On Entitlement to Feelings

Ego analysis is all about the problem of not feeling entitled to one’s feelings. At the outset I need to grapple with the way “entitlement” has, in our field, lost its neutral sense of enable, allow, permit, and come to mean “narcissistic entitlement,” something nobody wants to feel—a slur. In other words, overentitlement. We are ever on the lookout for people who are arrogant, presumptuous, overweening.

A better, more precise word would be “possess”—to possess an experience—as in self-possession. Because when we are able to “have” an experience, that is, to feel entitled to it, we can feel like ourselves when having it. When we do not feel entitled to an experience, we are likely to feel that we are not ourselves when having it. Then we don’t feel in possession of ourselves. But “possess” is too strong a word; it is beyond simply feeling “entitled.” Entitlement seems to be the best fit.

Here is an example from this problem area. Someone hurts your feelings and you want them to know it. You risk being seen as too sensitive, or maybe worse, as a grouch, as hostile. Being a sensible person, you give up on the idea, choosing not to say anything, despite feeling frustrated. At least that was true some decades back. But then some unknown genius coined the phrase, “That pressed my buttons.” It instantly caught on. It solved the problem. Everyone immediately agreed that it was OK to be sensitive to that extent. The other person is not going to retort with, “You’re too sensitive”—isn’t even going to think of that reaction. No one is going to say, “You and your buttons.” Now people just come with buttons that can get pressed.

It guarantees a safe transaction. You know it will be accepted—taken as meant. We have to wait for unknown geniuses to validate other experiences, to make them part of the group consensus. Then the problem is solved, but it is a problem we don’t know we have until it is solved, and even then, although we jump at the solution, we still don’t know we had the problem.

What I mean is that before we had buttons that could be pressed, we just lived inside the problem. If we felt hurt or slighted, we either said nothing or, in the anxiety to avoid being called too sensitive, we overreacted. At times we are acutely aware of struggling to believe we are entitled to a feeling, but more often we are unaware of the problem of entitlement to feelings. You won’t find anything written about it.

Many people act as if they feel overly entitled to their feelings and this usually is taken at face value, not only by others, but by these people themselves. This “defensive entitlement” is a version of the problem that is common enough to make it seem as if we don’t all suffer from not feeling entitled to our feelings. The best familiar example is men whose approach to sex with their wives or girlfriends is to demand it, and to sulk or become accusatory and punitive when their partners do not comply. To all appearances, they think they have a God-given right to sex. If asked, they will say that they believe they have a perfect right to sex (as part of the commitment contract). In actuality, they feel no more entitled to have their sexual wishes met than does the man who “asks” for sex, panhandler style, or who requires his partner to enjoy sex equally, or who feels guilty about objectifying his partner. How do we know that?

What makes it clear this is bluster is that these men are allergic to the seemingly obvious possibility that they may not be any good at interesting their partners in sex or in enlisting their help with the problem. They may say, “She just lies there,” in an aggrieved tone, although it also is seemingly obvious that if she is just lying there, she is enacting another instance of feeling unentitled, feeling unentitled to complain, or to more directly refuse, and certainly is not feeling entitled to think that she is being deprived of the warmth and connection that sex can uniquely offer. The aggrieved tone means, of course, that he is accusing her of not cooperating, as if she just should, as if whether or not she is inspired to is somehow irrelevant. His problem is that if he lets himself think that he is not inspiring her—or even that by his acting defensively overentitled he is turning her off—he then is susceptible to thinking she has a right to not feel sexual, and as soon as the question of rights enters the picture you know that the person is struggling with the issue of entitlement.

If this man felt more entitled to sex, his partner’s lack of interest would not be threatening. He could even entertain the idea that he may be no good at interesting her, something very few people are any good at. (Ironically, his ability to acknowledge that it isn’t just her problem might make sex look a lot more interesting to her.)

The way defensive overentitlement plays out is that a man feels he is being denied something that he has a right to, that is owed to him, even that his partner is selfishly withholding sex, rather than that both partners are missing out. Seeing the partner as selfish rather than as also deprived indicates that these men are at risk for feeling selfish—which is to say, unentitled.

Their partners show one of the most extreme examples of a hidden sense of lack of entitlement. In our pre-industrial past, when people in the village spoke of a man with a frigid wife, he would invariably be seen as the one suffering from his wife’s “frigidity.” For her to think that she was suffering from this apathetic state would require the psychological and sexual revolutions, and even in our present highly sophisticated society, she still may have no way to recognize that she does not feel entitled to think of herself as deprived.


The hidden key to the problem of entitlement to a feeling is to recognize that entitlement itself is a feeling. We either feel entitled or we don’t. And we usually don’t (which is what ego analysis is all about). Consider again the sexually deprived husband. He multiplies justifications: he has pledged not to seek other women; he just feels the call of nature in his seminal vesicles; he has even done his share or more than his share of household chores; he may even have spent long periods without bringing up the subject, etc. None of this helps him to feel entitled (as I just described how feeling entitled would actually look) no matter how often he mentally rehearses these justifications.

In fact, what throws this problem into sharp relief is to see how our right to a feeling can be justified beyond a shadow of a doubt, yet we may still not feel entitled to it. That is, feelings happen; the issue of justification follows. Bruno Bettleheim provides us with a dramatic case in point. At the end of his review of Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, had this to say:

Having devoted much of my life to this problem [the Holocaust], I restricted myself to trying to understand the psychology of the prisoners, and I shied away from trying to understand the psychology of the SS because of the ever present danger that understanding fully may come close to forgiving.

I doubt that Bettelheim was, in reality, in much danger of forgiving the Nazi doctors. Considering that they were evil incarnate, it hardly seems likely that to investigate their motives and backgrounds would risk much. Add to that that Bettelheim was himself a victim of Nazi brutality. He should have felt richly entitled to condemn. It is stunning that he nevertheless says he does not want to be tempted to forgive, speaking of this temptation in such an offhand way, as if it is an obvious “ever present danger”.

Bettelheim’s reference is, of course, that “to understand all is to forgive all.” By this he doesn’t mean that when all the facts are in, you come to a more judicious conclusion. No danger there. He means that understanding can compel forgiveness. This is to say, in ego analytic terms, that understanding can make you feel less entitled to condemn, hate, want to punish.

I think what he must have meant was that to try to understand the Nazi doctors at all was to adopt a more sympathetic attitude than he was prepared to take. Why would even an attempt to understand them feel like giving them a break?

First, let’s recognize that in the past there was not much danger of understanding anyone. As recently as four centuries ago you had to be Shakespeare to able to get inside people, whereas now most of us have enough interiority to make it difficult to sit back with the family and enjoy watching terrified Christians scream as they are bloodily torn apart by ravenous lions. Attending hangings is no longer a familiar Sunday outing. We feel less like automatons whose actions are determined by heredity, spirits, spells, and the stars.

What Bettelheim refers to is familiar, although not everyone would suffer from this inhibition, just as there may be some who would still be able to watch people suffer (or animals suffer, as in bull fighting). Now we are more capable of empathy, but is that what creates this “ever present danger” many of us now feel, the danger of feeling unentitled to hate or condemn? Does being able to empathize at all mean having to over-identify? A fully satisfying explanation would be a substantial breakthrough and would probably tell us a lot that we need to know about the problem of entitlement to experience. All we really know at present is that we often instinctively avoid understanding because it will make us feel like we shouldn’t be judgmental when we want to be.

Let me just emphasize that last way of putting it. I have been saying in all kinds of ways throughout this website that we can’t avoid being judgmental, even that the impulse to blame qualifies as a reflex. Yet here is this other phenomenon, that our ability to be judgmental can be precarious, easily lost. There is an easy answer, that we are just as quick to be judgmental, it is just that in this case a self-judgment threatens to block our freedom to judge others. But the idea that Bettelheim would feel guilty about condemning the Nazis seems pretty far fetched. Is it the capacity to empathize, then, that creates this difficulty after all? Let’s try another example.

Betsy Peterson’s father had sex with her for fifteen years, from age three. At age 45, in Dancing With Daddy, she writes:

I don’t want to give away my anger at what he did, to say…that he was only acting out his own history. I need my anger to fuel my own healing, and he deserves it.

This is strong language. She is at risk for “giving away” her anger, an especially apt way of capturing the feeling of lack of entitlement to it. What puts her at risk is to see that her father was “only acting out his own history.” (Only?) She needs her anger to “fuel” her “healing.” What does she mean?

She is struggling to feel entitled to seeing herself as a victim and her father as an abuser—not an easy accomplishment considering that “abuse,” physical or sexual was not even a concept before 1960. She is at risk for seeing her father as a victim, her guilt then causing her to “give away” her anger, that is, to feel unentitled to it. Saying she “needs” her anger to cope with the experience is a feeble attempt at justification, an apology for feeling angry at him. In other words, she can’t just hate and despise him as a self-justifying monster. She asks us to indulge her in her anger on the ground that it helps her overcome the typical guilt that the abuse victim feels—she needs it for therapeutic purposes, to help overcome her own feeling of responsibility for being abused.

We get the picture of a rather pathetic man who pleads with her to not be angry at him. Here we see what she is up against:

“I only wanted to make you feel good,” he would say, if he were alive to say it. “You liked it; you know you did. I wouldn’t hurt you for anything in the world.”

We ordinarily think of forgiveness, especially of parents, as hard won. We are admonished to “learn to forgive.” So there has not been much work done on the problem of feeling compelled to forgive. Peterson’s battle to resist forgiving her father makes evident that there are times when we have little say in the matter. This is Peterson’s response to her father’s imagined plea:

I refuse to live in a world where people aren’t responsible for what they do. My father is responsible for what he did and I am responsible for what I do.

Clearly and poignantly, she apparently has no way to feel aggrieved, to feel she was horribly used. The sad fact is that this is one of the classic sequelae of such extreme abuse; it is difficult to feel important. She has had it ingrained in her that she does not matter. All she can do then is to appeal to the otherwise obvious fact that her father did indeed do what he did. Apparently, it was for her an accomplishment to even get that far with it.

She has fought her conscience to a standoff, but gives no sign of the liberation that could conceivably be created out of her crucible of pain. It would have been very relieving if Peterson had felt entitled to respond to her father’s imagined rationalization, “I only wanted to make you feel good,” by calling him a creep. We would like her to be free to react with contempt and incredulity to “I wouldn’t hurt you for anything in the world.” Everybody would cheer her on if she went on to say that she could imagine him at work in his office, fantasizing, not about how good he was going to make her feel, but about how good he was going to feel. She could feel totally disgusted by him, even while knowing that he himself was, conceivably, the victim of creeps.

Peterson’s problem seems straightforward. She can’t both feel sorry for her father and hate him. This is the well-known inability to have two opposite feelings at the same time. It is conventionally explained as a defect in psychic structure (splitting), but I suggest that this begs the question. When we are unable to have two opposite feelings at the same time it is because we do not feel entitled to either feeling.

Why does feeling sorry for her father make Peterson feel at risk for “giving away” her anger? This of course was not Bettelheim’s problem, although his compunction seems far fetched on any grounds.

The Bettelheim example has the virtue of showing how one can even shy away from understanding people who have no redeeming qualities. The Peterson example shows how understanding can be more of a trap when the subject does have some redeeming qualities. Let’s take it another step. What about the instance in which the subject is entirely innocent?

There is Albert Ellis’ blind man with the cane. You are mad at him for painfully stabbing you in the foot with his cane in a crowded subway train (Ellis lives in Manhattan; he’s thinking of a standing-room-only strap hanger), but when you turn to confront him you discover he is blind. Now what? According to Ellis, your anger disappears. He cites this to support his proposition that feelings are arbitrary; you can choose which ones to have. This is a rather brash approach to the problem of entitlement to feelings; it’s no problem. But it is an obvious problem in this very example.

If your anger does disappear, as Ellis thinks it does, does it simply evaporate, leaving you suddenly at peace? Not likely. This is, in fact, an example of suddenly losing the feeling of entitlement. Your road rage is ignited—always a formidable force—and you turn, glare at the ready, when pow! you are rudely jolted out of your feeling of entitlement. You see this poor fellow trying to figure out where he is at in this log-jam of bodies, as they are rocked this way and that.

What, then, does happen to your anger at the blind man? In centuries past and in many contemporary societies, you smack him—maybe knock him down for good measure. “Damn blind bastard! What good is he? We should get rid of all of them!” And everybody laughs at the comical sight, maybe kicking the fellow each time he struggles to his feet, making it even funnier. There was no stopping road rage.

What happens to the modern person? I think you’d get a little depressed. You get off the subway train at your station and you find yourself feeling like—this just seems to be one of those days. You may even miss your station, having mysteriously gotten somewhat absent minded, then feeling like this really is one of those days.

Does this mean that in growing up over the centuries we have lost something? We can no longer routinely burn people alive, with the serenity of the witness who described watching Joan’s flesh melt as she burned. (St. Lawrence was slow-roasted to death on a gridiron.) Our police don’t torture people as an official policy, you can’t get a lynch mob together any more, and we even are squeamish about the death penalty. We have lost the feeling of entitlement to punish. It looks like what we have gained is doubt.


In the past, suffering was so constant and widespread that people enjoyed watching others suffer. The everyday level of cruelty (to women, children, animals, the disabled, criminals, etc.) would be unbearable to the modern consciousness. That is one way to gauge how far we have come. The conditions of ordinary life were too brutal to support feeling empathic toward oneself and others.

Internal states were thought to be caused by witchcraft and other malign external influences: curses, the evil eye, possession by various kinds of spirits that entered through unguarded bodily orifices. If you sneezed and someone around you was not quick to say a blessing, you could be infiltrated. Imagine living at a time when this rush to block the spirits was done in all seriousness. You had to be Shakespeare to see our minds at work.

That much is more or less familiar. I want to consider another angle, aside from empathy as such, the modern development of our capacity for identification with the subjective states of others, especially as an opportunity for emotional release. Movies and TV give us a way to have feelings we don’t feel entitled to by identifying with characters on the screen. Of course, novels were the first such opportunity. Before novels we had folk stories, epics, and ballads and they were not about the internal life. Before the printing press— which seems to have made almost everything else possible—there was no easy way for most people to feel their way into others’ subjectivity.

The effect of the movies and TV may have been even more profound than is generally realized. Previously we only had novels and plays, and their influence was limited. I began this essay by saying that ego analysis is all about the problem of not feeling entitled to one’s experience. Movies and TV are all about having experiences we do not feel entitled to.

They give us an end run around the problem of entitlement. Then we can have our feelings. Take the very problem I have been discussing, how understanding can interfere with our feeling of entitlement to retaliate—to hate, punish. We go to the movies to watch as villains are created who have no redeeming qualities, carefully crafted to richly deserve being destroyed by heroes who are gradually, even reluctantly goaded into retaliating, building up the right to carry out their final vengeful, remorseless rampage. Or we go to weepers, five-hankie movies, to enjoy feeling sorry for people who are eminently entitled to our sympathy—unlike ourselves, about whom we are never quite so sure. Of course, we also go to feel warmth, to be horrified, awe-struck, thrilled, even to feel unbearable suspense. These last are not feelings we feel unentitled to—they can simply be feelings unavailable in our lives—but they bear out my point that movies and TV offer a kind of emotional endorsement. Within that frame we have the opportunity to identify with characters who are made to be entitled to the feelings we do not generally feel entitled to.

The operative word is identify. What makes it especially clear that dramas can pull for the feelings we have trouble having is that fact that our feelings for these characters are much more intense than our feelings for ourselves. The same thing happens in recall under hypnosis. Trance enactments of feelings are florid, larger than life. Why? Because the subject is directed to have them, being authoritatively relieved of doubts about entitlement.

Now I want to make one more point in this explanatory chain. That is that the characters in the mass dramas we now see are much more nuanced than was true at first. In the first traveling village shows, it sufficed to hit someone with a bladder, and in much later vaudeville, a rubber chicken. Silents and the early talkies were crudely two-dimensional and the humor was still slapstick. What this means is that we have grown accustomed to identifying with more and more complex characters—which is to say that our capacity for identification with others has vastly expanded.

This could be thought of as our capacity for empathy, since empathy is some amalgam of sympathy and identification. And certainly the development of respect for the individual that our more secure world view has engendered has resulted in less brutal child rearing practices and more empathic interpersonal relations.

But there may be a way that our capacity to identify has undermined our already shaky sense of entitlement to experience.


However it has come about, it now seems to be true that at times we avoid understanding others for fear that we will over-identify with them, risking the sacrifice of our own interest, or in the special case of therapists, we risk a critical loss, that of an independent point of view. Since understanding can compel forgiveness, or in its more familiar form, acceptance, a therapist may shy away from it as undermining, even though simultaneously being very concerned to understand the patient.

Let’s consider a kid who won’t clean his room. I should apologize for using such a lame, middle-class example, but it seems to be evocative in a way that suits my purpose. In workshops I have asked the group of therapists how they would respond if a kid said, “I don’t seem to have any interest in cleaning my room. What can I do about that?”

I got the polite equivalent of snickers, hoots and catcalls. It just raised therapists’ hackles. They seemed to have no doubt that the kid was simply dodging responsibility: “Come on now, if he wanted the room clean why wouldn’t he just do it?” They had no patience with the idea that his problem could be that he was deprived of wanting to do it—and that he might want to want to. Keep in mind that this is a group of people who pride themselves on being compassionate and insightful.

This exemplifies what I think of as the need to not understand. I suggest that what got their hackles up was the anxiety that I was asking them to be indulgent against their own interest, to adopt—even in this speculative vein, and for the moment—a way of understanding this kid that made them feel they would lose their therapeutic leverage.

In fact, I also suggest that is why “wanting to want” is a not a well-known phenomenon. The only place I’ve seen it referred to is in the sex therapy literature; therapists may be more receptive to it there because how one responds in sex is obviously not entirely voluntary in the way that cleaning your room can seem to be. It is a good example of the way symptoms, if you carefully analyze them, are the “royal road to the unconscious,”—not a popular idea, I think because of an opposing principle, that symptoms are relatively arbitrarily “chosen,” and are primarily a cover for an underlying issue.

What this particular royal road takes you to is the wellspring of willed action. What you find in those who want to act but find themselves unable to want to is that something is missing. It is an absence of inner congratulation, of an inner feeling of reward—something that, when it is present, functions smoothly and without notice. It should be familiar to students of object relations that when we are motivated to do something, it is to be approved of by an internal object, and the more we get this inner approval, the more independent we are of external approval. There are all kinds of other reasons people carry out willed actions, but when they can’t, a good place to look is at what is happening in the person’s relationship to internal objects.

The therapists with whom I tried this problem out were in no mood to study it this closely. That’s what makes it an example of the fear that understanding will be undermining. In this example it takes the form of seeing the kid as in a power struggle. This disqualification of the kid’s motive helps us to keep the upper hand, and often does have its own payoff, in that a kid who is made to submit to superior force may well clean his room. The problem then is in the model for growth. He is not likely to do a lot else, that us, to function at full capacity.

I believe that as a rule, explanations based on a power struggle, games, passive aggressiveness, and the like, are used by therapists because of the fear that a more close-up view would pull for their sympathies in a way that would disable them as therapists. But if one can deal with that fear, it becomes apparent that, although power struggles, etc. do certainly exist, engaging in them is not a primary motive. Thus, in ego analytic theory, they are understood as fall-back measures that people default to when they are unable to get their primary objectives met.

A more compelling example is the reaction to the using the word “victim.” Again there is the fear that our sympathies will undermine our position—even our good sense. People often react with the same irritated skepticism, hackles raised, at this characterization. There are therapists for whom it is a central credo that “there is no such thing as a victim.” For them, to call someone a victim is the equivalent of proposing that they deserve sympathy, and if the person so characterized has committed a crime, as in Betsy Peterson’s father’s case, it is the equivalent of condoning the criminal act. Ironically, the people for whom this is a knee-jerk reaction to the word victim are themselves a good example of being victimized—by the fear that understanding will mean acceptance. This reaction is so gripping and so common that I did not cite this example at the outset since it might have instantly consigned me to the wastebasket or cast me back out into cyberspace. Did I remember not to make it sound easy for Betsy Peterson to quit being so guilty and just hate her father? I probably did make it sound easy. I should say here that it can be extremely difficult. That is my point—that many of life’s travelers have been lost in the quicksand of entitlement. It might be more accurate to say all of them.

I have to say that even though the Romans found it entertaining to watch innocent people ripped apart by lions, I would have trouble watching Betsy Peterson’s father meet this fate. Although the Nazi doctors might be another story.

It is an ego analytic proposition that all of us are victims, but few of us are any good at it. And this is because we suffer from the same skepticism when we ourselves are the sufferer. Few of us can really believe that we are entitled to consider ourselves a victim. Oddly enough, or maybe not so oddly, this seems to be true even when we would least expect it, as when people are the victims of clearly overwhelming circumstances over which they had no control. It is said of the survivors of the Hiroshima bomb that many of them blamed themselves. And before we discovered that the universe runs in a rational way, we blamed ourselves for every catastrophe.

Yet there are people who openly declare themselves to be victims. In fact, they are the ones who give victimization a bad name. They have what is called a “victim mentality,” which essentially means that they are no good at being victims, the test being whether they pull for sympathy. Some people can wring the heart of a stone. We just respond to them, and the issue of whether they are entitled to call themselves victims never arises.

For another example of how we suffer from the same skepticism when we ourselves are the sufferer, let’s go back to the kid who doesn’t clean his room. I actually used a rare version of the problem, since hardly any kid would feel entitled enough to think of himself as a victim to say “I don’t seem to have any interest in cleaning my room. What can I do about that?” If he was open about his reluctance at all, which in the vast majority of cases he would not be, he would simply say, defiantly, that he didn’t want to or didn’t feel like it. He himself would be unaware of wanting to want to, and would be just as skeptical of this possibility as was my audience of therapists. He would have no idea why he didn’t want to, and so would be just as ready as anyone else to think of it as a moral lapse, as laziness.

To make the same point, I also have brought up the kid who is deprived of wanting to write home to mother from college, but in view of the outrage this provokes, I have decided to retract the example. After this previous sentence was written, Dan Wile referred to this example (Wile) and so I now want to retract the retraction: This kid is away from home, maybe at school, and hasn’t phoned, written, or emailed his mother in an unusually long time. His mother phones him and asks why he hasn’t contacted her. It is so hard to imagine feeling entitled to our feelings, that is, not feeling responsible for them, that it seems weird to imagine what it would look like. This kid who hasn’t contacted his mother might complain to her that he does not feel like writing. That he feels deprived of wanting to.

Hello, Mom? Say do you realize that I haven’t phoned or written to you in an incredibly long time? This is really getting to me. All I have to do is pick up the phone. Nothing to it. It’s as simple as that. And I don’t do it. What do you suppose is going on with me anyway?

You can see why I wasn’t going to get into it. It gets worse. Imagine the mother commiserating with the kid for not feeling like writing. Even weirder. Weird because we all are so accustomed to feeling responsible for our reactions and to holding the other person responsible. Which in this case means the kid has to feel guilty for not calling Mom. That then makes it impossible for him or her to know that he is being deprived just as she is. So she then can only have recourse to defensive entitlement.

One effect of defensive entitlement is for us to entirely lose track of the underlying deprivation. Take the instance of recourse to defensive entitlements based on the now almost-obsolete division of marital duties: the husband who berates his wife for not having dinner ready when he gets home, or the wife who berates her husband for getting home late without calling her and so dinner is burnt or cold. We simply condemn the complainer, which usually makes it impossible to see that their complaints are a symptom of low or depressive expectations—that is of not feeling entitled to their feelings, the consequence being that they have reduced the expression of their wishes—and probably their awareness of them as well—to these tokens.


I have been focusing on the need to avoid understanding, the fear being that it might compel acceptance and the loss of one’s independent point of view. But the opposite also is true, that we need to avoid being condemnatory for fear that it will prevent us from being accepting.

Remember what I said above, about how a feeling happens and the issue of whether we are entitled to it follows. Ideally the issue of justification does not interfere with being able to “have” a feeling in the first place. As I also said, the sense of lack of entitlement to a feeling is itself a feeling we need to be able to “have.”

OK, Peterson and Bettelheim want to be condemnatory and punitive but do not feel entitled to it and get hamstrung trying to do it (Bettelheim at least thinks he would). What about when we are condemnatory but do not want to be? Further, we may even convince ourselves we aren’t. We need an example of how feeling unentitled to an experience keeps it from our conscious awareness, then affecting us indirectly.Then our ability to empathize and hence to understand is limited but we don’t know it. This is not a refusal to understand. What happens is that we develop a pseudo-understanding that is unwittingly condemnatory. Here is where we need another illustration.

Laura wants to monopolize all her husband’s time and attention. She gets accusatory if he doesn’t hurry home from work, or is too abrupt in leaving for work, and angrily demands to know what’s wrong if he isn’t consistently amorous. She complains bitterly to her therapist that her husband is cold and unfeeling, that he doesn’t care whether she lives or dies.

She hates being dependent and so has no adequate ways to express it. This helplessness makes her all the more dependent. Since she is alienated by her dependency, she hates her husband whenever he exposes her to it by being absent or negligent. She can only browbeat him, even while knowing this will only compulsify his feelings and alienate him, and so her dependency easily slips into panic.

Although Laura herself is afraid she’s too dependent and controlling, she does not reveal this in the hours because she’s afraid that’s what the therapist thinks. She is afraid that if she lets herself think about her husband’s feelings or lets herself think about her dependency, that she will feel self-hating and also will forfeit her right to be attended to. So she spends the hours rehearsing her complaints about her husband, just as goes on in her own mind. This only convinces the therapist that she feels too entitled to his and her husband’s care and attention, that she is too dependent, and that she is not motivated for insight therapy. He thinks of her as a difficult case.

He describes her (in his notes) as very controlling, thinking of this as no more than plain fact. He doesn’t think he’s being judgmental because she is very controlling, as well as narcissistic and possessive, with borderline tendencies, which also seems obvious.

He sees that she is driving her husband away, but he thinks of that as her just desserts, rather than as one of her symptoms. He hopes she’ll come to realize how self-defeating this is, and implies as much. He can’t help thinking that no matter how hard the wind blows it can’t make the man take his coat off, but when the sun shines, off it comes. The therapist may feel fairly dispassionate and may even think he empathizes with her, since he is aware of how she was traumatized as a child, but he’s still mentally stamping his foot. He is not aware of this countertransference because he thinks of himself as dispassionate and because he believes that other therapists would share his view of the case. He thinks of other therapists who would be less responsible, acting out by chiding her, congratulating himself on his forbearance. But his impatience is expressed in the superficiality of his description. He is hardly saying more than that she is immature.

He knows she is depressed and desperate, but not that she is conflicted about expressing it—and so expresses it inadequately, if at all. One could say that his being alienated by Laura’s clinging dependency blocks him from seeing that she is herself even more alienated from it. But that would be imprecise, since what actually blocks him is his not feeling entitled to be alienated.

He does not feel entitled to be condemning, which then erodes his capacity to be able to understand her. Suppose he felt entitled to heartily dislike her. Then he would be open to the recognition that this effect she had on him meant something—in fact that it was the impact on him of her self-hate. Then he might well find himself suddenly feeling warmly empathic toward her, just as did Mona’s boy friend in On The Capacity to Feel Unempathic.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s