Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

“Object Usage”

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 30, 2013

Phillip Bromberg in his book, “Standing in the Spaces” (1998)  quotes a dream from a patient to illustrate Winnicott’s concept of “object usage”.

“I was leaning out of a window on the top floor of a tall building that was in flames. A fireman was climbing up a ladder to rescue me and I was throwing rocks at him.”

Bromberg explains the dream. “A person may feel himself so psychologically incapacitated and at risk in the world of people, that it is indeed similar to living alone in a burning building from which he needs to be rescued. But that particular burning building is the only one that exists as a self, and one’s individual selfhood, no matter how painful or unadaptive, must be protected at all cost as part of any rescue operation.” Hence, Winnicott’s “object usage” means that the therapist must respect the patient’s need to “throw rocks”. Some psychoanalysts call this phenomena “resistance,” but Bromberg prefers “object usage”.

A fictional patient comes to my mind.  Louise, fifty-five, lesbian, mother of two, professional comes in describing her relationship to Harry, sixty-four, single, never married, a plumber. “Harry treats me like I am his mother. He acts like I am extremely interested in everything that happens to him, but he hardly ever listens to me, and he hardly ever seems to care what is going on in my life. The relationship is so one-sided that I feel so angry when I am around him.” Louise says, clearly caring for Harry, but also really frustrated with the relationship. “It sounds like Harry is using you as a caring bosom, because he must need that, but he does not have insight into the fact that you may not want to be that for him.” I say, thinking about Winnicott’s concept of “object usage.” As with Harry and Louise, all relationships, to some extent, involve using the other person to get our personal needs met and thereby not seeing the other person as a unique individual. The more one can gain insight into their “object usage,” the more their relationships can deepen into a process of interpersonal exploration. “Do you think if you confronted Harry that the relationship is feeling lopsided, that maybe then things could get better?” I ask, wondering if Louise can help Harry get some insight into how the relationship feels to her. “I have tried that, and it helps for a short time, but then things go back to this mother/child dynamic.” Louise says, with obvious anger in her voice. “You are in a tough spot, because it sounds like the relationship has hit a wall,” I say, mirroring her frustration. “Relationships work better when ‘objects’ are appreciated and not ‘used’ ” I say, throwing in some jargon about their dynamic. “Yep,” Louise says, with the joy of feeling understood.




6 Responses to ““Object Usage””

  1. Jon said

    There are many ways to understand the correctness of your statement, “Relationships work better when ‘objects’ are appreciated and not ‘used.’ ” Of course, for the more prurient minded of your readers, the truth is also correct on this base level as well.

    • Shirah said

      Yes. The idea is that in all relationships we are appreciating and using at the same time, but the more we can appreciate, and the less we use, the deeper the relationship can be.

  2. Shelly said

    This blog makes me focus on this sentence, “….all relationships, to some extent, involve using the other person to get our personal needs met…”. I realize that I am taking only snippets of the sentence, but can you please expand upon this?

    • Shirah said

      I am glad Shelly that you extracted that sentence from this post as this is the key issue. Relationships are a dance between appreciating the “other” or the “object” as a separate and unique human being, and at the same time, appreciating how this “object” keeps the person’s self-esteem alive and vibrant. When this balance is off, there is “object usage” which makes the “used object” feel less alive and subservient. Relationships thrive when there is vitality on both ends. In essence, in good relationships, there is a balance between appreciating and needing the other.

  3. A therapist with a pen said

    I have just discovered your blog and have enjoyed reading “About Me” and your most recent post, “Object Usage,” especially how you started with images from a dream. Please have a look at my blog, A Therapist with a Pen.” I am afraid it is rather primitive, with only two categories, and it is a little difficult to explain what it is about. But basically I write from my own experiences about what I consider to be the psychoanalytic process that occus in our own minds every time we sit down to write. Thank you! Paul

    • Shirah said

      Hello Paul!
      Thanks for chiming in. I did check out your blog. It looks interesting. The internet, through its wonders, has brought us together and that is pretty cool. Happy Blogging!

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