1 Henry C. Mallard (1987). Ambiguities of Self



Henry C. Mallard (1987). Ambiguities of Self-Analysis. Psychoanal. Q., 56:523-527

Self-analysis is an accepted method of analytic inquiry. The work employing selfanalysis has been predominantly in the form of individual reports of self-analytic efforts and the application of self-analytic findings. Written works on the concept itself are surprisingly rare, and as a concept and a method of investigation, it deserves more attention. After a brief summary of Freud's views about self-analysis, I will illustrate the need for further attention to this issue by using clinical vignettes. Two problem areas will be considered: first, the definition of self-analysis lacks sufficient clarity, and second, the effect of individual methodology needs further examination, especially in evaluating self-analytic findings.

Freud felt self-analysis to be possible and useful. He tells us, in "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937), that "the processes of remodeling the ego [continue] spontaneously in the analysed subject" and that "in so far as it happens it makes the analysed subject qualified to be an analyst himself" (p. 249).

He also speaks of difficulties, however. He tells us in his short work, "The Subtleties of a Faulty Action" (1935), that "in self-analysis the danger of incompleteness is particularly great. One is too soon satisfied with a part explanation, behind which resistance may easily be keeping back something that is more important …" (p. 234).

He, of course, changed his view that self-analysis alone was sufficient preparation to become an analyst, to the position that analysis by another was essential for the analyst in training. He states, in "Recommendations to Physicians Practising Psycho-

Analysis" (1912), that the analyst who does not do this runs the risk of "projecting outwards some of the peculiarities of his own personality, which he has dimly perceived, into

- 523 - the field of science, as a theory having universal validity; he will bring the psychoanalytic method into discredit, and lead the inexperienced astray" (p. 117). He felt further that a periodic reanalysis was in order because of the preoccupation with repressed material that burdened the analyst.

Freud's view of the effectiveness of self-analysis was based on his own experience. It is important, however, to remember Eissler's (1951) observation. Freud was a unique man making unique discoveries. Moreover, in his "Subtleties of a Faulty Action,"

Freud showed that even he could not guard against error without outside help. But he did not really address the issue of overcoming the limitations of self-analysis through refining the method—for example, by suggesting criteria for accuracy. Instead, he replaced it with what he felt to be more effective methods, namely, the training analysis and the recommendation for reanalysis.

Two clinical vignettes, one drawn from the analysis of a patient and the second from my own experience, provide useful perspectives on the issues of definition, technique, and validation.

Case 1

Mr. B., a patient in analysis for five months, had ended his session the day before with the revelation that he found his girlfriend's genitals repugnant. The meaning of the revelation was unclear. He began to discuss the thoughts he had had after leaving that session. His mind had been on his problems. He tried to analyze himself by free associating, writing down his associations, and interpreting them. He thought of his father, whom he had experienced as ungiving, distant, and cold. He wrote, "My father hated me." He thought for a moment and then found himself reflecting on his intense

2 adolescent attachment to an older man of his acquaintance. Mr. B. felt the man to be disdainful of women. Mr. B. adopted this disdain in his

- 524 - treatment of his mother. He felt sure that she saw him as unfaithful to her because of his disdain. When the man ended his friendship with Mr. B., the patient felt comforted by his mother, who did not reproach him for his attitude. As a result, Mr.

B. felt guilty and resentful of that guilt. Then he wrote, "I hate my mother."

I was struck by the overcondensed, vague quality of what Mr. B. told me. His selfanalytic conclusions seemed to him to be of unquestionable accuracy. However, they left me wondering, since they were presented without substantiation. The feeling that his father was cold, the sense that a price had been exacted from him, and the view that his mother felt him unfaithful were all formulations that were intuitive, not evidential. His conclusion, "I hate my mother," was an inference, a self-analytic interpretation, not an expression of his conscious feelings. He did not feel hatred for his mother, he inferred it.

I pointed out this inference with the observation that he had mentioned feeling irritated at his woman friend and had avoided calling her. I wondered if it was related to what he had told me the previous day about his reaction to her genitals. He winced and angrily said he thought he was talking about that reaction. After a moment's pause, he sadly acknowledged that he wasn't, at least not directly. I suggested that he had been embarrassed by his disclosure to me. He controlled that embarrassment by analyzing himself rather than exposing himself to that feeling. He grudgingly agreed.

He then said with great shame that telling me about his repugnance at something he should enjoy made him feel perverse and unmanly.

Case 2

This vignette, drawn from my analytic work with the same patient, describes my own attempt at self-analysis. At one stage of his treatment, I was impatient with Mr. B. and gradually became aware that I was angry. The manifest reasons had to do

- 525 - with his style of soliloquizing for entire sessions and becoming angry at any intervention I might make. His responses varied from feeling hurt if my comments were too telling, to disdain for my intelligence if they were not. Then one day as I listened to him, it came to me. He was behaving like X, an important figure from my past. Mr. B. was exhibiting the same refusal to acknowledge my way as best, and the same invitation to me to help, followed by angry attack if I tried. With X, this reaction was a way of abdicating my responsibilities by saying, "It's not me. X is impossible." I was doing the same with Mr. B. Other superficial parallels strengthened this view. I was delighted. Now we could get on with the work. I approached the analysis with renewed enthusiasm. Mr. B's responses were, of course, at this point unchanged, but I felt myself more neutral, less angry, and less helpless.

Armed with my new understanding, I presented the material to my supervisor. He pointed out his impression that I disliked Mr. B. My wording subtly but convincingly wove a fabric of disdain. Interpretations which could have been neutral hinted of condescension. At this point I was able to examine the issue more effectively in my own analysis. A deeper understanding was reached. The patient was stirring up my own castration anxieties and, at a subtler level than I had realized, my competitive strivings. This new level of insight was reflected in some other cases in which I had been even less aware of my reactions. Dynamics which were murky to me began to reveal themselves. It became clear that while the insights I had attained by selfanalysis were not entirely false, they were far from the whole story.


These two examples, the patient's and my own, clearly show that self-analysis can be chiefly defensive in function. That conclusion, however, had to be derived by going outside the self-analytic system. In the patient's case, my intervention was necessary.

In mine, the intervention of my supervisor was required. This was so because there is no commonly agreed upon definition of self-analysis clear enough to guide selfanalytic endeavors. In

- 526 - the specific examples described, our efforts could not be judged as faulty. The same may be said about the individual methodology. The only test of validity within the self-analytic system was the agreement of the self-analyst with his findings, not the agreement of patient and analyst in the first instance, nor of supervisor and supervisee in the second. Relatively little attention has been devoted to these sorts of ambiguities of self-analysis as a concept and a method of investigation. Such attention would clarify the place self-analysis can occupy as a means of psychoanalytic inquiry.


EISSLER, K. R. 1951 An unknown autobiographical letter by Freud and a short comment Int. J. Psychoanal. 32:319-324[à]

FREUD, S. 1912 Recommendations to physicians practising psycho-analysis S.E. 12

FREUD, S. 1935 The subtleties of a faulty action S.E. 22

FREUD, S. 1937 Analysis terminable and interminable S.E. 23

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