American English is filled with slang expressions describing the subjective experience of one’s sense of self becoming dis-integrated. The phrase “cracking up” is one of them, as are “going to pieces”, “falling apart”,”coming undone”, and being “beside myself”. Of course, these expressions are most commonly used to describe a specific type of troubling change in our sense of selfhood (or “subjectivity”) in the face of emotional turmoil, as when a jilted lover speaks of experiencing “heartbreak”. All such phrases are strongly descriptive of the subjective sense of something whole and intact at the center of consciousness heading toward a state of fragmentation.
In this essay I will discuss the phenomenon of going to pieces, a disturbing experience that all of us endure at different times in our lives, and to different degrees. Yet, I suggest that this experience may also introduce us to something fundamentally true about ourselves, namely, that what we presume to be “me” exists within an array of other mental actors. This is to say that the core of selfhood exists within a tangled web of what psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg (1996) calls other “self states”. A self-state is a collection of emotionally-charged thoughts, ideas, and values that guide us toward certain ends, some good for us, others quite the opposite. These alternate experiences of reality exist on the periphery of consciousness, though at any given point in time one may occupy the “center stage” of consciousness, when allowed entry by the press of some emotional and/or interpersonal change, disruption, or crisis. Once admitted into awareness, these alternate states of consciousness shape and direct our attitudes and actions, according to an internal logic that is uniquely their own. Some self-states come to dominate and hold our attention in an enduring way. They become important determiners of how we relate to life each day and for extended periods of time, perhaps for a lifetime. Others tend to fade out and lose such influence rather quickly, sometimes in a matter of minutes.
Given our vulnerability to the intrusion of different self-states, it would seem that our sense of being that which we feel and think ourselves to be – our subjectivity – is, upon inspection, rather shaky. That is, we go through our day fairly certain that we are in charge of our own minds, that is, that we truly know and are consciously directing ourselves. However, in actuality, this subjective experience is only one cast member among a large entourage of other “selves” with which it must continuously interact.
There is risk involved in interacting with these diverse facets of the mind. Subjectivity may be enriched or damaged by its unavoidable engagements with various self states, most of which we actively avoid thinking about in daily life, and understandably so: these elements of mind contain enormous transformative potential, compelling us to think and act in ways that are strangely alluring to us, but which are often completely at odds with the way in which we typically prefer to think of ourselves. The married and socially-stable, middle-aged university professor who runs off with his early-twenty-something teaching assistant is a good example!
Years ago I obtained employment in a state mental hospital. During my first day on the inpatient unit to which I was assigned, I was confronted by an enraged schizophrenic man in his mid-twenties. Spying me from across a lounge area, his face contorted into a menacing glare, and he screamed, “You’ve ruined my life”. This struck me as strange, given that we had just met that day, which allowed me no meaningful time to hatch a plot to destroy his life.
While seemingly inexplicable, such a bizarre encounter can be understood, in part, in terms of the profound “coming apart” of this man’s core sense of ego-identity that is a hallmark of the psychoses. This man’s instantaneous certainty that I was the demonic force who had undermined his happiness was possible because of what we might call an unusual reassembling of the shards of his sense of self, other, space, and time. That is, he demolished his consciousness of Being, then took the “pieces” of his sense of self and put them together again in a strange new configuration. This man’s refashioned awareness of reality seemed utterly distorted and even laughable to others on the unit. However, I suggest that it provided him with some basic feeling that he knew what was going on around him, what things mean and how he must manage them.
Weeks later in my tenure on this hospital unit I read in this patient’s chart that he had been sexually and physically abused by his father throughout childhood, and had become schizophrenic at age sixteen. This information provided me with some understanding of his paranoid reaction to me. Looking back, it also serves as the basis for a general model of why people go to pieces. I suggest that it is a two-step process. First, the individual seeks to dismantle the awareness of a horrific experience as a final, desperate act of self-protection. In this context, rending apart something dreadful makes it unintelligible to consciousness, thus neutralizing its power over the mind, to some degree at least. Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (1959) calls this an “attack on linking”, by which he means an aggressive assault on the mental connections and associations between different thoughts and feelings.
Following the aggressive severing of different elements of mind from each other is a process of reorganizing and reinterpreting them, so as to create a revised, somewhat more bearable narrative about one’s experience. In the present example, the schizophrenic young man took his awareness of having been abused by an individual in his past and reassigned it to me in the present. This gave him some rudimentary, albeit extremely unstable sense of safety, in that he believed that he had correctly located the source of danger and could now “face it down”, as it were. This second part of the psychotic process dramatically rewrites three existential narratives: identity (in the present example, I fill the role of the abuser), time (the abuser from earlier in his life is believed to have physically reappeared in the present), and space (the abuser is experienced as immediately present, rather than as existing in some other location). The psychotic revision of reality is a process first described by Sigmund Freud (1895), who thought of it as an attempt to repair the mind by rewriting a traumatic life narrative, transforming it into a form more tolerable to the ego.
This reconfiguring of reality is not intentional, in the sense that the sufferer suddenly wakes up one day with the thought to decompose and then recompose his or her subjectivity. However, that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a goal-directed phenomenon. The hypothesis of an unconscious dimension of mind provides an important conceptual framework for understanding how meaning-making processes can exist outside of awareness and also be purposeful. In this view, the unconscious drives us toward certain predetermined ends. These unconsciously-determined ends thrust themselves into consciousness as objects of desire, though rarely evolve to the point that we subject them to reasoned contemplation. For example, the need for sex arises naturally in a man and propels him toward specific goals, despite the fact that he didn’t initially deliberate about, or “choose” to become aroused and have an erection. Consciousness plays a purely secondary role here, filling in the superstructure of unconscious sexual purposes by identifying certain persons who may be available to fulfill the unconscious agenda.
The ominous state of having “cracked up” described above does not happen to most of us, thankfully. That said, less dramatic experiences of “going to pieces” are a part of every human life. We so-called “well adjusted” people share with the truly insane every bit of the same capacity for falling apart that has devastated their lives. And, yes, I do mean every bit. However, for us, a catastrophic dismantling of the self only remains as a latent potential within our minds, and one that is never realized. This is because of the fortunate alignment of various factors in our early lives, not least of which is the care of at least one reasonably nurturing parent. Being loved as a baby serves to bind together the infant psyche’s naturally dis-unified state. Later, throughout childhood and adolescence, the “good parent” continually steps in to protect and bolster the youngster’s developing sense of self at times when he or she is clearly “all over the place”. This is a demanding, perhaps the most demanding project that adult humans undertake. Ask any exasperated parent who has struggled with a thirteen-year-old son who dutifully completes his homework, but then forgets to hand it in to the teacher.
Implied in the above is that we all enter the world in a psychologically unintegrated state. Admittedly, it is impossible to know with certainty how infants experience reality, and our memories of our earliest experiences are completely inaccessible. However, it seems plausible to infer that infant subjectivity is a succession of disconnected, sensate-rich moments. Most of us slowly grow beyond this state. Yet, even when we have done so more or less consistently, infantile mental states do not simply disappear. Rather, early states of psychic fragmentation remain as a permanent dimension of mind, albeit unconsciously. Further, they may be reactivated under many “normal” circumstances, returning from the abyss of the unconscious when triggered by life’s challenges, the so-called “stressors” that tax the ego. Hence, what we might call “low-level” or circumscribed experiences of ego-fragmentation are known to all of us, in some form, as we navigate life’s unavoidable, “normal” trials, white-knuckling it through what Freud (1896) called the mundane, “ordinary unhappiness” of existence. Being dumped by a lover, physical illness, realizing that we are trapped in a meaningless career, the death of a parent; these are some of the events that can pitch us into a psychological regression, carrying us out of our accustomed feeling of coherence, of knowing who we are and where we are headed in life, and depositing us in the hinterlands of the nascent, unintegrated consciousness of self that we first experienced as babies.
This is the return of the “normal psychotic state” of infancy, in which the world appeared as a series of discrete sensations minus any overarching sense of a solid, unified “self” binding them together. Hence, it is the case that periods of self-doubt and/or depressive introspection are usually accompanied by the unwelcome sense of becoming psychically “unwrapped” to some degree, albeit in a less precipitous and complete way than is found in severe psychic disturbances. Even the experience of the so-called “bad day”, one in which we just couldn’t stop from making small and ridiculous errors, may cause us to mutter that we need to “get it together”.
Now, it strikes me that the vast majority of Americans – including those in the mental health field – assume that the fracturing of the sense of self is always pathological. We believe in the idea of wholeness, integrity, and coherence, particularly when it comes to the mind, and are threatened by those dimensions of experience that undermine or call into question these qualities. After all, don’t we quickly lose patience with someone who seems too deeply drawn into the process of considering different options? “Make up your mind, already!”, is a not uncommon response to such a person. However, as I alluded to at the start of this essay, an examination of our consciousness of self throughout the course of a day supports the idea that we are quite naturally in a constant inner dialogue with discrete and often alien aspects of our subjectivity. That is to say, we are inherently not all that “tightly wrapped”, mentally.
This is not surprising, given that we entered the world with our minds in pieces, as noted above. While maturity endows us with a certain sense of a stable, enduring self dwelling at the center of consciousness, this center does not exist alone, in splendid isolation. Rather, it seems to act as a nexus, a “hub”, for a complex network of communications constantly occurring between multitudinous self-states. An example of the latter is found in dreams, what Freud (1900) deemed the “royal road to the unconscious”. The relative fragility of our waking sense of self is quite obvious when we consider how easily it dissolves in sleep, there to be invaded and temporarily possessed by other, uncanny selves.
It seems to me that our best ideas, decisions, projects, and inspirations arise from an initial, often unpremeditated meeting with alien dimensions of the ego. We may be struggling with a knotty problem. “How do I confront a difficult boss? Is it possible to return to college as a single parent? Do I choose a career that promises money or one that I love, minus assurances of financial stability? Should I divorce?” I am continually impressed by the way in which certain individuals use psychotherapy to initiate an internal dialogue with the multitude of other “selves” or self-states within them, all of which are clamoring for a hearing. In this sense, it appears that the actual interpersonal conversation that occurs between therapist and patient serves to activate the patient’s capacity to begin to dialogue with foreign dimensions of his or her psyche. Such a dialogical undertaking seems to broaden the patient’s sense of self, as diverse aspects of the mind beckon to be integrated with consciousness. This does not mean that the patient will always make a “good” decision about a problematic life circumstance. Psychotherapy does not ensure any particular outcome, nor does it protect us from the consequences of our choices. But it does allow us entry into the realm of the psyche, where a chorus of inner voices demand to be taken seriously. I suggest that this experience can only deepen and enliven our sense of being alive, whether we decide to follow or resist the siren-calls of the inner “others”.
Bromberg, Phillip (1996). Standing in the Spaces: the Multiplicity of Self and the Psychoanalytic Relationship. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 1996, Vol. 32.
Freud, Sigmund (1896). The Neuro-psychoses of Defense. In collected works.
— (1903) The Interpretation of Dreams. In collected works.