Collaborative Couple Therapy is rooted in Bernard Apfelbaum’s Ego Analysis—as I think will become clear when reading this piece. Bernie, who was my mentor, died on July 5, 2016. Some of us who have been deeply influenced by him are thinking of putting together a Wikipedia piece on ego analysis. In this effort, I wrote the following, which represents my understanding of Bernie’s theory. For Bernie’s own writings on his approach see https://egoanalysisessays.wordpress.com/.
Ego Analysis is a form of psychodynamic reasoning in which psychological problems are viewed as developing principally out of clients’ sense of unentitlement to their emotional experience—to the shame, guilt, self-hate, unease, or fear they have about certain of the thoughts and feelings passing through them. Depending upon their particular culture, subculture, family, and personal experience, clients feel okay about some of the thoughts and feelings passing through them and not okay about others. They may be unable to grasp and may even lack words for still others. A thought or feeling clients experience as acceptable, even honorable, at one moment, context, mood, frame of mind, or cultural or subgroup setting may feel unacceptable at another—as inappropriate, weak, wimpy, needy, selfish, childish, sinful, crazy, unmanly, unfeminine, unsophisticated, boastful, pretentious.
The focus in ego analytic therapy is on the relationship people have with themselves about their thoughts and feelings and also—and especially—about their problems. “Trying not to have problems causes them,” Bernard Apfelbaum said, “and being able to have problems solves them.” By that he means that our distress with ourselves for having the problem and the contortions we go through in our efforts to brush off the problem or to force a solution exacerbate the difficulty. A particularly insidious and undermining aspect of being depressed is self-hate (depression) about being depressed: being down on yourself for being down. “Being able to have the problem” means having sufficient self-compassion to be able to accept (or even embrace) rather than reject that problematic part of your experience. Such accepting or embracing is the optimal frame of mind from which to approach the problem.
When people feel unentitled to their experience—when that is the relationship they have with themselves at the moment—they typically operate at a disadvantage in dealing with the immediate situation and behave in unappealing ways.
We consider people who offend us by hogging the stage without regard to the sensitivities of others as narcissistic—as getting a lot at the expense of others. Their problem, from an ego-analytic perspective, is that it’s hard for them to hold onto a good feeling about themselves. When they’re not the center of attention—feeling seen by others as impressive, intriguing, and special—they feel unimportant, insignificant, and inadequate. In addition, they may feel empty, lost, lonely, impaired, a failure, or a loser. Many are caught in a vicious circle, what Paul Wachtel calls cyclical psychodynamics. A narcissistic man’s boorish behavior offends others, which gives him evidence of being a failure, a perception that increases his need to boast.
We consider people who offend us by acting in clingy and needy ways as dependent. From an ego-analytic point of view, the problem is that such people are ineffectively dependent, that is, they are not good at it. They do not inspire in us a wish to comfort, reassure, prize, pamper, praise, attend to, engage with, and take care of them. If they were good at being dependent—if they were more effectively dependent—we might feel more inspired to do these things, and even enjoy the opportunity to do so. Paul Wachtel’s cyclical psychodynamics is in operation here, too. Recognizing that their partners see them as clingy and burdensome, they feel unloved, unlovable, rejected, unnourished, lonely, and in increasingly greater need of reassurance.
When in the presence of people who act in “passive-aggressive” ways, we feel controlled and provoked. We conclude that these individuals are angry and manipulative. Our emphasis is on the “aggressive.” From an ego-analytic point of view, focused as it is on clients’ relationship with themselves about their feelings, the emphasis is on the “passive.” We see these individuals as unable to express everyday wishes, needs, concerns, objections, and complaints. That is, they’re unable to stand up for themselves. Accordingly, they are reduced to expressing themselves in indirect ways that come across to others as manipulative, calculating, sneaky, and controlling. Far from being in control, they lack the control anyone would need to feel comfortable in and deal effectively with everyday life situations. Such control requires being able to give direct expression to wishes, needs, and concerns.
Ego-analytic therapy begins with this recognition of how easy it is to draw conclusions about our clients based on the effects their behavior has on us. We lose track of their inner struggle. We stop listening and start judging and fall back on the morally-tinged, judgmental language of our culture (or a professional version of it). We view clients as selfish (narcissistic), lazy (unmotivated), cowardly (unwilling to take risks), immature (undifferentiated), codependent (symbiotic), and so on. We step back in negative judgment rather than appreciate the person’s inner struggle.
The ego-analytic task is to use our negative reactions as clues to our clients’ inner struggles and to ask ourselves:
- Could this person privately be criticizing themselves for the very thing for which I feel disapproving?
- Do other people respond to this person in the way I do? If so, could that be a major reason for this person’s troubles? Could this person be caught in a vicious circle in which s/he creates in others the very reaction s/he is trying to avoid?
- What must this person be feeling—what must s/he be struggling with—to act in this way, a struggle that, if I were to know what it is, might get me empathizing with rather than criticizing him/her?
- What is the hidden reasonableness, understandability, or grain of truth in this person’s seemingly unreasonable behavior?”
There typically is such a grain of truth or, as Bernard Apfelbaum put it, “Our clients are informants on the human condition.” They experience an intensified version of universal human difficulties with which in some form or other we all struggle