Self Psychology Page 

Discussion of
Janice Gump's
Social Reality as an
Aspect of Subjectivity

Ernest S. Wolf, M.D.


[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]

This paper originally was delivered at the meeting to celebrate J.D. Lichtenbergís 75th birthday October 21, 2000 in Washington, D.C.


Dr. Gump has given us a most interesting and important theme to discuss: how do we best and most comprehensively conceptualize the traumas that form, maintain and misshape the structure of the self during early development as well as during the individualís lifelong exposure to the uniquely individual and also to the chronically common societal traumas. I must confess that the seriousness and complexity of the issues of race and subjectivity, however, are such as to make it very difficult for me to do justice in the allotted 10 minutes. Let me just say I will do my best by taking as the frame for my comments a narrowly restricted self-psychological view with a focus on what I take to be the core intrapsychic issues. I believe these core issues are the inner experiences of helplessness and powerlessness and their resulting associated inner experiences of narcissistic rage and narcissistic shame. It is these core experiences together with their affects that I think we must try to understand if we wish to understand and to alter the behaviors that inevitably flow from them.

Gump outlines three main topics for her presentation. I will summarize very briefly. Topic one is the failure to address the subjectivity of the non dominant Other; topic two is possible reasons for this failure; and topic three are aspects of the missing subjectivity of Afro Americans. Gump cautions us about her hubris and her ignorance. I like her courage in thus immediately bringing her own self, her own personality, into the discussion. All of our ignorance here is great: Gumpís ignorance, my ignorance, your ignorance, all of us. A needed confession of our own shame, of our fears, guilt and biases may, just may, help us make a little progress. Such a personal approach is likely to be painful and embarrassing but to be much preferred over the frequent way of avoiding the affective discomfort by taking refuge in long winded pseudo-intellectual theorizing.

I feel especially entitled to approach these issues from a very personal experiential point of view because I believe my experiences as a young Jew growing up in Nazi Germany and surviving the terror of daily humiliation and physical assaults by my classmates as well as living through the horror of Krystallnacht were not so very different from what probably all non whites experience when growing up in a predominantly white society. Add to that an awareness of centuries of bloody Anti-Semitism and I feel a certain kinship with the centuries of racist experiences of others. But let me add immediately that though I may sound like a victim I donít feel like one. On the contrary, I think and I feel that I am stronger, wiser, more empathic and freer of hate than many of my contemporaries who under the guise of concern for the poor and socially disadvantaged others are really and whiningly asking us for our love of themselves.

So I will start out with what I experienced inside myself, and from that I will try to abstract and conceptualize a little bit without forgetting that all these cognitive speculations pale when set next to live experiences.

The inner experience that I think Ė and here I am in harmony with Heinz Kohutís thinking Ė the inner experience that I think as being totally unacceptable and unbearable is the experience of utter powerlessness. I am not sure whether I would have come to this insight without talking to Kohut and I have to take on faith that others will similarly find helplessness unbearable. I assume that others are essentially very much like me in most respects. There is a common humanity which makes taking such an empathic view possible. Sure, we all are also different, no two humans are exactly alike, yet the differences are not so great when we try to look at them more closely. One of the worldís greatest geneticists, Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford, in his recent book "Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect" emphasizes that it is not the genes but individual and cultural experiences which are the most important factors in shaping our differences as individuals and as groups.

I donít know what Paul Ehrlich would think about my putting the experience of helplessness/powerlessness in the center of our developmental progression. Let me invite you now to come with me into putting yourself into the shoes or better, the skin of other humans, both children and adults. What must it be like to suddenly or chronically feel assaulted by pain, or cold, or hunger, or lack of oxygen, or by a hostile society or by Momís rage? Unbearable, unacceptable, scary as hell, and inevitably and instinctively calling forth a fierce reaction of doing away with the offending insult. That is my version of Kohutís definition of narcissistic rage. It is an unlimited rage that goes on and on and on, seeking to destroy whatever or anything or anybody that seems around and is perceived as assaulting. And I would add that this primitive core experience of rage is also associated with a primitive experience of shame. The shame is the affective aspect of the unacceptability of the unbearable helplessness, which we can conceptualize as the unacceptability of being weak, of being less, of being inferior. This is very different from the anger that is mobilized in response to frustration. Frustration anger pulls the self together, makes it more functional and efficient, and, if possible, allows the completion of a task or reaching a goal. With the completion having been achieved the frustration anger disappears along with the frustration. Narcissistic rage does not disappear with disappearance or destruction of the insult. It does not disappear because the shame is still there as a reminder of oneís inferiority during the traumatic moments. The shame is almost as unbearable as the powerlessness and leads to chronic attitudes and defenses that I need not describe to this audience.

Furthermore, as Gump points out, the trauma of insult and assault as well as the trauma of being shamed continues for the non dominant groups along various points of the political and social surround as created by the culture in its social order. She acknowledges finding her childhood in psychoanalytic theories of development but, she tells us, she cannot find herself. Her comment here illustrates my point that in order to really being meaningful our thinking has to originate in clinical experience and not from the manipulation of theoretical positions via intellectual speculations. Gump wants to seek a more inclusive construct, one able to incorporate the lasting significance of the earliest organizing principles while also acknowledging the direct determinacy of social and political realities. She wonders why she had to venture outside the mainstream psychoanalysis to find her subjectivity reflected? I think the answer is very simple. The European psychoanalysts who created this new field of knowledge had little or no personal experience with the racist traumas that Gump wants to see reflected in psychoanalytic developmental theories.

Gump in quoting Smith also very interestingly distinguishes the subject as determined by various forces such as politics, gender, ethnicity, etc. from the individual [the psychological self] as characterized by being an agent, a determiner of his actions. I think this differentiation is very useful because it puts agency in the center of our concern. What is agency if not the experience of being able to act? Agency thus represents the inner experience of being able to act and not being powerless. To some extent agency immunizes against narcissistic rage and its consequences. Since the experience of not having agency makes one think of oneself as a lesser, weaker, inferior human being it is associated with narcissistic shame. We all have instances of narcissistic shame. It is very difficult to be empathic with an other human who may have different life spheres in which there is a need to experience agency. For example, many men have difficulty empathizing with their wivesí or other womenís need to feel effective as mothers to their children. Not understanding this maternal need they may unthinkingly interfere and cause the woman to feel powerless and become ashamed, enraged or both. Another example may be a black manís repeated experience of humiliation attendant upon being refused promotion on a job while lesser qualified white colleagues easily climb the career ladder. Here again, the chronic re-experience of relative powerlessness becomes subjectively shameful rage with the defensive need to deny the unbearable shame and sense of powerless inferiority by some dramatically assertive and perhaps even violent behavior.

© 2000-2001 Ernest S. Wolf and 3b.
All rights reserved.

[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]

© 2001
All Rights Reserved
Published by 3b