1-1 Affirming the Other in Psychotherapy

1-1 Affirming the Other in Psychotherapy

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 Julie Futrell

Affirming the Other in Psychotherapy

Once you grant some privilege to gathering and not to dissociating, then you leave no room for the other, for the radical otherness of the other, for the radical singularity of the other. […] Dissociation, separation, is the condition of my relation to the other. I can address the Other only to the extent that there is a separation, a dissociation, so that I cannot replace the other and vice versa. That is what is called […] the ‘relationless relation.’ […] It is a relation in which the other remains absolutely transcendent. I cannot reach the other. I cannot know the other from the inside and so on. That is not an obstacle but the condition of love, of friendship, and of war, too, a condition of the relation to the other. (as cited in Caputo, 1997, p. 14)

Derrida tells us that deconstruction is about “affirming the other.” Making room for the “coming of the other.” What is it, though, to “affirm the other” in the therapeutic setting? Such words would seem to imply some type of an offering of positive confirmation and understanding of the patient via the therapeutic relationship. It is precisely this “relationship” and this “understanding” that I seek to explore, to perhaps even, at the risk of pretending I “understand” much of Derrida, to “deconstruct.” How might a Derridean (re)articulation of the concepts “affirmation of the other,” and “relation” afford us a more rigorous ethics of clinical practice? In this paper, I seek to explore this question by first offering an overview of a couple of fashionable approaches to psychotherapy, followed by an elucidation of Derrida’s notion of hospitality as “affirmation of the other.” I will conclude with a brief meditation on the possible clinical implications of such a Derridean (re)articulation.

If we could just understand

Many contemporary approaches to psychotherapeutic intervention emphasize presence, for example, via relational or manualized treatment models. Essential to both of these models is a belief in the centrality of the role of understanding and knowledge as the effective components of therapeutic change. For example, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy [CBT] seeks to enact change in the patient by offering a set of laws that allow the patient to gain more knowledge of her thought processes, with the belief that such knowledge will produce transformation. Relational and humanistic approaches to psychotherapy often operate on the assumption that understanding is the transformative force of therapy. This understanding takes two forms:  The understanding that the therapist is able to offer the patient via the therapeutic relationship and the development of the patient’s understanding of her own afflictions. To be sure, the latter is believed to oftentimes be a result of the former—the belief being that, through a type of Rogerian “unconditional positive regard,” the patient (or client, in this case) may develop a unified and transparent sense of self. For example, leading relational theorist, Robert Stolorow (2010) writes,

[We] are necessarily understandable to ourselves as human beings. Because we and all those with whom we are deeply connected are finite, transient, vulnerable beings, the possibilities of death and loss, and therefore of emotional trauma, always impend and are ever present. […] [J]ust as our finiteness and vulnerability to death and loss are fundamental to our existential constitution, so too is it constitutive of our existence that we meet each other as “siblings in the same darkness,” deeply connected with one another in virtue of our common finiteness. Thus, although the possibility of emotional trauma is ever present, so too is the possibility of forming bonds of deep emotional understanding within which devastating emotional pain can be held and cared for, rendered more tolerable, and, hopefully, eventually integrated. Our existential kinship-in-the-same-darkness is the condition for the possibility of the healing power of human understanding. (NP)

Here, the other is someone just like me—alone and adrift in existential isolation—and healing occurs through the development of a relationship based on our mutual understanding of our “kinship-in-the-same-darkness.” The relationship is thus, for Stolorow, a symmetrical one between two immanent beings, one who assumes that the other experiences existential angst just like me. “Affirmation of the other” is, consequently, a positive confirming of the person present before me. Relational theorists assert that through this uniting, this gathering, we may thus overcome emotional trauma. As therapists, we offer our patients our understanding of their fears and worries to facilitate the recognition of their fundamental connectedness to others. We assure them that they are not alone. In so doing, we hope that the patient will overcome neurotic tendencies and develop and reciprocate such understanding—that they will integrate their emotional trauma in such a way as to feel unified. This stance assumes two things: 1) That I, as therapist, have access to a universal understanding of the ways of the world and 2) That, via language, I can likewise enable my patient to recognize that, they too, have such access.

What happens though when someone does not reciprocate or our typical ways of understanding fail us? What happens when someone appears before us who is profoundly unrecognizable, who seems to betray this belief that we are “siblings in the same darkness?” What happens when our unconditional positive regard and knowledge development fall short and produces no change in the patient? In short, what happens when a foreigner appears before us? It is here where the turn to Derrida may offer us a more radical (re)conceptualization of the other that allows us to (re)think the very ethics of understanding and of the relation with the other. Through Derrida, we may perhaps come to see why something more than a psychology of presence is called for.  

Every other is every bit other

How might we take into consideration the foreign(er), that which escapes our comprehension? It is this very question that drives Derrida’s relentless deconstruction of presence. Derrida disagrees that the other is someone like me, knowable, understandable. For, we cannot die another’s death. We cannot ever occupy the place of (an)other. Derrida (1999), summarizing Levinas, states, “The other is infinitely other because we never have any access to the other as such.  That is why he/she is the other” (p. 71, original emphasis). Far different than the relational emphasis on mutual understanding and sameness, Derrida instead disseminates psychotherapy as an ethics of hospitality precisely because of the transcendence of the other. Derrida writes,

[D]econstruction is profoundly affirmative. Oui, oui. To be sure, deconstruction does not affirm what is, does not fall down adoringly before what is present, for the present is precisely what demands endless analysis, criticism, and deconstruction. […] On the contrary, deconstruction affirms what is to come, a venir, which is what its deconstruction of the present, and of the values of presence, is all about. (as cited in Caputo, 1997, pp. 41-42)

Why this critique of presence, of presents, of the given, of the known? Derrida writes, “Deconstructive analysis deprives the present of its prestige and exposes it to something wholly other, beyond what is foreseeable from the present, beyond the horizon of the same” (as cited in Caputo, 1997, p. 42). For Derrida, any imposition of sameness is a violence, a closing down of that which is to come. To be sure, we may only understand what is homogenous to us—this is the very essence of understanding. Freud (1900/1953) himself acknowledged as much when he wrote, “To explain a thing means to trace it back to something already known” (p. 549). As such, there is no room for that which is heterogenous to appear, to arrive. When we assume we understand something, we fix it in place. It is, in fact, this desire for fixity, this fear of the mysterium tremendum–of that which transcends and escapes knowledge—that drives the compulsion for understanding and full disclosure (Derrida, 1995).

Deconstruction, however, seeks “an opening in order to release certain unforeseeable effects” (Derrida, 1995, p. 104). Derrida is interested in that which we cannot know, do not know, the foreigner, the radical otherness of the other, the singularity that disrupts a politics of understanding and of the same. In short, that which interrupts the system exposing us to differance. It is, therefore, not our mutual similarities that allow for a deep, profound respect of the other, but rather our separation. Our non-relation as relation with the other is predicated on this dissociation and is the condition of the possibility of justice (Derrida, 1999). When we recognize the otherness of the other, an ethics of hospitality emerges in place of a philosophy of understanding. Whereas a philosophy of understanding requires one to conform to the law, thus preventing it from taking stock of the foreigner, an ethics of hospitality recognizes the infinite alterity of the other, therefore obligating us to offer hospitality even when the person does not reciprocate or follow the rules of the law. Derrida’s hospitality decenters understanding and gives it a new non-center—hospitality toward the foreigner. It recognizes that understanding and knowledge are always limited, and that consequently, I must start anew each time I encounter (an)other. In so doing, I do not require another’s suffering or emotional trauma to conform to my understanding or to the law, but rather, hospitality makes the law answer to justice. And justice is always undeconstructible. It is in the name of justice that I respond to the other’s suffering. This, of course, does not mean that we do not need laws, but that we must always remain open to that which transcends the law. I must situate myself between the law and justice. In so doing, I recognize that justice never arrives, that pure hospitality is impossible, that the gift annuls itself as soon as it is given; however, I also recognize that this very impossibility is also the condition of its possibility. The moment we claim we are “just,” we claim a full presence that obliterates the other and that does not allow for that which is to come. The moment we assume understanding, we have already imposed a violence that forecloses the appearance of anything more than the homogenous.               

Clinical implications

How might we utilize Derrida’s ethics of hospitality concretely in our clinical work? If we start from the position that every other is every bit other, does this mean we throw psychoanalysis, for instance, out the window? As mentioned previously, deconstruction does not mean that we do not need laws or frameworks, only that we recognize them as always/already necessarily and structurally limited. We do not become dogmatic and fixed in our approach to our patients, but instead, stay open to that which is heterogenous to the patient’s conception of herself, as well as to that which is heterogenous to our theoretical perspectives. In so doing, we are hospitable to what the patient herself is not, or, to use analytic language, to that which the ego has rejected. To stop here, however, would be to misunderstand the radicality of the other. We not only listen for that which is out of tune with the patient’s self/same identifications, we also recognize the impossibility of full disclosure, of full transparency. For each person is constituted by an(other) that is and always will remain, a secret. Indeed, it is perhaps this very lack-of-knowing that we hope to see our patients acknowledge and accept. For what does the neurotic struggle for the most if not complete self-mastery? Self-control. A longing to believe that when I say I, it is exclusively me who speaks, decides, determines. To give up such illusions and accept the limitations of human knowledge incites tremendous anxiety; indeed, it is the basis for many an elaborate defense system. To accept a lack in what Jacques Lacan calls the Symbolic, is to open oneself to the brutal truth that knowledge only takes one so far, despite the claims of modern science. Safety for the neurotic is found in the same, in the predictable; this is the foundation of ego crystallizations around identity and meaning. The neurotic hopes and longs for a calculable rule book that will give her the answers—an all-encompassing knowledge that will allow her to escape the dreadful responsibility of her singularity, of her aloneness. For, not only does castration demand a recognition of the limits of human knowledge, it entails an acceptance of one’s inevitable separation from all of the other others. Consequently, as Fink (2010), notes, as therapists we “seek to shake up meaning and self-understanding” (p. 23), and to show that “conscious, articulated knowledge often stands in the way of change [because it] foster[s] the illusion of the possibility of egoic self-mastery” (p. 7).

We see then that a relational approach such as Stolorow’s, which emphasizes understanding as the transformative factor in analysis, cannot radically expose the patient to the abyss, to the lack that inspires such awful dread. It, instead, continues to operate in what Lacan calls the Imaginary—that register where the patient seeks to escape castration by assuming that others see the world as he does, and where he maintains the illusory belief that another other can, therefore, fully understand him. Such illusions allow the patient to avoid what Derrida terms the moment of the decision—the recognition that only I can assume responsibility for my decisions, and that a decision can only ever be a leap of faith. For no decision is ever the result simply of a logical accumulation of knowledge. Derrida (1999) states, “A decision […] must be prepared as far as possible by knowledge […] At some point, however, for a decision to be made you have to go beyond knowledge, to do something that you don’t know, something which does not belong to,  or is beyond, the sphere of knowledge” (p. 66). And this moment is always a singular moment, unaccompanied by another, that requires the patient to assume responsibility and to act in the face of the unforseeable. To face the mysterium tremendum—the fear and the trembling—and to throw out the rule book and truly struggle with the decision. This is a terrible burden, this responsibility. But, it is also the opening at the limit—the oui, oui of the patient. Finally. The opening to the other, to that which is to come. The recognition of the “absolute alterity obtaining in relations between one human and another” (Derrida, 1999, p. 84). For the therapist to impose his particular form of understanding upon the patient, a violence must be committed, the other foreclosed.

Given this, Freud’s call for opacity in the therapist is perhaps the most hospitable gesture we can offer patients. It offers hospitality to what we do not know and affords the patient the opportunity to discover the ruptures within and without. When we do not impose our understanding and experiences on our patients, something new may arrive that over-comes and sur-prises both patient and therapist. Hospitality here is not the imposition of some type of relational gathering, but is instead the fostering of the patient’s “dreadful responsibility of loneliness” (Derrida, 1995, p. 73). In so doing, we free the patient to respond to the call of the other, to the suffering of the ghosts of the past and the promise of the future. Concretely, this means not normalizing a patient’s experiences in such a way as to prevent him from exploring the uniqueness of his own make-up and his own response. It means that we recognize that “speaking in their stead allows us to articulate our own experience, but thwarts their articulation of their own” (Fink, 2010, p. 16). We interpret minimally, so as to let the other as other appear. The words of Derrida (2001) may best express this point:

Giving to the other to be read is also a leaving to be desired, or a leaving the other room for an intervention by which she will be able to write her own interpretation: the other will have to be able to sign in my text. And it is here that the desire not to be understood means, simply, hospitableness to the reading of the other, not the rejection of the other. (pp. 31-32)

Here then, “affirmation of the other,” rather than confirming something before me, instead looks toward that which is both beyond and within me that  I do not know.  It is inventive rather than conforming, and recognizes itself as a relationless relation. I am in relation not with another “just like me” but with something radically other. As such, we always mis-understand the other—structurally so. However, rather than this being a hopeless condition that prevents us from ever forming a bond with (an)other, it is instead the very condition that allows us to honor and respect the difference that makes possible the allowance for the other to show up as other.

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About the author:

is a licensed psychologist practicing in New York City. At the moment, she finds herself equally obsessed with Lacanian psychoanalysis, the ethics of psychological practice, hysteria, and all things jazz or blues related.


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