Human relationships and projecting aliveness

In 1939, the world lost Sigmund Freud. By then, he had undergone more than 30 surgeries to treat his oral cancer, but once the doctors deemed it inoperable, he accepted his fate. He was assisted in his suicide with three heavy doses of morphine on September 3rd of that year.

Throughout his life, Freud was a heavy cigar smoker, inhaling the fumes of twenty a day, which likely played some role in determining his eventual fate. There is an old tale of someone asking the famous therapist what his cigar-smoking symbolized, with Freud apparently replying: “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” True, we can’t confirm the truth of this response, but it does get to an important point: He was so famous for his theories about the human psyche and its development even his own time that people found him deeply fascinating, even if they knew him as eccentric.

Today, of course, Freud’s reputation has suffered considerably. He’s one of the most influential names of the 20th century, and even people who know nothing about psychology or psychoanalysis have an opinion about him. Ironically, the people who seem to have the most to say about him are those who have done the least work to understand what he actually contributed to our understanding. To be sure, many of Freud’s theories are likely wrong, and some of them even absurd enough not to take seriously. That said, to deny that his foundational contributions to Western civilization weren’t monumental in their reach is to embrace a kind of blind ignorance. The man was an intellectual giant rivaled by few.

Out of all of his contributions, maybe his enduring idea is that of the unconscious mind. Below what we think of as our sense of self, or our conscious mind, or our ego, Freud argued, lies an ocean of unorganized thoughts, memories, and emotions absorbed from our childhood and the cultures of civilization. He claimed that this ocean, this unconscious mind, is what guides much of our day to day behavior, often causing feelings of conflict and uncertainty and neurosis.

Different variations of this idea can be found in many schools of modern psychology today, and for those who are familiar with ancient Buddhist teachings, it’s pretty clear that Freud wasn’t the first to realize this. A big part of what both many Eastern meditation practices and many Western psychotherapeutic practices do is they aim to deconstruct part of that conscious self or ego, so there is less conflict between it and what lies beneath it: the unconscious mind. Once the two are in better harmony, it is assumed that some more authentic state of being can be achieved – a state that creates a foundation for a truer form of fulfillment. Or if not more authentic, at least less conflicted and more able to strive towards things like happiness and success.

Another one of Freud’s major contributions was his shaping of the relationship between the therapist and their subject. Although again, he wasn’t the first in the world to invent something like this relationship, it’s pretty clear that much of what we think of as psychotherapy today begins with Freud. He was able to see how such a relationship between two people if molded in a particular way, could help someone deal with the source of their pain and even lead them towards a better sense for who they were and who they are and what they are put on this world to do. In a sense, he uncovered the potential human beings have in their capacity to heal each other.

Much of psychotherapy today has diverged from Freud’s initial vision, and different schools of thought take different approaches to their craft with varying degrees of success. This simple idea, however, of language and interaction between two people being able to create a world that brings out a deeper state of health and well-being into someone’s life is a potent one. Put another way, people have the capacity to consciously interact with each other to resolve deeper unconscious conflicts of the mind.

Thomas Ogden, one of today’s great psychoanalytic writers, talks about this quite beautifully. The way he sees it is that when a therapist and a patient communicate, they begin to create a living entity through the language that connects them – an intersubjective third. They, as two individuals, are two subjective beings, but as they communicate, they also create a shared subjectivity between them. And this intersubjective third isn’t just composed of the words that are spoken, but it also contains the things that are not spoken of directly, the different metaphors, the norms that get established. In a way, it’s a combination of both of their unconscious minds brought into existence through connection. And this entity lets them see themselves more clearly.

One of Ogden’s primary methods for bringing out the unconscious into the intersubjective third is through the use of reverie or engaging the patient in a light day-dream. This gets close to that point of authenticity where the unconscious and the conscious meet. And it’s at this point that space is created for the patient to project either a sense of aliveness or deadness into the world. The aliveness is what makes the patient human at their very core. The deadness is the source of the deeper underlying issues that can then be analyzed more objectively in the space of the intersubjective third.

The goal of most schools of therapy is to focus on the negative, or that deadness so that it can be eliminated and the patient can walk out of there unburdened. The beauty in Ogden’s approach, however, is that he seems just as concerned with bringing out a patient’s sense of aliveness – the thing that makes them vivid. In this case, the goal of the analyst, as Ogden puts it, becomes “sensing something human.”

We don’t think of our daily relationships with other people as being therapeutic, but in many ways, they are, and Freud may have been wrong in his particular approach, but leading us towards this underlying fact is perhaps one of his great legacies. While most of us don’t dive too deep into the problems of the unconscious mind with our friends, our families, or even with our partners, when therapy is viewed from Ogden’s approach to aliveness, for example, it’s quite evident that it’s the people around us who have the greatest capacity to bring out what it is that makes us human.

In every relationship, we create a culture. And this culture dictates the habits that bring the people together, the things that make them laugh, the silences and the words and the norms and the movements that connect them to each other. The culture is the history of a shared past, and it provides the context for every future interaction. In many ways, in fact, this culture is no different from what Ogden refers to as the intersubjective third. Between two individual people, two different subjects, there is always a nebulous space that combines their subjectivity into something greater, something more able to synergize the relationship beyond what can be captured within their individual selves.

What holds both a culture and an intersubjective third together, of course, is trust. Without the presence and the union of shared vulnerabilities, two people can’t create a shared culture beyond the boundaries of the social norms that guide our day to day interactions. But when these shared vulnerabilities are placed in a safe, secure space between subjects, the shields of the self, the conscious mind, can begin to drop because there is no longer a need for this self to use them as a defense mechanism. And as they drop, the contents of the unconscious mind can begin to rise. And as the conscious and the unconscious meet, aliveness can be projected into the world.

When people care for us, and when they love us, all they are doing is giving us permission to share what it is that makes us a unique, individual human being. They hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves for what we are when we rid ourselves of the surface-level voice that resists the fluidity of authentic, unrestrained expression. In this way, more than some singular quest of self-discovery or adventure, it is other people and what they bring out in us that helps us uncover our true sense of self.

I personally find a lot of poetic depth in Ogden’s phrase “sensing something human.” And I think it has a lot to do with how inhuman most of our interactions with each other are today. We have always had norms in place that have made interacting with strangers and even acquaintances a little shallow, of course, but as the world has gotten both bigger and as we have become more separated from each other in our own individual complexities, this has been taken to a whole new level. And then you have the internet where a two-dimensional avatar on a social media site is supposed to represent a whole three-dimensional person. But, maybe, perhaps, those are symptoms rather than causes.

What I do know for certain is this: Just as we need a world where fewer people are constrained and held back by an inner sense of deadness, we need a world where more and more people are actively projecting their aliveness. And the only way we are going to get there is if we each take on just a little bit of responsibility for driving the interactions we have with others towards what it is that makes them human.

This article first appeared on Design Luck.