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The Paradoxical Place of Enactment in Psychoanalysis:

Lewis Aron, Ph.D.

(2003). Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 13:623-631


inherently paradoxical and contains an important tension that we are always in
danger of losing. The clash is between defining enactment narrowly so that it
maintains specific meaning and is thought to represent only episodic, discrete
events, or defining it so broadly as to alert us to the ubiquity of unconscious
interpersonal mutual influence and in so doing turning all of analysis into one
huge enactment.
On one side, we are correct to ask, What is not an enactment? Isn't all of
psychoanalysis an extended enactment? All the contributors to this symposium
take for granted that enactments occur regularly in psychoanalysis, that
enactments can be analytically productive, and that understanding the
inevitability and usefulness of enactments should help analysts to feel less
shameful and less guilty about finding themselves caught up in them.
Recognizing that speech is action and actions are forms of communication (for
a brief history of this distinction, see Greenberg, 1996), we have largely come to
accept the deconstruction of the sharp split between speech and action. Ferenczi
was the most important pioneer in deconstructing the dichotomization of words
and deeds (see Harris and Aron, 1997). In his Clinical Diary, Ferenczi (1932)
asserted that, as the analysis of a traumatized patient progressed, the

This symposium was first presented at the winter Scientific Meeting of the Postgraduate
Psychoanalytic Society, February 3, 2001, New York City.

analyst would unavoidably have to repeat with his own hands the act of murder
previously perpetrated against the patient (p. 52). Ferenczi claimed that it is the
intensity of the interpersonal experience that is transformative and that what
differentiates analysts from others is their commitment to face honestly and
acknowledge their role and participation in these enactments without hiding their
complicity from their patients. Nevertheless, while they represented breathtaking
contributions to clinical psychoanalysis, the complications of Ferenczi's late
clinical experiments also point us toward the dangers of an approach that
transforms all of analysis into enactment.
Many of us find clinically compelling Levenson's (1983) argument that the
language of speech and the language of action will be transforms of each other;
that is, they will be, in musical terms, harmonic variations on the same theme (p.
81). Free association consists of action and interaction, not just words. The talking
cure is not a flow of words but is inherently an interactional experience. From a
different theoretical vantage point, Ogden's (1994) delineation of interpretive
action complicates any simple distinction between words and actions on the parts
of both the analyst and the patient. Speaking of a related term, Mitchell (1995)
observed that the concept of projective identification had undergone an
interpersonalization (p. 79). Following him, I have suggested that, with the
growing recognition of the ubiquitous role of enactment, we can legitimately
speak more generally of the interpersonalization of psychoanalysis (Aron, 1996;
and for a study of enactment and such related terms as actualization and acting
out, across a variety of psychoanalytic traditions, see chapter 7, Enactment,
Interaction, and Projective Identification).
More than any other school of psychoanalysis, interpersonal theory, grounded
in Sullivan's (1953) principle of participant-observation and extended to
encompass a view of the analyst as an observing-participant (Hirsch, 1987) or
coparticipant (Wolstein, 1964), has always given emphasis to the behaviors of

patient and analyst with and between each other. Sullivan implied that we are
what we do, rather than what we say. His teaching established an interpersonal
tradition that gave due weight to what patient and analyst do to and with each
other, rather than focusing narrowly on their associations and interpretations only
as communications of meaning. Family therapists and theorists working in the
1970s, especially Minuchin (1974), extending his early roots in Sullivan and
interpersonal psychoanalysis, developed the idea of enactment as a critical
therapeutic process. Minuchin spoke of actualization and of a therapy of
action (p. 14) and argued that there is considerable value in making the family
enact instead of describe (p. 141). Psychoanalysts writing about enactment and
actualization have been neglectful in not crediting family therapists and theorists
for their contributions about the therapeutic value of enactment (for an exception,
see Rosen, 1992).
We begin with the assumption that patient and analyst cannot help but enact
and reenact, even if in attenuated and modulated form, whatever issues are being
discussed between them. In the symposium that follows, Margaret Black presents
a fascinating case vignette in which she explores a dramatic enactment. We might
take the clinical incident described by Black and ask what kind of response might
have avoided an enactment with her patient. If, instead of initially reacting with
amusement, she had been horrified by the story told by her patient, would that
not have been an enactment of some underlying dynamic? If she had found a way
to listen without much display of affect, had she appeared poker faced, would that
not have enacted something else?
But our recognition of the important and continuous role of interaction does
not mean that we must conclude that everything is an enactment and therefore
that enactment has no special place in psychoanalysis. Some interactions stand
out as enactments in ways that other moments do not. I believe this is what Tony
Bass means in his discussion of Black's paper when he refers to discrete
enactments, or enactments with a capital E. Hence, the kinds of enactments that
are described by such writers as Bromberg (1998) and Davies and Frawley
(1994), and that they convincingly relate to dissociative processes, must be set
apart from the ongoing (small e) enactment that we understand constitutes all
psychoanalytic process. Take note of Bass's observation that Enactments
constitute especially challenging moments for the analyst and may be decisive
turning points in the analysis. These, he argues, are times of high risk and high
gain for both patient and analyst. Bass's elegant and sophisticated discussion of
the clinical material offered by Margaret Black (in this issue), as well as of clinical
masterpieces presented by Theodore Jacobs 2001a, b), demonstrates an
important function of enactment: allowing the analytic dyad to contain opposing
realities and to enable incongruous
self-states to coexist. In doing so, he builds on the work of Bromberg, Davies,
Mitchell, and others in connecting relational theorizing about the multiplicity of
selves to the clinical literature on enactment.
Let me digress to describe a different theoretical debate in the history of
psychoanalysis in order to clarify my present thesis. In the 1960s, a Kris Study
Group of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute, working on the place of dreams in
clinical psychoanalysis, concluded that, from a clinical point of view, dreams
convey no more or less than do other sources and provide no special
understanding beyond what the analyst could obtain from other data (Waldhorn,
1967). In his Brill Lecture, Greenson (1970), famously disputing these findings,
argued that, although the principles of dream formation are the same as for other
clinical phenomena, in dream formation these principles operate under
exceptional topographic circumstances. The substance of the disagreement
revolved around Arlow and Brenner's (1964) position that the structural point of
view had replaced the topographic. For them, dreams, like all other psychic
events, result from compromise formations among the psychic structures. All
psychic events are made up of compromises among drive derivatives, anxiety or
depressive affect, defense, and guilt. The Kris Study Group, working with this

version of structural theory, had to conclude that dreams are made up of these
compromise formations, but all psychic events (all thoughts, symptoms, actions)
are made up of these same compromises. Therefore there cannot be anything
special or unique about dreamsthey are compromise formations like all other
psychic acts (Waldhorn, 1967).
This excursion into the history of psychoanalysis is relevant to the current
topic because it makes plain how easy it is to be carried away by a single idea,
such that since everything becomes encompassed by that single idea, nothing is
ever unique or special. If everything is a compromise formation, then nothing is
unique. All a patient's productions are leveled so that nothing stands out as
exceptional. Similarly if everything in an analysis always has a layer of action or a
dimension of interaction, then everything is an enactment and no event is ever
uniquely an enactment. Therefore enactments have no special place in
psychoanalytic theory. This is a significant theoretical mistake because it levels all
data. Nothing can stand out from anything else.
Bass's proposal resolves this problem by differentiating two kinds of
enactments. The term (small e) enactment recognizes that interaction is
ubiquitous and continual. The term (capital E) Enactments stands out in the way
they are constituted by unique qualities of mutually unconscious influence
between patient and analyst. Alternatively, it might be better to speak of
interaction to refer to the ongoing way in which we always act with each other
as we communicate and to speak of enactment to refer to these discrete and
unique events with their implication of mutual and bidirectional, unconscious
influence. It should be noted that McLaughlin (1991), who along with Jacobs
(1986) was among the very first to use the term enactment in the psychoanalytic
literature, similarly distinguished between the general ubiquity of analytic
enactment and enactment as a designation for specific shared behaviors between
patient and analyst.
The reservation that I have about these various distinctions, however, is that I
remain concerned that, as soon as we designate a term like enactment to refer to
these special and discrete events, we may too easily lose sight of the continuing
place of interaction in clinical work. I believe that this is why Renik (1997) does
not speak of enactments in the plural (with the implication that they are discrete
events) but rather speaks only of enactment in the singular, indicating that
enactment is a continuing aspect of everything that patients and analysts do in
The term enactment has been used, on one hand, to create a conceptual
space within which to house interactional concepts within psychoanalytic theory;
in this regard it has represented an expansion of our theory. On the other hand,
the term also contains and constrains the interactional dimension of
psychoanalysis. By being given a limited place under the rubric of enactment,
interaction is safely sealed off, limiting our recognition of its centrality, and hence
setting limits on the interpersonalization of psychoanalysis. By referring to both
the continual interactive dimension of all psychoanalytic process and to special
and unique incidences in which unconscious variables are played out in either
subtle or more dramatic form between patient and analyst, the term enactment
remains usefully ambiguous and holds the tension created by these different
Our theory of technique has unfortunately been used for decades to intimidate
analysts into being silent about their day-to-day clinical work. Judith Chused
makes a valuable contribution in her paper by emphasizing the role of shame and
guilt among analysts. One of the benefits gained with the acceptance of the term
enactment is a greater acceptance on the part of analysts of the inevitability of
their responding to their patients' other than with neutrality and interpretation.
Ellman (1998) concluded a major work on enactment by acknowledging that,
especially in the United States, classical analysts had been educated to believe
that, if they made personal responses to their patients, they had been
insufficiently analyzed and thus discussing enactments was particularly shameful

and difficult. In her article, Chused offers a more precise definition of enactment,
emphasizing its bidirectional, unconscious aspects. She highlights the analyst's
free use of self and demonstrates how the concept of enactment relieves the
analyst from inhibiting shame. Relying on her own emotional responses as central
to her clinical understanding and participation, she places affects at the center of
her clinical work. Her invitation to the patient to analyze the analyst is
reminiscent not only of Ferenczi's mutual analysis (in greatly modified and
modulated form) but also is similar to my own recommendations for exploring the
patient's experience of the analyst's subjectivity (Aron, 1991).
In Margaret Black's article, three significant achievements in particular merit
highlighting. First, she elaborates a fully relational model of the mind that moves
beyond the interplay of individual minds to a vision of mind itself as fluid. While
this model needs to be filled out and further developed, Black gives us a clear
indication of the relevance of this shift in theoretical conceptualization of mind for
understanding the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis.
Second, in her clinical work, Black has demonstrated a relational approach in
which she used her capacity to think psychoanalytically as a tool that helped her
avoid being pulled into a sadomasochistic engagement. The tendency here was to
respond in a way that Benjamin (1998) has termed complementarity, where
both participants feel that they are without agency, that each is simply
responding to the pull or push of the other. In a relational structure of
complementarity, omnipotence and helplessness are split such that they alternate
between the two members of the dyad. Benjamin and I (Aron and Benjamin,
1999) have suggested that in enactments, observation and participation are
typically split apart; that is, the analyst either loses the ability to think or observe
and becomes caught up in the interaction or can think only by becoming
detached, cerebrally analytic, disidentifying with the patient. Such interactions
may be characterized as invariably involving complementarities, loss of the third
In this article, Black beautifully demonstrates how she managed to keep
thinking through this derailment, thus shifting from a complementary structure to
a relation of recognition. In this vignette, Black refused to give up her own point of
view and join the patient empathically in a way that would leave her submitting to
the patient's dominant view. She also refrained from interpreting her patient's
view as nothing but a resistance to her own, more accurate view, thus forcing her
patient into submission. As Black suggests, more important than what she was
thinking was that she kept thinking without detaching, and she used
psychoanalytic ideas, categories, and conceptualizations to help her keep to think
through the crunch. This capacity to think while remaining affectively engaged,
and to maintain the tension between a tendency to dominate and to submit to the
patient, enabled her to occupy a position of thirdness and to repair the relational
disruption (Beebe and Lachmann, 1994) thus creating intersubjective space in
which to promote mentalization (Fonagy et al., 2002).
Third, in this article Black has put on the table, more clearly and directly than I
have seen previously, serious questions about the degree to which it is enactment
or the exploration of enactment that moves the analytic work forward and that
provides the power of therapeutic action. I urge you to examine the tensions
among the authors on this important clinical question; Chused emphasizes the
exploration of the enactment rather than the enactment itself as the therapeutic
agent. Nevertheless, all of the authors would agree with Chused's assertion that
speaking about an enactment may itself constitute another enactment.
Before the term enactment became popular or accepted within
psychoanalysis, Mitchell (1988) wrote a passage that helps analysts feel less
shame in recognizing their own participation in analytic enactments:
Unless the analyst affectively enters the patient's relational matrix or, rather, discovers himself
withinunless the analyst is in some sense charmed by the patient's entreaties, shaped by the
patient's projections, antagonized and frustrated by the patient's defenses the treatment is
never fully engaged, and a certain depth within the analytic experience is lost [p. 293].

Enactments may well be a central means by which patients and analysts enter
into each other's inner world and discover themselves as participants within each
other's psychic life, mutually constructing the relational matrix that constitutes
the medium of psychoanalysis.

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