You Will Never Understand Me: Meeting the German Impersonal Object

Stefanie Sedlacek

“You will never understand me because you are a cold woman from West Germany,” my long-time patient snaps at me, coming out of a lengthy silence. I'm startled because I thought we had been well in touch lately. The patient had started the session by talking about a familiar and long-standing issue over which she had been procrastinating but which she had finally managed to get done. At that point in the session, I said, “It's such a relief to get an issue out of the way that had seemed indigestible for so long.” As I made this statement, I also had in mind what we had been working on the week before and our success in gaining deeper understanding. However, the patient fell silent.

Last week's issue was that her five-year-old boy had to have his baseline assessment appointment to start grammar school in six months’ time. In Germany, schooling outside the home is compulsory, and all children have to be tested in order to be placed according to their special needs and talents. Awaiting the date of her son's assessment, the patient had been anxious for years, which I had not been able to understand sufficiently up to this point. Even though I was familiar with the deep resistance and distrust most of my patients from the former East Germany, or German Democratic Republic (GDR), hold toward any government and administrative institution, the extent of this patient's conviction that her son would be evaluated malevolently was striking. When such paranoid ideas surfaced before, I would interpret her conviction as a transference phenomenon where she was also mistrustful of my own competence and convinced of my malevolence. This time she uttered, “They want to take my boy away from me!” Only then did I understand that the baseline assessment was experienced as a threatening re-traumatization and reoccurrence of the family trauma.

The patient's maternal grandparents had divorced in 1960 when the patient's mother was only two years old. In the course of the grandparents’ fierce custody battle, which involved domestic violence, the authorities intervened and the three daughters were sent to a children's home. Only several months later could the grandmother retrieve her daughters, of which the patient's mother was the youngest, after the grandfather had committed Republikflucht (defection from East to West Berlin) only days before the Berlin Wall was built on August 13, 1961. The grandfather never saw or was in touch with his daughters again until after my patient's birth in the 1980s. This family trauma stifled the mother's emotional development when she was a toddler, and the emotional constriction was transmitted in many ways to her daughter, my patient. This problematic constellation resulted in a very unhappy mother-daughter relationship that was often repeated with me in the transference.

Once my patient's fear of repeating the family trauma dawned on me, I was able to interpret this to her, acknowledging that the East German government institutions had indeed taken the grandmother's daughter, her mother, away from her home. In talking and working through the idea that this trauma might repeat itself, I noticed considerable change and relief in my patient. Hence, I was really alarmed in the session described above at her enraged reaction to me. I said with disbelief, “You didn't feel understood today!?” She retorted, “You were so cold and unmoved when I told you I had got this terrible work done. And I had hoped for just once that you would be on my side and feel happy for me!” I realized once again, as countless times before, that I was caught in a negative maternal transference (cold, rigid, unfeeling, abandoning her children in the children's home), and had become again for her the cold West German woman. However, I came to understand this attempt to install me as the cold West German more and more as a defensive maneuver against understanding, closeness, and intimacy.

In treating patients from the former GDR, I encounter, over and over again, a strong need to draw a demarcation line between East and West Germans. I have tried for many years to understand the hidden meanings of this defensive maneuver for the analytic couple, and, possibly beyond this, for the relationships between the former East and West German societies.

Since I practice in a Berlin suburb in the northwest of the city, my patients come from all over Berlin, but also from the state of Brandenburg surrounding Berlin, which was entirely within the GDR. Due to the rather scarce possibility of receiving psychoanalytic treatment there, my practice has drawn many patients from Brandenburg and the former GDR. A colleague suggested it might be easier for patients from former East Germany to see an analyst with a Slavic rather than German name.

My experience in many treatments over the last thirty years has taught me that the inevitable projective identification of a cold and rigid object likely suggests severe superego pathologies. A striking incident occurred in my practice after a patient missed his morning session on his birthday; he had, he explained, overslept after partying on the previous evening. When I opened the door to him the following session, he stood there in a deep bow, his hand extending the missed session fee in cash to me, as if awaiting his due punishment. His phantasy that I would expect him to grovel embarrassed me and, at the same time, rendered it difficult to accept this kind of superego transference. In witnessing this combination of submitting to and mocking authority, I learned about different ways of dealing with authority in a dictatorship.

In Animal Triste (1996), Monika Maron, who lived for over 35 years in the GDR, depicts the identity crises due to fundamental historical, political, and social changes after the fall of the Berlin Wall— the “symbolic representation of the difficulties of unifying the two German states.” The first-person narrator, who comes from East Berlin, describes her encounter with the wife of her lover who lives in the center of the old West Berlin:

I certainly don't know how I appeared to her but I assume that she noted my uneasiness very well and that she attributed this to my atrophied manners or an understandable culture shock … who knows, anyhow she treated me as if I had a strawberry mark on my face and she made a very honest attempt to take the challenge on bravely (p. 202).

In a similar vein, my patients with backgrounds from the GDR often feel insecure and at odds when they first meet me. Maybe I also feel distanced by unfamiliarity and make an “honest attempt to take the challenge on bravely.” Often I seem to represent the old West Berlin, thereby eliciting idealization stemming from times long gone by. In these German encounters, the divided country—implicit or explicit—seems to be always in the room. A patient once said to me, “When I come to my session with you, I'm always a bit nervous. It is like a visit to the West where I always want to present myself in the best possible light.”

Another typical vignette: a teacher in a senior position at a high school in a rather troubled borough of Berlin lost a power struggle with her principal revolving around disciplinary measures for a high-risk student whom she wanted to have expelled from the school. The principal, however, wanted to keep the student despite his acting out, because she felt he had nowhere to go. Losing this battle filled my patient with a sense of bitterness, yet she surprisingly recovered her former sense of poise within ten sessions. Her insurance had granted her twenty-five sessions of psychotherapy— which is labeled a short time psychotherapy in Germany. Although it is possible to petition to have additional sessions covered, she believed, with typically socialist modesty, that twenty-five sessions ought to suffice for her entire life. Mulling over how she could use the remaining fifteen sessions, she came up with three concerns:

  1. Her never finding any pleasure in being a mother

  2. Her inability to form a meaningful and lasting relationship

  3. Her belief that she suffered from an eating disorder

When I suggested psychoanalysis, the patient was offended. With her GDR background, she felt this to be an indecent offer. Would not one need to have real problems? And wouldn't it be rather egotistical to take treatment opportunities away from people in real need? I was somewhat embarrassed about my “indecent offer” and tried to understand how the patient immediately pushed her wish for analysis back into me. I was taken aback; how quickly she considered her own needs to be selfish and how readily she wanted to expel herself from treatment in the same way she had wished to expel her student.

From the East German perspective, West Germans seemed to experience no conflict in using common goods destined for the whole society for their own advancement. This contrasts with a common GDR slogan—”I don't count; it's only We that count“—as a patient recently cited to me.

From the East German perspective, West Germans seemed to experience no conflict in using common goods destined for the whole society for their own advancement. This contrasts with a common GDR slogan—”I don't count; it's only We that count”—as a patient recently cited to me. As a consequence, I struggle in treatments with helping my patients assume responsibility for themselves, which is quickly ridiculed as weakness and egotism. With one patient, for example, I was weary at how her undisputed belief in her own strength prompted her to treat herself with relentless cruelty. Her life was a harrowing modern version of the biblical Book of Job. Her family called her the General, since she was firm as a rock for her four children. She was indeed powerful, impressively so, up until a slight stroke at the age of forty-eight shattered her self-image and sparked a severe depression. Now, she was not able to be as tough as she had been before. Explaining to me why this was so difficult to bear, she said, “I despise myself when I'm a sissy. German virtues and German hardness were whipped into me.” Like a mantra, these beliefs were repeated to me over and over again, as they were repeated to my patients in childhood. Yet, I recognize these harsh beliefs as a way of turning ordinary human vulnerability upside down into something despicable, firmly installing in the psyche a process of dehumanization. Violence and humiliation were central in the upbringing of all my patients born in the 1950’s and 60’s, often resulting in a sadistic, persecuting superego.

Catherine Schmidt-Löw-Beer conducted in 1991 and 1996 comparative studies of Russian and Austrian adolescents. In a 2015 special issue of The American Journal of Psychoanalysis (75/4), she writes about the Russian group: “[W]e did not obtain a picture of the person or get a sense of the quality of the relationship. It was very important to have good friends and to drink, sing, dance, and listen to music together, but they did not talk. They were not used to talking (p. 408).” The findings imply that the “self” that developed under the pressure of an authoritarian society is frequently an “impersonal self.” This impersonal self is like a mask formed to protect the real self and still comply with demands and rules of the authoritarian society. The study's authors draw a connection with Winnicott's false self. But here, rather than an adaptation to pathological parents, “we think of the impersonal self as developing to fit in with the structures of a set of highly organized institutions in traditional Communist society” (p. 401). Schmidt-Löw-Beer et al concluded that

… Russian adolescents of our study felt controlled by an inner object, which prohibited their individual wishes. They had been taught to regard their own wishes as selfish, needing to be subordinated to the greater good. They were thus burdened by having to refer to an unconscious invisible collective construct in all their decision-making, resulting in a camouflaged pseudo-individuation—the impersonal self. Both the prohibiting object and the impersonal self were operating in unison as a collective social self. In this sense a transitional space was foreclosed (p. 402, emphasis added).

In the GDR, children were brought up to develop a socialist personality, leaving the child's individual needs aside and banning parents from an active part in their education.

The concept of the impersonal self (p. 406) is in line with the description by Swetlana Alexijewitsch, 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who coined a term for a new type of man, Homo Sovieticus, in her book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. In the GDR, children were brought up to develop a socialist personality, leaving the child's individual needs aside and banning parents from an active part in their education, bringing about the German counterpart of the Homo Sovieticus. With the idea of the collective social self, amalgamated out of the prohibiting object and the impersonal self, I now had a template for interpretation which helped to broaden my understanding of my patients and which became a helpful matrix for all kinds of related phenomena.

However, one of my patients—twenty-eight years old when the Wall came down—laughed at my interpretations that hinted at the socialist inside of her as related to how roughly she treated herself. She retorted, “That's not socialism! Neither is it fascism! It is Prussian! We are Prussians!” Germans might be tempted to skip fascism, identifying either with pre-fascist German history or with German traits lying beyond politics and ideology and projecting the unwanted authoritarian parts of the German character into the other part of Germany.

In his keynote address at the 2016 European Psychoanalytic Federation (EPF) conference in Berlin, Michael Parsons noted: “National Socialism and the German Democratic Republic both worked systematically to destroy people's ability to see themselves as individuals. Subsumed into a collective, they must not have an inner life or sense of personal identity” (p. 2). He further explored the question of how the true self can develop into an internal authority and contrasted this with the ego's readiness for adaptation: “The true self comes into being only through a relationship with someone who values the spontaneity and individuality of the growing child” (2016, p. 12). Parsons's elaboration on what it means to become a subject leans on the concept of subjectivation found in French psychoanalysis: an unconscious activity comprising the appropriation of one's own life in which one takes ownership of who one is (p. 10). The aim is a state of non-alienation. Parsons thus depicts the fundamental aim of psychoanalysis, which I also understand to be the appropriation of one's own life history.

After the first years of treating my patients with a personal or family background in the GDR, I was often crestfallen since there seemed no way of loosening their harsh rigidity and their “pathology of normality.” As they ranted about others they viewed as the incarnation of all that was evil—with, it seemed, little desire to understand or think about what was happening—they would explain it to me: “You just don't know the codes.” At those times, the patient I described at the beginning of this paper seemed to be right: sometimes I did not understand her.

In Belief and Imagination: Explorations in Psychoanalysis (1998), Ron Britton posits: “Quite often we are confronted with exaggerated realism as a defense against the inner world; this is developed out of a clinging to the outer world and constructing a fitting pseudo psychic life” (p. 154). Such exaggerated realism as a defense could characterize many of my patients from the former GDR. They suffer from a pathology of normality giving little to no leeway for people, including themselves, to be other than normal—whatever that might have been.

Parsons closed his talk with the following words: “Becoming the authors of our own authority means trusting enough to continue leaving our certainties behind. Where this may take us is somewhere that we cannot envisage from where we are now. We have to risk living it” (2016, p. 15). To take on this risk often seems dangerous to my patients from the former East Germany since it means the internal undoing of the socialist command Vom Ich zum Wir—”From I to We.” No wonder, whenever the transference situation between us became entrenched, there was a shift to insisting on the societal differences between East and West.

To what degree is the German estrangement that burdens our dealings with each other, even today, due to the years of having been divided? How much owes to the projections and projective identifications that the two sides have located in each other respectively? Freud wrote the following in 1930 in Civilization and its Discontents:

It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness. … I gave this phenomenon the name of ‘the narcissism of minor differences’, a name which does not do much to explain it. We can now see that it is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier (SE21, p. 113).

When the question of German identity is at stake, it seems to me that we are dealing with a much more severe phenomenon than a relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression. Rather, in the German encounter in the consulting room, when East and West meet in the analytic couple, a cultural border has to be overcome, confronting both protagonists with warded-off unwanted parts projected and forced into the other. My claim is that the struggle consists of deciding who in the analytic pair is the good and who is the evil (German) one.

In a 2016 article in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis (97/1), the Swiss psychoanalyst Bernard Reith described— in an intriguing metaphor drawing on Freud's statement that “the ego is not master in its own house”—what psychoanalysis does:

Opening analytic space is like opening one's home to turbulent guests, internal objects bringing unpleasant news from unconscious phantasy— news not only about trauma but also about drive, not only about what life has done to us but also what it makes us do. We would prefer to silence the visitors or, better still, find ways to lock the door (2016, p. 156).

The notions of the Homo Sovieticus and the socialist citizen opened up new realms of rethinking and understanding for me. To whom was I opening my door? Even as I was looking from the safe house of a West German, perhaps I was looking as if my patients “had a strawberry mark on [their] face” and I was “making a very honest attempt to take the challenge on bravely.” Quintessentially I have come to think that I encounter, when treating my patients with a background in the GDR, a prohibiting non-empathic object. But I know a prohibiting non-empathic object from my own childhood in West Germany, and the German society at large, only allowing for an impersonal self that is opposed to an independent inner world surfacing all too quickly in everyday challenges. To me, this expresses the authoritarian German legacy in its entirety of the 19th and 20th centuries. I suggest that it is this rigid German object that has been shoved back and forth between my patients and me. Getting to the depth of these attempts at projective identification and finding this object in oneself—that is when the treatments in the area of the German me are the most successful. As one patient once told me, “I am so appalled at my mother's coldness. But to be honest, I feel this cold and non-reachability inside myself.” And sometime later in the course of that treatment she added, “I'm always accusing you of being so cold. But I think it is me who is cold and who doesn't allow for being touched by you and your untiring attempts to reach me.”

In Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience (1992), Christopher Bollas calls the objects that we choose evocative, opening the self “like a key fitting a lock” (p. 37). He describes such encounters as the “intelligent breeze of the other who moves through us, … shaping within us the ghost of that spirit when it is long gone” (p. 63). When all goes well, this is how it works with patients even as they seem to have diminished capacity at the onset. They choose us and we choose them; our treatment changes them and stays with them as they change. My patients with a GDR background become evocative objects for me, making me feel German, making me realize what it meant to have grown up in West Germany. They open a door for me to a deeper engagement with and understanding of my Germanness. I continue to work on finding the key and opening the Greman door over and over again. APSAA

Stefanie Sedlacek is training and supervising analyst of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute, the German Psychoanalytic Society, and the IPA. She is on the board of translators for the German annual of the IJP and co-editor of the German journal PSYCHE.