I take some relieved joy in the fact that few people have read this story. It’s a provocative theory that came to me as an intuition based on a quote that I read, or more accurately stated, sought out. I’m rather pleased with the way I extrapolated a single, wayward thought into a full piece, but I have no idea whether the story speaks truth. Events are fading into dreamlike memory for me now. This may be a form of fictionalization that is happening, which if true, is a very positive outcome for me.
The fact that this piece has been overlooked so far gives me the freedom to keep returning to it, adding and subtracting, contextualizing it with other similar stories that have come before. It was written in the form of a case study — perhaps the influence of having read a great deal of Jung recently is seeping through.
I wonder why I haven’t attempted to fully integrate other interpretations into this piece. Do they not fit the form? Have I disavowed or even forgotten other conclusions that I have drawn? To that possibility, I can only say that these words are written in sand and will wash away soon, either through the tides of more words and new theories or the wind of my rewriting hand. Read them, if you wish, while you can. They may be gone before you finish.
It is very seductive for a person who holds power over another to wield it as if the other is a child. This is an especially comfortable strategy for one whose primary responsibility in the world is serving a mother role, either through personal parenting experience or a job that accords a person a certain air of authority. Or both.
Things get particularly difficult when the person with power has susceptibility to narcissistic traits — and even more difficult when the person in the weak position has been victimized by narcissists, especially a parent. Again, or both.
Now, imagine the extra difficulty presented by a strong attachment — clinically called transference, but functionally no different than romantic love — that has formed between the two individuals. (It’s a leap to state that both feel this, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume there’s some level of feeling on both sides.) The weaker party, in this case, has already somewhat surrendered to the infantilized position. Jungian analyst James Hollis says this about such a surrender in his book “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life:”
The secret goal of “falling in love” is fusion with the other, and the obliteration of the individual consciousness is the outcome most desired. (Le petite morte, the French expression for orgasm, is, after all, “the little death).” While the desire for obliteration is an inescapable by-product of the rigor and hardship of our journey, when it prevails we are infantilized, regressed and dependent, and secretly wish to be so. But in the light of day, it does not seem so pretty. The much greater risk of truly loving the other presents a quite different agenda, a more demanding summons, as we shall see.
We look at the problematic question of falling in love, we see a number of implications emerge. First, what we do not know about ourselves, or do not wish to know, has a tendency to be projected onto our “beloved.” Second, we have a predisposition to project our childhood agendas, our infantile longing, and the burden of our assignment for personal growth onto the other. Thirdly, since the other cannot in the end, and should not ever, carry responsibility for the task of our life, the projections inevitably wear away and the relationship has a tendency to deteriorate into a power struggle. When the other does not conform to our relationship agenda, we often seek to control them through admonishments, withdrawal, passive/aggressive sabotage and sometimes overtly controlling behaviors.
This creates an interesting, and very complex, infantilizing situation, one where the weaker party readily surrenders to the infantilization and the dominant party eagerly accepts the role. However, as Hollis argues, the dynamic does not end there. The hopeless situation the weaker party holds creates inevitable tension in the relationship that inevitably is exposed, and once it is fully in the open, a power struggle erupts. Imagine this power struggle described above taking place inside of a therapy room. This article does a good job of describing how parents often act to infantilize their adult children. But this can also play out in a therapist-client context. I’ll give examples for all three forms of power-wielding behavior mentioned in the article.
First, there’s disapproval. One thing that should be a given in a consulting room is an acceptance that anything and everything can be spoken freely. But when a power struggle laden with infantilization breaks out, I have experienced a therapist interrupt a story and demand why a sensitive subject is being raised. This level of disapproval expanded to include other types of therapy being pursued by the client and demands that these other therapies be terminated if this relationship were to continue. All of this reinforces a dependence of the client on the therapist, who demands being in control of the client’s growth and even his freedom to work on whatever issues are top of mind that day. So while the client, in the weaker position, may be trying to recover from the infantilized posture, the dominant therapist uses disapproval of maintaining the status quo.
Next, there is interference. The demands mentioned above go beyond an expression of disapproval, they constitute direct interference with the behavior of the individual. Praise can also serve as a passive/aggressive form of interference — in this specific case, a therapist often put a finger on the scale of behaviors she most approved of, even ones that affected the client’s core relationships, by excessively praising actions that indicated progress towards her preferred outcome. This again creates dependence, but also confusion among the client, who does not know whether progress towards reaching a resolution with a significant other is due to personal growth or if it is an action being taken purely to gain approval from the dominant therapist.
Third, there is excessive criticism. This can seem strange in the context of a therapeutic relationship where direct criticism is almost always avoided. But even here, the therapist made some strange analytical choices that came across to the client as behavioral criticism. For example, the therapist at a certain point proposed the theory that the client was “splitting” as a result of taking part in both individual and group therapy. Jung believed that when this type of behavior manifested, it was an excellent opportunity for the analyst to get to know both sides of the personality that manifested — it was, after all, core shadow work. In this case, however, the splitting was leveled as a form of psychological weakness or error and something that could be severed if only the client would end the second relationship. The dominant therapist never offered to the client the possibility that the existing conflict could be a useful window into how he viewed both idealized and demonized relationships with others.
It is important to point out that many, perhaps all, of these actions by the therapist might have been manifested from the unconscious and seemed perfectly normal or even helpful to the client within the context of the therapist’s conscious intentions. There was likely no conscious intention of manipulation, revenge or power play going on within the therapist’s thought process. Unfortunately for both the client and her, there was simply too much unprocessed personal baggage hanging around the therapy room for a healthy process to play out and the therapist was too inexperienced to recognize that a series of bad decisions was extending an infantilization process that needed to be brought to conclusion.
All of these actions and the unprocessed nature of the transference put the client into an ever weaker position with the therapist. The client expressed on multiple occasions a fear that the therapist would abandon him, and each time received reassurance that this would not occur. The therapist then, for reasons never articulated to the client, decided to terminate the relationship and, in the exit process, hinted that the client may have more serious behavioral issues than she felt capable of addressing. This was an unfortunate case of doing the right thing — stepping away from a grievously damaged therapeutic relationship — in the worst possible manner. Hints were made previously in therapy about the possibility of childhood abuse, despite no evidence or memory of such abuse being expressed by the client. Trauma-level therapy was vaguely recommended as the next course of action, although third party professionals later described those referrals as “cover your ass” actions taken by the firm to hide their own made mistakes.
Before this becomes an exercise in blaming the therapist, I want to move this case study in a slightly different direction — how might a fully-functioning adult react to being placed into such an infantilizing circumstance? The therapy itself was highly infantilizing, but the exit was even more so. The therapist, for whatever reason, chose both the most cowardly way to send the client on his way, but also the one that left him weakest and most vulnerable.
Many clients in this situation may have just surrendered to the course suggested by the therapist. After all, this therapist had power and wielded it to the end, wouldn’t you expect that the client might continue down that path and accept the infant posture? Does a neglected child dropped off at a police station have any choice but to keep crying and hope that help soon arrives?
In my case, the curious answer is that I immediately rejected the infantilization conclusion, even though I had unconsciously accepted the infantilized therapy throughout. Perhaps bringing into light the weakness of my position was enough for my ego to snap back into life and reject it. I became determined to reclaim my adulthood and masculinity in the weeks that followed, and this blog is one way I worked through the issues involved. Part of the process was creating a negative role model, as I did with my father.
My shadow has others desires as well, which I am well aware of and continue to process, but see no need to express all of them overtly. One of those desires is that the therapist in question one day read this, partially so she might be educated, but also so she might recognize that while her actions did short term damage to me, in the end I emerged stronger and with greater insight as a result.
However, I do believe that there are aspects of this story that I have not fully examined. For example, why was I so eager to fall into an infantilized role to begin with and, given that I would not have accepted this description at the time, what am I missing in my current recall that might better explain my state of mind at the time? If there was a power struggle afoot, what role was I playing in that conflict? Did I take any overt actions to escape the infantilization and how were they met? Was I enjoying the conflict or perhaps even thought that I was winning it?