Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D.
“Someday …” and “if only …” fantasies: pathological optimism and inordinate nostalgia as related forms of idealization. Salman Akhtar, M.D.
Mario Mikulincer and V. Florian
Nima Naghibi is an Associate Professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto. Her research is in the areas of postcolonial and diaspora studies, and life narratives with particular attention to questions of human rights and social justice. She is the author of Women Write Iran: Nostalgia and Human Rights from the Diaspora.
May I interest you to take a look at an unusual book I have written — a kind of novel in verse — about a Jewish-Iranian family living in Manhattan? One of the main characters, Esther is lost in a world of nostalgia for pre-Revolutionary Iran.
The text is in the attachment.
Dr. Shaver’s team writes: “Heterogeneous groups that included some members who were anxiously attached might have been more successful in terms of both survival and reproduction [in the face of survival threats] than might groups composed entirely of secure individuals.”
Dr. Shaver’s team theorizes that anxious attachment could be encoded genetically. Wouldn’t that mean that there may be limits to the extent that a therapist can modify insecure attachment through psychotherapy? Isn’t Dr. Shaver’s team saying that to some extent attachment is a constitutional factor.
In my father’s family my father had an older brother who seemed pretty much of a loner; he never got married and lived with his older sister all his life. My father had a younger married sister who rarely left the house. Her sisters and brothers used to joke about the fact that she never left the house. My maternal grandmother seemed to be cut off from people. Am I genetically predisposed to be a loner, or is it developmental? Dr. Shaver’s work raises the possibility that it could be genetic.
“The existence of this pattern could be due either to genes that contribute to its formation or to genes that allow it to be developed in response to environmental conditions. As the developmental research literature on attachment shows that anxious attachment develops when primary attachment figures are themselves anxious and unreliable (perhaps by being sensitive to threats and oriented toward their own self-protection), it should be more common when the social or physical environment
is conducive to parents being anxious and unreliable. This environment is likely to include conditions in which threats (whether from weather, predators, or human conflicts and wars) are prevalent but unpredictable.”
Tsachi Ein-Dor, Mario Mikulciner, Guy Doron, and Phillip R. Shaver
Bowlby’s attachment theory has generated an enormous body of research and conceptual elaborations. Although attachment theory and research propose that attachment security provides a person with many adaptive advantages during all phases of the life cycle, numerous studies indicate that almost half of the human species can be classified as insecurely attached or insecure with respect to attachment. It seems odd that evolution left humans in this vulnerable position unless there are some advantages, under at least some conditions, to anxious and avoidant attachment styles. We argue that a social group containing members with different attachment patterns may be more conducive to survival than a homogeneous group of securely attached individuals. In making this argument, we extend the scope of attachment theory and research by considering a broader range of adaptive functions of insecure attachment strategies. We also present preliminary data to support our argument.
The referenced paper:
Thomas grew up in a family situation that seemed almost devoid of healthy, caring attachments. He has had a telling repetitive dream of standing outside a big house as a child, looking in, and seeing only emptiness.
Gary grew up in a family situation that seemed almost devoid of healthy, caring attachments. He had a telling dream in which I was a Zionist pioneer and had written a book about Israeli agriculture. Gary thinks I look like a Zionist pioneer. Gary thought I was good looking when I was young. — But that was his fantasy. I was never good looking.
Thomas is in the woods, populated with damp sycamore trees. Three menacing lions are roaming around. Thomas is one-half way up a tree and is scared that these lions will get him. He is completely alone and isolated (like being in hell). The lions are prowling around, looking. A HUGE prehistoric black panther appears. He is ferocious. He jumps down and prepares to fight the lions. The three lions are lined up to fight the panther (who roars). Thomas watches from the tree. A fourth lion spots Thomas and approaches him ominously. There is a cabin in the background and Thomas cannot get to it. It is far off and ill defined.
Thomas’ associations were that he was powerless, that he had no weapons with which to fight, and that he was all alone. The lions were vicious and merciless. His associations to the three lions were two of his brothers and his father. The panther was me, and I represented the truth. The three lions do not care about truth. The fourth lion was Thomas’ grandiosity, which is what prevents him from getting to safety. The cabin in his associations represented the safe home that he yearned for but could not experience. My being, symbolized as the huge, prehistoric black panther who defends him and represents truth, to my mind, represents both idealization in the transference and unconscious fear that I can be damaging and can turn on him. This part never came to the surface, but was inferred by his great discomfort about emotionally letting go and being vulnerable in the moment in our sessions. As implied, however, transference feelings that are part of his Internal Working Model fears have quietly and slowly emerged in recent years.
In Gary’s dream, he and I are in a swimming pool at a hotel. Somebody has ordered a birthday cake. Gary seems to be emotionally invested in the cake, for some unknown reason. Gary has ambivalent feelings about my seeming like an idealizable psychiatrist at times, and , at other times, as a fearful ego maniac. Gary tells me his associations. He thinks he wants to have sex with me and he wants me to bear his child. He thinks this will save the world.
I came across a fascinating and informative paper about how psychoanalysis can enrich attachment work, and how attachment work can enrich psychodynamic work: De Bei, F., et al. “Attachment and Relational Psychoanalysis: Bowlby According to Mitchell.”
The paper cites the work of attachment theorist Jeremy Holmes that shows that a person’s attachment style is encoded in his therapy presentation or therapy narrative. That is, what is important in assessing a patient’s attachment style is not simply how the patient relates to the therapist, but how the patient presents his clinical report to the therapist. The style of the clinical report in itself reflects, according to Holmes, the person’s attachment style.
My therapy reports are frequently full of historical details. We saw this in my session on January 22, 2019: “it was my 13th birthday, December 24, 1966, and my mother and I went through a blizzard to pick up a birthday cake at Gimbels” or “I remember it was January 20, 1961, President Kennedy’s inauguration was that day, and I had come down with chicken pox.” Note that extreme attention to detail during the individual’s discussion of loss or trauma are considered to be signs of unresolved/disorganized experiences of loss or trauma. My strong emphasis on historical detail in my report about December 24, 1966 — the snow sled, the cardboard box, Gimbel’s closing at 9:00 PM, catching the Route H bus, etc.) can in itself be seen as a symptom of trauma. Fransson, M. “Attachment and the Development of Personality and Social Functioning.”
Many of my reports cling to self-sufficient stories, typical of dismissive-avoidant attachment. But many of my reports are other-oriented and relate to my interactions with others.
A person with a preoccupied attachment style might offer the following nonhistoricized clinical report: “When I was a kid, I felt that my mother loved me more than my father. She once took me to the doctor in a blizzard. I sometimes felt rejected or abandoned by my father, because he used to beat me. I felt that my mother loved me and my father didn’t love me.”
What seems clear to me from the above typology is that my narrative seems to have a mix of historical data, narrative, and relational issues. What’s missing from my reports are my own feelings in reaction to other people. When my mother took me to see the doctor and my father stayed home, how did I feel about that? We are left to wonder how I felt. Obviously, I am not preoccupied with attachments in the sense that I am a person who is concerned with my nonhistoricized affective reactivity to other people. I am not securely attached either; that is apparent in my failure to talk about my feelings.
My therapy reports don’t seem to present a straightforward “dismissive” style either — that is, they are only sometimes concerned with self-sufficient stories. I frequently talk about my relations with other people. My narrative shows signs of possible secure attachment: in my ability to create cohesive narrative, my use of historical events, my appreciation of other’s people’s points of view (such as, “my aunt was angry toward me because as a child, she had been placed in the role of her sister’s caretaker, by an inadequate mother”).
What I seem to be weak on is my difficulty in identifying my feelings about my experiences. How did I feel when my aunt lashed out at me? How did I feel that my father had a bitter argument with my mother? How did I feel that my mother had a ridiculous preoccupation with a birthday cake? How did I feel about my mother — and not my father — taking me to the doctor when I came down with chicken pox when I was 7? Did I feel that my father didn’t love me?
It is also important to assess the nature of a patient’s cognitive style as it is revealed in his therapy reports. It has been shown that a person’s cognitive style is related to his attachment style.
My cognitive style, as reflected in my narrative style, presents an ambiguous picture. Attachment theorist Mario Mikulincer found that the following list of cognitive traits was associated with secure attachment (Mikulincer, M., & Florian, V., “The relationship between adult attachment styles and emotional and cognitive reactions to stressful events.” In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment Theory and Close Relationships, 143-165. New York: Guilford Press.):
• Engagement in information search
• High tolerance for unpredictability, disorder, and ambiguity
• Reluctance to endorse rigid beliefs
• Tendency to integrate new evidence, to revise beliefs in the face of new
• Describe themselves in positive terms yet admit negative self-attributes
• Optimistic attitude toward life and basic trust in the world
• Tendency to assess stressful situations in benign terms
Is my tendency to research psychological issues a form of defensive intellectualization or is it an expression of “engagement in information search?”
Is my interest in attachment theory (Bowlby), self psychology (Kohut), and classical analysis (Freud and Klein) defensive intellectualization or does it reflect my “reluctance to endorse rigid beliefs?”
Is the rambling, associative nature of my narrative a reflection of disorganized thinking or does it reflect a “high tolerance for unpredictability, disorder, and ambiguity?”
Is my tendency to learn new ways of thinking about myself in light of different psychological theories a form of defensive intellectualization or does it reflect a “tendency to integrate new evidence, to revise beliefs in the face of new information?”
When I talk about traumatic or stressful events without strong emotion, is that a defensive strategy aimed at avoiding my painful feelings or is it a “tendency to assess stressful situations in benign terms?”
I will point out that these questions in themselves point to my ability to look at the ambiguity in my personality.
There is another ambiguity about my personality that emerges in my therapy reports that is highly intriguing. It has been found that a person’s use of, or preoccupation with, fantasy can relate to either disorganized attachment or secure attachment. In appraising the importance of fantasy in my personality (as for example, losing myself in an opera recording and in a recording of Beethoven’s violin concerto on a disturbing and stressful day in my life, December 24, 1966) we need to ask how my ability to lose myself in fantasy might reflect either insecure or secure attachment.
This ambiguity relating to fantasy is addressed by both attachment theory and mainstream psychoanalysis. Psychoanalyst Stanley Greenspan points out that retreat into fantasy can reflect serious ego pathology: “Individuals who are under-reactive to sensations and have low motor tone tend toward more withdrawn behavior. They tend to escape into fantasy, and, in the extreme, evidence more schizoid and autistic patterns.” See, Greenspan, S.I., “Developmentally Based Psychotherapy.” Paradoxically, an openness to fantasy can reflect a high level of ego development and capacity for symbolization: “Symbols and words help us open up [an] inner world, allowing for more flexible thought, creative excursions into fantasy, imaginative trips into the past [as with healthier forms of nostalgia], present and future, and elaborate types of logic and thinking. Our capacity for creating symbols — [which is related to openness to fantasy] — is initially simply a shorthand way of indicating and making sense of what we already know at the deeper levels of our mind.” Id.
Likewise, an attachment theorist has observed: “Absorption, as well as other different forms of alterations in consciousness, (Glisky, Tataryn, Tobias, Kihlstrom, & McConkey, 1991; Ruiz, Pincus, & Ray, 1999), have been found to be positively related to the Five Factor Model (FFM) personality trait openness. Provided that disorganization, has, in turn, been linked to high absorption (Hesse & van IJzendoorn, 1999), disorganization and openness might also be positively associated. As security has previously been linked to high openness, it might seem puzzling to expect a similar relation with disorganization. However, openness has been the most difficult factor in the FFM to consistently conceptualize across studies and instruments: labels and their associated contents have varied among, for example, culture, intellect, and openness to experiences (McCrae & Costa, 1997). Subsequent findings have supported the latter broader definition, which includes aspects such as richness of fantasy life, aesthetic sensitivity, awareness of inner feelings, need for variety in actions, intellectual curiosity, and liberal value systems (Costa & McCrae, 1992; McCrae & Costa, ibid). Hence, as openness has been found to be a heterogeneous construct (Glisky et al., ibid), different forms of attachment might be related to different aspects of openness [including openness to fantasy].” Fransson, M. “Attachment and the Development of Personality and Social Functioning.”
A knowledgeable trauma therapist would be familiar with the plight of the creative and sensitive child in a disturbed environment — his “attempt at preserving an inner life in chaotic surroundings.”
Family members knew Dietrich, as he was called, as a shy, private child who nonetheless liked to entertain. He put on puppet shows in which he voiced all the parts, sometimes for an audience of one: his physically and mentally disabled brother, Martin, with whom he shared a room.
Before adolescence Dietrich was inducted into a Hitler Youth group where, he recalled years later, he was appalled by the officiousness as well as by the brutality. His father died when he was 12. And he had just finished secondary school and one semester at the Berlin Conservatory when, in 1943, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and assigned to care for army horses on the Russian front. He kept a diary there, calling it his “attempt at preserving an inner life in chaotic surroundings.”
“Poems by Morgenstern,” one entry read. “It is a good idea to learn them by heart, to have something to fall back on.”
“Lots of cold, lots of slush and even more storms,” read another. “Every day horses die for lack of food.”
It was in Russia that he heard that his mother had been forced to send his brother to an institution outside Berlin. “Soon,” he wrote later, “the Nazis did to him what they always did with cases like his: they starved him to death as quickly as possible.”
At my last session with my therapist, I spent a half hour talking about trauma issues in my childhood. After about a half hour, my therapist shut me down and went into a sermon about how I wasn’t doing therapy correctly. I thought she was being defensive. She didn’t seem to want to talk about my trauma issues. The following interaction ensued.
PATIENT: I think you’re being defensive.
THERAPIST: You’re being defensive.
PATIENT: We can look at that. We can look at the meaning of my defensiveness.
It was if I had thrown her a curve ball. Literally. She looked stunned. She didn’t know what to make of what I had just said. What is so odd about what I said?
What did that mean? She doesn’t seem at all concerned with the meaning of things. What do things mean? I am always asking myself the question: “What does that mean?”
I should send this to Richard Chefetz, M.D. He’s an expert in trauma work in Washington, DC. Maybe Dr. Chefetz would take me on as a pro bono patient. I think he might have a research interest in me!! He’s probably a friend of Dr. Ceaser’s!!