Fears and Fantasies – An Emergent Model of Psychic Defences

Jean Knox
Oxford, England
Society of Analytical Psychology

In the Greek myth, Pandora’s curiosity leads her to open the box the gods have given her and into which they have each put something harmful to humanity. As soon as she lifts the lid the evil contents escape, but she slams the lid down in time to keep Hope inside. We remember the myth mainly in terms of the enduring nature of hope, but its other message is that it is Pandora’s curiosity, her need to find out for herself what the box contains, rather than be obedient to the gods, which brings disaster. Traumatized children come to believe that it is their own needs and desires and their wish to explore and understand the world for themselves which invite justified punishment from the god-like parents whose every wish must be obeyed. Such a child learns that she must not have a mind of her own, that her own emotions and desires are so dangerous for her parents that her own independent psychic existence must be eliminated and she must always be exactly in tune with her parents’ desires.

I suggest that this is the fundamental defence operating in the spectrum of what we describe as borderline personality disorders. In this presentation I want to further develop a Jungian perspective on such psychic defences, drawing on ideas developed by Jung himself and on the later work of Michael Fordham and Don Kalsched, as well as specific clinical patterns described by Gustav Bovensiepen in relation to the effects of physical trauma, the as-if personality re-explored by Hester Solomon and addictive states of mind identified by Catherine Crowther; they all vividly describe the profound impairment of the capacity to symbolize which is brought about by the activation of extreme defences.

I hope to extend our understanding by examining three aspects of these defences:

  • I will draw on attachment theory and contemporary neuroscience to develop our understanding of the clinical phenomena which all those authors describe, particularly the way in which defences impair a ‘spirit of enquiry’ and so inhibit the capacity to relate to new experiences.
  • I suggest that the subjective experience of a sense of meaning depends on a dynamic process of comparison and integration of new experience with existing conscious and unconscious memory and knowledge; if the process of internalization itself stops, then the new material on which the sense of meaning depends dries up. This is the main threat which these defences hold for the psyche, as I will explore in more detail shortly.
  • This viewpoint clarifies a distinction which I think we need to make between the subjective sense of meaning and the process of symbolization. The unconscious may produce imagery, in the form of dreams, fantasies or enactments. This is symbolically rich and many-layered but if it is not integrated with the sense of self then it cannot be emotionally meaningful. Experiences become increasingly stripped of the subjective sense of meaning and the unconscious imagery comes to feel alien and dangerous.

I suggest that all these aspects result from a defensive inhibition of the transcendent function, preventing the process of appraisal in which conscious and unconscious are constantly compared with and integrated with each other, so creating a meaningful experience.

I am not particularly focusing here on acute trauma which overwhelms the processing capacities of the human mind but on much more everyday and less obvious painful experiences, whose harm lies in the meaning which the mind generates to explain them. Quite ordinary experiences may still be traumatic if they carry implicit meanings which are attacks on the sense of self. Many people have not suffered obvious physical or sexual abuse but rather the cumulative trauma of growing up in one of the ‘normal’ but emotionally cold, unloving families which lack all psychological attunement and which so many of our patients have experienced. (Khan, 1974 [1963])

I can give one brief illustration from a chance observation of a father and child in a supermarket near my home. The child, a girl of about eight or nine, was scanning in the purchases. The father clearly impatient and irritable, could not allow her time to work out how to do it, but as she uncertainly picked out a bottle from the basket, said in an annoyed tone “pay attention – careful what you are doing”, sighing loudly as she tried to scan the bottle and when the machine misread the item, he immediately and triumphantly blamed the child saying “now look what you’ve done”, although it was clearly a machine error and not the child’s fault. She picked up each further item with greater and greater hesitancy, her body language conveying her self-doubt, as she fumbled and glanced anxiously at her father each time; he responded with remarks such as, ‘don’t get it wrong again’ and ‘this is rather a slow process – we haven’t got all day”, eventually taking over the job from her in exasperation. He certainly expected her to fail and my impression was that he needed to destroy her developing independent exploration of the world. It was a small event, perhaps not representative of their relationship but my clinical work leads me to believe that that kind of parental hostility or competitiveness can over time catastrophically undermine the development of healthy narcissism; the child’s pleasure in the process of discovery, her spirit of inquiry, could also not survive too many such experiences.

One of the functions of psychic defences is to maintain hope even when cruelty, neglect or abuse by others make us experience the despair that comes from feeling unlovable, worthless or dangerous to those one most loves. What defines humanity is our reflexive awareness – we not only represent the world to ourselves but we are aware that we do so. To be conscious of needs and feelings but to know that this very subjectivity is of no importance or is itself a threat to one’s loved ones, is an unbearable and annihilating experience which creates a deep sense of shame and activates the most profound defences of all, described by Michael Fordham as defences of the self. (Fordham, 1985)

The annihilation of one’s subjectivity is thus the essence of ‘the destruction of the personal spirit’ so eloquently described by Don Kalsched (1996), but also by attachment theorists such as Hopper (1991). The sense of self is utterly relational, depending on loving and on having that love returned; the babies studied by Spitz, who were fed and cleaned but had no constant caregiver, wasted away physically in their cots for lack of all human love. (Karen, 1998) I was fortunate enough to hear John Bowlby lecture on one occasion and one comment he made, almost in passing, remains imprinted on my mind – it was that children can survive the experience that their hate may drive a parent away but to have one’s love rejected is intolerable.

Many children do learn that their parents are frightened of being loved, too fragile to have any emotional demands made on them because love requires a response to the child as a real and separate person. Parents who are preoccupied with their own needs, often because they themselves are traumatized, may be unable to tolerate the intensity of their child’s love and the child’s need for recognition of his or her emotional needs which the parent is unable to give. The research of Lynn Murray, for example, highlights the devastating effects of maternal depression on a child’s development (Murray 1992). The child grows up learning to live on the edge – the as-if personality, described by Helen Deutsch (1942), Ron Britton (1998), Eva Seligman (1982) Rushi Ledermann (1991), Hester Solomon (2004) and others.

I would like to add the their understanding of this particular form of borderline personality disorder, by drawing on attachment theory to clarify some of the unconscious beliefs which evolve out of this kind of experience and which underpin what I would describe as a state of psychic and emotional suspended animation. This state is maintained by suppression of all forms of personal need, motivation, or libido, as Jung understood it. There is no appetite, no curiosity or ‘spirit of enquiry’, no excitement at discovering otherness and hence no relationship. Addictive states of mind, which Catherine Crowther has recently described, give the impression of intensity but are often as much a manifestation of this defensive avoidance of any new experience as the schizoid withdrawal in which the inhibition of desire of any kind is more obvious. Both lead to a defensive avoidance of the otherness of new experience. The addictive state of mind is constantly seeking fusion, a state of limitless greed without any experience of limitations, separation or difference, whereas schizoid withdrawal attempts to avoid the pain of integrating new experience and being changed by it.

All defences compartmentalize or fragment the mind, both cognitively and emotionally and there is a growing and extensive literature on the neuroscientific, cognitive and psychodynamic characteristics of this fundamental defensive process of the human mind. Dissociation is not a single phenomenon but can take several different forms, depending on the severity of trauma, whether it is acute or chronic and the meaning that it comes to hold consciously and unconsciously for a traumatized person. Mollon (2001, p. 4) describes dissociation as a state which “requires a degree of detachment of one part of the mind from what another part is experiencing”. In attachment theory terms, the transcendent function can be described as a constant dynamic process of comparison and integration of explicit conscious information and memories with the more generalized knowledge which we accumulate unconsciously in the internal working models of implicit memory, a key part of which constitutes the sense of self. In other words, the transcendent function is precisely the means by which one part of the mind can find out what another part is experiencing.

I think the implications of this a wide-reaching, in that, from an attachment theory perspective, any defensive process can be seen to be a form of dissociation, the segregation of one part of the mind from another. Repression, for example has been re-defined by contemporary psychoanalysts as the avoidance of the emotional significance of events, rather than the forgetting of the events themselves, in other words a dissociation between conscious cognition and the implicit emotional internal working models which give meaning to experience. (Fonagy, 1999) Regression can be seen to be the re-activation of developmentally earlier and more primitive internal working models, dissociated from more mature patterns of relationship. Projection and projective identification involve the attribution of thoughts, emotions and beliefs to another, thus dissociating them from the internal working models which include self-experience and the sense of self.

All defences therefore operate to some degree by stripping events and experience of meaning, since meaning, by definition, depends on the transcendent function, the recognition of similarity and difference between a new event and past experience, between conscious and unconscious knowledge or between cognition and emotion. This sounds straightforward but it is actually based on a number of different processing mechanisms of the human mind, which I will explore in a fuller discussion of the information-processing and neurophysiological mechanisms which underpin psychic defences.

First I would like to turn to some clinical material. I will describe a patient’s dream which rather vividly illustrates the subjective unconscious experience which results from the inhibition of the transcendent function, before giving some of the background information which helps us to understand how he reached this position. I have my patient’s permission to use this clinical material, which has also been disguised.


This dream occurred fairly early on in this patient’s analysis. He was driving his car with his wife and children as passengers. He turned off the main road into a side lane which led to a farm and he realized he had taken a wrong turning. He tried to turn the car round in the farmyard but saw that his way was obstructed by a number of dead cows lying in the yard. He tried to manoeuvre his way around them but was sliding and skidding on grease on the road so that he lost control of the car and could not steer it in any direction.

I think this dream illustrated very clearly the loss of a sense of drive and direction which his psychic defences brought about. His internal world was full of lifeless objects, obstructions to be manoeuvred around rather than related to. He ended up sliding around a meaningless mental and emotional cul-de-sac from which there seemed to be no escape and no capacity to regain control or a sense of direction and purpose. I would now like to describe this patient in more detail to show how his internal world came to be so devoid of meaningful connections between his internal objects.

Clinical Description

This man, in his fifties, whom I shall call Dave, was born and brought up in a fairly rough city neighbourhood. His father was serving in the armed forces, on active combat service, for the first three years of my patient’s life. Dave’s mother portrayed his father to him as a wonderful man, a hero to be admired in every way. You can imagine Dave’s shock when his father came home and literally booted him out of his mother’s bed, where he had slept until then. He remembers standing outside the bedroom door crying to be let back in. The father who had been described to him in such glowing terms turned out to be domineering, cruel and violent at times, but perhaps most importantly, unable to empathize at all with his son’s emotional needs. He wanted Dave to be tough and fearless, but the emotional messages he gave Dave were actually quite confusing. He said that he wanted Dave to be independent-minded, to think and take responsibility for himself, but Dave became aware that his father actually meant that Dave should be just like him – that he should always want what his father wanted for him. It seemed as though the father needed Dave to mirror back everything he wanted to be himself but also projected into him all the vulnerable emotional neediness of the child whom he feared and despised in himself and then attacked that in Dave, both verbally and physically, frequently beating him with a leather belt. On one occasion he asked his father if he could have an airgun, like his friends. His father asked him to go away and think about the pros and cons very carefully and that when he had done so, his father would agree to the decision Dave made. Dave took several days thinking about the risks and then made what he considered to be a responsible decision, that he still wanted the airgun. When he told his father, he refused, saying that Dave had not made the decision he expected of him. Clearly his father could not tolerate his becoming a potent adult male. He unconsciously needed to keep Dave as the child whom he could beat.

Dave’s mother was manipulative towards him and his father, playing one off against the other and so controlling them both. At many mealtimes, she would provoke Dave until he was slightly rude back to her and his father would then become enraged and beat him; his mother would say ‘don’t hit him on the face’, as though the most important issue for her was that the outside world should not see what went on inside the family. Dave’s mother was also seductive and parasitic towards him, desperately clinging and needing him to be successful and loving towards her as proof of how good a mother she was. She could not allow him to be independent, but tried to manipulate him into sharing and enacting her idealized fantasy of their closeness and harmony.

Dave therefore learned throughout his life that neither parent could let him be the person he was; each needed him to be their mirror and their emotions and narcissistic needs were always more important than his. I could elaborate on the nuances of difference in his relationship with each parent but common to both was a relational experience in which he was not allowed to think or feel for, or be himself.

The consequences of this were devastating. He attached himself to one paternal figure after another whom he hoped would provide him with the clarity of thought and emotion and sense of purpose which he could not find within himself. He tried to undertake academic research but was unable to complete it because of a severe writing block; writing is only possible if the person has a mind of his own, which means a capacity to evaluate information and ideas, in order to select what to include. Without that capacity to prioritize, the experience of thinking about what to write would be exactly like sliding around in a greasy pool of meaningless facts, obstructing one’s path like dead cows. The difficulty in exercising his ‘feeling function’, Jung’s term for what attachment theorists now call appraisal, was also enacted in his physical environment – his study became piled up with books, articles, newspaper cuttings and a range of paraphernalia which he felt might come in handy some day, a collection of objects whose importance to him he also could not evaluate, in order to decide which to keep and which to discard.

His current marriage of nearly eighteen years is now ending in a divorce, a process which starkly exposes the underlying dynamics of their relationship. Dave has always felt that his wife, like his father, wanted him to have identical views to hers; she is deeply hostile to his analysis and much of the divorce battle centres on the cost of his therapy, which she sees as money stolen from the family. He feels that her hostility is more to do with the fact that analysis is helping him to find a mind of his own, to become free of her control of him. He has also only recently begun to recognize that their relationship depends on him enacting the role of the ‘bad’ one – frequently his wife will provoke him in the same way as his mother provoked his father until he explodes just as his father did and can then be blamed. It seems as though he acts as if the relationship is based on his being the recipient of negative projections from his wife.

Apart from his writing block, one of the main issues he has worked on in analysis is that of sexual fantasies of a sado-masochistic nature. These fantasies involve one woman, a dominatrix, sexually stimulating and totally controlling another, usually a woman, who endures a kind of sexual torture by being stimulated but never satisfied. Dave is often an observer in these fantasies. He was very ashamed of them and of the fact that he enacts some aspects of the fantasies in inflicting a certain amount of physical pain on himself when sexually aroused by these fantasies. It is quite striking that he usually allows himself to play out these fantasies when he is alone at home, with the rest of the family away. I will bring out the significance of this in my discussion.

In the analysis, it has taken years for the transference to become overt, for him to talk about feelings he has towards me. Until recently he has related to me in an impersonal professional way, with all emotion suppressed or denied. The sessions often seemed empty, flat and meaningless, with long periods of silence. More strikingly, he would recount factual information about difficult situations with his family or at work but without emotion or any attempt to explore the meaning these events held for him. I was expected to do all the work on drawing out the conscious and unconscious significance while he waited passively while I struggled to find meaningful interpretations which he would then not understand, ignore, contradict or very quickly forget. In my peer supervision group, I described the experience as one in which I felt like a life support machine for a patient in a coma. I was having to do all the thinking for him. After about six years things have changed in a major way, but that process is a long story and I want to turn now to the discussion of the defensive position I have described.


I will begin this exploration with the sexual fantasies, which I consider to be unconscious communications and to have the characteristic quality of unconscious imagery, that of representing two or more differing states of mind at the same time in the same material – sometimes we see it one way and sometimes another. This archetypal capacity is what gives the ambiguous images (such as Rubin’s face/vase illusion) with which we are so familiar their enduring fascination: they show us exactly the multiplicity of meaning condensed in unconscious imagery, its overdetermined nature, of a kind we also find in art and in poetry.

My patient’s sado-masochistic fantasies similarly convey several unconscious messages and I have understood and interpreted them as an attempt to kick start the transcendent function, to transform a mindless enactment of the experience of being dominated, controlled and seduced into a mental image which is then available to conscious reflection. This is an example of Jung’s concept of compensation in operation, with the sado-masochistic fantasy functioning in the same way as a dream, bringing unconscious material to the attention of the conscious mind. The fantasies vividly convey the deeply unsatisfying nature of his experience of relationships, showing the cruelty inherent in them and so giving him an opportunity to question them. It is as though they keep drawing him back to the question, “Is this what you really want relationships to be like?” The sexual over-arousal in the fantasy reflects the unregulated and eroticised affect of his childhood relationship with his mother and this is what he avoided in the transference by being devoid of emotion for so long. However, the fantasied re-enactment of that compulsive and unsatisfying arousal also creates an opportunity for him to reflect on the nature of his experience, both past and present. My patient has gradually become less ashamed of his fantasies as he has begun to recognize their function as a form of unconscious communication, showing him the nature of his unconscious models and expectations of relationships.

But at this point, a powerful defensive system is activated, namely the unconscious rules laid down implicitly in early childhood, that he must not think for himself or relate to and value his own needs and desires. The fantasy also enacts this unconscious belief, playing out his unconscious conviction that relationships always require the complete subjugation of one person to another; in the fantasies, the ‘victim’ has no mind or desire of her own but is totally subject to the desire of the other, a position which has been best understood not only in attachment theory but also in a Lacanian model or Laplanche’s theory of seduction, which Michael Rotmann described at a recent JAP conference. (Rotmann, 2002)

The end result is an impasse; the fantasies convey the deeply unsatisfactory state of his relationships with others as well as with himself. The very act of representing this state psychologically means that it can be reflected on and so offers the possibility of change. But the fantasies also remind him of his own unconscious rule that this dynamic is immutable, that he is condemned by the other (father, mother, wife) to constantly enact this pattern for their sakes. In the fantasy there is only one person with a mind or desire, the dominatrix and this reflects Dave’s experience that none of the key people in his life could tolerate his having a mind or emotions of his own.

The only solution is a total shutdown of the transcendent function. In evolutionary terms it is as though there is a default system which prioritizes the need to please the other over the need for self- discovery and individuation. This makes sense in attachment theory terms, in that the human infant’s survival depends on psychological attunement to the parent, whose emotional response forms the basis for a loving protectiveness to the infant. If the parent cannot tolerate the infant’s separate-mindedness or the excitement the infant shows in discovering the world for himself, then the infant learns to shut down the individuation process in order to protect the parent and so, ultimately, to survive himself.

This shutdown of the transcendent function has described in other contexts, for example by attachment theorists such as Peter Fonagy who sees this process as a defensive inhibition of reflective function, the unconscious awareness of self or other as mental and emotional beings. (Fonagy, 1991) Reflective function is not the same as insight in relation to oneself or empathy in relation to the other because it is implicit, structuring our perceptions of self and other without our awareness.

However, I have come to feel that there are some limitations to the attachment theory perspective on the range of borderline phenomena; precisely because it is implicit, the description of a defensive inhibition of reflective function does not convey the subjective experience, the beliefs and motives which bring about this defence. It is meaning which drives the psychic defensive system and in this kind of experience, the child comes to believe that he or she only is only lovable when he/she is parenting the parent – a masochistic sacrifice of self to protect the caregiver whose needs are felt to be paramount.

So let me return to the idea of compensation and use it to explore the third point I raised at the start of this paper, namely the need to differentiate between the capacity to symbolize and subjective sense of meaning. The dream of sliding around a greasy farmyard littered with dead cows is rich in symbolism but it conveys the patient’s sense of his experience as utterly meaningless and out of his control; his sexual fantasies are equally powerful images but they reinforce his sense of helplessness and passivity in relationships, in which all the desire and control lie with the other person. The compensation provided by the unconscious in the form of dreams or other imagery is not in itself enough to overcome the defensive denial of self.

In other words, the symbolic process and the meaningful experience of oneself in the world are not identical even if the former is indispensable to the latter. Dreams, fantasies or unconscious enactments are all symbolic expressions of implicit memory and knowledge and they become meaningful only when they are integrated with the sense of self, which is also predominantly implicit and so unconscious, encoded in internal working models. It seems to me as though symbolization is often described in rather a static way as though it is a developmental stage which can be reached, given a good-enough developmental experience and once reached is not lost. This view seems inherent in the notion of triangulation, or the achievement of the depressive position. However I think this is too limited a view of the meaning-making process and that Jung’s concept of the transcendent function can form the basis for a much more dynamic perspective on the relationship of the human mind to its own symbolic process. (Jung, 1957[1916]) The powerful symbolism which is constantly generated unconsciously (probably mainly in the right brain) can be kept isolated not only from consciousness but also from the sense of self, rooted in the self-representations stored in internal working models. As soon as the process of emotional appraisal by the implicit unconscious is dissociated from new experience, the symbolic imagery of the unconscious begins to lose its life-giving qualities and to become dangerous and destructive, and its meaning and significance are then consciously avoided at all costs.

This of course exactly the effect that trauma has on the human mind, activating a process of dissociation which prevents that person having to face full conscious awareness of his or her own helplessness, fear and rage or of the hostility or indifference of those in whose power he or she is.

However, the transcendent function can also be re-activated so that the process of ‘compare and contrast’ can once again start to integrate conscious experience, unconscious symbolism and the internal working models of self-and-other which constitute the foundation of the sense of one’s self and of one’s value in the world. This dynamic process, from a more defensive dissociation of parts of the mind from each other to a more integrated flow of information and meaning between them, seems to be captured in Fordham’s idea of a constant shifting between the paranoid schizoid and depressive positions.

PS & D

The depressive position, which in Kleinian terms forms the basis for triangulation (Britton, 1998) and of psychic space, requires a constant supply of new experience and a constant dynamic process of comparison and integration of new and old knowledge to sustain a meaningful and ever-changing symbolic psychic space.

Analysis offers precisely such an opportunity for a comparison between new and old experience, provided that the analyst is constantly attentive to the patient’s unconscious subjective experience and does not work within a rigid theoretical framework which predetermines the meaning of unconscious imagery. Michael Fordham’s work on transference and counter-transference offers a detailed exploration of the capacity for the analytic process to function in this way. (Fordham, 1985, chap. 10)

Developmental and Neuroscientific Aspects

I will end with a brief discussion of some of the developmental and neurophysiological processes which contribute to the transcendent function, which also lend weight to the idea that symbolism is not a single irreversible achievement but a spectrum of differing levels of symbolic complexity, from the simplest behavioural enactments to the most complex mental imagery which is full for meaning for the person experiencing it.

Developmental psychologists such as Annette Karmiloff-Smith (1992) have drawn on some aspects of Piaget’s work to suggest that the symbolic capacity of the human mind involves the initial development of meaningful patterns at an implicit level of representation which is then gradually re-encoded into ever more explicit and eventually conscious imagery and, ultimately, verbal language. In other words, there is an implicit to explicit symbolic spectrum. Beebe and Lachmann highlight the relational and emotional aspects of this process, suggesting that representations “are formed by the active process of constructing and re-constructing incoming information … reinterpreted and reordered on the basis of past experience and current expectations” and suggest that “development proceeds through a process of regular restructurings of the relations within and between a person and the environment”. (Beebe & Lachmann, 2002, p. 148) This is exactly the ‘compare and contrast’ process of the transcendent function, out of which the sense of meaning emerges.

There is an even more primitive level of pre-symbolism in the kind of bodily enactments which Gustav Bovensiepen so vividly described in his patient, Tom. Gustav recognized this, describing Tom’s farts as ‘a concrete expression of his deeply rooted conviction that he could only produce foul-smelling air in his chaotic psyche’. (Bovensiepen. 2002, p. 250)

This form of a bodily enactment is probably encoded in subcortical pathways in sensorimotor form, without the connections to parts of the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus which allow focal attention, conscious reflection and a subjective sense of meaning. (Beebe and Lachmann, 2002, p. 149; Siegel, 2003, p. 25) This pre-symbolic enactment may also lie behind the self-harming which so often accompanies the defensive destruction of the sense of self. Cutting or burning oneself are painful attacks on one’s skin, the boundary which physically defines our separateness and so the object of attack in those who believe that they are bad if they are separate individuals. The symbolic nature of this attack can only be enacted, not thought about, as Sidoli (1993), Wilkinson (2003) and others have described. It is not yet linked in any representational way with the sense of self and so does not feel meaningful.

Unconscious imagery in dreams and in conscious but compulsive fantasies indicates a move to a level of implicit symbolization which can be experienced primarily through emotional reactions, if not yet understood consciously. This is the level of Bollas’ unthought known and of Steiner’s psychic retreats (Steiner, 1993). The crucial analytic task with this kind of experience is to keep interpreting its symbolic function, even if this takes years as it has with the patient whose sexual fantasies I described. The analyst’s persistence in seeing these fantasies symbolically offers a contrast to the patient’s fantasied enactment of his defensive mindlessness. The ‘compare and contrast’ process of the transcendent function allows the patient to begin to relate to his own mind as a separate and symbolic psychic space, integrating implicit experience with the sense of self.

From this perspective, dreams and fantasies are not fully symbolic, in the terms that Terence Deacon defines, in which meaning is embedded in the network of representations whose symbolic function emerges out of their references to each other. (Deacon, 1997) Dreams and fantasies point two ways; they are partly iconic, pointing to an action, as though stating “this is what you want to do” and partly truly symbolic, expressing a state of mind which can be reflected on, understood in several different ways and so changed instead of being automatically enacted. They provide the raw material for mindfulness and choice, but are not sufficient in themselves.

Contemporary neuroscience places emotion and relationship at the meaning-making process. Allan Schore describes the dysregulation of the right brain in trauma and the parasympathetic mechanisms of shutdown associated with this; these offer a crucial framework for understanding the dampening of affect, the patient’s attempts to avoid any emotional stimulation or relationship in dissociative phenomena (Schore, 2003, pp. 248-259)

The hippocampus also underpins the operation of the transcendent function, in that it connects or ‘tags’ memories of events with the emotional responses we have in relation to them. It functions in this respect as one of the convergence zones in the brain, which synthesize information from different sources, in this case cognition and emotion. The hippocampus is therefore fundamental to appraisal, the process whereby we attribute emotional meaning to an experience, thus defining its value for us. This is of course, a neurophysiological basis for the feeling function which Jung identified. (Jung, 1921, §723) The hippocampus is found to be smaller than normal, both as a result of long-term trauma and in depression, a finding which lends possible support to the idea that the evaluative function of emotion is suppressed in the kind of defences I have described.

The third process in the brain which contributes to the transcendent function is the integration of right and left hemisphere functioning. Siegel sees this as one of the crucial brain processes underlying the analytic process, whereby the sense of self, autonoetic consciousness, is retrieved by the right brain and then encoded and re-organized by the left hemisphere. Narratives emerge from this bilateral re-integrating process. (Siegel, 2003, p. 28)


One of my underlying purposes in this paper is to show that we can never understand the human psyche and its defences purely in terms of one level of explanation; we always need to relate our analytic understanding of the patient’s subjective experience to the implicit structures and processes by which the mind deals with information and which are spelt out in attachment theory. The developmental pathways by which these have evolved and the neurophysiological processes which underpin them are also essential for us to build up a comprehensive picture of the nature and purpose of defences. I hope that this paper makes a useful contribution to this picture.


  • Beebe, B; Lachmann, F. (2002) Infant Research and Adult Treatment: Co-Constructing Interactions. Hillsdale, New Jersey: The Analytic Press.
  • Bovensiepen, G. (2002) ‘Symbolic attitude and reverie: problems of symbolization in children and adolescents’. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 47, 2: 241-258.
  • Britton, R. (1998) ‘The suspension of belief and the “as-if” syndrome’. In Belief and Imagination. London: Routledge.
  • Crowther, C. (2004) ‘Addictive states of mind’. Awaiting publication.,
  • Deacon, T. (1997) The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Human Brain. USA: W.W. Norton / UK: Allen Lane: The Penguin Press.
  • Deutsch, H. (1942) ‘Some forms of emotional disturbance and their relationship to schizophrenia’. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 11:301-321.
  • Fonagy, P. (1991). ‘Thinking about thinking: some clinical and theoretical considerations in the treatment of the borderline patient’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 72, 4:639-656.
  • Fonagy, P. (1999) ‘Memory and therapeutic action’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 80, 2: 215-24.
  • Fordham, M. (1985) ‘Defences of the Self’, in Explorations Into the Self. The Library of Analytical Psychology, Vol 7. London: Academic Press.
  • Hopper, E. (1991). ‘Encapsulation as a defence against the fear of annihilation’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 72, 4:607-624.
  • Jung, C.G. (1921) ‘Definitions’, Collected Works 6.
  • Jung, C.G. (1957[1916]) ‘The transcendent function’, Collected Works 8.
  • Kalsched, D. (1996) The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit. London & New York: Routledge.
  • Karen, R. (1998) Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Karmiloff-Smith, A (1992) Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  • Khan, M. (1974[1963]) ‘The concept of cumulative trauma’, in The Privacy of the Self. London: Hogarth Press.
  • Ledermann, R. (1991) ‘Regression and Stagnation’ Journal of Analytical Psychology, 36, 4: 483-504.
  • Mollon, P. (2001) Multiple Selves, Multiple Voices: Working with Trauma, Violation and Dissociation. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Murray, L. (1992) ‘The impact of postnatal depression on infant development’. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 33, 543-561.
  • Rotmann, M. (2002) ‘The alienness of the unconscious: on Laplanche’s theory of seduction’. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 47, 2: 265-278.
  • Schore, A. (2003) Affect Regulation and Disorders of the Self. New York London: W.W. Norton & Co.
  • Seligman, E. (1982) ‘The half-alive ones’ Journal of Analytical Psychology, 27, 1: 1-20.
  • Sidoli, M. (1993) ‘When meaning gets lost in the body: psychosomatic disturbance as a failure of the transcendent function’. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 38, 2:175.
  • Siegel, D. (2003) ‘An interpersonal neurobiology of psychotherapy’, in Healing Trauma: attachment, mind, body, and brain. Eds. Solomon, M., Siegel, D., New York & London: W.W. Norton & Co.
  • Solomon, H. (2004). ‘The as-if personality: self creation and the limitless void of dissociation’. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 49, 4 (in press).
  • Steiner, J. (1993) Psychic Retreats: Pathological organization in Psychotic, Neurotic and Borderline Patients. London: Routledge.
  • Wilkinson, M. (2003) ‘Undoing trauma: contemporary neuroscience. A Jungian Clinical Perspective’ Journal of Analytical Psychology, 48, 2:235-254.