25-07-2014 at 13:30

Potential Space

Paul Bèner
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Foulkes stated that we are and become who we are through communication or failure of communication. He said that the individual is an abstraction and the basis for the individual self is group relations. The work of Winnicott is all the way permeated and based on relationships. He concluded that we from birth are dependent and need the other to become a subject. Ormay (2012) reminds us of that “one person is no person” and introduces the concept of “nos” for us to be able to think about what drives us to relate, need and help others, compared to “ego”, that preserves and protects our borders. In group analytic theory there are references to Winnicott, conceptualizing phenomena in the life of a therapy group with Winnicotts understanding of, for instance, concepts as potential space, transitional objects and holding (James 1982, 2000. Nitsun (1989, 1996). The analytic therapeutic group is gathered to try to develop and change the object relations for the group and individuals through the process of communication in the matrix (Aagaard 1999, Dahlin 1979).  My interest has been focused on the relationship between the group, the individual and the self and in my paper at the 16th European Symposium regarding GAD, I will suggest a definition and present how the group functions as a potential space, a transitional area where feelings creatively can be used for experiencing the self in relationship to others and therefore to oneself.

The group as potential space 

From a session

”Two members talk about relationships to partners and difficulties of feeling honest and close, to be afraid. A woman wonders if the other wants both to have the cookie and eat it. She answers, I want more, I will never be full!

(C: you talk about longing and fear, and you sense a lack, a scarcity.) Can you as a therapist tell me what I am missing, so I can do something about it!? (Now the lack is present here…)

Several smiles and another talk about her fear to make a mistake if she goes into a relationship again with a man, or if she should give it up, because they hurt each other last time. She starts crying. One thinks she should watch herself, another that she should dare engage, go for it! The group is busy with how she feels.

(You can hear both sides now)

Yes, they are both inside me!”

The group functions here as a potential space, a transitional area where feelings creatively can be used for experiencing the self in relationship to others and therefore to oneself. In the session there are self-experiences and longing/deficit/missing are symbolized – the words are “full”, “eat the cookie and still have it”, “right and wrong”. This takes place in an intermediate area, a space between the inner life and outer reality. At the same time something else and at the same time part of myself. Otherness and sameness. The driving forces are affects as interest and joy, anger and pain, distress.

The relationship with the transitional object is a sign of that a potential space is at hand.  The space is potential in giving meaning to experiences, although it must be experienced without questioning or being tested according to what is what - internal or external, true or false, individual or group. It is an area of the symbol, both internal and external, an interpreting action compared to an actual phenomenon, external object. This space between the inner world and outer reality contains the illusion where we in a dialectical co-existence both are united with and separated from the other. Significant for transitional phenomena in the potential space is that the question whether it already was there to be found, or if it is a creation of our self, never is present. This question is simply not part of this mode of experiencing.  A little girl with her doll playing she is feeding the doll, is in a mode of experiencing where she both is a little girl in her room and a mother feeding her baby. If someone should get the idea of asking her about whom she is, the play is interrupted. The member in the group who are talking and communicating can do so without having to decide whether it is the own self or the group.

The intermediate area can also collapse.

From a later session:

“When the summer break is mentioned, a member tells the group he is going to stop. The group talks about being unsure about what slow-open means and that the group and space always exists, compared to that you can lose something and the group might come to an end when someone leaves. The member says he wants to stop because he doesn’t want to be with others and it´s meaningless to be among people. Relationships are difficult and meaningless. The group reacts and a woman says irritated, he can leave immediately! Another says that he has contributed to the group with his sincerity and others mean that he is unfair to himself. One member repeats that she can´t let go of the thought that she wishes he would understand he diminishes himself.

(C: propose she recognizes that she also diminishes herself, when she often seeks permission to speak in the group.)

She nods, calms down and the group talk and wonder about why the member want to stop coming and the woman repeats that he can leave immediately, instead of taking time from the group with this subject.

 (C: Says she might be sad and angry due to something she needs time to speak about in the group and maybe she wants to share with us?) She replies it was a difficult weekend. Silence.

(C: We are insecure and uneasy now, in that we both want to make a difference, but also allow freedom.)

The man who wants to stop coming is quite open with his anger against the woman and says they are different and annoy each other. He rises from his chair and says; I will leave now.

(C: do you leave now?)  Yes. He leaves the room.”

As conductor I could have focused on the emotions in the group; the group’s image of the member leaving; or the individual’s image of the group or still the group’s feelings for the group.  We can also look at this interaction in the group as a means of difficulties of mentalizing or it might be anti-group phenomenon, destructive processes due to anxiety, frustration of needs for confirmation or handling conflicts and anger. We might also see it as selfobject failure, where the group as a selfobject is failing in its function to develop, preserve and repair the self. The group is rejected when it is not able to be dependent of, or able to be seen as an equal or still to be admired and idealized as important.  

But I propose here the possibility that the session is an example of where the intermediate area collapses and the playing is interrupted, as the paradox and illusion comes to the foreground, when the question if the group exists or can be created by communicating and relating, because the group is facing a summer breaks and separation. The playing now becomes bloody serious and action is taken for protection. The interpreting subject, the ability to symbolize where something can represent something else, has vanished and things are just what they are. A spade is a spade is a spade.

A dialectical process is when two opposing concepts creates, negates and preserves the meaning of each other. This is because the concepts stand in a dynamic shifting relationship to each other. One concept has meaning in relation to the other. The word “day” has meaning because we can relate it to the word “night”. Therapist and patient create each other; the one cannot exist without the other and they might create a therapeutic process. The individual creates the group and the group the individual.

Thomas Ogden uses Winnicott to describe how the self is created in a dialectical process. First is the dialectics of oneness/separateness within a primary maternal preoccupation. The otherness of the parent is noted but not stated, an invisible presence. This form of relating is a state of going-on-being. Then follows a dialectics of I/me in a mirroring relationship, meaning that when the baby looks at the parent, what the parent looks like   has to do with what the parent sees there. The child´s experiences of itself in the parents mirroring, as Other to itself, creates the basis for the ability of self experience, consciousness of self.

Then the transitional object-relating and the dialectics of creating/discovering the object can be possible. A subjective object, an omnipotent creation and at the same time our first “not-me possession” is possible. The transitional object is the first confrontation with something that cannot be changed, the real world outside our selves. This is possible because the object at the same time is a creation of our selves, a mirroring of the self in the world outside. An image of comparison is if there are just two dots - we can only draw a line between the two. When a third position is possible, a subjective self, we can create a triangle. A triangle, compared to a line, has a space within it which makes interpretation, symbols and experiencing possible. This is the area where we live and can be creative, the potential space. In the group the matrix is a creation of communications and makes a lot of lines forming triangles, spaces where meaning can be created.

Now a dialectics of the creative destruction of the object becomes a new paradox. The parent is destroyed while surviving and this is how we create the possibility of the parent becoming a subject, a person other-then-myself, which I can use as a person independent of me outside myself. The other survives through being emotionally present over time. A new kind of intersubjective experience is created within a dialectics of subjects creating each other through seeing each other as subjects. I become a subject in the group while denying its difference or importance, the group as subjective object, and the group survives this, being present over time, mirroring me and me mirroring the others. Through surviving my ruthless love the group becomes group as subject and in the matrix there is a dialectics between subjects creating each other, able to see and being seen as subjects.

An attempt to define the concept of the group as potential space: The space is potential in giving meaning to experiences, although it must be experienced without questioning or being tested according to whether it is true or false, individual or group. Compared to a relation between two dots, as a straight line between symbol and that which it symbolizes, the entering of the interpreting self is a third point making a triangle, compared to a straight line. This then is a space, made of and making my interpreting self and my symbols and my sense impressions possible. This is the area where we live and can be creative, the potential space. In the group matrix is communication – lines between individuals - and a lot of lines are forming triangles, spaces where meaning is created and found. The group as potential space is simultaneously me and an omnipotent extension of me and at the same time not me, but an object for use, a group of other selves outside my omnipotence. 

Now it is time to say that the question of what belongs to the group and what belongs to the individual is not allowed! The group as transitional object and   intermediate area is me, the others and the conductor, all the bodies, the groups communication of themes and feelings and it is both inside and outside me and part of matrix. The group creates and is created in a potential space, where I can interpret and experience me and not-me, be a subject. To ask what is what, if it is me or the group, interrupts the playing in matrix.                                       

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