Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 10, 2010

Patty, a mother of three kids, two dogs, two cats, three rabbits and a tortoise, comes in describing to me that her husband complains that he does not feel like he is a “member” of his family. I began to think about this feeling of membership, this feeling of belonging. I thought about my earlier post, entitled the Narcissistic Bubble,, in that Patty’s husband, Zac, complained that he was not included in the bubble. I thought there were three possibilities; Patty could be excluding Zac, Zac could be excluding himself ,or a combination of both. Although Zac is not my patient, I wondered that perhaps Zac suffers from feeling unimportant, despite the fact that he has a good job and he does important work for other people. Perhaps this feeling stemmed from Zac’s childhood and now he is blaming his wife for his old wounds. On the other hand, perhaps the marriage is such that Patty feels like her only sense of power in the relationship is to exclude Zac from being important to the children or to the pets. I float these ideas in my head until I feel confident enough to have my thoughts see the light of day.

I enjoy creating hypotheses and then testing them out to see how they sound. I do not  want to be “right” but I do hope to start a conversation. In this case, Patty took my words to mean that a sense of belonging is complicated because it involves the past, present and future. That is, each person has a history of feeling included and excluded throughout their lives. Likewise, there is a current sense of being one of the “group” or not, and then there is a sense that this belonging feeling could be transient or a sense that there is permanence.

Freud looked at belonging in the classical Oedipal triangle. The little boy loves his mother, but since his father also loves his mother,  he must pull back from this intense love of his  mother and he must begin to  identify  with his father. This negotiation of the Oedipal conflict results in the formation of a superego, the part of the personality which decides right from wrong. The little boy develops a sense that his urges must be curbed for the greater good of the family unit, for the greater good of society. The boy has to learn to accept that he is not a part of the marital union. He needs to take this “insult” to propel him forward to develop his own marital union in the future. Hence, how the boy negotiates being left out is a large factor in determining the formation of his personality.

Kohut looked at belonging as a narcissistic need. We need others to mirror us, to reassure us that how we think and how we behave is first understood, and  second admired. When we do not experience this kind of acceptance as a young child, then we hunger for it our entire life. Feeding narcissism promotes healthy psychological growth, such that a child who is made to feel important will have an easier time fitting into groups than a child who is made to feel like a burden.

Kohut made it acceptable to want to belong,  in contrast to Freud who said that the child must accept that he is not part of the  marital union and hence he must learn to cope with his challenging world. This difference between Kohut and Freud has created large theoretical arguments about how to help people who complain that they do not feel alive, that they do not feel important.

I am reminded of   another post,, where the patient both acted like a corpse and told me he felt that way. He needed affirmations, but his marriage was such that he was not getting any from his wife. He did not feel like he belonged in the universe, a profound sense of being left out.  I tilt towards Kohut’s view that we all crave validation and when we don’t get that, we wilt. At the same time, I appreciate Freud’s view that a child has to navigate his world in which he must eventually separate from his parents. He  needs to have the confidence to move forward into his own life, despite the fact that his primary love object (his mother) cannot be his permanent love object.

In Patty’s case, my first thought is that Zac’s complaints about not belonging is about Zac’s narcissitic needs to belong, a need, which I suspect goes back to his childhood. I may be  wrong, but since my goal is to show Patty another way to look at her situation, a way to see that she may or may not be the cause of Zac’s feelings, then I give myself permission to play with ideas. In other words, the play is important, the ideas are secondary. Once Patty and I can begin to engage, we can exchange ideas, we can play; the world expands. There is a sense of belonging between us. Maybe, just maybe, this models a way for Patty to develop that sense of belonging with Zac.

2 Responses to “Belonging”

  1. Shelly said

    Maybe Zac wants to feel a part of his marriage with Patty, as if he is an integral part of the marital unit, because that is where he feels he belongs–without any connection to the Oedipal conflict he felt about his own mother. Why is it psychiatry is based on the absurd teachings of Freud when there are other, more rational and reasonable theories out there, like Kohut? Zac married Patty because he loved Patty, not his mother. It is normal to want the intimacy and freedom to be himself in the marriage, because it is what he expected when he married. Imagine if someone told you that everything that is wrong in your life is because of your parents and your desire to be a part of their marriage? What type of psychiatry is it that focuses on the here and now and overcoming problems in the present, instead of always going back to sex, Oedipus, or one’s parents?

    • Shirah Vollmer said

      The point is that the past influences the present. I think we can all agree with that. Exactly how the past influences the present is complicated. Freud may be “absurd” but he got us thinking about how the events in childhood are formative. I agree that Kohut feels much more intuitive than Freud does. I have a lot of respect for both.
      Psychiatry is no longer based on the teachings of Freud. Even some schools of psychoanalysis have moved away from Freud. I love reading Freud, but that does not mean that I agree with his point of view. I do admire his writing and I admire his boldness to float out theories which have shifted how we look at mental life-for good or for ill.
      The idea is that Zac’s issue of not belonging may relate to his marriage with Patty, but it may also relate to his prior relationships. Expanding the issue out of the here and now allows for some deep thinking about personality development. Thinking is not a bad thing, even if it turns out not to “fit” this particular situation.

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