Call it an occupational hazard, but psychoanalysts are mired in the question of the lives we haven’t lived. Eminent analyst Adam Phillips has addressed it in his book: Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.
If psychoanalysis is nothing more than “overpriced storytelling” as I have said in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, then it must help you to craft fictions of the lives you haven’t lived, the lovers you lost, the chances you missed, the riches you did not accumulate.
It’s not about what was, but about what might have been. Of course, it must also concern what might not have been. By that I mean that it’s one thing to say that you missed out on joining the army because you preferred to have your student deferments. It’s quite another to say that you missed out on being born at the time of King Arthur's court.
Keep in mind, Phillips is the best writer and probably the best thinker in the dying field of psychoanalysis. Obviously, he does not have very much competition, but still, he writes clearly and well. He has made a career of offering philosophical meditations that rationalize psychoanalysis— that excuse it while making it seem rational.
While others labor under the illusion that modern neuroscience will rescue a moribund practice, Phillips offers the best defense that today’s psychoanalysis can offer. In the end the defense is flawed. More than anything, it shows us why psychoanalysis has failed. Still and all, it is far more cogent than what passes for theoretical work in today’s psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysis directs its focus toward the past, toward your past history and your forgotten fantasies. And yet, as Freud himself stated clearly at the onset of his brainchild, it cares far less about what happened than about what you wanted to have happen. It’s not about the past that you can study as history but about the past you never lived, about what did not happen.
Unfortunately, Phillips unintentionally makes clear, once you get caught in the quicksand of the past—whether it is the one you lived or the one you did not live-- you can no longer plan for the future. If you get trapped in the unlived past you have no reference to any objective reality and thus will inexorably get stuck into a fantasy world.
If psychoanalysis teaches you to introspect, to regret the lost past or to desire the past that never was, Phillips is attempting to rationalize the process—to make it seem rational and to excuse it, at the same time.
In the end, he claims that it’s about knowing who you are:
Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.
Of course, Phillips wants us to be more philosophical about the process, as he is. He wants us to vacillate between our lived lives and our unlived lives... taking time off from our nostalgia to offer a few gestures in reality. But, if we are really that obsessed and that nostalgic for our unlived past lives, we might very well wallow in a semi-permanent depression (or mourning), mixed with “an endless tantrum.”
But, what does it mean to engage in an endless tantrum? Since tantrums have a beginning and an end—even if the end is exhaustion--the phrase has no meaning. And, how is it possible to be in mourning at the same time that we are having an endless tantrum? Is there anything quite so unattractive as a temperamental child wallowing in self-pity for his unlived lives while striking out in rage because he cannot live them all.
Some therapists want you to get in touch with your inner child? Phillips, a far more sophisticated thinker, is saying that you can stay in touch with your infantile self by throwing an endless tantrum. How well do you believe that that will help you to live your life as an adult?
If this is really the way you spend your time, then clearly you are not going to do very well in a future that you seem incapable of confronting. If you mind is as preoccupied as Phillips wants it to be with your unlived life, you will have very little capacity to plan for the future, to use your imagination to consider alternate outcomes to your actions.
Nonetheless, Phillips does offer a philosophical meditation about what amounts to a dissatisfaction with psychoanalysis. Of course, he does not call it that, but the conclusion is inescapable.
It is easy enough to criticize cognitive therapies for being unwilling to probe the root causes of your problems and to criticize coaching for directing its attention toward the future, but if the alternative is to leave you chronically depressed while throwing endless tantrums, psychoanalysis does not have very much to recommend it.
For his part Phillips offers a path to redemption by waxing poetic about the process:
The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining? It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available — because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting. We pressurize the world to be there for our benefit. And yet we quickly notice as children — it is, perhaps, the first thing we do notice — that our needs, like our wishes, are always potentially unmet. Because we are always shadowed by the possibility of not getting what we want, we learn, at best, to ironize our wishes — that is, to call our wants wishes: a wish is only a wish until, as we say, it comes true — and, at worst, to hate our needs. But we also learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.
When you have suffered through the experience of psychoanalysis, when you have failed to escape its clutches, when you exit analysis being a true believing Freudian, you will have to find some use for the skill you have acquired about regretting lost opportunities.
To add a little much-needed perspective—because Phillips is a semi-hypnotic writer—I would emphasize that each time you make a choice—to go to this or that college; to live here or there; to marry or to break up with him or her—you are discarding possible lives.
It’s a normal part of everyday mental processing. Leave it to psychoanalysis to disembarrass you of normal mental process in favor of a useless activity that risks leaving you manic and depressed.
If you are a normal individual you might recall the ones that got away but you will not belabor the point, because belaboring it will prevent you from engaging in your current life and will become an obstacle to seeing the future, from making plans and taking actions. Many psychoanalysts do not quite understand it, but you cannot look forward and backward at the same time.
The more you worry about what you are missing, the less you will be able to enjoy what you have.
Since psychoanalysis, as I have been wont to explain, is first and foremost about desire, it must emphasize about what you do not have. It could be something that you have lost but it could also be something you never had.
By definition you cannot desire what you have, so focusing on what you do not have and cannot ever have is a way to manufacture desire, artificially. It’s a gamble on the possibility that a mental process, even an act of will, can sustain your desire, permanently.
On the other hand, such a desire is really an artifice, borne of desperation and rage. I mentioned this in my book because I find it to be fascinating: psychoanalysis cannot distinguish between desperation and desire. The fact that you are desperate to have her (or him) does not mean that you desire her (or him.) Even though, in both cases you do not have her (or him.)
Human experience, at the most elementary level tells you that if you are engaged in an amorous pursuit of her (or him) and if you appear to be desperate to have her (or him), you will cause her (or him) to reject your advances.
We refer to them as our unlived lives because somewhere we believe that they were open to us; but for some reason — and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason — they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives.
As I said, “overpriced storytelling.” Good psychoanalyst that he is, Phillips cares about producing a narrative explanation for his life, one that will sustain a form of desperation that he can take for desire. Yet, the most important part of this text is the phrase: “for some reason.”
This should not be a mystery. When we choose to turn right we are necessarily precluding the future that would unfold had we turned left or driven straight or turned around. What Phillips fails to notice, and I consider it a major symptom of psychoanalysis, is the fact that we make many of our life choices freely and that, whatever influences and temptations we suffered, we are responsible for them. What is missing in Freudian theory is the notion of free will.
Without recognizing that people have free will, psychoanalysts like Phillips can forge ahead and concoct a narrative that seems to explain their lives. But this assumes that there is only one possible narrative. We ought to know that there are many, not one, and that they are all unsatisfactory. They assume that our lives follow predetermined scripts, thus, that our decisions and choices-- our ability to take responsibility or to evade it-- do not determine the course of our lives.
Phillips seems to be especially drawn to the idea that we are all nothing special.
In his words:
This, essentially, is the question psychoanalysis was invented to address: what kind of pleasures can sustain a creature that is nothing special? Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life — the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life — the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it. For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives; and by what sabotages the pleasures that we seek.
One sees herein the Freudian mania about diminishing and demeaning human beings, depriving them of their self-respect, their dignity and their propriety. And, as a good Freudian Phillips has no real take on life in society, life in a group, life with more than one other person.
For a Freudian, perhaps, there is nothing more to life than seeking pleasures, but one understands that if that is your choice you will be missing out on a great deal of what matters, to yourself and to others. You are not going to be able to fulfill your duties and obligations to others if you are focused on seeking pleasure.
Were you to wonder about the relationship between your lived life and the lives you might have lived, Phillips offers this analysis:
There is nothing more obscure than the relationship between the lived and the unlived life. (Each member of a couple, for example, is always having a relationship, wittingly or unwittingly, with their partner’s unlived lives; their initial and initiating relationship is between what they assume are their potential selves.) So we may need to think of ourselves as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.
One admires the cleverness. For those who are barely present in their lives or their relationships, who are trapped in nostalgia, Phillips provides them with an easy excuse.
And yet, there is also the life that might be, depending on the plans we have, and how we implement them. The Freudian obsession with the past effectively deprives people of the tools necessary for building a brighter future.
Just in case you were wondering why psychoanalysis can’t work as a clinical practice.