Saturday, June 21, 2014

The psychological symbol

Hiding, and invisible, in the bowels of our psyche are pools of gasoline* waiting to be ignited.  They are invisible because they existed, and remain, in the past.
We like to believe that we live in the present, the “here-and-now.”  But this isn’t really true.  Like a flower whose face follows the sun yet is transfixed by its roots, each of us moves through the world on a foundation that does not move.  Our history, our roots, limits growth, tinctures the air and confounds our present feelings, grows the emotionalized attitudes that guide or warp our endeavors.
One phenomenon that proves the past is immanent in the present – lives in its body – is the psychological symbol.  Unlike a literary symbol which we grasp consciously by intellectual or emotional association, a psychosymbol strikes the unconscious directly and we may never know we’ve been “symbolated” – altered or activated by a representation, a definition, a meaning, a conclusion from our past.
The ability to be moved by symbols must be a neurological-chemical function, probably involving Candace Pert’s “molecules of emotion,” and it is fascinating how an emotional meaning from our childhood can forever escape awareness then be embodied and explosively magnified in a present word, tone of voice, or act.  Here are some psychosymbols I have seen:
  • Snow blanketing the car
  • “My dog pulled me her way”
  • One’s child or someone else’s child
  • “I want to take your laptop in”
  • Lump in the throat
Snow blanketing the car
Leaving the house to drive to work, a woman sees her car partially buried by snow that’s tumbled off the roof.  She falls into a weeping helpless state, immobilized.  The sight has struck an invisible chord as deep as her childhood.  She was the parentified sibling to the others, and to her alcoholic parents.  Burying nurturance starvation under her pride in helping, she did not notice the accretion of burdens, impossible burdens upon her life.  Only later, shocked by the wrong burden of snow, does she suffer the truth jutting through, the last straw impaling her faux equilibrium.
“My dog pulled me her way”
Client reported that his pug made a peremptory yank on her leash to venture off the path.  He imploded in a blast furnace of rage and injustice, cumulative injustice never to be countenanced again.  “How dare” – his unconscious screamed at his pet, and at the world – “anyone treat me like a trifle, having their goddamned way with me!”  As a young boy, he had been balanced precariously and futilely between his divorced parents’ new families, “disappointing” one if he pleased the other.  His ground was never himself, his feet on two warring islands drifting apart.  Later, having grown only enough ego strength to experience impotent rage, he would be devastated to, once again, be directed away from himself by any self-centered will, even a pet’s.
One’s child or someone else’s child
I believe that some, possibly many, teenagers and adults feel the loss of their own childhood, or maybe the death of their child-self, in any child they see.  This symbol is sometimes masked in the pseudo-sophisticated, acrid humor of those comedians who say they can barely tolerate and have no use for children.  If we laugh at, find ourselves empathizing with these jokes even for a moment, we are revealing some tragic loss of our own child-self.
“I want to take your laptop in”
One afternoon several years ago, my wife informed me that she intended to take my laptop computer to a tech shop.  She believed she saw a virus warning, and was probably running on the industrious momentum of a similar recent repair of her own computer.  I heard her innocent and helpful remark, and something turned in me.  The world froze.  I felt myself melting like butter in lava.  With difficulty, I replied in a tone of deliberate and extreme macabre quietude – which might have, should have shaken her had she not been in her momentum – that my device was in fine shape, had no viruses, and needed no repair.  Unheeding, she repeated her statement in more persuasive terms.  Now at the point of disintegration, I found myself standing yet disembodied, and within a moment the laptop had crashed in pieces and bent sections, destroyed.  Later, I took great pains to understand, for myself and for her, the nature of the symbolism that triggered my devastation.  It was rooted in a childhood of near total passivity that threatened to ruin everything as it spread into my adolescent years.  That cancer was stopped only by a flimsy barricade of narcissism in high school.  When my wife made her implacable statement, it returned me to the passive egolessness of my childhood that in some sense I had never surpassed.  The shell of narcissism, lately reduced to a thinner cognitive film (I had whittled away much of the pathology over the past two decades), cracked.  Only destroying the rapist’s tool – the computer – could prevent the void from overtaking me.
Lump in the throat
My client knows that the extreme somatic and catastrophizing anxiety he constantly suffers started with his mother’s personality disorder and mental torture – consigning him to hell for innocent play with a friend – and continues to be fed by introjected terror.  He has now grasped that the lump in his throat in mother’s presence, making it hard to breathe, is the exact meaning of this unbroken bond: “I never had a voice.”
There is a difference between a symbol and a simple resonance or emotional association.  Vereshack gives the example of an echo sent from the past and received in the present:
 “. . . a woman leaves a party early.  Her conscious sense of why she is going home is that she has become tired of the superficial conversation all around her.
“Actually, a man sitting near her, who has been speaking in an authoritarian way, has triggered a feeling of negativity which more properly belongs to her father.  She does not know this.  The unconscious connection and the force with which it drives her out of the room are absolutely invisible.  Without knowing that she is fleeing, or what she is fleeing from, she nonetheless flees.”**
And there is a difference between a symbol and what I conceive as the entirely symbolic life of a past-dwelling person: someone such as a psychopath, deep psychotic or cyclical batterer whose emotional growth was aborted, undeveloped in babyhood or childhood.  Thrust by the passage of time into a present to which they do not belong, these individuals are always and only living on the endless fuel of their original pain.  They cannot, as Janov would say, see beyond their unmet needs, and the present is only a symbol of unmet needs and un-had revenge.  For them, everything – from their body to someone’s smile, from his wife’s suspiciously attractive hairstyle to a good night’s sleep, from an undercooked or perfectly cooked hamburger to a sunrise or sunset, to the placement of a dish towel, to the simplest quiet moment, to the contemplated universe – is a potential trigger.
I believe the difference between these three states – the symbol, the echo, the atavist – is one of degree, the diffusion of pain in differently intact psyches.  At the cleanest end of the continuum, the barely-symbolated individual might have, in her youth, swallowed too large a trauma – loss of a beloved pet when the family lost their home – and later cannot live with a dog.  The past remains a fissure in her soul.
Like me and the young man walking his pug, you may only come to see a symbol through regret and painstaking introspection.  But it is waiting for you like a compromised heart: an electrical charge in the atria of the past, stimulating the ventricles of the present.

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* Metaphor inspired by a case history in The Illusion of Love, Why the Battered Woman Returns to Her Abuser by David P. Celani, Columbia University Press, 1994.
** Paul Vereshack, M.D., therapy book at, Chapter 20, "The Devices of Invisibility and Not Knowing."


  1. Many thanks for this, especially the reaction of the man to his dog, and your reaction with the laptop. Both echo something in my own recent reactions. My partner, who I love dearly, is strong willed and sometimes goes his own way with things. For instance, recently he was making us an omelette for dinner, but while he was cutting the cheese, he kept eating it. I protested, 'stop it, there's not much left and I want cheese in my omelette' but he didn't listen and ate more of it. I felt helpless, powerless and then angry, and I've begun to realise that these reactions have their roots in earlier life, when for various reasons, I had a lot of power and sense of control taken away from me. I hadn't considered it to be 'symbol' though, so this is a very interesting approach.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. My theory is casual, and doesn't try to explain the difference between a stimulus "reminder," as in Vereshack's example of the woman disturbed by a voice tone unconsciously reminiscent of her father's, and a stimulus meaning, which is a kind of "conclusion experience" deposited in the unconscious.


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.