Dialectics of symbols


Behaviours within a therapeutic hour are symbolic of the way that a patient deals with all of their relationships. The patient who apologizes for the lock that is broken on Yalom’s door is asked does she more generally feel the need to apologize for things that were not the her fault. The client who arrives late or makes a point of paying a lower fee may be asserting their dominance or value over the therapist (and by extension all people). 


The hour of therapy is extremely meaningful. In fact Yalom attaches particular significance to the first dream related in therapy. We also find Maroda attaching particular significance to the patient’s first words or statements about themselves. Within this transference or ‘symbolic field’ we find arrangements of opposites.Sabina Spielrien’s article on destruction as a cause of coming into being serves as both a good introduction to this ‘coincidence of opposites’ and also the dialectical operation of symbols. She refers to Stekel’s idea of polarity and her discussion is replete with examples of symbolic relationship between the opposing elements of sex and death.

This dialectical operation of symbols is illustrated with an example from Slavoj Zizek.He quotes Hegel as saying that ‘[b]y repetition that which at first appeared merely a matter of chance or contingency becomes a real and ratified experience.’ He takes the example of the assassination of Julius Caesar suggesting that towards the ‘opinion’ that still believed in the Republic Caesar’s actions could only seem to be an arbitrary act and as something accidental. To this ‘opinion’ if one could only remove this one individual from the picture the Republic would be ipso facto restored. In murdering Julius Caesar, the conspirators allowed for the reign of Augustus, the first true Caesar. Zizek suggests here then that ‘[t]he truth here emerges from its very failure’. The murder of the Caesar exposed the truth of its own non-truth. The death of Caesar then establishes Caesarism. In the same way a symbol used to represent experience can expose the truth of its own non-truth.

Dialectics in practice

It seems that deep progress within therapy requires this dialectic to create insight. In his book, Client Centred Therapy, Carl Rogers remarked on the suddenness of change and how it seems to occur almost invisibly. He also noted the contradiction that an acceptance of the nature of Miss Cam caused that shyness to fall away naturally. A pattern will through its expression expose its own non-truth. Miss Cam was shy and withdrawn presumably because she felt that she was not a person who could be worth relating too. She then responded by making herself a person not worth communicating to. Through this process of making herself not worth communicating with she actually proves that she is inherently worth communicating with .More generally Rogers’ discussion of therapeutic change Carl Rogers suggests that the sense of progress and achievement is not only felt in moments of elation and pleasure, but also when the road seems darkest, and the confusion greatest.

In Love’s executioner Yalom deals with Carlos, an initially extremely unpleasant man. Here a  symbolic ‘coincidence of opposites; allowed Carlos to realize a transcendence within his personality. His adjustment of his representations of women, and people more generally, did not arise from first principles but rather at the the extreme zenith and overextension of his misogynist and even pro-rapist representations of women. Through the sudden inclusion of his daughter within his symbolizations their meaning was forced to radically change.  If we look at the way that patient’s choose to symbolize their experience we can place those symbolizations within their broader context. Food offers an example of one such symbol.

The symbolism of food

This symbolic meaning of actions in what Yalom call the  ‘Here and Now’ relationship between the therapist is a regular staple of the HBO show, In Treatment. Oliver uses food symbolically taken to be symbolic of love or emotional nourishment. Paul explicitly draws the link between the empty fridge in Oliver’s father’s house and the perceived lack of emotional availability.In Love’s Executioner it deals with the symbolizations of an obese patient. As she began to lose weight she was forced to deal the contradictory quality of those symbolizations.

She was repulsed by fat people something she offers as a reason for being able to tolerate Yalom’s early disgust towards her weight. At the same time as she lost weight it became clear that the loss of weight had become linked to her father’s own wastage and death. Weight then represented a protection against death at the same time as representing, presumably, the ill-health that would bring her more rapidly towards death. Eating less symbolized death for her but through eating less she found herself becoming healthier. Food, a multi-faceted symbol,
can be taken to signify love and yet through bringing on ill-health as in the case of Oliver.It can also represent vitality over death but in practise signify exactly the opposite.Signs then signify one thing when we leave them at rest but another when we actually start consciously using them.

Death and Rebirth

Returning to Carl Rogers we can see a more explicit example of this symbolization process.His patient Mrs. Ett being discusses her experience as follows:-


I’m sinking into a tomb. That’s just what it his , little by little I’m going into a tomb. Everything is closing up on me. (Pause.) If I could only break away the walls. (Pause.) And yet actually, my coming here has helped me, so maybe I have to continue coming here. Maybe that will help me get out of it.


The tomb is a symbol and it encompasses two opposing notions. That of death and rebirth. The tomb represents death but also treasures that have not been seen by human eyes for thousands of years. Death itself is also connected to rebirth and sexual potency.

Explicitly so in the case of Egyptian mythology to which ones mind his inexorably drawn at the mention of the word ‘tomb’. Joyce Tyldsley said of cow goddess Hathor that ‘her sexual power closely connected to her role as guardian of the dead’. It was further suggested that the relationship between the grave and the womb would have been obvious to the first Egyptians, who buried their dead in rounded pit graves in a contracted or foetal position. Sexual potency was an essential concern for the afterlife and something that featured prominently in tombs and graves.

Ra, the Egyptian Sun God travelling of the solar boat through the underworld. In the mythology Ra was carried by the Meseket, or the Night boat, that would carry him through the underworld and back towards the east in preparation for his rebirth. These myths present the sun rising as the rebirth of the sun by the sky goddess Nut; thus attributing the concept of rebirth and renewal to Ra and strengthening his role as a creator god as well. Additionally, when Ra is in the underworld he merges with Osiris the God of the dead and becomes the god of the dead.Here too we see the symbolic relationship between the opposites of life and death. The representations that Mrs. Ett relates, when placed in their broader symbolic context, point towards rebirth as well as death.

Hegel talks in terms of it being clear the ‘unconscious spirit is the very structural foundation of the self, as pure activity always in flux and in a psychic state of turbulence.’ Hegel would argue that this dialectic is both the inner organization and the content of unconscious spirit. He would advance that the Self is provided with its intrapsychic structures and operations by this dialectic. It can never be reduced or localized and it can only be conceptualized as pure activity.

Even where our symbolizations are taken by use to have some settled meaning we are again and again surprised at the contradictory meanings entailed by the symbols we choose. It seems that the unconscious will seize upon symbols that tend to make us the butt of our own internal psychological jokes.Once when the author was jokingly referring to himself and his friends as founders of psychoanalysis one of his friends selected Adler. On the surface Adler was just another extremely talented person within the founding of the psychoanalytic movement. The selection, however, belied the fact that the symbol of Adler was effectively sidelined and excluded from the movement in a hostile way and was heavily involved in formulating the inferiority complex. 



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