Sunday, October 20, 2013


In a college philosophy class, 1969, Dr. Sheridan must have described solipsism.  The idea hibernated in my unconscious, because I dropped my philosophy major and never thought of the word again until twenty-five years later when I started seeing clients whose parent or spouse was fully – and here one should add every synonym and magnifier for “fully” – entirely, utterly, absolutely, etc. – incapable of seeing that their child or partner existed as a separate unique person.  This may sound like a poetic or hyperbolic idea, but it is made eloquently forcible by Karen Horney, MD (1885-1952).  She said:

“But through a variety of adverse influences, a child may not be permitted to grow according to his individual needs and possibilities.  Such unfavorable conditions are too manifold to list here.  But, when summarized, they all boil down to the fact that the people in the environment are too wrapped up in their own neuroses to be able to love the child, or even to conceive of him as the particular individual he is; their attitudes toward him are determined by their own neurotic needs and responses.”  (Emphasis added.  Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth, 1950, pg. 18.)
Solipsism in its original philosophical identity is:

“the theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist” (  “the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist” ( site with Wikipedia info).  “the doctrine that, in principle, ‘existence’ means for me my existence and that of my mental states” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

To identify solipsism firsthand is, I suspect, a rare thing: It is known through the victim of it, the invisible and miserable child or spouse.  I first saw it directly in a Narcissistic Personality-disordered man, a bricklayer who dressed like a Wall Street magnate.  We’d been discussing his twelve-year-old son, my client, whom he had ejected from his home during visitation weekend for wearing an earring.  As an ice-breaker, I casually mentioned that “adolescents, finding themselves, tend to push against their parents.”  The man looked puzzled and replied, “I don’t know what you’re saying.  Children don’t defy their parents.”  After a long moment’s pause of dismayed confusion – had my secret psychosis insanely misperceived a reasonable remark? – I realized that this man had no concept of his son as a person in his own right, a being with a self-will.  His narcissistic solipsism had life-long frozen his eyes, ears, mind and heart to history, events, his surroundings, his child – to the simple truth of human autonomy.

In fact, I experienced solipsism firsthand – my own – in 1975 after I had quit music grad school in Chicago and begun my rather short-lived Greyhound Bus vagabond life.  Alone in Des Moines, I took long weekend and evening walks.  Around midnight – and this was two decades before I could claim the beginnings of psychological awareness – I was returning to my apartment in a poor suburb just outside of downtown.  Looking out at the quiet lamp-lit neighborhoods, I was struck by this idea:  ‘The world is only mirrors.’  With no pre-thought, I had felt and captured the very wrong nature of my personal experience: Everything I saw or dealt with was only part of my mind.  There was no capacity to see or experience anything as itself.  This was solipsism.

At the time I didn’t take the idea, the problem, any further, and I know now that at that very fragile time of life, I wouldn’t have wanted to know what it meant to question oneself; that is, to do “therapy.”

When you listen to a solipsistic person – who need not be a narcissist – you may hear nothing unusual.  He does not know that everything is him.  I knew it, age twenty-four, by chance and because I was alone.  A parent or spouse has a link that fools him into believing he is there for the other person.  And he speaks the vocabulary of care.  But listen to the bent adult child of a Waif or Queen Borderline*; the man whose boyhood existed solely to be his mother’s funhouse mirror; the crazy-made wife whose husband abandoned family Thanksgiving to watch sports at his guy friend’s house, and you will see the effects of a person who, though he looks at you and talks to you, is trapped in his own dream.

“She has come to see that no matter how she expresses her needs or desires – nicely or less so – they are meaningless to her husband.  She has convincingly described him as entirely solipsistic, caring only about himself, engaging sparsely with his four- and eight-year-old sons to the point where neither expresses any concern about his absence ‘for three days,’ and the older one cries outside his door while he obliviously watches television.  He will wake her up from a nap to ask if it is ‘OK that he spends time with [his friend].’  This is not ‘OK’ with her and he knows it, but he persists in asking.”
“Client was aware, during the session, that mother’s solipsistic concern about her was not concern for her: Mother will text-message the inquiry, ‘Are you all right?’ with no reason for concern other than mother’s anxious dependency.  A remarkable observation was that mother has never expressed any hurt over the fact that her daughter never inquires about her welfare, doesn’t call with birthday greetings, etc.  We saw this as a ‘special’ kind of self-insularity: not to even care what the other person feels about you.”
“Client returns with her adult daughter [‘Sue’] to ‘fine tune’ their still-poor relationship.  By Sue’s stammering yet very eloquent description of the nature of her anger and frustration, it became crystal clear that her mother responds to her in a solipsistic, personality-disordered manner at all times.  This was indeed difficult to articulate – at least for me when I tried to help client face her own ‘agenda’d’ manner of perceiving and responding to her daughter.  Sue pointed out that her mother tends to be guilt-inducing, to make everything about herself, to need to be right – and ‘everyone else’ wrong at all times.  As this was not a full-fledged toxic narcissism or ‘borderline’-level self-centeredness, it was not easy to encapsulate client’s approach in clear, understandable terms.”
There are, obviously, many ways a caregiving person, a mother or wife, can exert power by her mere existence.  When I was a counselor in Colorado, 2002, I briefly saw a young man, early twenties, whose daily existence lay in the most unusual twilight zone between sanity and insanity.  ‘Aaron’ lived with ghosts, demons, angels and semi-permeable delusions within an otherwise completely intact insight and sensorium.  He fairly knew that he was partly crazy.  The one other fact I remember was this image he drew of his mother, when he was a little boy.  He would come home from school to find her standing in a room making the most grotesque and horrifying faces, as if she were pulled by unconscionable messages from the pit of her soul.  She was looking in the mirror.

Modrow, in his book How to Become a Schizophrenic, describes the maternal background of his own burgeoning schizophrenia and – harkening back to the pre-biopsychiatric days – cites compelling case histories and research that support family schizophrenogenesis.  If a young psychotic’s mental health improves, his parents’ mental health declines.  Other research shows that when he returns home, “expressed emotion” kicks in and he decompensates.  Theodore Lidz, schizophrenia researcher, “focused predominately on the disturbed patterns of communication and the disturbed patterns of misalliances within the families of schizophrenic patients.  In a chilling case report, Professor Lidz described his work with an overtly delusional young woman, a university-aged student who suffered from clinical schizophrenia.  Lidz reported on a meeting with the patient:

“The mother did all the talking, while the father, a wealthy art dealer, remained silent.  When I directed remarks to him, I gained a response from his wife.  When I purposefully turned my back on her and asked the father a question, the mother intruded before he completed a sentence.  It was difficult to learn much about the patient for the mother talked about herself, her Pilgrim ancestry, and her ambitions as a writer.  When I finally interrupted and asked about her daughter’s college career and her interests, I learned that the girl’s whole life revolved around becoming a novelist; she had a passion for Virginia Woolf.  Her mother hoped her daughter would follow in the footsteps of her idol.  I hesitated before commenting, ‘But Virginia Woolf had psychotic episodes and committed suicide.’  The mother did not hesitate when she replied, ‘It would be worth it.’  Six weeks later, while making rounds of the in-patient hospital rooms, Professor Lidz noticed a brace of novels by Virginia Woolf newly despatched by the young girl’s mother.  The patient explained to Lidz, ‘Mother sent them – she has a thing about Virginia Woolf.'

“Eventually, Lidz discharged the patient, who returned home to continue her treatment on the West Coast of America, where her parents lived.  Heartbreakingly, Professor Lidz subsequently discovered that the patient eventually killed herself, just as Woolf had done, thereby enacting her mother’s all too powerful injunction.”  (Attachment – New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, Volume 1, Number 2, July 2007, p. 120.)
What does it mean to be locked up in oneself, to be a solipsist?  Maybe the first question should be: Is this disorder so ubiquitous and so invisible – and not so dire as I make it out to be – that it shouldn’t matter to the therapist or the solipsist himself?  I suggest that it is an ultimate problem, the essence of unfulfillment through the lifespan, but may need to be “read between the molecules” by clinicians who haven’t discovered the phenomenon for themselves.  These are individuals who have never moved beyond childhood.  I imagine solipsism’s origin this way: Early on in the child’s life, fear becomes primary and superimposes itself between his attention and his experience of the world.  Fear becomes everything’s reflective surface, so in a way he only sees himself.  He can’t reach out or talk to his parents, is afraid of failure or reprimands or getting hurt, of adults and crowds and bullies and strangers, of rejection by his friends, of taking a chance, of younger children, of deep water, of work, of classrooms with bulletin boards and tests and assigned seats, of showing himself.  Pain coats everything.  Because of this, life becomes for the child introspective even without thought: He is self-dwelling as inner atmosphere.  Over the years, the radical aloneness of being in a “coated” world – where to touch “other” is to touch himself – means he grows older with his early life-and-death dependency unnurtured.  He always needs soothing and filling, and in a world that is only him.  Existence becomes supplies.  People, suppliers.  This is the decent guy sitting before me who protests with heartbreaking harsh tears that he loves his wife, is sorry he ignored her desires and complaints for so many years but is different now, while his wife bitterly turns away, hardened.  How can she be so callous?  But then we see that he can’t shut up, he still can’t listen to what she is saying, he is still seeing her through his fears.  What looked like care is desperation.  What claimed to be solicitousness is control.  Force him to the edge of a cliff, stand him before the firing squad and he will not know how to quiet his needy mind and see his wife as separate, with goals that come from her seeds, not their common soil.

I don’t know how to describe the movement that occurs within a person when the film of Self that has covered life and time dissolves, and real sight happens for the first time.  Where the self does not exist in the other’s presence – whether it’s a person or the universe – but to receive the other: to watch and feel, then think.  That’s the paradox that solipsists of all kinds can’t appreciate: When we are gone we are most there, most full of wonder, pleasure, meaning.  I do have, though, a confident sense of the healing that has to happen for the film to dissolve – almost magically, and maybe in an implosive moment.  It requires an unaccustomed touching of one’s past, a re-owning it, a loving grieving of it.  In other words, it requires the true feeling that we have run away from our entire lives, to become real again.

* Christine Ann Lawson, PhD, Understanding the Borderline Mother, 2000.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.