Just Do It!

The freedom to act as a goal of psychoanalysis

Posted Jul 18, 2012

Nike's golden slogan resonates with the wisdom of psychoanalysis: just do it! Indeed, we all need that kind of urging at critical points in our lives when we are faced with fear and indecision, at the crossroads of the same—old—same—old and the new venture. Call it cutting the cord, taking the plunge, carpe—ing the Diem. Sometimes we just have to screw up our courage and take the leap of faith.

To be sure, as a psychoanalyst, I am not known for recommending that people just jump into things. My profession’s reputation is one of thorough reflection and careful consideration. Even navel-gazing, if you believe the caricature. So, I’ll bet a lot of people wonder if we ever get around to helping our patients do anything!

Take Freud’s famous paper, “Formulations on Two Principles of Mental Functioning.”   In this short paper, Freud puts forth the idea that the psychological shift from infancy to maturity—from the pleasure principle to the reality principle—is essentially about delaying action. The baby goes right from impulse to action, with nothing in between. “I want it, I take it,” is the language of the young mind. But with maturity, we learn to interrupt the chain. We add a step in-between.  Now, after impulse and before action, we think. This idea became fundamental in understanding how people develop psychologically. It has trickled down into modern psychology (and parenting, too!) in concepts such as “impulse control,” “delayed gratification,” and “frustration tolerance.”  Civilized people think before they act.

But, psychoanalysis practiced well encompasses more than just thinking. The whole point is about living. And when it comes to living, thinking is a big help but it only takes you so far. There comes a point where one must act. When all the feelings are reflected upon, all the pros and cons considered, and all the unconscious dynamics understood, one must have the courage to live. And that means doing something.

I’ll never forget the scene from my own childhood. I am eight years old and it is summer time. I am at the community pool, having just climbed the ladder of the high dive. At the end of the board, I look down over the edge to the water below and am utterly filled with fear. Having taken lessons, I am a competent swimmer. My parents have reassured me that jumping off the high dive is safe. I’ve seen other kids do it lots of times. My swim teacher will be there when I hit the water. For a while I just stand there, paralyzed. Then I look around and see that my people believe in me. I look inside and face my fear. I take the plunge. And I live to tell about it!

In his work on therapeutic change in psychoanalysis, Neville Symington puts forward the idea that a shift from the old routine to a new way of being requires what he calls an act of freedom.  This kind of freedom means having a mind of one’s own, acting in faith in oneself and one’s good objects, and taking a chance.  We must cut the ties to the old way in order to try something new. Whether we succeed or fail in that one moment, we have succeeded in the big picture because we have invested in real change.

Psychological progress occurs in the face of anxiety and conflict. If we wait for the anxiety and conflict to subside first, we will never do anything. Even as adults, inside we are still that child on the high dive. Thinking about jumping is necessary and helpful. But at some point, you have to just do it.

Copyright 2012  Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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To see more of Jennifer’s approach to psychotherapy, check out her newly released book: Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out.

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