the conflicting values of self-criticism

“We may not be able to imagine a life in which we don’t spend a large amount of our time criticising ourselves and others; but we should keep in mind the self-love that is always in play. Self-criticism can be our most unpleasant – our most sadomasochistic – way of loving ourselves.”

Against Self-Criticism | Adam Phillips {via London Review of Books: Vol. 37 No. 5 · 5 March 2015 | pages 13-16} {opening quote via Arts Journal}

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Lacan said that there was surely something ironic about Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself – because actually, of course, people hate themselves. Or you could say that, given the way people treat one another, perhaps they had always loved their neighbours in the way they loved themselves: that is, with a good deal of cruelty and disregard. ‘After all,’ Lacan writes, ‘the people who followed Christ were not so brilliant.’ Lacan is here implicitly comparing Christ with Freud, many of whose followers in Lacan’s view had betrayed Freud’s vision by reading him in the wrong way. Lacan could be understood to be saying that, from a Freudian point of view, Christ’s story about love was a cover story, a repression of and a self-cure for ambivalence. In Freud’s vision we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate we love, wherever we love we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us we always believe they can satisfy us. And who frustrates us more than ourselves?

Ambivalence does not, in the Freudian story, mean mixed feelings, it means opposing feelings. ‘Ambivalence has to be distinguished from having mixed feelings about someone,’ Charles Rycroft writes in his appropriately entitled A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis: ‘It refers to an underlying emotional attitude in which the contradictory attitudes derive from a common source and are interdependent, whereas mixed feelings may be based on a realistic assessment of the imperfect nature of the object.’ Love and hate – a too simple vocabulary, and so never quite the right names – are the common source, the elemental feelings with which we apprehend the world; they are interdependent in the sense that you can’t have one without the other, and that they mutually inform each other. The way we hate people depends on the way we love them and vice versa. According to psychoanalysis these contradictory feelings enter into everything we do. We are ambivalent, in Freud’s view, about anything and everything that matters to us; indeed, ambivalence is the way we recognise that someone or something has become significant to us. This means that we are ambivalent about ambivalence, about love and hate and sex and pleasure and each other and ourselves, and so on; wherever there is an object of desire there must be ambivalence. But Freud’s insistence about our ambivalence, about people as fundamentally ambivalent animals, is also a way of saying that we’re never quite as obedient as we seem to be: that where there is devotion there is always protest, where there is trust there is suspicion, where there is self-hatred or guilt there is also self-love. We may not be able to imagine a life in which we don’t spend a large amount of our time criticising ourselves and others; but we should keep in mind the self-love that is always in play. Self-criticism can be our most unpleasant – our most sadomasochistic – way of loving ourselves.

We are never as good as we should be; and neither, it seems, are other people.

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