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"You're not finished yet": the role of unformulated experience

On joining the group, Andrea was demoralised for long periods, and declared, following a humiliating set back, "I guess that's me, how I am, all I can expect", to which a fellow group member, Peter, retorted, "Yes, but you're not finished yet . none of us are." It took me some time to register Peter's response to Andrea, but once I had, it underlined the fact that his simple words were a fine description of psychotherapy, which, after all, concerns psychological development and the prospect of what might "come next". None of our stories are complete. One patient's horizons, of which he or she is unaware, are more clearly evident to another patient, or patients, and vice versa, who can, with horizontal seeing and unfolding dialogue, help give it form.

Stern's (1997) concept of "unformulated experience" is comparable to the pre-reflective unconscious, concerning as it does those raw materials or building blocks of subjective life that lack clarity or articulation. Andrea's pessimism, for example, reflected fatalism and a crushing sense of being an undeserving person, undeserving of attention and improvement. Stern explains the concept as "the label I have chosen to refer to mentation characterised by lack of clarity or articulation" and goes on to contend, "unformulated experience is the uninterpreted form of those raw materials ... that may eventually be assigned verbal interpretation and thereby brought into articulate form" (p. 37). Bringing into articulate form is seldom instantaneous, akin to the flick of a light switch. In this regard, it is interesting to note that Foulkes valued the non-explicit, the inconspicuous, the unfinished moment, as well as the reciprocity of "the need to understand and be understood" (Foulkes & Anthony, 1957).[1] In Gadamer's language, we would talk in terms of the value of non-completeness and an open dialectic.

The analyst, likewise, trades upon his own unformulated experience of the patient, trying, through sensing, clarification, and interpretation, to articulate what is important in the group at any given point; this is accomplished, partially and provisionally, through the endless creation of reflective spaces, promoting a "meeting of minds" (Behr & Hearst, 2005).

Moving horizons: therapeutic change

Central assumptions governing Sheila's and Andrea's respective psychic lives, constituting horizons of experience, were modified as a result of three years of group analysis. Both were better able to initiate, and inhabite, less rigid worldviews; with the broadening of horizons, people acquire a new perspective on their former problems and encounter the world differently. Horizons travel, once they are freed up from fixed viewpoints, once the work and play of the group enables wider, newer contexts of meaning.

Vignette two

On one occasion, the entrance to the clinic was changed due to building work, and Andrea asked an official the directions to the psychotherapy department, knowing, as he spoke, that she was forgetting what he was telling her. Andrea was thrown by this exchange and arrived at the group acutely embarrassed, complaining, "I felt stupid not knowing the way, so very stupid."

It seemed as if the experience had precipitated a momentary crisis in her sense of self, enfeebling confidence. With discussion, there was some partial realignment, especially when others expressed their parallel difficulties following the route. There were many conversations about this representation of herself, in this and other groups, but eventually she was able to question the immediacy of her views: "I always think first, 'It's me. I'm the thick one. Other people know how to do things and know how to deal with officials'."

I would suggest that, in this example, we see a reactivation, under a condition of stress, of a particular way that Andrea organised her experience, albeit it a self-defeating one. The incident brought a characteristic reaction to the fore so that others were able to see how this operated in Andrea's mind. There was a transference aspect: her experience of me as an important official who might easily overlook or fail to see her importance; consistent with this, she saw me as "clever", in complete contrast to herself.

Psychic patterns, by definition, are enduring and "people repeat because they organise their experience according to the principles available, until other alternative principles are established" (Stolorow, 1997, p. 429). After much work in, by, and through the group, Andrea was better able to value her views and mind, enjoying a previously unfamiliar sense of effectiveness. She moved beyond a view of herself as a dull, crushed individual and her self-esteem was less dependent upon a role of serving others.

  • [1] Foulkes' collaborator, James Anthony (Anthony, 1983) said: "Perhaps the most valuable lesson I received from Foulkes was on the value of unobtrusiveness on the part of the therapist and on the limitations of explicitness" (p. 30). Foulkes (1990), in his emphasis on configurational analysis in groups argued that "one need not jump from what is going on to what is behind it. This also has a bearing on a partially mistaken idea of interpretation" (p. 280).
 
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