Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Individuation Process and Optimal Distance

I was about to return this book, ``Inner Torment: Living between Conflict and Fragmentation,'' by Salman Akhtar, to the library when I opened the book and read a passage that caught my attention. So I kept the book for the day because I remembered that I wanted to write some quotes from the book in the past but I never did.

Anyway, I found the book's discussion of the ideas of object constancy, separation anxiety, and individuation (differentiation) quite interesting. It also has two chapters on ``love'' and ``hatred'' that I liked. The chapter that caught my attention this morning is about ``optimal distance''.

Here is a quote with the most basic concepts:

While the ``basic core'' (Weil 1970) of the infant awakens in a state of enmeshment with the mother's self in the symbiotic phase, it is only during the differentiation subphase (from about 4--5 to 8--9 months), which is the first subphase of separation-individuation, that the child, inwardly propelled by autonomy strivings, starts to discern his psychic separateness through rudimentary exploration of the self, the mother, and the environment. ... Alongside the seeking of distance from mother is also a greater awareness of her as a special person.
The differentiation subphase is followed by the practicing subphase (from 9 to 16--18 months) in which the crawling child, and later, the walking toddler, elatedly asserts his newfound psychic autonomy and motoric freedom. ... Although the child often looks back at the mother for ``emotional refueling'' ... his main preoccupation is to exercise his ego apparatuses and widen the orbit of his exploration.
Next is the rapprochement subphase (from about 16 to about 24 months), in which the child senses that his autonomy and psycho-motor freedom have their limits and that the external world is more complex than he at first imagined. Narcissistically wounded, the child regresses in the hope of refinding the symbiotic oneness with the mother. The return, however, is an ambivalent one since the drive of individuation is at work with great force and the child has become familiar with the ego pleasure of autonomous functioning. ... the child poutingly clings to mother for reassurance, safety, even fusion at one moment, and valiantly distances himself from her for asserting autonomy, control, and separateness the next moment. If this vacillations are resiliently responded to by the mother and if loving feelings between them predominate over hostile ones, new regulatory structures begin to emerge. ...

The last subphase of separation-individuation is termed on the way to object constancy (from about 24 months to about 36 months) and associated self constancy. ... The attainment of object constancy assures the mother's lasting presence in the child's mental structure. The attainment of self constancy establishes a coherent, single self representation ... Capacity for tolerating ambivalence now emerges on the horizon. ... Inner presence of a ``good-enough mother'' (Winnicott 1962) diminishes the need for her external presence. Clinging and darting away from her give way to the capacity to maintain ``optimal distance'' (Bouvet 1968, Mahler 1974), that is, ``a psychic position that permits intimacy without loss of autonomy and separateness without painful aloneness'' (Akhtar 1992a, p.30).
The achievement of self and object constancy, however, is not a once-and-for-all step but an ongoing process. ... the separation-individuation process continues to evolve and stabilize through subsequent development, even during adult life. ---pp. 7--9, Inner Torment
What happens when the process is not completed, or later on, some events/pressures (such as trauma) push one back?

The failure to achieve object constancy leads to a continued propensity to rely excessively on external objects for self regulation. Aggression toward them mobilizes fears of having internally destroyed them, and this, in turn, fuels the need to closely monitor them in reality. Libidinal attachment and anaclitic longings, in contrast, stir up fears of enslavement by external objects, necessitating withdrawal from them. All this results in a profound difficulty in maintaining optimal distance (for more details, see Chapter 8). Severe personality disorders constitute a cardinal example of such psychopathology. ---p. 13, Inner Torment
Here comes an important observation. If I cannot regulate my internal, psychic conflicts (lack of self-object constancy) then I use my external relationships to regulate myself. In a way, this becomes the most fundamental source of relationship problems including addictive behaviors. Now some quotes from Chapter 8:

... at the beginning of life and for the first four to five months (the symbiotic stage) the mother and infant constitute a dual unity. ... Gradually, however, there develops ``the space between mother and child. ... During this, the differentiation subphase of separation-individuation (from 4 to 10 months), the infant attempts to break away, in a bodily sense, from the hitherto passive lap-babyhood. ...

It is during the practicing subphase (from 10 to 18 months), however, that the child shows greater ability to move away from the mother, ...
Gradually, the cognitive strides made by the child make him all too aware of his smallness, of his separateness, and of the fact that he cannot coerce his mother to gratify his very need. His previously enjoyed fantasies of shared omnipotence collapse. The child is now in the rapprochement subphase (from 18 to 24 months). Ambivalence and ambitendency prevail. Much intrapsychic conflict is produced by the coexisting progressive desires for self-assertion, separation, and autonomy on the one hand , and regressive wishes for closeness, even symbiotic merger with his mother, on the other hand. ... If the mother remains emotionally available despite such oscillations on the part of the child, then there occurs a gradual mending of contradictory object (the mother of symbiosis and the mother of separation) and self  (``lap baby'' of symbiosis and the ``conqueror'' of practicing) representations. Capacity for self and object constancy develops, along with a capacity for maintaining optimal distance. However, if the mother is not optimally available during the rapprochement subphase, these developmental achievements do not result (see also Chapter 1). The contradictory self and object representations remain split, infantile omnipotence is not renunciated, and capacity for optimal distance fails to develop. This leads to a lifelong tendency toward oscillation between passionate intimacy and hateful withdrawal from objects.
In light of this, optimal distance is best viewed as a psychic position that permits intimacy without loss of autonomy and separateness without painful aloneness. ---pp 243--245, Inner Torment
In a way, this is a complementary view of the developmental process to what is described in the previous book, ``The Drama of Gifted Child.'' When I find time I make this link clear. Also, when the two are put together, they complete the picture: How internal conflicts, external conflicts, mental structures, and self-discovery are all related. Again, exploring that intuition is for a future post. I want to return this book today, lol.

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