Self-Criticism and Unconscious Grandiosity: Transference-Counter Transference Dimensions

By Cooper, Steven H. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Self-Criticism and Unconscious Grandiosity: Transference-Counter Transference Dimensions


Cooper, Steven H., International Journal of Psychoanalysis


The problems posed in understanding and working through the patient's layers of self-criticism are challenging for both patient and analyst. In particular, this paper explores some countertransference phenomena related to underlying grandiosity embedded in self-criticism. For patients who are self-critical, analyzing grandiose elements may create further grounds for self-reproach or open up new modes of self-experience and freedom. The paper tries to focus on how the analyst's experience of the patient's self-criticism often shifts over the course of analytic work. It is important for the analyst to not be crippled by a fear of considering the relevance of underlying grandiosity in relation to self-reproach. Understanding this dimension of self-reproach can help elucidate why it is so durable and refractory to interpretation. The patient has a stake in holding on to this self-punishment because it perpetuates self-regulatory fantasies. These fantasies sometimes relate to the feeling that the patient will be more successful or better loved by holding on to aspects of self-reproach. Sometimes these fantasies are based in competitive or dominant strategies related to winning out or retaliating over parents or siblings.

Keywords: character, countertransference, defense, resistance, symptoms, transference

The problems posed in understanding and working through a patient's layers of self-criticism are challenging for both patient and analyst. I will explore some ways for analysts to think about and use varieties of countertransference experience in connection with analyzing individuals for whom conscious and unconscious self-criticism and accompanying unconscious grandiosity are a primary and debilitating feature of the patient's unconscious inner life and relating to others.

Self-criticism often appears as an enduring part of personality organization and may appear in many psychic contexts, frequently in neurosis. For example, within the oedipal context a patient may titrate anxiety about success or competitive feelings through reflexive, conscious and unconscious forms of self-effacement or self-criticism. For a boy, Oedipus often contains implied wishes to usurp the place of the father in relation to the mother (e.g. Freud, 1924). The many neurotic resolutions of Oedipus include turning against the self as an unconscious method for mitigating guilt and a fear of retaliation.

In both neurotic and narcissistic contexts, conscious and unconscious selfcriticism may appear as a pre-emptive strike that the individual issues against the self in the face of anxiety about attack from both representational and actual others. Self-criticism may serve as a way to be active rather than passively awaiting an unconsciously shaming experience with an internalized object relation. Self-criticism may also involve retroflected rage or anger, an attempt to protect the object that is unconsciously hated or envied.

Since self-criticism is often a part of a continual characterological pattern and since it involves an attack on the self, it often poses particular problems for the analyst in helping the patient to see the multiple meanings of selfcriticism. It is essential for the analyst to try to help the patient understand the meaning of this symptom or behavior within the very unique context of the analytic interaction.

A particular type of countertransference problem for the analyst in analyzing self-criticism involves the presence of unconscious grandiosity that is at odds with the patient's conscious experience of self-criticism. A part of this problem relates to the degree that the analyst's attempts to analyze unconscious grandiosity are incorporated into the patient's harsh, self-criti cal attitudes. Interpretation becomes another attack on the self and may serve the patient's defensive needs to avoid his grandiose fantasies and hostile feelings toward others including the analyst. He is victimized rather than hostile or hurtful himself (Cooper, 2007).

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