Interview with Ronnie Solan, PhD
Interviewed by Ruth Shidlo, PhD, SEP
Dr. Ronnie Solan is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst based in Tel Aviv. An expert regarding the emotional development of the child, she works with children, adolescents, adults and couples. Her book, The Enigma of Childhood – The Profound Impact of the First Years of Life on Adults as Couples and Parents, recently published by Karnac in London.
I invite you to visit my website where you will find more information about my book: www.ronniesolan.com/EnigmaOfChildhood
For those who haven’t read The Enigma of Childhood yet, could you say a few words of introduction?
Enigma describes the emotional development of the baby from birth till age three. The emotional experiences along these formative years leave memory traces that shape our ways of being in the world and accompany us through-out life, often in unexpected or enigmatic ways. As adults, we are often surprised by how, and to which extent, our early experiences colour our relationships with our spouses, our children, co-workers. My book illuminates the impact of the flow of early psychic experiences on the baby’s evolution along normal or pathological developmental paths. Moreover, it focuses on how childhood experiences and affective scripts colour our interactions and shape important life-choices regarding couplehood and parenthood.
What inspired you to write?
My observations of children, as well as my psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic work led me to see the extent to which early psychic development influences couplehood and parenthood.
I wished to share with my readers my novel understanding of the essence of the emotional immune system (which I describe as healthy narcissism).
This understanding helped me acknowledge the main obstacle in any significant relationship—namely, the indispensable yet difficult task of respecting the otherness of our partner.
These innovations have enabled me to identify treatment possibilities promoting and shortening the recovery of patients suffering from narcissistic disturbance or relationship difficulties, help couples manage their love relationship more satisfactorily.
My other goal: to familiarize the reader with his/her hidden child, one which leaves an impact on present life and with with‘the art of couplehood,’ which is based upon the early relationships with the primary caregivers i.e., templates for future significant relationships with others. I wish to familiarize the reader with the importance of enjoing intimacy while respecting the otherness of the partner (child or spouse) in order to keep a loving relationship the art of coupelhood.
One of your main contributions has to do with the concept of healthy narcissism. What is it and how does it differ from pathological?
Narcissism is a concept used by many lay people in various ways, mostly to denote something undesirable in the other. In Enigma, I attempt to reveal the healthy aspects of narcissism. From birth onwards, we safeguard that which is familiar to us, and tend to feel threatened by that which is alien or strange.
The healthier our narcissism, we do this more successfully, without hurting or injuring the other, accepting he/she is different. In our interpersonal relations we want to be respected in our uniqueness—every child wants his parents to love him as he is (his healthy narcissism operates to preserve his own familiar true self), rather than feel they he need be as the parents would like (which would mean the otherness of his parents had invaded his familiar self and caused him to falsify his familiar self; that from now on his narcissism (pathologic) operates to preserve his false self).
Narcissism, whether normal or pathological, safeguards that which is familiar to us—we reject and fight anything that is ‘not-I’.
The operation of healthy narcissism results in a normal alertness towards strangers, which includes the capacity to respect otherness.
In contrast, shaming and other ways of rejecting strangeness, such as xenophobia and racism, represent intolerance, and constitute deviations from healthy narcissism. Shaming is the invasion of otherness into the familiarity—e.g., the parent conveys to the child/partner, ”Be what I want you to be.” This demand is hurtful, , as the child feels he is not loved as he is, doesn’t have the permission to be as he is.
Another example might be a parent who says, “You are fat and disgusting. When will you stop eating like that—I can’t stand you.” The child may feel as if he is truly disgusting, not accepted, not good.
In contrast, caregivers able to consider and respect the child’s separateness, encourage him to express his own feelings and wishes, and love him and accept him as he is. This child has more of a chance of growing up feeling he can be who he is, with all his goodness and limitations. His familiar sense of himself as loved and encouraged is safeguarded by the operation of processes of healthy narcissism, and his self-integrity is more immune to invaders.
Could you say a few words as to why narcissism is such an important innate function?
In my book I describe the notion of innate healthy narcissistic processing, which functions as an emotional immune system whereby self-familiarity is immunized, restored and safeguarded, while the operation of a concomitant attitude of orientation or alertness toward any signs of strangeness that may threaten the sense of familiar self is asserted. Why is this important? We need something to protect the familiar within us, to identify who we are, so we ourselves know and have a sense of who we are, can recognize ourselves and that which is important to us (not only people but inanimate objects and surroundings as well). Consequently, we can identify the presence of an insidious alien intruder within us.
I believe that narcissism operates in the psyche much like the biological immune system, which safeguards the familiar codes of the body, and repels alien invaders. When our body doesn’t identify the invasion of the alien, it proliferates within us, much like the multiplication of cancer cells—we are exposed to self-damaging influences or even annihilation.
The more we are related to in a ‘good-enough’ way that promotes healthy narcissism in our formative years, are loved just the way we are and not according to someone else’s blueprint, the more immune we become to alien influences and incursions of others’ hurtful words and deeds. In therapy, it may be possible to circumvent or soften some of the obstacles in our ability to love ourselves.
When you wrote this book, what was your target audience? Whom did you think would find it helpful?
I thought it would be suitable for parents, so they could understand themselves and their children; also, for couples, so they could develop what I describe as ‘the art of couplehood,’ a process which increases the tolerance towards the ‘otherness’ of the partner. Lastly, I also wrote for psychologists and other professionals, to familiarize them with the novel ideas and theories I address. My theoretical formulations are a continuation of previous theories, seen in a novel perspective.
What is the focus of your book? The innovations you focus on, what do they refer to?
My general approach is that when familiar with normal healthy development, it is easier to understand deviations from the norm, including psychopathology. It becomes easier to identify aspects of the psyche where the person is functioning in a harmonious, balanced, cohesive way, where they are operating under pathological influences. For example, someone may do well in his chosen line of work and have good relationships with co-workers, but find himself clashing with his partner or children, their otherness being less tolerable. It will be helpful to understand how this came about.