One of the chief distinguishing features of noimetic psychology is how much attention we pay to the ways in which human beings demonstrate what matters to them, decide on what matters to them, and experience meaning.

Naturally enough, noimetic psychology is not the only psychology to pay attention to meaning. The question of meaning is central to existential psychology and the idea of constructed meaning is at the heart of narrative psychology. It is less clear, however, to what extent a traditional psychology like psychoanalysis has paid attention to meaning. In this post and in the next you'll see what, according to clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Judith Levy, contemporary psychoanalysis makes of meaning. I'd like to thank Judith for this contribution. You can reach Judith at or visit her at

Judith calls this piece "Meaning Making in Psychoanalytic Theory and Practice." She explains:

"As a psychologist, psychoanalyst and longtime admirer of Eric's work, I'm pleased to see him inviting us all to think about the nature and function of meaning making in people's lives. This endeavor is quite familiar to me, since psychoanalytic theory and practice centers itself around how and why various aspects of life are construed as meaningful or become denuded of meaning, how meaning develops, what purpose it serves, how we can create and cultivate meaning, and what stops us from doing so.

"Psychoanalytic theory is far reaching: it's a theory of mind, a theory of normal and pathological development, and a theory of psychological treatment. Freud was the first to posit that what we construe as meaningful or valuable is determined by both conscious and unconscious factors, and that meaning making is a subjective experience, invariably effected by inner conflict.

"Psychoanalysts work to understand the causes of 'stuckness' or inhibitions that make it difficult to passionately create or choose and complete activities that enhance personal meaning.  A major question which psychoanalysis asks is how best can we get our desires met (including the desire for personal meaning) in both love and in work, while maintaining our self esteem, and regulating the inevitable anxieties and frustrations concomitant with the pursuit of what matters to us.  

"Psychoanalysts honor the paradoxical nature of the human condition: that is, that the very things we wish for are also often the very things which terrify us. Why? Because the consequences of their attainment are anticipated to be dangerous.  The dangers are related to both real and fantasized losses, most especially the loss of security, safety, bodily integrity, and love.  We humans have nifty ways of defending ourselves from our anxieties, including by finding substitute forms of gratification which may be pleasing enough diversions from 'what really matters,' but are powerful compromises against the dangers and risks inherent in feeling fully alive. Contemporary analysts help people to discover and examine how both real and imagined relationships with others shape their personality, goals, values, inhibitions, and sense of freedom of choice.

"The uncovering of unconscious fantasies and conflicts and the elaboration of their meaning is one aspect of psychoanalytic work which allows people to take up their lives more deeply, freely and hence meaningfully, so that the unknown or ambiguous can be experienced not just as potentially unnerving or dangerous, but as a source of opportunity and growth. If I, as an analytically informed therapist, can provide an atmosphere of safety for a person to play with her thoughts, associations, feelings and fears, including those which concern all manner of aggressive and loving feelings about me, then the two of us together have created a 'holding environment' built out of the development of a deep and authentic relationship between us. It is from this interchange that meaning is both created and discovered.

"I want to very briefly address Eric's interest in 'the nature and location of human meaning.' In the last few decades, contemporary psychoanalysts and attachment researchers have been studying how certain chronic mismatches between mothers and babies can create intense tension and dysregulated affect states. Babies' natural, burgeoning ability to make meaning of their experiences by mentally representing them via a process of symbolizing and linking thoughts and feelings to each other can become compromised.

"This is a complicated process effecting the way children's minds get structured. It has ramifications for continuing cognitive and emotional development as a child matures into adulthood, where it can effect many areas that Eric mentions, and show up in subtle and not so subtle ways, including having thought blockages, difficulties with writing (using language), compromised mental flexibility and fantasy life, concrete thinking, clinging to certainty, feelings of mental paralysis, emptiness, dissociation, or a chronic sense of 'meaninglessness.' 

"Often, these kinds of problems are not 'either-or'; they occur on a continuum and in particular contexts. Rather than looking at people as 'normal' or 'abnormal' or thinking in terms of diagnostic labels, psychoanalysts look at these processes on multiple levels.  They 'live into and with' these phenomena as they attempt to generate meaning by creating a mutually constructed 'transitional space' together with their patients. They address both the content of people's conflicts, as well as the process by which these become manifested and enacted with the analyst and in life."

Thanks, Judith. I'll present the second part of Judith's thoughts in my next post.

If you'd like to share with my readers how your particular psychology construes the issue of meaning, just drop me a line and we can chat about presenting your views here in Rethinking Psychology.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, bestselling author of 40 books, and widely regarded as America's foremost creativity coach. His latest book is Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning (New World Library, February, 2012). He is the founder of noimetic psychology, the new psychology of meaning. Please visit Dr. Maisel at or contact him at You can learn more about noimetic psychology at

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