approaches like psychoanalysis or psychodynamic approaches have more faith in the individual’s agency to achieve their goals.
CBT assumes that we know what our goals are, just need help achieving them with a boost of willpower.
Psychoanalysis assumes that we are pretty good at going after what we want, but we often need help clarifying and unearthing those ‘truer’ or more authentic values and goals.

What sparked this thought was a guilty feeling, because I have recently started twice-weekly psychoanalysis, whilst clinician-me delivers six 30-minute sessions of Low Intensity CBT to clients suffering from similar (if not far more debilitating) mental health difficulties than patient-me. I know that if I switched roles, if I approached myself as PWP, and was told by PWP me to identify ‘Goals’ to work towards across 6 weeks in ‘therapy’, I’d be stumped. It would be totally meaningless, and potentially even distressing. What I am beginning to identify – slowly, tentatively – in psychoanalysis, is that sometimes seeking and going after goals is a blind race towards, or perhaps more accurately away from, something else as-yet-unidentified. And we don’t necessarily know what we should be striving towards or moving away from until we have stopped for a moment to reflect, and I don’t mean for a matter of moments or even days, but a stretched-out kind of reflection that happens best in the presence of a non-judgemental other. I think I am learning that healing (sometimes) can come from a moment of pause, or stillness, where for a couple of times a week you don’t need to press forward towards an unending improvement.

Admittedly, this will not apply to everyone. Despite my belief to the contrary, many of my clients say that they have found our sessions helpful and they even seem to ‘recover’ as according to the PHQ-9 and GAD-7. So, clearly, the approach taken by psychoanalysis as opposite to CBT is not for everyone, sometimes we do just need that boost of motivation, or a few handy techniques for stopping worrying so much. But maybe it’s a question then of time of life, sometimes we need CBT goal-oriented help, and at other times we need just a space to think and speak.