Trust, trauma and intransigence – psychoanalysing Brexit

Leavers want autonomy and a sense of control, Remainers want intimacy and closeness – and both are traumatised by a decade of shocks and loss of faith in government.

Susanna Abse
6 February 2019

Image: Pro and anti-Brexit campaigners outside Parliament, January 2019. Credit: Clare Doherty/SIPA USA/PA Images, all rights reserved.

As a psychoanalytic psychotherapist who often works with couples, I regularly witness intransigent and extreme states of mind. The way the Brexit debate is being conducted seems to mimic these conflicted couples. So, I am now wondering if psychoanalysis and its application to understanding conflicted relationships might enhance our understanding of our current divisions and, perhaps, lead us back to a politics that feels more consensual and collaborative?

At the root of Brexit, as writers such as Barnett have observed, are betrayals of trust that date back to the deceptions around the Iraq war to the 2008 crash and the 2009 expenses scandal. These shocks led to a loss of faith in government. Added to this, austerity from 2010 onwards meant more people began to experience real hardship in their daily lives; money was short, job security was lost and services that had been depended on, disappeared. Could we think about these events as a national trauma? As we know, trauma isn’t good for people. It produces a lack of trust and creates fear and then anger. Trauma increases our wish to be self-sufficient and not depend on others. Trauma makes it hard for us to work out where our best interests lie. Trauma makes us retreat and avoid collaboration with those on the outside; those who are other and therefore at times of insecurity felt to be a potential threat. It pushes people into polarised positions; it makes it more challenging for people to tolerate ambiguity. In psychoanalytic terms we would say that it is likely to generate paranoid-schizoid ways of thinking, which is a state of mind where rigid beliefs dominate and where it becomes harder and harder to stay in touch with empathic, generous feelings. It’s a dog eat dog state of mind. And one could propose that this state of mind has arisen because we have become a dog eat dog society.

Driving this less tolerant, less empathic and less generous state of mind is a feeling of insecurity. When we feel we have little ourselves, sharing with others can become tricky. And while the consequences of the global 2008 crash were very serious, what followed was worse. Just when people needed to feel secure, government enacted policies which did the very opposite. When I talk about security here, I’m emphasising that we cannot separate seemingly external pressures such as financial security and physical safety from the internal feeling of emotional security. When we feel threatened or are actually threatened, we need a sense that there is someone to turn to who will take care of us. Government can provide that underpinning confidence and good leaders can serve as parental figures who, in times of heightened anxiety, we can turn to in our minds. Governments can help people accept suffering; they can encourage us all towards the common good and can create solidarity around hardship. But when we feel that the common good is replaced by self-interest and manipulation, then trust is lost and the establishment becomes not a protective parent but rather a rapacious and neglectful one to be distrusted and resisted. This blending of inner and outer realities is going on all the time inside each of us, and when we are calm and secure, we can usually distinguish between the two. However, when times are not calm, nor secure, helping people to distinguish what is real and what is felt, is the task of mature leadership and this is something that seems to be sorely lacking.

 In response to the crisis of 2008, the coalition government failed to provide this assurance, rather it went about undermining the services and institutions that underpin that felt sense of security; cutting children’s centres, thereby destabilising ordinary families (a very effective way to help people feel more secure is to strengthen services that support relationships and families) and reorganising and commercialising our most important institution, the Health Service.

Thinking about the way traumas affects whole societies is a relatively new concept in public health. Mostly, it has been applied to more grossly traumatising experiences such as slavery, war and genocide. But it seems to me that our politics needs to include more understanding that undermining felt security has an impact on whether we remain tolerant, inclusive and yes, sane as a society. Politicians, in my view, undermine felt security at their peril.

Vamik Volkan, a Turkish Cypriot psychoanalyst who is internationally known for his work on bringing together conflictual groups for dialogue and mutual understanding, has described how after large group societal trauma individuals can feel a sense of victimisation and a feeling of being dehumanised. As a result of trauma, people can, at first, feel a sense of humiliation and hidden shame about their circumstances and can find it difficult to be appropriately assertive. It is interesting to note therefore how little overt protest we saw after the 2008 crash and how long it took for a sense of injustice to crystallise. Perhaps, many people felt more ashamed than angry about their reduced circumstances, and the rhetoric about “the underserving poor” compounded this.

Volkan also says that in response to large group trauma one can see an increase in projection. In projection, we tend to place blame outside ourselves and see the “other” as responsible for our misfortune. In the face of the shame and humiliation that is created such as when you need help from a system (the DWP) that is contemptuous and toxic towards that neediness, projections that blame “others” can increase as a way of protecting and defending oneself against a pervasive feeling of failure. The sense that “others” were bringing the nation down and were the source of individual and societal problems was most stark in the increasingly hostile attitude to immigrants and refugees.

And, Volkan also reminds us that trauma also increases the need for an investment in a large group identity as a way of shoring up the inner sense of fragility. The feeling of being small and powerless can be eased by identifying with a large group and this large group can then be invested with strength, nobility and pride. Englishness perhaps? Here Englishness becomes the repository for all the good, and “others” carry the unwanted and discarded “bad”.

So, could we understand the vote for Brexit as a reaction to trauma? If so, then this view could seem to be pathologising leave voters, rather than seeing their stance as an ideological choice. And this kind of attitude, that the leave vote was essentially pathological in nature, no doubt compounds the sense of outrage and division that we are seeing.

In fact, the demographic analysis of the leave vote shows that lots of people voted for Brexit who probably weren’t particularly traumatised by the economic crash. So, if trauma and insecurity isn’t the whole story, what is?

An answer might come from my work with couples. One of the universal issues that couples bring when they come to see me is the often-challenging struggle between dependence and independence. It seems to me that it’s hard for most humans to manage this dichotomy between our need for, and dependence on others, and our need to be autonomous and self-governing. Mervyn Glasser, a psychoanalyst who worked at The Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust in the 1970s investigated this human experience and called it the “core complex”. Other clinicians have described a similar idea as the “agoraphobic- claustrophobic dilemma”, describing how the deep-seated longing for intimacy and closeness and the need autonomy and separateness is in constant tension. The pulling away from the other to become separate arouses fears of abandonment and survival anxiety (remain voters?) which then pushes us back towards closeness. But the experience of closeness invites claustrophobic anxieties and fears of losing control, so we pull away again.

Whilst I believe these tensions are universal in relationships; in my practice it is clear that those couples whose individual identity is fragile and whose sense of self is poor, struggle with this dilemma more acutely. To be comfortable with being dependent and close to another, one has to a sense of confidence in oneself and a feeling that one’s individuality is secure. Primal fears are easily activated when identity and selfhood is weak, and whilst trauma makes them even harder to manage, anything that makes our identity fragile can also make us prone to issues around the core complex.

Several writers, including Anthony Barnett and Fintan O’Toole have argued that the English identity has been denigrated and devalued. That the unmourned loss of Empire and the more recent rejection of the concept of the Union, has led to a fragility and a sense of weakness in the English identity. The push from all parts of the union other than England towards greater autonomy and separation and the ensuing development of devolutionary policies, has, depreciated the sense of pride in Englishness.

 In this context, did England need to assert itself? Has this led to the growing need to shore up the sense of Englishness and is this fragility at the heart of that compelling call to arms to “take back control”? Where identity is weak, then fears of a kind of colonisation are bound to be more to the fore. And, successive politicians have compounded this concern about colonisation by framing the EU in our imagination as an enormously controlling other. An enormous bureaucracy shaping our daily lives from which we have to constantly wrestle back concessions and deals.

And to give the other side of the core complex, (and perhaps better understand why the remain voice is equally shrill), where identity is weak, there are also acute anxieties about being alone, and very vulnerable in this aloneness.

But this issue with national identity has not only been an issue with the English part of the union. Scotland’s push for independence shows this clearly. The core complex and the drive for autonomy has been at work in both countries. Perhaps it’s just the solution to this problem that has been different?

This difference is expressed in how a sense of separation and autonomy is being developed by Scotland and England. In developmental terms, adolescence is usually the time when we forge a separate identity and adolescents generally do this in a state of opposition. We define ourselves by being different from our parents and establish our separateness by resisting their values, beliefs and injunctions. For Scotland therefore, perhaps identity is forged in opposition to England? Their wish to stay in the EU could be understood as separating from the “family” union with England and defining its identity as separate from England via its imagined relationship to the EU. For Scotland, the feared claustrophobic control comes from England, who is the dominating parent whilst the EU is seen as a protector, helping Scotland manage its English colonisation anxieties. For England, now equally uncertain of its identity and therefore also preoccupied with autonomy, the EU becomes the parental figure to be in opposition to. For England, it is the EU that raises the spectre of domination and control.

So, in relation to our current divisions, can we think about this as a couple problem? At the risk of being heteronormative and reinforcing gender norms, let’s imagine this as Mr Leave and Mrs Remain. Mr Leave desperately wants autonomy; he fears being colonised and prizes his independence and hates to feel needy and out of control. Mrs Remain, on the other hand wants closeness and intimacy and fears that without this attachment her survival is at stake. This kind of split, and the fight and acrimony it can generate between couples is what I feel I am witnessing in the divisions we see between leave and remain supporters. Between couples, this kind of difficulty can feel like a fight to the death and it seems that the current strength of feeling in the country is similarly polarised and desperate. Further, as we get closer to leaving without any plan or guarantees of security, unsurprisingly, difficulties with rational and calm thinking seem to be getting worse.

The way I try to help couples become less angry and polarised is twofold. Firstly, I try and build a sense of safety and containment in the therapy that builds trust both with me and between the couple and secondly, when feelings are more regulated and calmer, I work with Mr Leave and Mrs Remain to help them build a sense of self that feels strong and resilient. When this is established the polarisation decreases and collaboration becomes more possible. One can only hope that our leaders begin to understand this need for containment and security, so we can begin the process of understanding each other and concern and empathy, can re-emerge in our country.

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