WHY ARE WE SO ATTRACTED TO THE FAMILIAR BUT RESIST STRANGENESS?
Article by: Ronnie Solan
As a psychoanalyst I am amazed by the enormous impact of the attraction to the familiar, the resisting of strangeness, and the tendency to feel injured by the otherness of our dearest ones, or to become racist.
Anything identified as unfamiliar is classified as non-self, not-me or strange.
Freud (1905b) stressed that recognition of the familiar arouses pleasure. “Minor differences” (Freud, 1930, p. 114) may arouse feelings of strangeness and even anger, while “greater differences should lead to an almost insuperable repugnance” (Freud, 1921b, p. 101) and possibly racism (1921a, 1930) and xenophobia.
As a psychoanalyst, I am amazed by the enormous impact of the attraction to the familiar, the resisting of strangeness, and the tendency to feel injured by the otherness of our dearest ones, or to become racist. I wish to illuminate these emotional reactions in a new light of psychic health — which I call Healthy Narcissism (Solan 1998, 1999, 2015).
Freud (1921b) perceived normal narcissism as “self-love [that] works for the preservation of the individual”. I fully follow Freud’s definition. But how does narcissism work for the preservation of the Self?
I conceptualize the functioning of Healthy Narcissism as an Emotional Immune System (1998, 2015) for safeguarding the true self-familiarity (Winnicott 1952, 1953), the familiar sense of the Self (the object and relations) and for resisting strangeness, or otherness, to this familiar sense. This conceptualization might remind us of the biological immune system.
Viewing a new movie triggers a need to connect the actor to a previous character he or she has played, or to feelings the actor aroused in us in a previous performance. When we recognize that which we know, we relax with “homely” feelings of familiarity. Conversely, when we identify strangeness, the tension increases. This may grow to vigilance and, possibly, into a reaction against the danger of the invasion of strangeness into the familiar sense of the self. Such an invasion usually evokes narcissistic injury, insult, disappointment, shame-humiliation, and anger.
What is this Self? Solms (2018) emphasizes, and I fully agree with him, that “Once we develop to the point that our consciousness begins (probably before birth), then we add something to this Id called the experiencing self, i.e. your awareness.” Moreover, “Psychoanalysts call this phase of development ‘primary narcissism’. It is a mode of being in which you declare yourself to be whatever you would like to be. … If this remains your primary mode of functioning as an adult, then we say you are NARCISSISTIC”. And then “slowly we face the growling process of accepting who we indeed are”. In my view, this is the processing of Healthy Narcissism.
Dr Perkel (2016) in “The Immunizing Function of Aggression (In the Couple)”.proposes that aggression “can be understood as the key mechanism in the mental realm available for ensuring self-preservation” … and “to restore status when disequilibrium is created, whether in the physical or mental realm”. Furthermore, Perkel emphasizes that “the death-drive is to the mind what the immune system is to the body” …., “Inputs that are interpreted emotionally as injurious, create internal disequilibrium and hence mental immunity is activated”. Perkel contributes to the subject I am focusing on. While I view the narcissism as the activation of the immune system, and the aggression as an emotional reaction to strangeness that threatens the internal equilibrium, we are both interested in the emotional and biological immune systems. Bagnini (2018) suggests, “we reflect on both narcissistic and insecurity motives that disguise our fears of change”. While I attribute our fear of change to the Healthy Narcissism (emotional immune system) that resists strangeness.
Whenever these reactions to the otherness, these injuries and trauma, impact and overrule the individual’s life the processing of Healthy Narcissism risks deviating towards the pathological processing of narcissism. It often prevents the child/adult from being able to preserve his true self-familiarity and love relationships.
“I wish to point out that the narcissism that I refer to as healthy and normative is no different from that previously described in the professional literature, except I choose to emphasise it’s healthy and positive aspects” (Solan, 2015, p.35).
The baby/adult narcissism preserves his true-self familiarity, his separateness, while cathecting some figures (e.g., mother, father, siblings, partners) as familiar non-selvesand even joining the familiar ‘non-self’ in intimacy. This enables the baby to create intimacy in object relations. Yet, “from infancy to adulthood, despite the narcissistic immunological processes, we all repeatedly get insulted, frustrated and hurt after experiencing strangeness or otherness from within or without. Being hurt is inevitable, because the other, even if he or she is a familiar person and dear to us, remains a separate entity who asserts his otherness” (Solan 2015 p.55).
When we are contradicted, insulted or experience hurt, we usually tend to withdraw our interest from this individual (Freud, 1914a). “The narcissistic process of restoring self-familiarity after it was challenged is thus of fundamental importance for safeguarding one’s true-self-esteem and sense of familiarity, as well as the awareness of self-integrity. This process is also essential for preserving and restoring the relationship with the object, reconciling with him despite his otherness, the insults he inflicted, and the pain he caused as a result of his otherness”. This process enables what I consider as the “Art of Couplehood” ( Solan 2015 p.56).
Freud, S. (1905b). The Mechanism of Pleasure and the Psychogenesis of Jokes. In S.E., 8, 117-139, 1964.
Freud, S. (1914a). On Narcissism. In S.E., 14.,73-101, 1964.
Freud, S. (1921a). Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. In S.E., 18, 65-143, 1964.
Freud, S. (1921b). Further Problems and Lines of Work. In S.E., 18, 100-104, 1964.
Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its Discontents. In S.E., 21, 64-145, 1962.
Solan, R. (1998). Narcissistic Fragility in the Process of Befriending the Unfamiliar. American Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 58, 163-186.
Solan, R. (1999). The Interaction between Self and Others: A Different Perspective on Narcissism. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 54, 193-215.
Solan, R. (2015). The Enigma of Childhood, the Profound Impact of the First Years of Life on Adults as Couples and Parents. Karnac Books.
Winnicott, D. W. (1952). Anxiety Associated with Insecurity. In Collected Papers (pp. 1-25). New York: Basic, 1971.
Winnicott, D. W. (1953). Transitional ) Objects and Transitional Phenomena — A Study of the first not-me Possession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, 89-97.
Ronnie Solan is a psychoanalyst, clinical psychologist PhD, and psychotherapist, trained in Switzerland and in Israel, where she became a training and supervising analyst (child and adult). She currently works in Tel Aviv with children, adults and couples. She provides parental guidance, as well as supervision (individual & group) and lectures on various topics. Her services are available both in person and online (online supervision for a group of psychologists based in China). For many years she lectured at the Israel Psychoanalytic Society in Jerusalem and in the Postgraduate Psychotherapy Section of different universities in Israel. In Switzerland, she had the privilege of studying under some of the foremost psychologists and psychoanalysts of our generation, including Prof. Jean Piaget at Geneva University, and Prof. Rene Spitz at the Swiss Society of Psychoanalysis, Geneva. The Enigma of Childhood – the Profound Impact of the First Years of Life on Adults as Couples and Parents, her first book in English, is published by Karnac Books, 2015. The original version of the book (2007) has been widely acclaimed by the Hebrew-reading and especially by the various universities.
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