Anton Kris on Learning and Unlearning - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes to a Seminar

Friday night Anton “Tony” Kris came to town to talk about psychoanalysis.  Dr. Kris is an interesting person for a number of reasons, not least of which is that his mother was Marilyn Monroe’s second analyst – who referred her to Ralph Greenson, her final, controversial analyst who became overly involved in Marilyn's life – and death.  But Tony was here to talk about something else – the learning and unlearning that is necessarily a part of becoming a psychoanalyst.

There is much to unlearn in becoming a psychoanalyst.  The analytic interaction is a weird one.  You, as a helping person, sit behind a couch and relatively silently listen as someone talks about what comes to mind.  You generally try to help them explore the depths of their feelings – despair, fear, pain – without trying to talk them out of them, or to tell them that things will be better – perfectly natural human responses that we have overlearned, especially if we are helping professionals.  Instead of reassuring our patients, we try to help them understand the roots of these dark, difficult feeling states, offering hypotheses about what has lead to them as a means of helping them becoming freer – less bound by the past, and also by the fear of having these states jump up unbidden when they talk or think about or run into something that threatens to expose them.

So, to become analysts, we have to unlearn responses that are so powerfully learned that they seem reflexive.  And, while Dr. Kris wanted us to appreciate this, he really wanted us to appreciate that we also have to unlearn what we have come to know – to inherit – from our psychoanalytic fathers and mothers.  We have to discard the foundations of our psychoanalytic knowledge because they are, in a word, wrong.  He gave seven examples of foundational assertions that Freud and his followers made that we have learned that we must discard.  These included: Specifics about the early growth and development of the human psyche and how that is tied to erogenous zones – the oral, anal and phallic; the idea that it is sex and/or food that we want, not attachment; ideas about women’s psychological functioning; etc. (Another thing that we may have to give up is the idea of gender being binary and immutable).

He maintained that this unlearning is very difficult for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have learned them from people we revere in the context of intense relationships.  Psychoanalytic training includes three parts:  Classroom work reading texts with teachers; clinical supervision with analysts; and a personal analysis of the analyst by a senior analyst that lasts for years.  Each of these sources get stamped on us – on our analytic identity – in ways that we understand and in ways that we don’t.  Each of these people – our teachers, supervisors and analysts – was formed, in turn, by their own teachers, supervisors, and analysts.  And they were wrong.  They were also right in some very important ways.  They helped us tremendously.  Our teachers helped us understand difficult texts and master concepts that guide the work we do; our supervisors helped us understand our patients and how to helpfully , if counterintuitively , intervene; and our analysts helped us not only with sorting out our own lives, but by modeling how to do an analysis – both well and poorly. 

Dr. Kris gave an example from his own experience of having visited upon one of his analysands a poor interpretation that came directly from his own first analyst.  With the help of a sensitive and careful supervisor, he was able not only to see that this had happened, but to discover a fruitful way of intervening.  And he proposed that this is the general model for unlearning – to observe, together with another person, the ways in which what we have done has not been useful.  Indeed, this is the model for analysis itself.

The upshot of all this was that we should be altering our curricula.  We should not be teaching what Freud wrote, and then teaching our current theory as edits upon that (which is what we do) because it is not true.  We believe that the mind, the psychoanalytic process; indeed being human, are fundamentally different than what Freud believed them to be.  So we should teach what we know now – all the while knowing that it will be superseded – knowing that it is wrong – knowing that it will have to be unlearned by those we are teaching.  And yet we teach this foundation – this new place on which we stand – as the starting point.  We also need to teach what Freud said – and what he believed.  We need to help our students learn to decode, to decipher, to unearth the roots of what we believe and to understand how earlier folks have gotten us to the point where we currently stand.

Tony made an interesting comment – that we don’t know enough about unlearning.  I think that, in his model, our learning is intimately tied to relationships.  Cognitive psychologists have long distinguished between episodic learning – what happened today – from semantic learning – the learning of facts and figures.  They believe that there are two separate systems for these two types of learning.  Perhaps because of the method of learning – psychoanalysts are home-schooled if you will – these types of learning overlap in ways that are powerful – we learn to function as our analytic parents did, something that helps us overcome the powerful identifications with our birth parents – but this has its own costs as well – we can become complacent in our execution and understanding of psychoanalysis.  We can quit trying to learn from other fields or from new voices within our own field.

The work of an analyst, just like the work of a teacher, a parent or a change agent of any sort, is difficult because we have to confront the status quo – to acknowledge it and its benefits, but to propose an alternative that, we believe, will work better.  This requires that we have our feet firmly planted in the place that we want to help people to move to – even in a process as open ended and unsure of a destination as analysis itself.  We need to be open to ambiguity, to paradox, and to our own shortcomings and blind spots, while advocating for a method of exploration and some fundamental building blocks of that method.  We are, in the words of the philosophers, forever in a state of becoming.

The tool that we use to move the process forward is to offer a new alliance, a new relationship, that can serve as a way station towards achieving a new foundation, a new mode of operating, that will serve our clients better.  This involves a continuous chain of attachment to new figures at the cost of giving up some of the deeply held, but on some levels false attachments to older figures.  We are forever connecting in new relationships and mourning the loss of old connections if we are continuing to grown and change.  We are also preserving aspects of those old relationships, necessarily.  They are the bedrock on which the foundation is built.  Tony expressed concern that, when that bedrock is flawed by trauma - by unprocessable aspects of the relationship - he feared that we may not be able to give up that initial, flawed identification - that we may not be able to separate from original connections that were too damaged themselves.

 To access a narrative description of other posts on this site, link here.  For a subject based index of this blog, link here.

To subscribe to posts (which occur 2-3 times per month), if you are on a computer, hit the X button on the upper right of this screen and, on the subsequent screen, hover your cursor over the black line in the upper right area and choose the pop out box that says subscribe and then enter the information.  I'm sorry but I don't currently know how you can subscribe from a mobile device - hopefully you have a computer as well...


  1. Kris will be visiting Seattle in May and this post has definitely motivated me to register for his talk. Great post about great ideas.

  2. I wish if majority of people knows about the importance of unlearning the waste and harmful things. The life would be much more better then !

  3. I agree that "cleaning the attic" of ideas that are no longer useful is a great idea! We should be doing that regularly! The Reluctant P.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Psi – HBO presents a Brazilian Psychoanalyst

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst watches a classic

Inside Out: The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Encounters Pixar's Vision of the Mind at the Movies