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Mystical Experience as an Expression of the Idealizing Self object Need – Theology Paper

Mystical Experience as an Expression of the Idealizing Self object Need – Theology Paper
As the “other” in the religious conversion is perfect and infallible, the experience of merger achieves the felt quality of perfection rendering the transformed self perfect as well. The merger with God may offer the opportunity for a relationship that circumvents the demands of relationships with separate others who have wishes and needs of their own. (Ullman, 1989, p.147.)

Introductory Comments about Religion and Psychology
Throughout history human beings have reported experiences interpreted variously as spiritual, transcendent, religious, or mystical. Karen Armstrong (1993) called this an “arresting characteristic of the human mind” and a “fact of life” (p. xxi). Rudolph Otto (1923) referred to homo religiosus as a way of describing this uniquely human interest in the divine. Rolland challenged Freud about his omission of this aspect of religious experience in Future of an Illusion (1927). Freud’s response was dismissive on two counts: first and most interesting, he had not experienced this “oceanic feeling,” and secondly, he thought it could be understood as a regressive phenomenon originating in infantile maternal longings. Laski (1961) wrote about the rare joy and feeling of contact with ultimate meaning of transcendent origin in ecstatic experiences. These experiences were not restricted to particular religious triggers. Maslow (1964; 1966) investigated “peak experiences” of contact with the holy or sacred, the beauty of nature, and feelings of harmony with the universe. These were not rare and exotic experiences, but rather the pinnacle of his need hierarchy. And most recently, Jeffrey Rubin (1996; 1997) describes “non-self-centered subjectivity”: . . . a psychological-spiritual phenomenon that is implicated in a range of adaptive contexts . . . It is something many people have experienced, for example, creating art, participating in athletics or religious experiences, or in love. It is characterized by heightened attentiveness, focus, and clarity, attunement to the other as well as to self, non-self-preoccupied exercise of agency, a sense of unity and timelessness, and non-self-annulling immersion in whatever one is doing in the present (1997, p. 80)

For the purpose of this chapter, I have chosen to delimit this range of experiences to particular kinds of mystical experiences in which there is an element of what Evelyn Underhill (1912) called the unitive feeling what is psychologically called a merger experience. Ellwood (1999) regards mysticism as an interpretive category and defines it as: . . . experience in a religious context that is immediately or subsequently interpreted by the experiencer as a direct, unmediated encounter with ultimate divine reality. This experience engenders a deep sense of unity and suggests that during the experience the experiencer was living on a level of being other than the ordinary. (p. 39)

The attempt to understand mysticism psychologically has a history as long as psychology itself beginning with the French psychopathology tradition, continuing into German studies in psychology of religion, and on to the American psychologists of religion working at the turn of the twentieth century. James Leuba, a member of the Clark school (a program in religious psychology founded by G. Stanley Hall in the late 1800’s), was convinced that religious experience lacked a transcendent object and could be explained entirely by psycho-physiological processes. He was perhaps the only American at the time to take such a strict point of view.

There were many apologists. Henri Delacroix (1908) thought mystics possess a special aptitude for a rich subconscious life and that the stages of a mystic’s life represent new and creative existence. While not exactly an apologist, Theodore Flournoy (1903a), Swiss psychologist and friend of William James, suggested the “principle of the exclusion of the transcendent” as necessary for a genuine psychology of religion. He argued psychologists are not in a position to affirm or reject the independent existence of a religious object and should confine themselves to observation and understanding. The Gifford Lectures of 1901-1902 resulted in the premier psychology of religion at the time, William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. James assumed the same stance toward the religious object as Flournoy, and so have many others since. In psychoanalytic circles, Rizzuto’s Birth of the Living God (1979) has already become classic. She explains her position:This book is exclusively a clinical, psychoanalytical study of postulated superhuman beings as experienced by those who do and do not believe in them

Questions about the actual existence of God do not pertain here. My method enables me to deal only with psychic experiences. Those among my patients who believe are unshakeable in their conviction that God is a very live person. To understand them I must accept that belief as a reality to them. (1979, pp. 3-4)

More recent psychoanalytic treatments of religion, notably those of Jones (1991) and Rubin (1996; 1997) have called for a mutually (if not reciprocal) influencing relationship. Psychoanalysis is challenged by religion to examine its own idolatries, values, self-care ethic, and pathologizing tendencies. Religion is challenged to examine its uncritical self-idealization and the ways in which its practices and beliefs may promote or sustain psychopathology. Wulff calls for “the principle of inclusion of the transcendent” to give transcendence the prominence it deserves without reifying it or identifying it with any one tradition or set of symbols (1997, p. 645).

Self psychology represents an example of a moderate position in its interpretation of religion, and suggests in contrast to the previous positions, that religious experience, belief and practice may be understood as an expression of the state of the self and its particular life-long needs for a sense of being special, a need for the experience of alikeness, and a need for affiliation with the admired. These selfobject needs for mirroring, twinship, and idealization may all be operative in mystical experiences and in experiences of the divine, as well as in adherence to particular religious beliefs and practices. Self Psychology with its developmental trajectories for each selfobject need, recognizes that the mere presence of religion does not automatically convey the meaning, function, or derivation of the experience within the personality. Clinician’s countertransference or confusion about how to deal with the material, often results in religion being pathologized or ignored. Herein lies the relevance of Meissner’s (1984) observation that many religious people are very anxious about exploring the unconscious dimensions of their faith, lest it be psychologized away, and the relevance of Kohut’s observation that “the insights of the psychology of the self enable us to shed our intolerant attitude toward religion . . . ” (1978).

This chapter will explore certain aspects of mystical experience as an expression of the idealizing selfobject need. Kohut’s developmental continuum of idealization will be reviewed with attention to optimal developmental experience and to expressions of pathological (or archaic) forms of idealization. The cases of Mr. X and Mr. U in Restoration (1977) and the implications of the idealizing selfobject need for a psychology of mystical/religious/spiritual experience are considered. The chapter concludes with the clinical vignette of Mr. S, the mystical experience he reported in light of the selfobject needs expressed inside and outside the treatment, and a series of questions for.

The Idealizing Selfobject Need and Its Relation to Religious Experience
In discussing the selfobject functions of religion, Kohut gave more attention to idealization than to mirroring or twinship. In some ways, idealization has the most obvious link to religion with its fundamental desire to merge with or affiliate oneself with the calming perfection and omnipotence of the selfobject. The object of mystical experience is often described with reference to power and perfection. The need or motivation for idealizing selfobject experience derives from the child’s experience of the loss of his or her original sense of narcissistic perfection. The idealizing need reflects one strategy to the problem of recovering a sense of perfection. The self attempts to merge or affiliate with the perfect other sharing in the other’s perfection, thereby protecting oneself from an empty and depleted sense of a defective self. A more technical definition is offered in Analysis of the Self (1971):It is the state in which, after being exposed to the disturbance of the psychological equilibrium of primary narcissism, the psyche saves a part of the lost experience of global narcissistic perfection by assigning it to an archaic, rudimentary (transitional) self-object, the idealized parental imago. (p. 37)

The idealizing experience and related inevitable disappointments in life (“optimal frustrations”) result in the internalization of basic values and ideals. In addition, the earliest merger experiences provide the foundation for development of the capacity to calm and soothe oneself, to manage anxiety without undue difficulty, to regulate inner tension. Eating disorders, substance abuse, compulsive sexual activity, and perhaps delinquent behavior are all evidence, at least in part, of a deficit in the capacity to soothe oneself, and by inference, of an early disturbance in the experience of the idealized selfobject.

The Developmental Continuum of the Idealizing Need
The earliest point on the developmental trajectory of the idealizing selfobject need is experienced by the infant as a merger with the “stable, calm, non-anxious, powerful, wise, protective selfobject that possesses the qualities” the self lacks (Wolf, 1988, p. 55). Kohut (1971) described the experience of the child feeling bereft and insignificant without constant union with the selfobject who possesses these idealized qualities. Development progresses toward “being able to recognize details of the environment more clearly; and beyond being able to love and hate” (Kohut, 1971, p.38). The later, or more mature end of the continuum is illustrated by the capacity to be sustained by and to feel secure in the empathic resonance (rather than merger) with the idealized selfobject. The calming functions and ideals of the selfobject have been internalized and assimilated, becoming psychological structures within the self. Imperfections are observed in (reality) without resorting to splitting defenses in which everything is either all good or all bad. The self learns to recognize and accept that “the ideal is not ideal” (Kohut in Elson, 1987, p. 81).

Merger with the idealized selfobject and the requirement of perfection in the other gradually give way to a clearer and more realistic sense of the surround. This occurs through a process of de-idealization and transmuting internalization in which the child experiences incremental disappointments in an empathic environment and becomes increasingly realistic about the idealized parent imago. Kohut suggested, for example, that the experience of a child’s undetected lie by the parents introduces the fact that the parents are not omniscient. Kohut also speculated that a maturational readiness to perform the function, as well as some withdrawal of the function by the selfobject would enhance the more mature development of the idealizing need (Kohut in Elson, 1987, p.98).

To summarize, the developmental trajectory of the idealized selfobject experience begins in a merger with the perfect other in an effort to manage tension regulation and feelings of insignificance and imperfection. In the oedipal phase, acceptance of the child’s idealizing needs plays a crucial role in superego formation and in the formation of gender identity. In adolescence and young adulthood, more advanced cognitive development permits the recognition of parental shortcomings. Often, idealization needs are directed to the peer group and popular culture until the adolescent and young adult have internalized his or her own set of ideals, values, and goals. Wolf noted the adolescent’s own values consist of partly parental, partly cultural, and partly a critique of both (1988, p. 58). In old age, there is a “need to idealize community and to be confirmed as an especially valuable guide and model for the community’s ideals” (Wolf, 1988, p. 60).

Effects of Developmentally Inadequate Idealization Experience

Generally speaking, insufficient empathy for the child’s idealizing needs results in the continuation of archaic expressions of idealization into adulthood. Insufficient empathy may be characterized by a rejection of the child’s idealizations, or by sudden loss of or extensive disappointment in the idealized selfobject, such as may occur in situations of divorce, substance abuse, domestic violence, or death. Wolf described the “ideal-hungry personality” as being able to experience him or herself “worthwhile only by finding selfobjects to whom they can look up and by whom they can feel accepted” (Wolf, 1988, p. 73). It is worth noting here that Ullman (1989) observed many converts were struggling with feelings of unworthiness and low-self-esteem prior to their religious or spiritual experiences.

Excessive frustration in infancy and early childhood may result in difficulty sleeping (self-soothing) and difficulty managing anxiety. Traumatic disappointment up to and through the oedipal phase seriously interferes with the capacity to assume functions related to positive idealizing experiences (i.e., structuralization) and may result in a kind of developmental fixation, “a renewed insistence on, and search for, an external object of perfection” (Kohut, 1971, p. 44). There can be gross identification with the lost parent rather than an internalizing of structure (identification as a counter to the experience of mourning, Freud, 1917 E).

In Restoration of the Self (1977), Kohut discussed the case of Mr. U in which there was significant failed maternal empathy and the development of a fetish. An attempt to idealize the father followed. The idealizing function the mother might have allowed Mr. U, as an infant, was a merger with her strength and calmness, thus assisting him to develop a capacity for self-soothing. Instead he resorted to stroking his own skin and the soft “selfobject surrogates” of his fetish. The turn to the father at this juncture is considered a secondary idealization. The father rejected Mr. U’s attempts to use him as an idealized parent imago and therefore Mr. U had no opportunity to obtain self-soothing structures through this potential merger, nor any opportunity to incrementally experience de-idealizations allowing integration of the selfobject’s shortcomings. This resulted in two opposite responses to the disappointment: 1) Mr. U became despairing and hopeless about an unreachable ideal, and 2) the ideal was regarded as worthless; he became superior to it (Kohut, 1977, pp. 56-57). The archaic grandiose self was reactivated in response to the injury of being rebuffed by the idealized parent imago.

Kohut’s further notation has relevance for understanding the function of religious experience. Mr. U created,. . . a psychological situation of merger with a nonhuman selfobject that he totally controlled, and thereby deprived himself of the opportunity to experience the structure-building optimal failures of a human selfobject. (1977, p.56)

In a similar vein, Kohut (1984) revisited this notion of creating substitute selfobjects through visual imagery when there seemed to be no plausible selfobjects in one’s environment. Specifically, he suggested a self psychology refinement of the concept of regression-in-service-of-the-ego and spoke of a positive evaluation of the capacity to conjure up “the presence of individuals [in order] to carry out acts of supreme courage” (Kohut, 1984, p. 76). He had in mind martyred resisters to the Nazi’s.

In noting the selfobject transference in the treatment situation as a “new edition” of the relation between the self and selfobject in early life, Kohut reported several cases with religious preoccupations. In one case he was treating (during the early stages of his self psychology theory development), Kohut consistently refused the patient’s idealization. She became deeply religious “and continued the unresolved idealizing transference in an intense religious experience” (Kohut in Elson, 1987, p. 77). Regarding his work with a young man whose idealized father died when he was nine years old, and who expressed interest in the figures of Gandhi, Jesus, and Martin Luther King, Kohut concluded, “There is a shift from the attempt to regain a lost personified strong ideal to a religious-like drifting attitude toward the world” (Kohut in Elson, 1987, p. 286).

It was Kohut’s experience that when a treatment ended with an incompletely analyzed idealizing transference, the patient often became preoccupied with religion or “broad religious attitudes.” Kohut explicitly said he was not adverse to religion, but that in some patients he felt the religious interest was psychologically obligatory and not freely chosen. In one case, the religious interest was maintained “all the time against reality” resulting in a “pollyannaish attitude” that everyone was good, an attitude that mitigated against a more needed realism in the patient’s job and his hiring practices (Kohut in Elson, 1987, p. 287).

In Restoration (1977), the case of Mr. X illustrates again the pathological implications of an inadequate idealized parent imago. He presented himself to Kohut with an interest in joining the Peace Corps and with a Christ-identification, both of which Kohut came to regard as the carriers of an archaic grandiose self. One aspect of his difficulties had been the mother’s interference with Mr. X’s idealization of his father. The structural defects that resulted were dealt with by “concretized erotic enactments.” For example, Mr. X. would feel suffused with idealized masculine strength when he imagined himself crossing his penis with the penis of the priest as he was receiving the Host. Kohut understood it necessary to shift Mr. X from an addictive erotic representation to a reactivation in the transference of Mr. X’s relation to his father, the idealized selfobject. This required “shedding the Christ-identification his mother had fostered in her Bible reading to him and simultaneously disengaging the father-surrogate, God, which had represented his mother’s unconscious imago of her own father” (1977, p. 218). While Kohut theorized the possibility that participating in religion or spirituality could meet appropriate selfobject needs, it is clear that he also viewed involvement in things religious as potentially serving pathological or defensive functions within the personality.

Implications for Religious Belief and Experience

The developmental fate of the idealized parent imago, whether mature or archaically vulnerable to narcissistic injury, may find expression in some form of spirituality. Whether in particular theological beliefs or in varieties of religious experience, the need to affiliate with perfection can often be observed in both the characterizations of the divine as well as in the emotional longings which precede many conversion experiences. Ullman (1989) interviewed converts to Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, and the Baha’i faith and concluded that the religious realities of these converts consisted “primarily of the promise of unconditional love and protection by a figure perceived as infallible,” rather than in an ideological search for the truth (p. 191).

Kohut introduced the consideration of mystical experience and “nature religion” in his discussion of archaic idealizing needs and the concept of fuzzy idealism. He noted two expressions of fuzzy idealism in religious experience. The first related to what he called “vague religious preoccupations” which lacked focus upon a clearly delimited admired figure (1971, p. 85). As noted above, idealizing transferences deflected by the therapist that remain unengaged in the treatment sometimes resulted in the patient’s turn to religion or spirituality. The predisposition for such a turn related to early developmental disruptions in the idealized selfobject experience. Secondly, the early loss of or traumatic disappointment in an idealized figure sometimes resulted later in an interest in nature religion or philosophy (e.g., Thoreau’s work). The appeal of these experiences is the absence of a human being experienced as selfobject who may disappoint again. The “fuzziness” of these idealizations protects the believer from a certain form of narcissistic injury while at the same time providing a needed experience of idealization.

Kohut also observed the not infrequent presence of a tendency to mystical merger experiences in archaic expressions of the idealizing selfobject need. The dynamic of merger was the key focus for Kohut and suggested to him a response to earlier developmental expressions of this selfobject need. It is significant to note that he discussed both healthy and pathological forms of merger. Healthy merger must be initiated from the “mature aspect” of the personality, should not be the only automatic response to stress, should be controlled and controllable, should be a choice, and should be capable of tolerating delay (Kohut in Elson, 1987). In contrast, pathological merger experiences in adulthood are a response to the inadequately fulfilled, phase appropriate merger needs of childhood. Kohut noted that in actual behavior, though there is a longing for an intense archaic merger experience, the more typical protective response is a strict avoidance of circumstances and experiences that might provoke a feared regression and a loss of control.

In psychology of religion studies, there is basic agreement as to the major characteristics of mystical experience regardless of era or tradition (James, 1902; Underhill, 1911; Leuba, 1925; Otto, 1923; Stace, 1961; Hood, 1975, 1977, 1978; Ellwood 1999). James concluded The Varieties with an observation about mysticism: “personal religious experience has its root and centre in mystical states of consciousness” (p.292). He had suggested four marks that justify the name of “mystical:”
1) ineffability the experience is difficult to articulate (p. 292);
2) noetic quality new states and depths of insight which are ususally
authoritative for the individual (p. 293);
3) transiency the experience lasts no more than one-two hours;
4) passivity ” . . . the mystic feels as if his [or her] own will
were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he [or she] were grasped and
held by a superior power.” (p. 293)

An additional characteristic discussed is union. “This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness” (1902, p. 321). Following a review of the literature, Ellwood concluded, “. . . what the pattern finally says is simply that there is a direction toward union in the serious spiritual life. While common motifs may appear, no two advances toward union are the same” (1999, p. 175).

A few brief quotations illustrate this characteristic longing for union. From Catherine of Sienna, a thirteenth century mystic: “My me is God” (in Flinders, 1993). From Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, about her conversion to Roman Catholicism: ” . . . but I wanted to be poor, chaste, and obedient. I wanted to die in order to live, to put off the old man and put on the Christ. I loved, in other words, and like all women in love, I wanted to be united to my love” (1952/1981, p. 149). Thomas Merton, a 20th century priest and theologian, wrote poignantly of the longing to close the distance he felt between himself and God: “My God it is the gap and the distance that kills me. That is the only reason why I desire solitude to be lost to all created things, to die to them and the knowledge of them . . . For I knew it was only by leaving them that I could come to you” (1948, p. 461).The experience of union or merger in mystical experience is a controversial topic in religious and psychological circles. Merton (1966) suggested regressive features in mystical experience are not uncommon and are even necessary to attain the earlier stages of the experience, but that deeper experiences should be beyond regressive elements. Though Merton’s attitude seems open, the rejection of regressive elements in deeper, presumably more mature kinds of mystical experience suggests an equating of regression with pathology. Traditional psychoanalysis has regarded mystical experience as a regression to the narcissistic state of the infant. However, as noted earlier, Kohut recognized the narcissistic dimensions of religious experience, allowing for both archaic and mature transformations of narcissism.

Self psychology brings a more complex psychological understanding to these phenomena. It appreciates how the seeking of union or merger may manifest as a psychologically regressive phenomenon, but may be in the service of the ego in utilizing religious experience to realize the nuclear program of ambitions and the actualization of certain ideals (e.g., Gandhi or Day). Or, in mystical experiences, the merger may assuage the narcissistic vulnerability of possible re-traumatization with idealizing selfobjects. As Ullman noted (1989), merger with God protects from the demands of other relationships at greater risk for disappointment and thus the possibility of increased awareness of one’s imperfections.

Clinical Vignette

In the clinical setting it is sometimes difficult to clearly separate specific selfobject needs from one another, and in this case there are significant mirroring needs as well as the idealizing focus of this chapter. Mr. S was a single, 28 yr. old graduate student, who sought psychotherapy for a long-standing problems with anxiety. In the second hour, he reported a life-changing event that he regarded as a mystical experience. I saw him intensively for one and a half years until an external situation necessitated a move out of state. He traced the beginning of his anxiety back to seventh grade when he began wondering about the nature of the universe. Was it predominantly benevolent or not? What was real? How did he know that this life was not just a part of a dream God might be having? What was the meaning of life?. He suffered much internal anguish and in the face of being unable to resolve these questions, put them aside.

In the tenth grade, Mr. S experienced another expression of anxiety in the form of an obsession about his own mortality (the father was also afraid of death and hyper-vigilant about safety and contagion). At age 22, Mr. S suffered the most intense and nearly debilitating outbreak of anxiety yet, related to beginning a practicuum following college. He was aware of panic about “doing a good job.” The intensity of these attacks gradually abated, though he continued to experience a fairly consistent internal sense of dis-ease and anxiety that eluded his understanding.

Family History

Mr. S was the youngest child in his family and throughout the therapy, Mr. S said relatively little about his siblings or his parents. Mother died several years previous to the treatment after a protracted illness that began while Mr. S was in high school. The anxiety attacks had begun shortly after she left the family home requiring institutional care. Mother’s illness and death were understood as connected in a significant way to Mr. S’s feelings that he should be doing something important with his life, perhaps as a way of redeeming her suffering. He thought this feeling had motivated him earlier to pursue leadership positions and to initiate charitable activities.

Mr. S reported some fairly nominal involvement in mainstream Protestantism during his childhood. He recalled that in fourth grad, he was interested in “god and the Devil” for three or four months, and then had little or no interest in religion for another ten years. He was confirmed in eighth grade, but said it had meant nothing to him. He described himself as an agnostic who wanted to believe, but experienced himself in his early twenties as being frightened about closing his eyes to pray. He made a few efforts to attend retreat weekends and to do some reading in psychology and religion, but found these too emotionally taxing, at least until he had a “life-changing conversion” experience.

The Religious Experience

In the second session and with a great deal of hesitance about my response, Mr. S related a very significant experience, the details of which were more fully disclosed over the following months. He had been out with his girlfriend and was driving them back to her house. They had not been getting along very well and were in the midst of an argument when she turned to him and said, “You are so self-centered.” Before Mr. S could respond, he felt “something coming into” him and had to pull the car over because he could not concentrate on driving. He felt pervaded with an unconditional love that he had never before experienced, a sort of “cosmic orgasm.” He experience “adoration for the Godhead” and a presence within him. Mr. S felt that God had communicated with him and, in effect, had reassured him about the benevolent nature of the universe. There was nothing for him to fear. He described a vague visual element toward the end of this experience that seemed to be something like a “slowly swirling galaxy.” The most intense part of the experience lasted about an hour. Mr. S was left convinced of the reality of God and that his life pursuit should be related in some way to disseminating the truth he had learned.

This experience was a critical turning point for Mr. S. Subsequently, he felt a greater tolerance for his anxiety and felt that it had diminished. An earlier sense of needing to do something important with his life in a public arena was reinforced, as well as, confirming a sense of being special. More specifically, Mr. S seemed to identify himself with figures like Martin Luther and Abraham Lincoln in that perhaps like them, his internal suffering was a necessary preparation in order to do great things.


Mr. S’s reactions to the therapeutic relationship seemed to follow Kohut’s description of how persons with narcissistic personality disorders respond to empathic breaks, that is, instead of relying on the empathic connection with the therapist, there is a return to archaic selfobject relations. Following a feeling of greater attunement from the therapist, Mr. S would often come to the next session feeling disgruntled about therapy and feeling he expected answers from the therapist which only he could find. Only God could really understand him and I regarded this as regression to an archaic merger.

Mr. S’s experiences of anxiety, the function of his religious experience, the confusion he felt about his ambition and his experience of grandiosity are difficulties illustrative of the various disturbances of a narcissistic personality disorder. He demonstrated aspects of a mirroring transference within the therapy (as evidenced by his soliciting my admiration, his vulnerability to mis-attunements, and his identifications with historically great figures). Also present was an extra-therapeutic dimension of an idealizing transference to certain male figures and to his experience of the divine. There were disturbances in at least two sectors of the self, the grandiose-exhibitionistic self and the idealized parental imago. The extent of Mr. S’s anxiety lead to the conclusion that there was a defect in the structure of the self, specifically, a deficiency in the calming structures which serve the self-soothing function of the idealized pole of the self. Kohut (1984) suggested that such a defect derived from either a congenital propensity to experience excessive anxiety and/or failure of empathic responses from selfobjects early in life. It can be inferred that

Mr. S did indeed experience a failure of idealized maternal and paternal selfobject omnipotent calming, resulting in an adequate capacity for self-soothing.

Though his anxieties had manifested in a number of ways, fundamentally it seemed that a disintegration anxiety had been stimulated early in life, a fear of destruction of the self based upon the unavailability of empathic selfobjects. This was related to mother’s illness and death, and the loss of selfobject functions that she may have provided and the reactive feelings of being destined to do something great that immediately preceded her death. The emergence of archaic grandiosity could be understood as a defense against the impending loss, against the helplessness he felt as he watched his mother’s condition deteriorate, against the demise of the preconscious wish in his dreams to rescue her in order to restore himself, and a retreat from the disappointment in his father’s inability to save the mother. Mr. S felt he needed to be God for himself. A vertical split was observed in his conscious fear of becoming a “hamburger-flipping misfit” in contrast to his feelings of being destined for great things. Healing these splits then became the underpinning for further psychological development.

Mr. S’s experience contained classic mystical characteristics in the difficulty of articulating the experience; the new insight of a truth; transiency (the experience lasted about an hour); and passivity the experience “came upon him.” The experience may have served, initially, as a defense against a narcissistic injury and the potential fragmentation Mr. S experienced when his girlfriend made the observation of his self-centeredness. The exposure of his archaic grandiosity may have been threatened. The experience also functioned as a merger with a transcendently experienced, omnipotent and calm, idealized selfobject. This experience, and the return to it through less intense experiences of prayer and meditation for relief from anxiety, contained a schizoid quality in its avoidance of human intimacy. It may also have served as a creative adaptation through which Mr. S discovered a new selfobject and attempted to remobilize arrested development in the idealized sectors of his personality.

The religious dimension of Mr. S’s life was not without its conflicts that expressed disturbances in the spheres of ambition and ideals. Mr. S reported having a great deal of resistance to praying and wondered why, since, “There was no other feeling like it.” During prayer, Mr. S observed that he had to become aware of himself as human, with difficulties and anxieties; that God was God, and he was not. On the other hand, it was during these times when Mr. S felt best about himself, when he was most “real” about himself. He felt okay, happy, joyful, and calm with an increased sense of self-esteem.


This chapter reviewed Kohut’s concept of the idealizing selfobject need, its definitions and functions, and its developmental trajectories. The need to affiliate with perfection as a solution to the loss of one’s own sense of perfection is especially relevant to a psychological understanding of mystical experience. Certain forms of mysticism function as a form of “fuzzy idealism” in which disappointment in the experience of human selfobjects is avoided by appealing to a vague sense of perfection. Union or merger dimensions were recognized as an aspect of mysticism, but one that does not automatically assume pathological meaning. The clinical vignette of Mr. S considered the adaptive functions of his religious experience in the consequent lessening of anxiety in his life, as well as how the experience served a protective function against the exposure of archaic grandiosity.

A number of questions arise from these explorations. Does a developmental view necessarily have to imply that a merger experience is regressive in a pathological way? Postmodern perspectives challenge these linear models and the maturity morality implicit in them. Can psychological structure be accrued through experiences with a sacred other? Based on perception of the divine as empathic, are experiences of transmuting internalization possible (e.g., unanswered prayer as an optimal frustration)? Might God be viewed as a substitute selfobject created out of the absence of suitable selfobjects in one’s environment (see Bacal’s notion of a fantasy self-object and A. Ornstein’s concept of the curative fantasy)? How can the experience of self-transcendence from a self psychology perspective be understood? Are there reciprocal dimensions of influence between the spiritual experience and the therapeutic experience? How does the work in the transference affect one’s spiritual experience and how might a spiritual experience affect the working through of a transference? What gender differences may be present in these experiences?

Self psychology provides a helpful theoretical framework not only for a psychology of religion, but also for assisting the therapist/analyst in the clinical situation by suggesting a way to understand connections between selfobject needs, the transference, its genetic origins and developmental fate, and the relation of all this to the nature of a patient’s spiritual experience. Kohut’s approach undeniably includes an empathic and therapeutic understanding of things spiritual and offers a deeper grasp of the role and function of this aspect of human experience. Unwittingly, he is very much in concert with that most famous psychologist of religion, William James who a century ago suggested that,

To the medical mind these ecstasies signify nothing but suggested and imitated hypnoid states, on an intellectual basis of superstition, and a corporal one of degeneration and hysteria. Undoubtedly these pathological conditions have existed in many and possibly in all cases, but that tells us nothing about the value for knowledge of the consciousness which they induce. To pass a spiritual judgement upon these states, we must not content ourselves with superficial medical talk, but inquire into their fruits. (1902, p. 317)

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