Working in Psychological space Part I: Using the intersubjective field to access, decode and understand what lies beneath

This column also appears in the online edition of the March-April, 2010 issue of  The Therapist Magazine, the publication of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.


Adapted from a presentation to the CAMFT Orange County chapter, this first in a three-part series examines the ways applied contemporary psychoanalytic theory, particularly Intersubjective Systems Theory, with its focus on recognition and mutuality, has refined and expanded our understanding of mental processes and clinical interaction, modifying therapeutic dynamics in ways that promote therapist-client resonance.  Exploring developmental factors and transitional space, the origins of creativity and an expanded definition of the unconscious to include unformulated experience, readers will begin to think innovatively about the shared psychological space in which we work.


Part I

Janice Joplin about Bessie Smith: “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.”

Thomas Ogden: “There is no such thing as an analysand apart from the relationship with the analyst, and no such thing as an analyst apart from the relationship with the analysand.”

I often ask interns and trainees what they think causes psychological disturbance or pathology and what they think repairs it and always receive interesting responses, usually accompanied by express hopes that their interventions might somehow facilitate significant change.  Many reference the potent dynamics of early relationships, though they are never quite certain what might bring about desirable adjustments and often express frustration and concern that they are simply throwing random techniques in some well-intended but ineffectual effort to hit therapeutic pay dirt.

The question we each ask ourselves is how does this person’s mind work, and how might I share it? The beauty of psychoanalytic theory, theories really, is that they are structural guides, permitting us to conceptualize and shape our interventions purposefully and strategically. 

Psychological space and the intersubjective field defined:

The Starry Night
The Starry Night

Before we can begin to discuss the methodology of working in psychological space, we must first consider what it is and how to define it.  We might begin by saying broadly that it consists of our inner object world and its representations, including but not limited to the processes that drive mental life: of thoughts, feelings and all the attendant principles that organize inner life, both conscious and unconscious.

Psychological space would include the things of which we’re aware and the things of which we are not aware and everything in between.  And while this is a beginning, it is, nevertheless, a static itemization of mental contents, based on the mythic concept of a *monadic and isolated mind.  Relational and Intersubjective Systems Theory shift us away from a reified subject-object orientation to one of dynamic mutuality and recognition embedded in context consistent with Martin Buber’s I-Though philosophy.

I conceptualize that the intrapsychic is intersubjective.  The organizational configuration of one mind is the product of its context and the ways in which it is embedded in language, environment, interpersonal experience, culture, etc.   It is permeable, fluid and dynamic.  While the (defensively) rigid or static mental organization produces a subjective experience of isolation, its origins remain embedded in intersubjective matrices.

These uniquely subjective organizing principles help make the life of the mind a cohesive and productive enterprise rather than simply a collection of unrelated and assorted bits.  This is the ideal, however, and not always the reality.  But this is what we strive to achieve when we work, when we step into psychological space.

Developmental Origins of Psychological Space:


In the mid 20th c., Donald Winnicott and Melanie Klein used their seminal work with infants and young children to formulate developmental models describing how the mind comes into being.  Winnicott said that there is no baby without a mother and no mother without a baby (Winnicott 1960).  He was saying that the mind comes into being from within the context of a significant relationship, from within an intersubjective field.  We begin ourselves by being with another.

As Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, this is extremely noteworthy.  The intrapsychic is actually embedded in a dynamic intersubjective field.  The isolated mind is a myth (Stolorow 1992).  Intrapsychic material is derived from interpersonal, environmental, linguistic and cultural experiences.

Our first experience of space is the womb, and we return to it every night when we burrow under the blankets and curl up to sleep.  For the neonate, mother and baby constitute a unit (Winnicott 1960).  In what Winnicott (Winnicott 1953) described as primary maternal preoccupation, mother receives her baby’s projections and actively adapting herself carefully to its needs.  She adjusts its environment, provides physical and emotional holding and nourishment.  Baby experiences the illusion of herself as an all-powerful entity capable of gratifying herself almost spontaneously.  When the parental care is good-enough (Winnicott 1953), she trusts her environment and begins to flourish.

Origins of psychological space are an admixture of the upwelling of baby’s sensory experience combined with input from the external environment, particularly the interpersonal and parental.  Mental life begins as somatic, body sensations.  I like to say that a baby has a belly-mind or a skin-mind.  Maturation proceeds toward the mentalizing of thought elements so they can be accessed, articulated and used, not simply experienced or enacted behaviorally.  Eventually the baby develops a mental-mind.  This is a crucial developmental achievement.

Transitional Space Defined:

Eventually, she begins to recognize that she and mom are not fused and takes tentative steps away emotionally and physically.  At this moment she steps away from merger and into psychological space, another profound developmental achievement.  Winnicott (Winnicott 1953) called this emergent sphere transitional space and the accompanying talisman, like a blanket or a toy, the child brings along, he called a transitional object.  Imbued with maternal qualities, it serves to keep the child connected to mom even as moves away from her.  It also represents a child’s first original creative act.

Paris-Through-the-Window-FULLIt is this space that constitutes the nascent origins of all subsequent creative mental life and is, in fact, the source of all art and culture.  And this is where we work.  I think more aptly, this is where we play.   One of the most wonderful descriptions of creative psychological space and its context within the intersubjective field is a quote by Janice Joplin about Bessie Smith.  She said of Bessie, “She showed me the air and taught me how to fill it.”   What’s equally significant is that this is a quote about the relational and interpersonal aspects of mental life.  Bessie Smith helped her find a suitable form for her inchoate expressiveness.

Unconscious mental life:

Traditional psychoanalysis envisioned unconscious material as fully formed constructs simply hiding behind defenses.  Remove the defenses, and the material would emerge fully developed like a Greek God from the head of Zeus.  The early goal of psychoanalysis was simply to make the unconscious conscious.

Contemporary psychoanalytic theories have begun to reevaluate and redefine unconscious processes in significant ways.  While making the unconscious conscious remains a salient analytic goal, it is the very definition of unconscious that has expanded to include the concept of unformulated experience.

Unformulated Experience:

Donnell Stern (Stern 2003) writes that unformulated experience exists as content without form and that “Psychoanalysis is not (simply) the search for hidden truth about the patient’s life, but is the emergence, through curiosity and the acceptance of uncertainty of constructions that may never have been thought before.”

Psychological space, then, is the realm of curious uncertainty and creative potentiality.   It is content seeking form.  The image that spontaneously occurred in my mind as I wrote was of Lego pieces jumbled together in the box.  They have the potential to become something, but are as yet unconstructed.

The author, Isabelle Allende, described the process of beginning a new book: “I try to write the first sentence in a state of trance, as if somebody else was writing it through me. That first sentence usually determines the whole book. It’s a door that opens into an unknown territory that I have to explore with my characters.  When I start I am in a total limbo. I don’t have any idea where the story is going or what is going to happen or why I am writing it.  I’m just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me.”

This describes the tension of the necessary creative disorder that potentiates the act of giving form to unformulated content.  From a slightly different perspective, Christopher Bollas (Bollas 1987) referred to this as the “unthought known,” the visceral awareness of something prior to its overt, conscious mentalization.

The creative artistry of building something (or thinking, writing or designing something) occurs in the mind; the actual assemblage of pieces that forms a finished product happens afterward and often feels like fluid transcription.  Artists very often lose their highly charged interest in a finished product soon after its completion, because the act of creation was mental.  What this means for us clinically is that as the mind begins to formulate itself in novel ways, external life begins to shift without direction and force.

For many, mental life exists as nothing more than an admixture of unassimilated, pre-integrated elements that have no viable function – like a zipper without a dress.  Or they are clinging to the edge of the psychological pool, afraid to release it and swim, trusting that they will float and not sink.  This is the life of sterile repetition rather than creation.  The expanding definition of unconscious in this instance would now include defensively dissociated elements and aspects of the self defensively split off.

Because it is relatively easy to access conscious elements – Yes, I like blue.  I don’t like red – it is seductive to get stuck working here, almost colluding with the client to continue to avoid what has always been avoided.  It is harder to reach behind or beneath these obvious facets to the realm of the more unformulated or disavowed and dissociated aspects of self, to grasp unformulated experience and what has yet to be thought.

Closed eyes
Closed eyes

Donald Winnicott proposed that at our core, we remain unknown even to ourselves, and this is almost a metaphysical concept, but we can begin to understand why some elements remain unconscious and unformulated while other do not.  And as we learn to play with these Legos, we inspire our clients to be playful and curious about their own psychological space.

*Monadic: philosophy in the metaphysics of Leibnitz, an indivisible indestructible unit that is the basic element of reality and a microcosm of it.

Bollas, C. (1987). The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. Columbia University Press, N.Y., N.Y.

Ogden, T.H. (1994). The Analytic Third: Working with Intersubjective Clinical Facts. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 75:3-19.

Stern, D. (2003).  Unformulated Experience: From Dissociation to Imagination in Psychoanalysis. The Analytic Press, Inc. Hillsdale, N.J.

Stolorow, R. (1992). The Myth of the Isolate Mind.  In: Contexts of Being, The Intersubjective Foundations of Psychological Life. The Analytic Press, Inc. Hillsdale, N.J.

Winnicott, D.W. (1953). Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena – A Study of the first Not-Me Possession. International Journal of Psycho-analysis, 34:89-97.

Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41:585-595.

3 thoughts on “Working in Psychological space Part I: Using the intersubjective field to access, decode and understand what lies beneath”

  1. I’m revisiting my psychotherapy training with writing fiction in mind. These three articles have beautifully put together and updated my understanding. Thanks.

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