Tag Archives: grief

Griefs and Discontents

Mutual DiscontentGregory Rochlin is amazing. Rochlin was Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Harvard medical school. His book Griefs and Discontents: The Forces of Change, was published in 1965. Like most of his generation of psychiatrists he was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas. In spite of some antiquated constructs, his ideas are still relevant. Rochlin had a practical understanding of the human condition and an ability to put things into perspective using accessible language. Though his wording is a bit stiff, he is a pleasure to read. Rochlin is all but forgotten today. I could find no photos or bios of him on the internet.

Through our use of words, concepts, causal explanations, methodology and theoretical premises change, there are universal themes in human experience which people have grappled with since the dawn of history. How do we overcome disappointment and learn to be at least as realistic as is necessary to achieve some serenity in life? I suppose the first step is stop using unreasonable expectations to set ourselves up for disappointment. Beyond that, Rochlin’s ideas are inspiring. He also recognizes the primacy of sociality in understanding the human condition, an idea which I cherish and am pursuing with all deliberate speed.

I read the book twice and the pages are aflutter with post-it notes of a few of the memorable passages.  I’ve been holding onto it for months, because I want to write a post on “Failure,” and he has a chapter, “The Psychology of Failure.” But now I’m busy with a thousand other things, and I need to get some books back to the library so I can work on a paper I need to write  for a class I’m taking. So before pulling the post-its and dumping the little treasure in the return slot, I read through the passages I had marked. I don’t have time to do a proper set of notes on the whole book, so here are some memorable quotes. Keep in mind that Rochlin uses the word “ego”  in the Freudian sense of “the me,” or “self,” not in the current colloquial sense which implies arrogance or self-centeredness.

From chapter 1, “The Dread of Abandonment:”

“In man, therefore, the principle of homeostasis includes an object without which its aims cannot be achieved. The tendency toward constancy, the achievement of the pleasure principle, and the adherence to the reality principle, man cannot gain alone. He can succeed in these aims only through the society of another person.” (p.15)

“Depression is the psychology of disappointment. A common and naively proposed assertion is that depression is a reaction to frustration, simple aggression or deprivation. Psychoanalytic studies of children who have experienced object loss, in fact or fantasy, through separation of deprivation, or in whom an adequate object relationship has failed to develop, have shown that the clinical picture is ruled by the infantile vicissitudes of aggression which are associated with unfulfilled expectations. When these governing elements include a severely self-critical faculty, depression ensues.” (p. 16)

One of Rochlin’s primary themes is that we never actually accept loss, and will suffer until we have substituted something for the place previously held by what has been lost. From chapter 4, “Loss and Restitution:”

“The denial of reality, the negation of a loss, fantasies of loss without recompense, or the turning from despair to elation are common signs which signify that an anxious process to settle accounts with oneself is in full operation. Such reactions find their most important expression in the alteration of reality. On countless occasions, many of which in themselves may seem trivial, they indicate that escape from the burden of a sense of loss is imperative. It appears, therefore, that acceptance of a loss in emotional life is  but a philosophic and academic concept. It is probably neither a clinical fact nor a human characteristic.” (p. 131)

“A consideration of the problems involved in loss and restitution rests substantially on the psychodynamics of self-esteem. Self-esteem, unlike many other qualities, is perishable. It is easily lost and difficult to recapture. It is indispensable but unstable, readily affected by a variety of influences; care must be taken to insure its preservation. Its loss must be redeemed. A forfeited, damaged, or decreased self-esteem is an unacceptable condition. Whatever lowers it needs to be worked off. To preserve it also requires effort. Thus the condition of self-esteem is not permanently achieved; it requires constant attention for its maintenance.” (p. 132-133)

“Guilt is an oppressive conflict. It compels relief.” (p. 162)

From chapter 5, “Creativity:”

“The most intolerable condition that seems to confront man is that of his own limitations, if one is to judge from the variety of his attempts to overcome them. A curtailment of his freedom or of himself as a physical being does not fail to mobilize him for a struggle to assert his liberty or to contrive compensations for whatever restrictions he may suffer. When his grasp is not equal to his reach he devises implements. And when he fears his life is going to be too short, which it always seems to be, he finds a way to extend it beyond death into immortality. Whatever view he may hold of the limitations that are man’s lot, he never finds them acceptable, nor is he resigned to them.” (p. 184-185)

“Constant fear and dread of loss is not acceptable to man and forces restitution, the route to which is creativity.” . . . “Viewed in this light, creativity is a means through which the oppressive grind of daily life may be mitigated and from which compensation for it is fashioned.” (p. 196)

From chapter 6, “The Psychology of Failure:”

“. . . whatever evokes the awareness of limitations creates a condition that is not acceptable and needs to be remedied. Thus the common experience of failure in realizing an enterprise, or even a wish, will produce a reaction to offset it, which may be a fantasy or an act or both. Thus in most important areas of his life the child succeeds in overcoming his inevitable failures. From these experiences the child may see that failure is not irrevocable. In this and other beliefs that the child evolves, nothing is irrevocable, neither failure nor the end of life itself.” (p. 232)

“The vicissitudes of narcissism and self-esteem appear to be a unifying thread which is woven throughout the entire fabric of human development. As a consequence the fate of narcissism in all stages of development has a determinative influence and bearing on the outcome and dynamics of any one of them.” (p. 251)

“The drive to acquire skills and to achieve mastery is often accompanied by grandiose wishes that are coupled with magical beliefs in the power of such wishes. These are some of the principal means employed to transcend a life that is intimately dependent upon others. Daily experience, the realities of which enforce the truth that limitations exist, perpetuates a conflict throughout life that only under the extraordinary conditions of psychosis appears to be resolved by relinquishing reality. These mental mechanisms, devices, and efforts, indicating magical thinking, childish in their origins, are but slowly given up. They are never abandoned altogether.” (p. 285)

“The reaction to failure of ego functions is experienced in the same way as is the loss of any valued function: the individual feels humiliated and demeaned. Self-devaluation begins and ushers in the typical symptoms of self-denigration and depression. Relief may then be sought in the satisfaction derived from regressive behavior.” (p. 295)

From chapter 7, “The Loss of Function:”

“Life is not conducted alone, nor for that matter is death. Life after death is not conceived of as a lonely existence, except as a punishment. Otherwise life after death is conceived to be a joining with others either in heaven or hell, or if one returns to roam the earth in a reincarnation, such an existence is not thought to be a lonely one. These persistent beliefs are brought up not to argue that Heaven and Hell are crowded but to show that the solutions that man finds are in terms of his relations with other people and especially with those who are personally important to him, whether these solutions are addressed to problems that exist when he is alive or to those that he believes arise when he has died.” (p. 359)

Also from “The Psychology of Failure,” but more explicitly Freudian:

“Narcissism is no mere fact of life or a simple characteristic of it. Narcissism is a part of the process of self-preservation; and whenever that is threatened, narcissism protects it. Regardless of what transitions take place in respect to narcissism in the course of development of object relations, narcissism is indispensable to offset the dangers to self-esteem. Nor is self-esteen a mere aspect of the human condition. It too is a complex process held in precarious balance that relies in great measure on narcissism to right it. The excesses to which narcissism may be developed are always related to the fragility of self-esteem. Moreover, careful study of narcissism has shown that the restoration of a lowered or lost self-esteem requires, in addition to vanity, an object relationship for libidinal gratification even if it must be gained in a pathological fashion. Narcissism is the libidinal component of the instinct of self-preservation, and self-esteem is its ego manifestation. The executant functions of the ego, by skill, mastery, achievement, by controlling and manipulating and thus affecting the environment so as to provide a better adaptation to reality, sustain self-esteem. Conversely, when the executant functions do not develop sufficiently to make such aims possible, self-esteem suffers and a sense of one’s precarious position or failure prevails.” (p. 315)