On the Psychoanalytic Anatomy of Conversation
How We Do and Don’t Know What We’re Talking About

Author: Nicholas Samstag

He had a good memory, and a tongue tied in the middle. This a combination which gives immortality to conversation.
- In Roughing It, by Mark Twain

Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together.
- In Playing and Reality, by D. W. Winnicott

Psychoanalysis, or psychodynamic psychotherapy, is founded on the recognition that human consciousness is conscious in part only. The psychoanalytic unconscious can be envisioned as a disparate collection of interrelated memories, impressions, and feelings running in the background of the mind like RAM in a computer. Not immediately apparent but accessible. That human experience is necessarily made up of both conscious and unconscious elements, and that the project of therapy is to help the patient become more aware of, and increasingly fluent in, understanding the relationship between the two.

One way of understanding this relationship is to consider that how we attribute our feelings determines the meanings we make. If we are angry and think it’s due to the dog jumping on the furniture, we’re likely to punish the dog. On the other hand, if we are angry and realize it’s because we feel undervalued at work, then make the connection that we felt like the black sheep in our family given how we were treated, we can consider that we carry with us this negative self image that unconsciously prompts us to seek out people and environments within which we can experience something familiar.

Unlike any other form of psychotherapy, psychoanalytic therapy privileges the patient's capacity to discover his or her own meanings through dialogic play with the analyst. This dialogue is inherently playful in that large parts of the interaction entail sharing associations to both imaginative and concrete material that arise in the sessions.

All play is dependent upon the ability to reference at least two separate realms of experience at the same time while in communication with another person. In the case of psychoanalysis it is being able to be curious about what actually happened as well as to one’s associations to what actually happened. It is the difference between playing with ideas and associations and seeing where they will lead, as opposed to intellectually creating and then implementing a linear therapeutic agenda.

Unlike other forms of treatment where concrete goals are set before the work begins, psychoanalysis acknowledges the patient’s presenting problems but does not presume to know the solution before an extensive exploration of the patient's dreams, personal history, and therapeutic interactions has been thoroughly conducted. Psychoanalysis is more about collaboration and discovery than instruction and homework.

Looking at the world through a psychoanalytic lens is never boring. Your curiosity is peaked, your associations are many, and your discovery of meaning is manifold. In the words of psychoanalyst and philosopher Jonathan Lear, “We make more meaning than we know what to do with.[1]” Conversations are massive meaning makers.

Consider that there are three distinct but related sources of communication in any conversation, all of which convey meaning; what is said, how it is said, and why it is said. And that human experience consists of two major areas of influence; the unconscious and the so-called real world. So-called because human experience is essentially an interpretation [2]. Every conversation consists of both conscious and unconscious communications. We do and don’t know what we are talking about.

Let’s create a hypothetical conversation. John is a 35 year-old black senior vice president at a major financial institution. A graduate of MIT, he is highly analytical, organized, and decisive. John’s husband, Bill, is a 40 year-old white graphic artist and Creative Director at a well known advertising agency. Bill graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. He is highly conceptual, impressionistic, and likes to go with the flow of things.

One evening after throwing a dinner party and all the guests went home, John and Bill had a fight. The fight was ostensibly about Bill forgetting to buy ice cream. It went something like this:

John: “So, great party, eh? I especially liked the desert that wasn’t!”
Bill: “Really? You’re going to pick on me for this? I produced pears and cheese from the kitchen and everyone loved it.”
John: “Not everyone. I didn’t. You never follow through on what you say you’re going to do. You know how I like vanilla ice cream with Creme de Menthe. And I know you do, too! It’s our favorite dessert.
You were supposed to pick it up. That would have been so nice. But no. You forgot.”
Bill: “This was a dinner party, not a ballet! People loved it. I love our ice cream ritual, but I just forgot. And anyway, everyone got along, loved the food, drank and laughed lots. You’re always such a downer.”

In this example the fight was over ice cream. This is the “what” of the conversation, what was literally said. How about the “how?” What do the tones of this dialogue suggest about the psychological states of these two? Well, John is sarcastic and accusing. Bill is defensive and accusing. About ice cream? Really? And the “why?” Again, is it because these two intelligent accomplished men have some kind of obsession with ice cream? You may be thinking at this point, ‘No of course not! No one would care this much about ice cream!’ So if this fight wasn’t about ice cream, what was it about then?

Given the brief background descriptions cited above we can offer some more textured explanations of what might have been going on. To shift from a literal and concrete understanding to a more psychoanalytic appreciation, we could posit that while John was probably not some ice cream freak, he might be someone who likes to follow rules, to deliver the goods when promised. So John’s reaction to the fact that Bill forgot the ice cream could be more about his disrespecting John by not following through on something he said he would do. John felt hurt, but instead of saying that focussed on the ice cream and scolded Bill. It’s possible that Bill, in turn, preferred to appreciate the gestalt of life and not get bogged down in concrete specifics. Bill experienced a great party, and was likely hurt by John’s criticism of him and so lashed out himself against John. Their actual conversation was and wasn’t about the ice cream, but functioned essentially as a linguistic vehicle designed to ignite repressed feelings while avoiding talking about them. Their actual dialogue consisted of secondary concerns posing as essential matters. This is what happens when the unconscious writes dialogue.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the reason that so many of us have such intense arguments over inconsequential goings on, is that it is far easier to have a nonsense quarrel than a difficult discussion. Far easier to fight over ice cream than acknowledge feelings of deep vulnerability and insecurity; to clash over the meretricious and avoid the essential.

The irony here is that the nonsense quarrels can seem immortal; they are often repeated and sometimes endlessly referred to. This is because they were never the conversations needed in the first place, but rather superficial proxies, and consequently unable to be resolved. With a greater psychoanalytic understanding one can jostle one’s memory and hopefully untie one’s tongue.

1 Lear, J. (1990), Love and Its Place in Nature, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York.
2 Rorty, R. (1999) Achieving Our Country, Harvard University Press, New Haven.

Author bio:

Nicholas Samstag, Ph.D., PC is a Clinical Psychologist and Psychoanalyst working remotely and in person in New York City.
His website is [email protected]

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