(Part 2) Wilfred Bion and The Importance of Not-Knowing

Attacks on Linking

Freud’s early theories were rooted in instinctual drives and their release; Klein reformulated drives as forces for object relations (S. A. Mitchell, 1981). While maintaining his adherence to the Kleinian oeuvre, Bion took the understanding of the way that internal (and external) objects relate by defining three major forms of linkages(Safran-Gerard, 2002). Bion designated these L, H, and K linkages, corresponding to love, hate, and knowledge, respectively. These linkages indicate the nature of the bond between two objects. For Bion, however, K, and it’s inverse -K, are the most important.

Linking normally takes place as a higher-order form of thinking, one that takes places between alpha-elements (W. R. Bion, 1959b), and this is best seen in the form of K linkages. When two objects form a K link, there is shared meaning created between the two. If, for example, a K link is created between a patient and the therapist, the patient begins to know something about the person of the therapist, or of information the therapist has shared. K links are intimately related to Bion’s admonition (W. R. Bion, 1962a) that healthy thinking (and living) involves learning, both from the environment and object within the environment. Indeed, healthy object relations are founded upon K: it would be impossible to maintain relationships without knowing the other person.

However, it is possible that, for various reasons, an individual has an inability to learn from experience, or to create K links. If one remembers, Klein understood internal objects as being internal representations of external objects (Segal, 1957). In early life, an infant can introject a loving breast that is filled with nourishment and warmth. This introjection can occur during the contain/contained process, so that, as the baby’s internal distress dissipates, it comes to see not only the breast, but also the outside world as loving and warm. In this scenario, a K link can be created between the baby and the breast because the baby feels secure and safe doing so (Rowan, 1998). The infant creates a meaningful emotional relationship (K link) between herself and the breast, but, it is possible for a baby to experience the breast as unwelcoming, harsh, and baneful. If the breast is withheld or given sporadically, but never to the satisfaction of the child, the child might internalize the breast as the bad (part) object that she experiences. The baby in this scenario comes to see the internal bad object, and external objects, as being dangerous and unwelcome (W. R. Bion, 1959b), and in order to save herself from destruction, the baby prevents meaningful relationship between herself and these bad objects. The child attacks the linkages between herself and these objects because she has come to believe that they are destructive and ruinous to her. This process of limiting meaningful relationships between objects, and limiting knowledge and learning shared between objects, is -K (Grotstein, 2009). Bion called this process “attacks on linking” (W. R. Bion, 1959b, p. 308) because of the aggressive way in which the individual attempts to limit any relationship between objects.

The sad part of this scenario is that K (and also L and H) linkages are not only the root of relationships, but also of emotional experience (Billow, 1999). An individual who engages in a process of attacking linkages between objects is thought to have a very limited, and warped, ability to experience emotions. The world is seen as being a pale, confusing, and frightening place. According to W. R. Bion (1959b), “In this state of mind emotion is hated; it is felt to be too powerful to be contained by the immature psyche” (p. 315). With this description in mind, it is reasonable to wonder about the mental health of individuals in this sort of state. Indeed, W. R. Bion (1959b) believed that attacks on linking served as the foundation for the development of schizophrenia.

Not everyone paints a bleak picture as it relates to an individual’s tendency to attack links between objects. Bergstein (2015), while acknowledging the tumultuous internal world of individuals who engage in this destructive process, believed that this internal process can serve as information for therapists. He acknowledged the challenges of working with these types of patients, but pointed out that these challenges carry with them inherent knowledge about the nature of the patient’s internal world. Witnessing the patient’s inability to form meaningful links can increase empathy in the therapist for the painful world of the patient, and Bergstein also noted the irony that noticing and acknowledging a patient’s inability to form meaningful linkages can be the beginning of a link with the therapist. This type of thinking, of a therapist being receptive to the patient’s communications about her internal world no matter how those communications are transmitted, is intimately related to the next section on Bion’s understanding of projective identification.

Projective Identification and Reverie

Melanie Klein (1946) introduced projective identification as a primitive defense. She said, “Much of the hatred [in the child] against parts of the self is now directed towards the mother” (p. 102). The infant, unable to tolerate parts of the self that he or she hates, projects those parts of the self onto the mother, and with the projection parts of the self go the related hatred. Segal (1974), still very much operating in the Kleinian mode, stated that projective identification can not only act as a defense through projecting unwanted parts of the self onto the object, but also acts as a way of exerting some control over the object. Segal (1974) stated,

“In projective identification parts of the self and internal objects are split off and projected into the external object, which then becomes possessed by, controlled and identified with the projected parts. Projective identification has manifold aims: it may be directed toward the ideal object to avoid separation, or it may be directed toward the bad object to gain control of the source of danger. Various parts of the self may be projected, with various aims: bad parts of the self may be projected in order to get rid of them as well as to attack and destroy the object, good parts may be projected to avoid separation or to keep them safe from bad things inside or to improve the external object through a kind of primitive projective reparation. (pp. 27–28)”

According to Kleinian thought, then, projective identification is a defensive, intrapsychic, and interpersonal way of relating. Bion seemed to accept these formulations of projective identification, but added another element to it: communication.

Bion (1959a) pointed out that the interpersonal interaction involved in projective identification can create a unique experience in the recipient of the projection. If a patient projects onto a therapist a feeling of intense sadness (because the patient could not tolerate the sadness within herself), the therapist might have an experience of bewilderment. It might be challenging for the therapist to understand the origins of the emotion, and might experience the idea as a thought without a thinker (Bion, 1959a). Ogden (1979) related this phenomenon as “having a thought that is not one’s own” (p. 7). The important aspect of this process is not that the therapist attempts to cease feeling the projected emotion. Rather, the important aspect is for the therapist to come to understand the nature and the origin of the emotion. By the therapist reflecting on the fact that he might be experiencing an emotion that is not his own, the therapist can gain insight into the internal world of the patient because that is where the projection originated (Ogden, 1979).

Going back to the example of a therapist feeling intensely sad, if the therapist can reflect on the experience, and can think about the possibility of the emotion being a form of projective identification, which originated within the patient, the therapist can come to understand an aspect of the patient’s experience (Waska, 1999). The therapist does not try to rid himself of the experience because it features a truth about the patient’s life. The remarkable thing about this process is that the therapist is given firsthand experience of the emotion about which the patient is talking. Now, the sadness is more than just words, it is a shared experience with mutual understanding.

Of course, it is not always possible for a therapist to parse out the times when he is experiencing a projected emotion or his “own” emotion. (“Own” is in quotations because some contemporary psychoanalytic thinkers are critical of the idea that any experience in the consulting room that is felt by one participant can be said to he his or her own, instead of a experience that is actually co-constructed by the dyad [Stolorow, 2002].) In order to gain some idea about the possibility that the therapist is experiencing a projective identification, Bion argued that the therapist needs to have the capacity to engage in reverie (Quagelli & Solano, 2016). Reveriewas Bion’s word for the thoughts and feelings that go through the mother’s mind in response to a child that is in distress (in fact, he originally called the term maternal reverie(Vaslamtzis, 2012). Through reverie, the mother gains insight into the troubles of the infant. Similarly, if a therapist can allow himself to enter a state of reverie, he can gain insight into the world of the patient (Vapenstad, 2014). Reverie can take many different forms, such as thoughts, feelings, felt senses, images, or even sounds. By allowing the state of reverie to develop, the therapist gains information into the way in which the patient has been projecting onto the therapist, and how these projections communicate information about the patient’s internal world.

Ogden (1994) noted that it can be difficult to enter into a state of reverie, and he stated that a therapist can never be certain where a state a reverie begins and ends. Commonly, a therapist is caught off guard reverie, awakening from a state similar to a day dream and wonder what that was about. He also noted that a therapist cannot force himself into a state of reverie. Rather, it is something that comes of its own accord. Nevertheless, Ogden (1997) believed that a therapist’s capacity to enter a state of reverie to be of utmost importance in understanding something of the patient, and of the relationship that develops between the two.