Beyond meaning

Many people come into therapy because they have questions and they are looking for answers.  ‘Why do I feel so bad?’  ‘Why do I seem to keep repeating the same mistakes in my life?’  ‘Why do I keep going from one abusive relationship to another?’  ‘Why and how did it all go so wrong?’

Essentially, though, people are looking for meaning.  In other words, to try and understand something about themselves, and particularly to try and understand why things keep going wrong in their lives and in their relationships.  And on the basis of that understanding they hope they will be able to change things, to live their lives differently, to relate to other people in a more constructive manner.

To give an example: a woman comes to me and tells me that she keeps getting involved with abusive men, and although she vows every time such a relationship ends she will never ever get involved with someone like that again, it just seems to keep happening – and has been for the last twenty five years.  Furthermore, she has tried going out with ‘nice’ men but frankly finds them too ‘boring’.  None of this makes sense to her and she is desperately looking for answers.  In other words, she wants to know why this situation keeps happening, and, if possible, to find a way to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

If, during therapy, she was to explore her relationships with abusive men, she might begin to realise that this goes back to the way her older brother treated her when she was very young; something her family was very keen to cover up and which has never been acknowledged or spoken about.

Now everything starts to make sense: she is simply repeating something from her early childhood; a time when she was helpless and had no control over what was happening to her.  Furthermore, a time when even if she was to say something, no-one would believe her.  But now, as a grown woman, she sees that she does have a choice, is not helpless, and can speak about her experiences.  And, in therapy at least – and hopefully in other settings, she will be taken seriously.

At one level, of course, it does make sense; such early, abusive experiences leave the individual with skewed sense of what is ‘normal’.   And however hard they try to convince themselves later on that this is not ‘normal’, unconsciously they carry on believing it is.  Furthermore, such early experiences essentially traumatise the individual, which means it becomes very difficult to establish stable, and to what to them might be considered ‘boring’, relationships.

What we have here is what we might describe as an ‘abuse narrative’; a his-story of trauma, endlessly repeated.  Now, for the individual concerned, although they may not like the story, the narrative, at least it can start to give them a sense of understanding about their lives, and, in fact, who they are.

But herein lies the problem: this story, this narrative may really say very little about the truth of the individual’s subjectivity or, indeed, the trauma of their life.  Yes, it makes sense, and it may well give the individual a sense of who they are and why they live their lives the way they do.  However, the nature of trauma is precisely that it doesn’t make sense; this is precisely what makes trauma traumatic.  And this is the crux of the issue: to try and construct a narrative around a, literally, nonsensical experience, presents something of a contradiction.  In other words, to try and construct a meaning out of meaninglessness means ending up back where you started – because the meaning begs more questions, more meanings.

Why, for example, would someone who was abused as a child, ‘wish’ to continue this pattern of relationships in later life?  One would assume it’s the last thing they would want.   To argue that this is ‘learnt’ behaviour implies a very passive, uncritical notion of learning, and essentially reinforces a sense of victimhood in the individual.  Furthermore, there is then a real danger that therapy becomes a ‘relearning’ exercise, with the therapist occupying the position of master or the one who knows.  Ironically, this may in fact be exactly what the client wants, but again it reinforces a subservient position on behalf of the individual.

There is a more fundamental issue here, however.  This is to do with the nature of meaning itself.  From the Lacanian position meaning is on the side of the Imaginary, one of the three orders or registers of subjectivity.    Consequently, the truth of one’s subjectivity can never be found in meaning, because, at most, meaning is only one ‘aspect’ of the subject and subjectivity.

Most talking treatments, however, reside on the level of meaning; in other words, they reside in the Imaginary order.  This is what Lacan described, and heavily criticised, as a ‘two-body psychology’, whereby the therapeutic relationship is defined in terms of a relationship between two ‘selves’ or egos, and quite often the aim of therapy, either explicitly or implicitly,  is for the client or patient to identify with the (‘stronger’) ego of the therapist.  The problem here, however, is that the ego (or ‘self’) is itself a set of imaginary identifications constructed during the subject’s history, so consequently a two-body or ego-to-ego (self-to-self) therapeutic relationship simply reinforces the imaginary dimension of a person’s experience.

But why is this a problem?  After all, if a person is able to construct a meaning during therapy and this helps them make sense of their experience, then surely this can only be a good thing?  Whether or not the meaning is ‘true’ is a someone spurious question; as long as it makes sense to the individual then it is ‘true’ for them.  And this is actually how a lot of therapy operates: the client uses the therapeutic relationship to construct a meaning, a ‘truth’ which works for them.  And there is no doubt that on one level this can be highly beneficial to the individual- at least in the short term, and sometimes over the longer term too.

And yet…….is this really enough?   More specifically, what kind of ‘truth’ are we talking about here?  The truth of the subject – or a truth for the subject?  In other words, is it enough to stick with what ‘works’ (in terms of meaning) for the individual?   Or is there another step to take, one which goes beyond the Imaginary, beyond meaning….?