Alice’s Sense of Self: A Psychoanalytic Formulation

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Alice! A childish story take,

And with a gentle hand

Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined

In Memory’s mystic band,

Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers

Plucked in a far-off land.

-Lewis Carroll

Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland

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Alice’s Sense of Self:

A Psychoanalytic Formulation of Development in Wonderland

What is it about the little protagonist, Alice and her fantastic adventures in Wonderland that entertains children and adults, spurring a multitude of movies (both animated and live action) in addition to various interpretations that span politics, psychology, and philosophy? There can be little doubt that what primarily draws first the child, and then the adult back to this enduring narrative is the nonsensical “underworld” of Wonderland; yet there is another compelling element and that is the character of Alice. Alice’s confusion, in her dream of utter chaos, somehow feels familiar. Uncertain of even who she is at times, Alice indulges in a constant dialog (with herself) in an attempt to rationalize her alternating dysmorphic proportions:

‘Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not I’ll stay down here until I’m somebody else—but oh dear!’ cried Alice with a sudden burst of tears… ‘I am so very tired of being all alone here!’ (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, p.21)

Alice’s identity, her awareness of self, proves as elusive as the Cheshire Cat: appearing only to spew nonsense and then disappear again, leaving all but his beaming smirk behind as merely a suggestion of his tangible existence.

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In actuality all of the creatures Alice meets in Wonderland appear to have a similar instability to their character, if not their material identity altogether. They present as fragmented and disembodied entities; landmarks from which Alice repeatedly attempts to anchor her own understanding concerning her constantly evolving (as well as, alternating) experience of self. These exchanges are most often unsuccessful causing Alice only increased bewilderment, ultimately serving only to intensify her anxiety. Alice’s struggle to secure her sense of self occupies many of us throughout a good portion of our lives, at differing times and to varying degrees. Considering development from a psychodynamic perspective, as healthy adults our sense of self and of other as both separate and related constructs is somewhat fixed by early adulthood. In adolescence, self and other provide a foundation from which various intra-psychic entities battle for prominence, wherein identity is often a diffuse concept. However, Alice is ill prepared for development a la Wonderland and although not an infant, she is forced to regress and redefine/recreate her sense of self, as if she were:

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I knew who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

“What do you mean by that?” said the caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sire,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself you see.” (p.60)

The development of self has been hypothesized by psychoanalytic theorists to begin in early childhood when young children utilize their interactions and relatedness with their particular environments to establish notions of self and of self-with-other (Winnicott, 1965, 1960; Stern 1995, 1985; Bergman & Fahey, 1999; Pine, 1992; Bretherton, 1992; Murray, 1989; Beebe, et al., 1997; Emde, 1999). Contemporary developmental researchers argue (with the help of compelling empirical data) that in fact the stage for the self is set at birth, and perhaps even prior to birth (See: Stern, 1985). However, this view is not without contention from the field of child development, particularly psychoanalytic theorists and researchers who differ in their views as to whether or not the birth of the psychological self coincides with biological birth. This argument is further deconstructed into selective theoretical gradients therein: Does sense of self precede and occasionally coincide with conception of other (Stern, 1985)? Does understanding of an-other in fact facilitate a sense of self (Winnicott, 1956)? Or must we fuse (through “symbiosis”) with an-other before we can develop a sense of differentiated self (Mahler et al., 1975)? These and similar questions have continued to confound and engage psychoanalytic researchers and theorists concerned with development, as demonstrated through more than fifty years of compelling and constructive discussion beginning with Freud, Anna Freud, Mahler, Kohut, Klein, Winnicott—to name only a few. These early psychoanalytic theorists, in particular those from the British “school” of object relations including Klein (1952) and Winnicott (1956, 1960), recognized the significance of relatedness and empathic connection as essential to the development of self, beginning in early infancy. Their views were collected through observational and clinical experience however, and lacked empirical support. Winnicott suggested that the mother-to-child bond fosters the foundation for development of self, beginning at the birth of the infant through what he conceptualized as a discrete developmental stage, Primary Maternal Preoccupation (1956). Additionally, Bowlby (1969) and Ainsworth (1979) further defined prior related work through their attachment paradigm, yielding objective support. The introduction of attachment-related research throughout the 1970’s marked a theoretical shift in psychoanalytic theories of development. The described model, of self and other, is currently understood as necessarily a bi-directional philosophy of infant development, integrating the effects of others on the infant as well as the infant’s effect on the environment 1970’s (Beebe, et al., 1997).

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Distinguished among more interdisciplinary developmental researchers, Daniel Stern (1985) has attempted to bridge the original psychoanalytic theories through incorporating research on infants drawn from varied orientations, bolstered by empirical support. His work has yielded an integrated account of the formation of the self, beginning at birth and inclusive of (even dependent upon) interpersonal relatedness. Stern conceptualizes the development of the self over four phases that capture self-experience and social relatedness, including the sense of: (a) emergent self—the process of the organization coming into being and self-affectivity (from birth to two months of age), (b) core self—self-agency, self-coherence, and self-history/continuity (from two to six months), (c) subjective self—the sharing of affective states through “mirroring” and “empathic responsiveness” (seven to fifteen months), and finally (d) the sense of verbal or narrative self (fifteen months of age and beyond) (1985). Stern suggests that these phases form a developmental line (Freud, 1965) that continues to exist and further evolve throughout life. Superimposed upon this distinct developmental line concerning the formation of self are what Stern refers to as, “domains of relatedness,” equally necessary to the infant’s psychological growth and connected to each specific sense of self forming gradients of self-being-with-other. Throughout Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland, Alice attempts to circumscribe a cohesive sense of subjective self through connecting with the creatures of Wonderland. Unfortunately her efforts are largely in vein, but she persists and does not give-up trying to exist as herself, in their space, with them:

“Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“—I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” Said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat ’is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!” (p.97-98)

At a basic level Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland represents a rough approximation of the process of self-actualization through relatedness that defines psychodynamic theories of infant and child development. Wonderland embodies an illustrative example of Winnicott’s conception of the infant’s inner-world, a battle between good and evil combined with a healthy mix of magic; “the child’s inner world, where there is a tremendous continuum between forces, where magic controls, and where good is in constant danger from the bad. It feels mad to be in a child’s inner world,” (1988, p.71) The Cheshire Cat would agree, remarking to Alice that, “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad…” (p.90).

Alice is quite literally born into the madness of Wonderland where “up is down” and “down is up.” In this place survival of self is dependent on the ability to negotiate an integrated core sense of self despite a multitude of environmental impingements. Stern asserts that the core self is at all times in impending danger of the threat of annihilation (1985; Winnicott, 1962). These fears and anxieties regarding threats to self are played out in children’s fantasies, dreams and nightmares, and favorite fairy tales. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is no exception as the story epitomizes these worries manifested in Alice’s frightful experiences of self including feelings of: fragmentation, disembodiment, and the potential risk of extinction. As healthy adults, these anxieties continue although their effect is more titillation than panic; in children’s stories, these unspoken fears materialize as an imaginary dream, mingled with our most pleasant wishes—Winnicott’s world of madness.

Our heroine’s plight begins soon after her arrival in Wonderland, finding that she is physically too large to fit through the tiny door that the White Rabbit has disappeared into. Upon looking around Alice sees a bottle marked “drink me.” Imagining it may alter her size Alice drinks the potion and realizes she is, “shutting up like a telescope,” (p.11). The ensuing rapid and unregulated shrinking greatly disturbs Alice, “for it might end in my going out all together, like a candle. I wonder what I should be like then?” (p.11). At this point Alice demonstrates an adequate sense of, what Stern would refer to as emergent self, considering wish-based alterations to her size (self) as within her control, however her sense of core self remains fragile, apparent in her expressed fears—derived directly from experienced threats to the self. When her size reverts in the contrary direction, Alice feels further disconnected from her sense of being and contemplates how she might attempt to integrate:

“Oh my poor feet I wonder who will put on my shoes and stockings for you now,

dears?…I shall be a great deal too far off to trouble myself about you: you must

manage the best way you can;–but I must be kind to them,” thought Alice, “or

perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go.” (p.16)

Winnicott accounted for this special set of fears through his conception of “primitive agonies” or “unthinkable anxieties” in infants and children, inclusive of: (a) going to pieces; (b) having no relationship with the body; (c) having no orientation, and (d) complete isolation due to there being no means of communication, leading to what Winnicott considered characteristic of the schizoid defense (1962). The schizoid defense is further defined through a pathological organization of defenses wherein the phenomena of dis-integration of self is primary.

Connected to Winnicott’s notion of the fear of annihilation, is the creation of a false self for the infant or child, a protective mechanism used to prevent what the child or infant fears will be certain extinction (1962, 1986). Winnicott believed that consistent failures of mothering bring about too early a reaction to the external world resulting in disruption of the maturational process. If this process occurs consistently it may set, “going a pattern of fragmentation of being,” or, “unintegration,” (Winnicott, 1962, p.60-61). One result of not good enough mothering is the fabrication of the false self opposed to the true self.  The good-enough mother, who understands and responds to her infant’s “spontaneous gesture” (non-verbal communication), gives the infant’s weak ego the strength necessary to retain the expression of the true self following the threat of annihilation. Alternately, the not good-enough mother, who cannot understand nor react to such expressions from the infant, subjects the child to her own needs. As a result the infant or child is required to comply with the mother’s needs and not the mother to the child. Winnicott calls this compliance an expression of the false self.

While we are not privy to Alice’s mothering-experience, we do know that all of her interactions with others in Wonderland only serve to further distance her from her own needs and felt distress, forcing her to comply instead with the illogical demands of her sole supportive network: the self-involved and at best ridiculous, at worst cruel, characters, therein. Thus, Alice is in a desperate state, protection of her true self requires the creation of multiple false selves that act as a defense from further feelings of fragmentation and isolation, which may ultimately lead to dis/un-integration:

She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed

it,) and sometimes she scolded herself so severely as to bring tears to her eyes;

and once she remembered trying to box her own ears for having cheated herself in the game of croquet she was playing against herself, for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people. “But it’s no use now,” thought poor Alice, “to pretend to be two people! Why there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!” (p.12-13)

In the preceding monologue, Alice is referring to both her diminished proportions and insecure sense of core self. The madness of Wonderland has stripped her defensive structures and exposed her to the threat of annihilation.

For Alice, Wonderland is a dream, but to children and adults, who repeatedly delight in this story, it represents something else, something much more intimate: our fantasies. Wonderland is the eccentric world we create as children that Winnicott would contend facilitates self-integration and the creation of a secure true self. It is found in the imagination of inner reality—play. In Winnicott’s Playing in Reality (1971), he introduces an idea that has proved to be one of his defining theories—appealing and intuitive to both parents and clinicians. The theory holds that most infants (beginning anytime between four and twelve months) have an object or image that represents for them a transitional object or transitional/potential space (a special blanket, toy, idea, or even a word), creating an intermediate area, the space between the subject and what is objectively perceived. This intermediate area is that which is allowed to the infant between primary creativity and objective perception. This transitory space presupposes reality testing wherein both inner reality and external life contribute to this “third part of the life of a human being,” (Winnicott, 1951, p.230). Winnicott acknowledges that, “infants and children and adults take on external reality in, as clothing for their dreams, and they project themselves into external objects and people and enrich external reality by their imaginative perceptions,” (1989, p.57).

Why is it necessary for us to, experience transitional phenomenon in our development? Readers should not forget that Alice is dreaming and that she makes references to her awake-life, calling on these memories to act as anchors and soothing transitional objects throughout her misadventures in Wonderland. Alice extracts from her waking life, her beloved pet cat, Dinah into her dream world. While, Dinah is not physically present, thoughts of Dinah, and how she might react to the anxiety-provoking scenarios that Alice encounters, act as a useful protective mechanism against her loneliness and anxiety:

“Dinah’ll miss me very much to-night, I should think!” (Dinah was the cat.) “I

hope they’ll remember her saucer of milk at tea-time. Dinah, my dear! I wish you were down here with me!” (p.6)

Winnicott asserted that this unique experience is vitally important to the infant for use as a defense against anxiety, especially anxiety of the depressive type:

Patterns set in infancy may persist into childhood, so that the original soft object continues to be absolutely necessary at bed-time or at time of loneliness or when a depressed mood threatens. In health, however, there is a gradual extension of range of interest, and eventually the extended range is maintained, even when depressive anxiety is near. A need for a specific object or a behavior pattern that started at a very early age may reappear at a later age when deprivation threatens. (1951, p.232)

The transitional object operates as a “neutral zone experience” which remains unchallenged, thus the question of whether it came from within or without is not asked by the child. It is neither strictly a mental concept nor is it a possession: “The transitional object is never under magical control like the internal object, nor is it outside control as the real mother is,” (1971, p.10). It develops into a space “that is intermediate between dream and reality, that which is called cultural life,” (1965, p.150).

Cultural life is the adult equivalent of transitional phenomenon in infancy, wherein communication is not referred to as subjective or objective (Winicott, 1965). The outcome of the child’s relationship to the transitional object is that it loses meaning because the transitional phenomena have become diffused, spread out over the whole transitional territory between inner and external reality. Yet, Winnicott expands this phenomena adding that, “this intermediate area of experience…constitutes the greater part of the infant’s experience and throughout life is retained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work,” (1951, p.242). In this space between the objective and subjective, the sense is that there exists a permeable boundary through which information is free to flow in both directions. Wonderland captures this intermediary and highly accessible space. We may join Alice in her “mad” reality, straining with her to understand this fantastic environment, enjoying the magical qualities, while sharing simultaneously her peril. Through our empathy we share in her search for a secure sense of self. We take comfort in the knowledge that these dangers and threats to self are imagined or dreamt and can therefore be safely negotiated, enacting through an imaginary play the process of developing and fortifying the complete “senses” of self.

The story ends with Alice’s older sister, who had been reading to Alice when she fell into her dream. The older sister is now also “half dreaming of Wonderland,” sharing in the adventures revealed to her by her (now reconstituted) younger sibling. Her focus however shifts to thoughts concerning Alice:

Lastly, she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the

after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her

riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood: and how she would

gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with

many a strange tale, perhaps even the dream of Wonderland of long-ago: and how

she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find pleasure in all their simple

joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days. (p. 192)

Multiple layers of the self and development are contained within this children’s story. Scenarios of self and inter-relatedness are presented through several elements in the narrative: the real Alice dreaming of the difficulties and pleasures associated with securing an integrated sense of self—mirrored in her actual-lived childhood, the imaginary Alice in the dream—fearful of the threats to her core sense of self and struggling in a regressed state where sense of self is lost, the adult (Alice’s sister) observing the child-Alice indulging in her own dream with a kind of removed amusement, empathically connecting to her sister’s experience as something understood, but no longer known, and finally the reader who possesses the magical ability to enjoy all of these layers of experience while also connecting to their own individual fantasies —and they are all are playing in reality…toward an emergent sense of self/a sense of self.

(From an essay written around 1998, while I was in grad school)

Dr. NB.

(Self)Love…Through Dominance

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It’s a truism that accepting one’s body is a developmental process. Which is to say that, it takes time…a long time…perhaps a LIFETIME, particularly for women. However, the process can be an amusing one at times, particularly if you can find humor in the oddities of your own skin…so to speak. At other times, the movement to acceptance is painful…yet and still, you will find moments of pride and even bliss along the way…if you are willing to take this courageous journey…from the INSIDE to…the OUTSIDE.

I don’t believe my own path much different from any other woman’s…accept perhaps that a major catalyst to my movement toward accepting, and dare I say even…LOVING…this physical form I’ve been gifted with was discovered through (and due to) my work as a DOMINATRIX.

No…you didn’t misread: Much of my body-positive life view was cultivated through the singular act of…domination.

When you think about it, it’s a natural correlation, an algorithm…if you will, with clear, identifiable predictors, which include:

  1. Body worship,
  2.  Situational control,
  3. Submission of other,
  4. Mutual respect, and…
  5. (yes) Compassion.

All variables which predict…Confidence…but not just any confidence, FELT CONFIDENCE in your  mind, your soul, and…your body. The kind of confidence that engenders love for what is, rather than the far more familiar…yearning for what is not…or, the oft felt shame and disgust for what is…quite simply…YOU. While our self-persecutions rarely make sense to those outside…they remain real-life nightmares for many…and, for those who are still haunted…I encourage you to…pick up a whip…try it out on a willing and able partner….you may just find your path to…redemption…of…BODY and SOUL.

xxx, dr.NB.

(Image by: Shutterbug Boudoir. And, yes, I purposefully selected an image with a collar because…it’s all about reciprocation, isn’t it?)

Masturbation…

Happy Masturbation Month!

Dr. Nymphobrainiac

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We all do it…and yet it continues to carry an inherent level of shame. Not to the extreme, rather it’s not something we include in daily exchanges…even with close friends, we focus on the method rather than the intimacies (fantasies)…and maybe…that’s perfectly okay…they are after all…just…for…us.

“She imagined herself both queen and slave, dominatrix and victim. In her imagination she was making love with men of all skin colors–white, black, yellow–with homosexuals and beggars. She was anyone’s, and anyone could do anything to her. She had one, two, three orgasms, one after another. She imagined everything she had never imagined before, and she gave herself to all that was most base and most pure.” (Coelho)

Happy Hump Day, Dr.NB

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It’s 4.20…

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“In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume. For example, eating 10 raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within the supervised routine of medical care.

[DEA Administrative Law Judge – 1988]”
― Francis Young

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“The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.”
Carl Sagan

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“I have always loved marijuana. It has been a source of joy and comfort to me for many years. And I still think of it as a basic staple of life, along with beer and ice and grapefruits -and millions of Americans agree with me.”―Hunter S. Thompson

Happy 420.

xxx,

Dr.NB

(photos by: Shutterbug Boudoir; pasties by: Pastease; Barbie bow: Lexa Terrestrial/ Electric Dollhouse; shoes: Jeffrey Campbell)

Stepping Out of ‘Your World’ to Embrace the World Around You: The Make Them Visible Foundation

Every once in awhile…someone has an idea that inspires…an idea bigger than themselves; an idea, that can truly make a difference. A friend of mine, in collaboration with others, is involved in a movement that I think embodies the spirit of compassion and social change, with a nod to the reality of our cultural obsessions…and I thought I’d share some of their work with you. I think it is necessary and relevant.

The Make Them Visible Foundation (MTVF) raises funding and awareness for homeless shelters and hunger organizations across the United States. The Foundation’s innovative fundraising and granting approach is the first of its kind in our country. It addresses the need for a collaborative movement, where non-profits work together to secure funds and harness change to humanize our homeless neighbors in need.

Our society is obsessed with fictional stories and prioritizes them above real ones. MTVF
launched a social media campaign that pits the stories of fictional TV
characters to stories of real individuals experiencing homelessness. Watch the emotionally
disruptive video that captures the road to homelessness which is complex, often
devastating, and yet, not void of hope.

A series of “episodes” or real stories of 5 individuals suffering from homelessness will be posted to MTVF’s Facebook page. Each story will conclude urging you to invest in a life and change the story. Join our campaign by following and sharing our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/MakeThemVisible.

We believe in leveraging the power of film and media to raise awareness and build advocacy. Check out our Effie Award winning Make Them Visible short film. It’s only 3.5 minutes and will change how you see the homeless.

Stepping out of your own space to embrace the world around you, should be a daily practice.

-Dr.NB

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‘Know what? Bitches get stuff done.’

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to embrace everything about myself. My femininity, my sexuality, my dominance, my intelligence…the list goes on and on. I truly think that there is nothing more powerful than a woman who is aware of her own capability. Women are captivating creatures – I am a woman, yet I honestly […]

via dangerous woman — i am a dangerous woman