CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey


Letting Go

By James Garofallou, Ph.D.

Some years ago, my niece Jill, who was a young mother at the time, confided that she was very fearful that her daughter Sierra, a very precocious little girl of about 4, was so frightfully bright that she may surpass her. Could she keep up with her daughterís academic questions, her voracious curiosity, her boundless exuberance? In that moment, I could have, but opted not to support Jillís obvious capabilities; she is and has proven to be a fully able mother. Instead, I told her that it is Sierraís job to surpass her -- that the task of every child is to surpass her parent. She took solace in my response, but the exchange got me to thinking about the relationship between our competitive fears of inadequacy and the gratification that comes of generativity combined with the formal surrender of our grandiosity. I say formal because this surrender is often a deliberate, conscious and adult choice that we all make when we relinquish our presumed ascendancy over the other, particularly when that other is one who we love and respect.

Surrender in the face of anotherís growth and development came to mind more recently when I attended the CPPNJ Fall brunch. After having served nine years at the helm, it was a very odd experience to sit on the sidelines with nothing to do. I cannot enumerate how many programs or initiatives were mentioned where I was jolted by the recollection that either I or Irwin had originated that particular idea or had put it into motion years ago. I took enormous pleasure and a sense of accomplishment at seeing the various committee heads moving forward in new directions all the while operating under a framework that I had a hand in designing. I critiqued Sethís handling of the meeting with an insiderís eye that had been sharpened and hardened by years of experience as a director. That perspective only heightened my admiration for what I saw him accomplish and how he went about it. From my perch, I found myself experiencing a combination of prideful knowingness mixed with an oddly right-feeling sense of complete helplessness and diminished relevance. The work of the institute was unfolding very well on its own and yet without me.

We are all faced with this admixture of emotions every day in our analytic practice. Patients grow and patients surpass us. For some, their superior capacities are evident from the first day. I have had creative and intelligent patients who have held me in thrall with their capacity to make connections between ideas, to describe phenomena through unique concepts or to paint images or metaphors that reflect a spark of casual genius. I have treated couples where a spouse has responded to her mateís projections or provocations with an emotional stability and a lack of blame that at the same time gave unflinching voice to her feelings and wants, all in a way that I could only wish to achieve in my own marriage. Another patient who has suffered extensive characterological impairment and damage to her self-esteem at the hands of a narcissistic mother rose to the task, years later, of caretaking for that elderly mother in ways that evoked my frank and expressed admiration. Balancing her own limits, susceptibilities and needs with a growing sense of what is simply the right thing to do in the world, she went back into the lionís den without losing her evolving sense of self. I openly admired her accomplishment while I privately questioned how well I could deal with such a challenge.

Some of these achievements on the part of the patient derive directly from the success of the clinical work. Yet others arise from depths that the patient and even we as the analyst could never have imagined. When such achievements or expressions of innate capacity take place, we, in our position as mother, director or analyst, are offered a unique opportunity. We can cling (overtly or secretly) to our ownership of the patientís accomplishment or we can relinquish it. We have all learned to relinquish any presumption of authorship over the patientís successes. Our training and our understanding of the corrosive potential to re-enact the patientís original narcissistic injury have shown us the dangers of that path for all involved. That road, though by no means easy, is the more obvious of the pitfalls we must be alert to in the face of such expressions of growth.

In addition to staying alert to the fact that we are clearly not the authors (or secret authors) of our patientís success, there is yet a second dimension to this need to relinquish. We must also be willing to accept the bitter-sweet reality that the other has, in certain ways, clearly grown beyond us. And we must find a way to accept and at times reflect our own smallness in the face of that reality without diminishing ourselves in the process. In the successful treatment, this progressive diminution/relinquishment of fantasy sets the stage for a mature and mutually grounded termination. It is how children like Sierra achieve the freedom to grow. But it is also how mothers like Jill and how others, (like, myself) come to experience a very humbling gratification in that growth and from that gratification, derive a sense of peace in letting go after a job well done.