chapter  21
14 Pages

The verbal sense of self within the therapeutic field

Up to now in Part III of this book, I have followed Stern’s ideas about organizational forms of the sense of self while trying to reflect how they may apply to the psychotherapy of adults. I tried to bring all this, whenever possible, into an experience-near understanding. Yet it became more and more difficult and restrictive to do so without also including some description of verbal forms of communication. This was especially difficult when trying to describe the different modes of emotional attunement between the caretaker and the child because I felt obliged to allude, by verbal means, to possible feelings, experiences, and forms of exchange for the infant which are in actuality not yet open to the infant’s experience by means of language. This difficulty became most pronounced as soon as I turned my attention to issues pertaining to intersubjectivity. For instance, the question of to what extent affect attunement will be operative within the child, as confirmation or as pressure to change, is quite difficult to answer as long as the accompanying dialogue, expressed through language, has to be excluded. Even more so, when the step from affect attunement to the much more complex phenomenon of empathy is activated, verbal communication is found to play an indispensable role. In this connection, it is significant when Heinz Kohut defines empathy as “the mode by which one gathers psychological data about other people; and when they say what they think or feel, imagines their inner experience even though it is not open to direct observation” (Kohut, 1966, p. 450). Affect attunement means, in other words, the emotional connection to the particular affective state of another person, while empathy is aimed at “discerning, in one single act of certain recognition, complex psychological configurations” (ibid., p. 51). Put differently, one could also define empathy as the capacity to

gain, by vicarious introspection, insight into the experiences of other people; and to understand them from both emotional and cognitive points of view. In other words, empathy is a temporary identification with the emotional state as well as with cognitive processes going on in another person.*

In any case, as we now include the organizational forms of the verbal self, this opens a whole world of significant connections and enables the description of a far richer palette of possible life issues. This is also the experience of the infant, for whom this developmental “burst” revolving around the emerging world of language may feel like a major “revolution.” Alongside the step-by-step development of language, something new on the horizon is born; namely, the capacity to render oneself as an object of one’s own reflection. Therefore one can now speak of an “objective self,” which is developing vis-à-vis the “subjective self” of earlier phases. The fact that infants now recognize themselves in the mirror is a striking sign of this emerging capacity. In addition, the discovery that one’s own person or self can now be viewed and evaluated from “outside,” by other people, belongs in this developmental epoch.