cco public domain
Source: cco public domain

Core training has become the gold standard for physical fitness. A strong core has many benefits, from improving balance, stabilizing the back, preventing injury, and even helping us breathe. Core training goes hand in hand with functional training. With a strong core, we can move more easily and capably in life.

Now, knowing that I am a psychoanalyst, maybe you can see where this is going! People often wonder about the aim of psychoanalysis. What is its purpose, what does it do for you, how does it help you in life? I think that psychoanalysis is akin to core training. The help offered is aimed at strengthening us at the core of our psyches. Once strengthened at the core, we become more capable in our psychological, emotional, and relational lives.  

So what is the core of the psyche? For psychoanalysts, the core of the psyche is thought to be the unconscious. The unconscious is the engine of the psyche; it drives the way we think, feel, and behave in our conscious daily lives.

Kleinian analysts such as myself have a metaphor that we use to capture the nature of the unconscious in an even more dynamic way. For us, the unconscious inner world is thought of as an internal family. It is described as the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of the baby part of the personality in relationship with the adult parts of the personality.

To get the hang of the metaphor, think of the baby part of the personality as being like the core of a tree. It is the youngest part of the personality—and, in a way, the oldest part of the personality since it has been with us since the beginning. Like the rings of a tree that form around the deep core which was once a sapling, later experiences in life form around this strong yet tender baby core of the personality.

In this internal family, the baby self (with its many faces, moods, and attitudes) lives in relationship with other parts of ourselves that serve as parental figures. These parental figures are versions of our actual parents that have been modified by the unique ways that we experienced them. As Freud pointed out, usually our internal parent figures are much more intense versions of our actual parents—often harsher, more demanding, and more ideal.

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Source: cco public domain

Making changes at the core involves changing the way that the internal parents care for the internal babies. Often this is a shift from an internal parent figure who is cruel, punitive, and unforgiving. Those who struggle with perfectionism, depression, or anxiety know what I’m talking about. Sometimes this is a shift from an internal parent who is neglectful, unavailable, and couldn’t care less. Those who struggle with addiction, loneliness, and poor motivation may resonate with this scenario. Babies—external and internal—don’t do very well when they are treated harshly or when they are forgotten. They make a fuss or withdraw; they beat themselves up or get lost in the shuffle. Every baby needs a parent—both external and internal—who treats them with care, concern, discipline, and love.

The way that these core changes happen in psychoanalysis is complex. But the central transformative force is the relationship between the analyst and the patient. This relationship is important in two key ways. First, the patient expects the analyst to treat them in the same way that their parents treated them and, more importantly, the way that their internal parents treat them. The analyst explores these expectations with the patient, bringing them into the light of consciousness. When these unconscious expectations can be seen, then they can be thought about and compared with what is actually happening.

That brings us to the second part. The second part of the core transformation process is the way in which the analyst actually treats the patient. The attitude of the analyst is crucial here, because it is the analyst’s attitude toward the patient that is a potentially new model for the patient’s attitude toward him or herself. If the analyst works with the patient in a thoughtful, engaged, caring, yet disciplined way, the patient can learn to approach himself or herself with that same kind of attitude.

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Source: cco public domain

Core training in psychoanalysis involves developing an inner culture that is marked by what I call disciplined compassion or compassionate discipline. When the inner world has that kind of atmosphere, a person functions better in life—personally, professionally, and relationally. If a person has a strong core, you’ll see it in how they live in their lives: with more patience, tolerance, self-control, courage, creativity, openness, and love.

Not every analysis has these positive effects. Some are not transformative, some go sideways, some stall. But, at the very least, I want to offer a picture of what is possible, desired, and worked toward in a good quality psychoanalysis.

Copyright 2016 Jennifer Kunst, PhD

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