Being empty of oneself – the psychoanalytic view

Looking again at an interesting paper published in 1963 in The International Journal of Psycho Analysis by Enid Balint called ‘On Being Empty of Oneself’ helped me understand how before we try to ‘empty ourselves’ in contemplative prayer we need to have had a full enough experience of ourselves. Thomas Merton commented on this when he was novice master saying that for many of the new monks the problem was that they lacked a resilient enough ego in the first place before trying to let go of it enough to be open to God’s transforming grace.
The young woman called Sarah that Enid Balint sees for six years of intensive psycho-analysis – presumably five times a week at least – never felt she was living in her own body nor that she would be recognisable as the same person from day to day – her state of mind was the very opposite of the expression ‘he is full of himself’. If there were things within her she felt that they were rubbish, or lifeless, or without value. Balint comments that this feeling of being empty is a state found more commonly in women than in men, though that insight was of course made in the early 1960s and may have shifted a bit.
Sarah came from a well-to-do professional family and was the third child with two older brothers. Her father was described as ‘disappointed’ when she was born and had a violent uncontrollable temper whilst her mother was perhaps inevitably depressed with low self-esteem. Sarah was seen as highly successful, doing well at school and at games and extremely glamorous until her severe breakdown at 17. However in the course of the analysis it emerged she had been frightened from an early age worrying about an object crashing down on her and Balint believed that she had been abused by the younger of her brothers for a number of years until the age of 12. Sarah felt that she was not seen – was not recognisable. The account of the analysis includes her fear of being overwhelmed or undermined and her dread of the void. Everything was stressful and highly anxiety making, she was confused and withdrawn and later aggressive.
The way the treatment developed was through drawing, initially dots and little lines and then body parts. The analyst collected the sketches and kept them all together and understood that Sarah was eventually making both connections with parts of herself and communicating about her sense of disintegration. The void was caused by the presence of the analyst when Sarah did not feel understood because at that moment although she was seen in terms of the external shape of her body what really mattered was the unique sense of self which she felt was not recognised.
Balint links this back to a lack of reliable understanding between Sarah as a baby and her mother who tended to respond with her own preconceived ideas than to what the baby was actually feeling. There was no acceptance that Sarah was not identical to her mother or that bad things and feelings existed for her. This would surely have been compounded by the abuse. To use Winnicott’s term the mother and child could not ‘live an experience together’. In other words that the child finds an echo in the parent and the parent accepts the child’s as yet unorganised feelings and enables the child by appropriate reactions to them to organise the feelings and emotions into a self. This is the start of a sense of integration. Without it, as with the person described, there is a void outside in relationships and emptiness within: a world of ‘thinking without feeling and feeling without thinking’. There’s communication but no feedback.
Next post will look at being empty of oneself from the spiritual perspective.