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"Inner Conflict in Freudian Theory"

06/05/2014 3:24 PM | Morris Eagle

The following is an excerpt from a chapter by Morris Eagle, entitled “Inner Conflict in Freudian Theory”, from the forthcoming book Psychoanalysis and Conflict: A Critical Reassessment edited by Morris Eagle, Chris Christian, and David Wolitzky, to be published by Routledge.


By Morris Eagle, Chris Christian and David Wolitzky

Since its inception and throughout its history psychoanalysis was defined as, first and foremost, a psychology of conflict (Kris, 1950; Brenner, 1979; Richards and Willick, 1986; Arlow, 1991). Mental conflict, which formed the bedrock of Freud’s tripartite structure of id, ego and superego, also became the signature of ego psychology – the dominant theoretical paradigm in American Psychoanalysis for over 30 years. Yet, in time, the tripartite model of conflict would be challenged within ego psychology itself by the development of modern conflict theory – a term used to describe Brenner’s (1982) approach to psychoanalysis.  Modern conflict theory emerged as a response to a growing concern that ego psychology had become too mechanistic defined by abstractions that seemed too far removed from clinical data.  Brenner aimed to strip ego psychology of the problematic reification of structures of the mind, such as the id, ego, and superego, which were believed to be in conflict with each other, and in its place emphasize processes.  However, he retained the centrality of compromise among conflicting aims. Additional challenges to the central role of conflict in mental life, and as the defining feature of psychoanalytic technique, were prompted by other developments in the field, including the widening scope of the psychoanalytic patient, which led to an emphasis of developmental defects and arrests; ongoing contributions made by infant observation studies; advances in neuroscience, and a growing acceptance of a pluralism of psychoanalytic perspectives.  In regards to this emerging pluralism, the term conflict came to represent, like a codeword that betrayed allegiances, a dividing line between theoretical paradigms, whereby dynamic conflict was pitted against notions of developmental defects and under-developed capacities and structures. Some authors took issue, not with the ubiquity of conflict in mental life per se, but with the components that were thought to be in conflict with each other.  Thus, the idea that there were sexual and aggressive drive derivatives in conflict with moral imperatives was viewed as too narrow by some authors, including Greenberg and Mitchell (1983; Greenberg, 1990), who nonetheless accepted an inherent state of conflict.  However, this conflict was not derived from drive pressures and regulation but rather from what Greenberg and Mitchell described as shifting and competing configurations of relations between affectively charged self and object representations that vie for expression.  Other examples of alternatives to the id-ego model that retained the centrality of conflict include Mahler’s symbiosis-separation-individuation dimensions, and Fairbairn’s (1952) emphasis on the conflict between the libidinal ego and anti-libidinal ego and the accompanying conflict between the rejecting object and the exciting object. Although many agree that these reformulations regarding the role of conflict, the type of conflict, and for which kind of patient, had a salutary effect in the advancement of psychoanalytic knowledge, the bifurcation of conflict and developmental arrests and other models of the mind may have unduly restricted our understanding and appreciation of the ubiquity of unconscious conflict in psychic life, and across levels of pathology.

In Psychoanalysis and Conflict: A Critical Reassessment, authors from a wide range of theoretical perspectives situate conflict in their theories of therapeutic action and in their research. Authors includes:  Fred Busch, Adrienne Harris, James Fossaghe, Steven Portuges, Jonathan House, Phillip Wong and Ben Sanders, Heather Berlin,  Marilia Aisenstein, David Lichtenstein, Anton Kris, Miriam and Howard Steele, Steven Ellman, Neal Vorus, and Chris Jaenicke.

In the following section of his chapter, Eagle addresses inner conflict and psychoanalytic treatment.

Inner Conflict in Freudian Theory

By Morris Eagle

According to Freudian theory it is not inner conflict per se that is pathogenic. Indeed, inner conflict is assumed to be inherent in the human condition. What renders inner conflict pathogenic is mainly how one deals with it, namely, through repression. Thus, as discussed above, coping with inner conflict through repressive defenses is a critical mediating factor in the pathogenic consequences of inner conflict. As we have seen, this is so for at least three main reasons: (1) repression prevents the adequate discharge of the “quota of affect” associated with conflictual desires and experiences; (2) repression prevents the assimilation and integration of conflictual mental contents that have been rendered isolated through repression into the rest of the personality; and (3) essentially equivalent to (2), but stated at a different level of discourse, repression keeps the individual from confronting and attempting to resolve his or her conflicts in the light of reality considerations. It should be noted that all three consequences of repression serve to weaken the personality: through the build up of excessive excitation and its conversion into somatic symptoms; through burdening the personality with isolated mental contents that function like a “parasite;” through requiring a “constant expenditure of energy” (Freud, 1925) that could be directed toward more constructive activities; and through the prevention of resolutions of conflict that would allow the individual to pursue developmental goals (see Eagle, 2000).

Given the above conception of psychopathology, it would follow that therapeutic interventions would be directed to: (1) facilitating adequate discharge of affect surrounding the repressed mental contents – in short, abreaction; (2) bringing the repressed mental contents to consciousness so that they can be integrated into the “great complex of associations known as the ego” (Breuer & Freud, 1893-1895, p. 9) – in short, can be integrated into the rest of the personality; and (3) also as a function of being brought to consciousness, repressed mental contents can be evaluated in the light of reality consideration.

There is little point in repeating the familiar story of the evolution of Freud’s techniques from the use of hypnosis and abreaction to what came to a commonly agreed upon method, in particular the use of free association and interpretation. My interest is in demonstrating the logical links between Freud’s conception of the factors involved in psychopathology and the nature of psychoanalytic treatment. I also want to call attention to two observations: one, abreaction was dropped from the psychoanalytic repertoire of techniques and process goals despite the fact that its theoretical justification embedded in the constancy principle had not been relinquished; two, what remained at the core of the theory of psychoanalytic treatment were the goals of enhancing conscious awareness and integrating hitherto unintegrated mental contents into the personality structure or, in more experience near terms, into one’s more expanded and realistic sense of who one is – and perhaps, into one’s more expanded, integrated, and realistic sense of who one wants to be.

One important clinical reason that Freud gave up the use of hypnosis lies in the fact that although hypnosis might succeed in bringing a hitherto unconscious mental contents into conscious awareness, these content were likely to remain unintegrated into the individual’s personality and his or her sense of who he or she is. And yet, that did not deter Freud from identifying as an essential goal of psychoanalysis “making  conscious what has so far been unconscious” (Freud, 1896, p. 164), which, in itself, does not necessarily entail integration of what has been made conscious. Freud was obviously aware of this possibility, but attributed it to resistance and invoked the concept of working-through (e.g., Freud, 1926[1925], p. 158) as a means to dealing with such resistance. He writes: “One mist allow the patient time to become more conversant with this resistance with which he has now become acquainted, to work through it, to overcome it, by continuing, in defiance of it, the analytic work according to the fundamental rule of analysis” (Freud, 1926[1925], p. 158). However, what is actually involved in working-through is not at all made clear by Freud.

Although the therapeutic primacy of integrating isolated (repressed) mental contents into the rest of the personality is clearly implied in Freud’s early emphasis on bringing these contents into contact with the “great complex of associations,” one can easily lose sight of this aim in the context of identifying making the unconscious conscious as a primary therapeutic goal. For, as noted, unconscious material can be made conscious without being integrated into one’s sense of who one is and what one is doing. This outcome is not limited to hypnosis, but would apply to any means of making the unconscious conscious, including the use of interpretation.  Further, the Freud who emphasizes the renunciation of unconscious wishes once they are made conscious seems to suggest that certain wishes cannot be readily integrated into the rest of the personality. With the exception of sublimation, which does suggest successful integration, renunciation is the patient’s only realistic and healthy option. This is so, I believe, because inherent in the id-ego model as well as the formulation of the theory of the Oedipus Complex is the implication that at least certain instinctual wishes cannot be realistically integrated into the personality. With regard to the former, in view of the posited primary antagonism between the id and the ego and the danger that excessive strength of instinct represents, integration of certain infantile instinctual wishes into the rest of the personality would not appear to be very possible nor desirable. As for the theory of the Oedipus Complex, it is the relinquishment of incestuous and hostile wishes, not their integration, that enables normal development to proceed. In both cases, renunciation and sublimation are the only realistic options.

It was not until 1933 that Freud articulated as the overarching goal of psychoanalytic treatment, “where id was, there shall ego be” (p. 80). Understood in a particular way, this aphorism has important implications for the possibility of integration and for one’s conception of the goal of psychoanalytic treatment. One can understand “where id was, there shall ego be” in a number of ways. As Apfelbaum (1966) has pointed out in a classic paper, from a traditional ego psychological perspective, it can be understood as where infantile instinctual wishes were, there shall greater ego control be. This interpretation is compatible with an emphasis on renunciation of infantile wishes as a therapeutic goal. From this perspective, infantile wishes are kept in check by a strengthened ego.

However, there is a different way of understanding the aphorism, particularly if one keeps in mind that original German “wo es war, soll Ich wedern” (Freud, 1933,  p. 80) ). One can now read the aphorism as where impersonal it was, there shall I be, which conveys the extremely important idea that an ideal outcome of psychoanalytic treatment is one in which the I (self) is expanded to now include and integrate hitherto unintegrated aspects of oneself that had been defensively excluded and rendered as an impersonal it, as a sort of foreign alien body (See Brandt, 1961; Bettelheim, 1983 ).

The possibility of integration between id and ego runs counter to the assumption of primary antagonism between the two, and as such, suggests the possibility of treatment (and developmental) outcomes that are not envisaged by the usual conception of id-ego relationship. On the traditional view, given the inherent antagonism between the two, the timelessness of the unconsciousness and therefore the inevitable ‘frozen in time’ unchangeable nature of infantile instinctual impulses, the best one can expect from even highly successful treatment are renunciation, sublimation, and greater ego control of impulses. Contrastingly, in the interpretation of where id was, there shall ego be that  I am proposing (and as proposed in Apfelbaum’s 1966 paper), developmental maturation of id impulses themselves can occur, which renders greater ego control less of an issue, and which permits the possibility of integration of id and ego as developmental and treatment goals.

Freud himself discussed the possibility of the latter developments at various points in his writings. For example, at one point, Freud (1915) suggests that it is the repressed status rather than their inherent nature that renders instinctual wishes so formidable a threat. He writes “that the “repressed instinct-presentation…develops in a more unchecked and luxuriant fashion. It ramifies, like a fungus, so to speak, in the dark and takes on extreme forms of expression” that are alien to and terrify the individual because of “the way in which they reflect an extraordinary strength of instinct. This illusory strength of instinct is the result of an uninhibited development of it in  phantasy and of the damming-up consequent on lack of real satisfaction” (p. 149). This passage is one of few suggesting that the formidable strength of instinct and the threat it represents to the ego to which Freud and A. Freud refer, is not, as suggested by the constancy principle, an inherent one, but is rather a fantasy fed by the circumstance that repressed impulses do not see the light of day and take on fantastic proportions.

In a relatively late paper, Freud (1926[1925]) writes that “there is no natural opposition between ego and id; they belong together, and under healthy conditions cannot in practice be distinguished from each other” (p. 201) – a formulation that utterly contradicts the idea of an inherent and necessary antagonism between id and ego. Indeed, Freud’s statement suggests that a necessary antagonism between id and ego is more descriptive of psychopathology than of healthy functioning; and also implies that the main task of psychoanalytic treatment is to restore or contribute to an increasing unity between id and ego – a task that is implicit in the goal of where id was, there shall ego be when that is understood as where “it” was, there shall “I” be.

If, because it is based on fantasy and allowed to ramify in the dark, the strength of instinct is partly illusory, it is not clear why renunciation is always or frequently necessary. Once the repressed wishful fantasy ‘sees the light of day’, it may become modulated, more susceptible to integration, and therefore not require renunciation. However, although this possibility is clearly implicit in Freud’s above statements, it is not compatible with a whole set of Freudian assumptions regarding the nature of instinctual wishes, including assumptions about the sheer quantitative demand made by the id that renders it an inherent threat to the ego, that the id is immune to influences from the external world (See Hartmann, 1939), and that sequestered instinctual wishes, including infantile wishes, cannot themselves mature. As Apfelbaum (1966) noted, given these assumptions, it is understandable that the options for development and therapeutic change are limited to renunciation, sublimation, and, more generally, greater ego control over timeless and unchangable instinctual impulses. When these assumptions are relinquished, the problem I described in Footnote 10 (p. 20) becomes less of a problem. That is, if instinctual impulses themselves can mature and become modulated, their demand on the mind is considerably lessened, and the possibility of various options, – not only renunciation and sublimation – becomes less of a puzzle.

There are, in effect, two Freuds in regard to the origins and fundamental nature of inner conflict as well as its consequences and its fate in treatment. There is, as we have seen, the metapsychological Freud who ultimately locates inner conflict in the constancy principle and the inherent relationship between the id and the ego. And then there is the Freud who locates the source of  inner conflict more contingently in interpersonal experiences, that is, in parental prohibitions and punishments in relation to instinctual wishes and the “danger situations” of loss of the object, loss of the object’s love, castration threats, and superego condemnation that certain parental behaviors generate.

According to the logic of the latter Freud, were parental behaviors (and, more generally, society) less punitive, conflict surrounding instinctual wishes would diminish – a state of affairs Freud thinks is possible in so-called ‘primitive’ societies. Contrastingly, according to the logic of the former Freud, because it is a function of our psychobiological nature, inner conflict between instinctual wishes and the ego is inevitable and is relatively independent of parental (and societal) behavior and demands. For this Freud, treatment aims for renunciation and/or sublimation of instinctual wishes. For the Freud who understands inner conflict as largely contingent upon environmental influences, the treatment aims of id-ego integration and unity of the personality can be more readily envisaged.

This latter position, the more optimistic one, places Freud in a broad historical spiritual-philosophical context in which unity of the personality is an overriding and lifelong quest, for example, reflected in Kierkegaard’s (1847) definition of purity of heart as willing one thing and Confucius’ (translated by Lau, 1979) pronouncement that at seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.  This latter Freud also belongs to a conception of an overriding goal of psychoanalytic treatment as discovering what Stone (1997) refers to as the “otherness of oneself” (p. ), avowing this discovered otherness as one’s own and integrating it into an expanded and more unified concept of oneself. What is especially interesting is that this goal of unity and integration is essentially a return to the early Freud who viewed isolated mental contents as pathogens and who essentially identified as a treatment goal the restoration of the unity of the personality that obtained before the patient was best by an “incompatibility” between an idea and the ego.

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