Fragile selves and stuff we buy

July 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Psychoanalysis has a complex view of the human psyche and its motivations. Its theories assume that we do not necessarily know ourselves well, that we hide our less worthy motives from ourselves, repress our unacceptable passions and that our sense of self may be contingent and fragile. How might such theories help us understand issues of identity in relation to climate change?

The sociologist Anthony Giddens calls the current period one of ‘late’ or ‘high’ modernity, a post-traditional order characterised psychologically by doubt and existential uncertainty. It is a period in which capitalism has become intensely consumer focused, its reach and systems have become truly global and aggressive marketing techniques – often making use of psychoanalytic insights to do with sexuality and desire – have become the norm. Objects of consumer desire are created and coded around identity markers: people ‘like you’ buy this or that. People ‘like you’ will be excluded or become social pariahs if you do not. Identity appears at this level to be a matter of individual choice, selected from a range of market-influenced options.

In this late modern period, psychoanalytic concerns have shifted from Freud’s preoccupations with the vicissitudes of instinctual life to a preoccupation with the self and questions of life-meaning and identity. The questions and issues that patients bring to the consulting room have changed. Although the same bedrock of depression and anxiety can be discerned, the troubles of late modernity are filtered through preoccupations with ‘Who am I?’ ‘Where is my life going?’ and doubt and dissatisfaction at what life offers.

Moral commentators might see such questions as indicative of decadence or self-indulgence. However psychoanalysis notes in them a fragility and vulnerability in the basic sense of self that has damaging consequences for the individual who suffers from it.

Such people need constant confirmation and affirmation from others, are subject to experiences of fragmentation and disintegration, and easily experience the crippling emotions of shame and self-consciousness when faced with even the mildest criticism from self or others. Their very existence can feel in doubt and this inner self-doubt is often mirrored by outer self-aggrandisement and omnipotence.

In the UK the work of Winnicott and in the US the work of Kohut have led the way in unscrambling the early, pre-oedipal origins of this vulnerability. It is well summarised in Phil Mollon’s aptly titled book ‘The fragile self: the structure of narcissistic disturbance’. While we see this fragile self writ large in the consulting room, we also see it writ small in day-to-day encounters and in the well-noted difficulties that individuals have in making the life-style changes that climate change requires of people in the developed nations. Where a vulnerable identity is supported by buying into the ‘right’ consumer options and life-style, change is hard.

Tim Jackson and other commentators have noted the complex relationship between material goods and a socially constructed sense of identity but I would like to suggest that psychoanalysis can offer help in how we try to effect the necessary social change.

If we understand the vulnerability and fragility of self that underlies the attachment to material goods then our approach to climate change shifts from a focus on engaging the public through convincing/persuading/messaging to a focus on supporting/listening/understanding.

Instead of looking for the ‘right’ way to communicate we should explore how to create social settings that both respect people’s fragile identities and establish and nurture alternative social norms. We can use both existing networks that offer alternative foci for people’s identity (for example faith groups, neighbourhood groups, cultural groups) and create new forms of support that take account of the fragile ‘I’, strengthen new social identities and break the relationship between consumer goods and a functioning sense of self.

In the ‘Carbon Conversations’ project, which I presented last year at the Manchester International Festival, we use small, facilitator-led groups, that focus on values, emotions, meaning and identity to explore how people can reduce carbon emissions.

When people have space to explore their personal relationship to a high-carbon, consumption-driven life-style and when their vulnerability around identity issues can be supported, they develop the confidence and the staying power to make significant life-style changes. Clearly good facilitation is key to such groups. Facilitators need good relational skills and sensitivity to unconscious group process combined with technical knowledge, in order to deliver these groups well. However, when these qualities are present the pay-offs for members of these groups are significant: a new-found capacity to make measurable reductions in carbon emissions and a lasting and genuine commitment to creating a different kind of society.

It is my hope that the next few years will see many more projects using insights from psychoanalysis and other therapeutic models to facilitate change in a broad range of social contexts.


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