Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Unconscious Fantasy in Psychotherapy

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Unconscious Fantasy in Psychotherapy

Article excerpt

In recent decades writers representing virtually all schools of psychoanalysis have given unconscious fantasy a more prominent place in their theories of psychodynamics and psychotherapy. The article discusses some of the reasons for this and reviews the perspectives offered in these reconsiderations of unconscious fantasy.

The published proceedings of a 1991 psychoanalytic symposium were introduced with the observation that, "the notion of unconscious fantasy is central to psychoanalysis in the 1990s"1 (p.505). The symposium honored Jacob Arlow, who for several decades has emphasized a reassessment of the nature and significance of unconscious fantasy in his contributions as a leading contemporary theorist of "classical" psychoanalysis,2-5 and the introductory comments particularly ackowledged Arlow's work and its influence. But a reassessment of unconscious fantasy has also been a popular theme in recent decades among object relations theorists, adherents of Kohutian self psychology, and others. This widespread interest in the subject has reflected a shared sense that greater attention to the role of unconscious fantasy could help address a number of important issues. It could yield a more immediate relating of psychodynamic theory to clinical observation, could establish a more solid epistemological grounding for psychodynamic theory, and could offer a more compelling understanding of the nature of the therapeutic process and the dynamics of psychological growth in therapy.

Arlow endorses Freud's view that fantasy entails primarily the imagined gratification of libidinal drives and is engendered by the frustration of such drives. But he expands on these concepts by emphasizing what he calls hierarchies of fantasies, hierarchical reworkings of fantasies that incorporate developmental advances and wider life experiences but still have at their core early drive-related wishes and instinctual fixations.2,3 Arlow suggests that these hierarchies of fantasies are an ever-present element in psychic functioning and figure in all of one's comprehension of, and interaction with, the world. "Unconscious fantasy," he argues, "provides the `mental set' in which sensory stimuli are perceived and integrated"4 (p.8).

While regarding unconscious fantasies as ever present in psychic life, Arlow, in his discussion of their clinical significance, tends to focus on opportunistic, symptom-generating intrusions of specific fragments of oedipal fantasies into behavior, an elaboration of Freud's discussions of fantasies mediating symptom formation. The goal of therapy, Arlow argues, is to help the patient recognize the nature of these intrusions and liberate him/herself from them. Analysis of transference has its special utility in being a particularly fruitful and compelling arena for demonstrating to the patient problematic intrusions of unconscious fantasy into daily life.5

Arlow's views on the significance of unconscious fantasy have been widely embraced, especially by practitioners and theorists whose psychodynamic perspectives focus on drive theory. Writers who have taken up and elaborated on Arlow's arguments include Scott Dowling,6 Lawrence Inderbitzin and Steven Levy,7 Theodore Shapiro,8 and Sander Abend.9

Dowling suggests that early trauma is a source of unconscious fantasy distinct from drive pressures. He also argues for the relatively late evolution in childhood of fantasy proper. Inderbitzin and Levy generally endorse Arlow's views but take issue with Arlow's failure to make clear distinctions among unconscious fantasies, conscious fantasies, and daydreams. They maintain that unconscious fantasies have unique dynamic characteristics and they call for a clearer definition of unconscious fantasy.

The centrality of unconscious fantasy was, of course, a fixture in the writings of Melanie Klein beginning in the 1920s. Klein, citing clinical material drawn from her work with young children, argued that one's primary and most basic drives are not simply for libidinal or other biological gratifications but for relationships, for particular patterns of involvement with others. …

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