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The psychological significance of your purse, phone, and other seemingly ordinary objects

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Life is one big Rorschach test, as far as I am concerned. When out in the world I may look like I am shopping or doing chores, but in fact, what I am doing while I do those things is reading ordinary objects as a way to understand  the unconscious aspects of people that I see in line at Trader Joe’s. Going to Costco for me is more like attending one big Sandplay convention, each person’s cart is a story that is so much for than just jumbo size Cheerios and a 48-pack of toilet paper, it is a container symbolizing the opposites—holding they life they have and, also, the life they want to have. Outfits are much the same, how we dress says a lot about our psyches— our sartorial signifiers reveal more about us than we might like them to and certainly more than we are willing to say out loud. Truly, everywhere you go there are symbols that surrounds us that look like mere ordinary objects and choices—ol;y they are more. If I could be known for a quote I might like it to be, ‘there are no small choices only small awarenesses of those choices.” I know it’s not as catchy as “don’t worry be happy” and even less likely to be made into a song by Bobby McFarren.

The question of “what’s in your bag” was a magazine and blogging phenomenon. It was so big that I actually think a psychological paper ought to be written about the meaning of our interest about “what’s in the bag?”. There is, me thinks, a kind of voyeurism and, to some degree, exhibitionism in it. LeAnn Melat wrote a PhD dissertation on “The mythical and psychological meaning of a woman’s purse”. I haven’t read it yet but I wonder if LeAnn might give is insight into why we are so curious about what goes on inside all those purses.

Melat gives us some clues : “Modern women almost always take their valuables and essentials with them in purses when they leave their homes, but psychologically, what are they actually reenacting with such ritualistic consistency? One theory of this hermeneutical discussion is that earlier historical feminine rituals are unconsciously reflected in today’s purse behavior. Because Western culture has devalued and underrated characteristics of the archetypal feminine, the repressed, but not lost, archaic traits of the feminine just may be symbolically stuffed away in the shadowy recesses of the purse, waiting to be reintegrated into feminine consciousness. Hestia was primarily the contained essence of each Greek home, and perhaps the modern purse as a psychic vessel of the feminine is related to this goddess’s archetypal realm. Through the purse’s Hermetic connection, the Hestian vessel is able to leave the home and be carried into the world, even though mythically, Hestia never wanted to leave the protected interior under any condition. Even when Dionysos wanted to be admitted to the Greek Pantheon, Hestia gladly relinquished her royal position because she simply did not want to be out, known, or exposed. In many ways, this act put the Goddess Hestia in the role of the thirteenth fairy, the uninvited, unacknowledged guest. We must ask ourselves when Hestia retired herself from view, what became unrecognized in the essential feminine nature? Through the patriarchy’s steady devaluation of the feminine, the contemporary woman has lost her quintessential, central core, which should be carried inside of her soul, unseen, like Hestia’s ember. Instead, she carries something representative of her sacred nature on the outside, on her shoulder or in her hand, as she leaves home gripping her purse. The authentic feminine essence of the modern her lost powers, an aberrant behavior, which manifests from the patriarchal culture’s pathology. Because her interior world has been so dishonored, today’s woman has extroverted what’s left of her value by carrying her essence in her symbolic sacred container, her purse, in much the same way as she dresses for success by attempting to measure up to the patriarchal values.”

Pamela Poole, writer and blogger , and cofounder of Cowgirl App!,” the app review site that doesn’t smell like Doritos and armpits”, wanted to know the deep and dark secrets of my iPhone. She kindly invited me to share “What is on my iPhone“. Not surprisingly these questions led to some significant psychological insight, which is not surprising as, to my mind, the phone is the Transitional Object of our time. If Freud was alive today I feel sure he would want to analyze his patients phone use ( you can’t imagine how often iPhones come up in session) and he would say, “Sometimes( actually most of the time) a phone is not just a phone.” An iPhone or a Blackberry is not just a phone, rather it is a container loaded with psychological significance. And, I think, that it serves as a kind of long-distance umbilical cord that allows us to feel connected and not-alone, no matter where we are. All you have to do is look at people’s relationship to their phone, and see how it is serves as an ever-present binkey for some, to see what a powerful symbol it it.

I am not going to give away the insights that I uncovered in the interview…as I do hope that you go over to Pamela’ and check it out.  I do warn you that a good part of the interview reveals a good deal of  my shadowy-silly self, as I even admit my most embarrassing app.  Please check out the interview here.

Also, here is a great post about the psychoanalytic symbolism of ordinary objects.

What smarty-pants psychoanalysts say about shoes that defends my obsession

This shoes thing won’t let me go. For over 20-years I have been unable to do heels. I had foot problems. I was a Pisces who was more suited to swimming than walking. I was imbalanced. I couldn’t stand the pain. I was constitutionally incapable of walking in them. High-heels were just for special occasions. I needed a man to wear them, as I needed someone to lean on in order to walk in them. I could wear them for only brief periods of time. Valet parking was a must if heels were going to be worn. Only now I can walk blocks in them. I can wear them all day. I wear them alone. And I don’t need to valet park in order to wear them. So what’s happened? I have the same feet. If anything, I would imagine with age that I would be less likely to be able to tolerate four-inch heels than more. The only way I know how to make sense of this is to look at it symbolically as it can’t really be explained physically.

According to J.E. Cirlot in A Dictionary of Symbols, shoes are often symbolic of the vagina. Cirlot points to Cinderella as a story that uses shoes to symbolize female sexuality. Not surprisingly Freud saw the shoe or slipper a “symbol of the female genitals.” In symbolism, the shoe has is largely associated with fertility customs, marriage and romance. For example: The custom of tying shoes to the newlyweds car, which is symbolic of the sexual union.

The Erotic Foot” makes this interesting argument that might explain my new passion for shoes that perch me higher, “The high heel and the position it creates for the foot is a strong sexual stimulus. The feet are plantar-flexed (not perpendicular to the leg as they are in a relaxed position). This is the position emphasized for the foot in any centerfold picture. It is also achieved in the sexy crossing of legs where one foot teasingly flexes forward. The extension of the foot, pointing of the toes, particularly with a circular movement, is a strong body language signal saying “I’m available.” So perhaps my choice of foot wear speaks to my availability.

The Jungian analyst and writer, Marie-Louise Von Franz describes the symbolism of shoes in the following manner: “If we start from the hypothesis that the shoe is simply the article of clothing for covering the foot and that with it we stand on the earth, then the shoe is the standpoint, or attitude toward reality. There is much evidence for this. The Germans say when someone becomes adult that he “takes off his childish shoes,” and we say that the son “steps into his father’s shoes” or  “follows in his father’s footsteps” – he takes on the same attitude.” In that vein, it is interesting to note that the moment I knew that my marriage was over came through a pair of shoes that no longer fit. The running shoes went wrong made me aware that I needed to leave my marriage. And within a month of leaving my marriage my ability to wear high heels returned. (It is also interesting to note that He-weasel would still be taller than me in most heels, so it wasn’t out of consideration for him that I chose not to wear them). If we look at the running shoe as a shoe that should have allowed freedom of movement, speed and support and that it no longer did and how the running shoe has been replaced by a shoe that is less practical,less supportive and  more beautiful—we can see how the shoe might, as a shift in attitude and a differing standpoint then I had before. My decision might have not been practical and it left me less supported and yet my life is feeling more beautiful, and more my own.

In April( a month after the seperation), when I bought my first pair of high-heels as soon as I stepped into them I noticed feeling more powerful, sexual, visible, and much more feminine. In them I have to walk slower and more carefully but walking in heels creates a kind of deliberate awareness that I never had when walking in flats. Heels slow me down and as I am in this state of transition and am using action as a way to tolerate my anxiety, the heels work as a counter-balancing agent to my impulse to run-run-run as fast as I can.

Also important to my heel obsession is how during the same time I have given flats the boot, I have had two pretty big falls. Both falls were so signifigant that I might be left with a long term scar to remind me of them. The first fall was so scary that it almost stopped me from running. A month later when I fell again I got back up and didn’t even assess my wound before getting back into the game.  I don’t know exactly how this relates to the heels, I suppose it makes the attraction to the heels feel even stronger and more important. If I am falling and feeling a bit unstable then the fact that I am choosing 4 1/2 inch sandles and not orthapedic shoes tells me that the psychic significance of this object choice is even MORE significant. I am willing to risk the fall in order to have the heights. I suppose one might rewrite that sentence and say, “I am willing to risk falling/failing in order to have this elevated life.”

I still don’t know exactly what my ability to walk in heels is all about….but I am seriously enjoying the question, the seeking the answer, the resulting ruminations and, of course, the shoes themselves. I wanted to share with you a few things that sparkle with meaning for me as I explore this topic:

1) The blogger, Dorothea, who writes the brilliant blog, Another Door, had this to say on the subject: “You can walk in heels now because you aren’t carrying all that old weight on your shoulders, throwing off your balance. You can walk in heels now because it’s like being on tip-toe and you want to be the first to see what’s coming over the horizon. You can walk in heels now because you know that if you fall down, you can get right back up. You can walk in heels now because your legs are strong from all that running (running toward, not running away from). You can walk in heels now because you are excited about taking up as much space and attention in the world as possible.” I think she is absolutely right.  Actually, in all things I think she is absolutely right. She is a brilliant writer and you MUST read her.

These shoes.

3) This fantastic quote that follows by, the author and psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas which does a FANTASTIC job explaining my current obsession with heels.  However, if you find reading psychoanalytic literature to be tedious, here is what Bollas says in a nutshell: We need an object to release the self into expression. What that means for me is that  at this point in my life, I need high-heeled shoes in order to become myself.

If you do like psychoanalytic reads or would like a highfalutin explanation for your shoe love then read on. Now, I am handing my blog over to Christopher Bollas, famed psychoanalyst(Please, when reading, replace the word “object” with “high-heeled shoes”. The management thanks you for your cooperation).
“Certain objects, like psychic ‘keys,’ open doors to unconsciously intense — and rich — experience in which we articulate the self that we are through the elaborating character of our response. This selection constitutes the jouissance of the true self, a bliss released through the finding of specific objects that free idiom to its articulation. As I see it, such releasings are the erotics of being: these object both serve the instinctual need for representation and provide the subject with the pleasures of the object’s actuality…

Those objects and experiences, keys to the releasing of our idiom, free us to experience the depth of our being and of the interplay between the movement of our idiom, driven by the force of our instincts, and the unconscious system of care provided by our mother and father. We are forever finding objects that disperse the objectifying self into elaborating subjectivities, where the many ‘parts of the self’ momentarily express discrete sexual urges, ideas, momories, and feelings in unconscious actions, before condensing into a transcendental dialectic, occasioned by a force of dissemination that moves us to places beyond thinking.…

… Do I select objects that disseminate my idiom or not? For example, do I pick up a novel which I don’t like but think I should read — but through which I shall not come into my being — or do I select a novel which I like, into which I can fall, losing myself to multiple experiences of self and other? Do I have a sense of this difference of choice? What if I don’t? What if I do not intuitively know which object serves me? If I don’t know then my day is likely to be a fraught or empty occasion. Neuroitic conflict eradicates, at least for a time, potential objects.… Or I may choose an object because it is meant to resolve a state of anxiety or to recontact a split-off part of myself housed there. In other words, pathology of mind biases the subject toward the sleection of objects that are congruent with unconscious illness.…

The ego chooses not only what aspect of an object to use but also what subjective mode to employ in the use.…

We can learn much about about any person’s self experienceing by obseriving his selection of objects, not only because object choice is lexical and therefore features in the speech of character syntax, but also because it may suggest a variation in the intensity of psychic experience that each person chooses. If we live an active life, then we will create a subjectified material world of psychic significance that both contains evocative units of prior work and offers us new objects that bring our idiom into being by playing us into our reality.”
From, On Being a Character: Psychoanalysis and Self Experience, 1992 by Christopher Bollas

 

Naked Therapy

The other morning I woke to find an email in my inbox from a reporter at Salon.com. This reporter had found me on Psychology Today. She had read my piece on Naked Therapy: Seeing Through the Sartorial Signifiers of Our Shrinks for Psychology Today and she wondered if I would take a look at an article on Sarah White, “the birthday suit therapist”. I quickly clicked over to read the article on the the 24-year-old-”therapist” whom has no degree, license or training as a therapist, save a few undergrad courses in psychology. This woman claims to use Skype, striptease and nakedness as her method of psychological change. White is quoted as saying, “Freud had dreams and I have nakedness.” For $25 more an hour than I charge( and I have a M.A. in counseling psychology, years of training, post-grad education, a license AND a wardrobe) this woman is doing what she considers to be real therapy with men and women( The New York State licencing board may have a different opinion on her practicing without a license).

I was sure I was dreaming, I was both flattered to be contacted as an expert on the importance of metaphorical nakedness and aghast that this woman was engaging in something closer to”sex-work” and yet calling it psychotherapy. After reading the article I sat down to figure out how exactly I felt about this( at the time I was wearing pajamas, a sweatshirt and a Brooks Brothers robe). I had some thoughts and some feelings about all this nakedness. The first thing I felt, after worrying about the extremely unethical action that this woman was engaging in,  and calling it therapy, and  about the mental health of her patients, was a certain amount of anger. If I had just not bother to get dressed, if I had  given up my wardrobe that I spend a lot of time, money and energy on, as well as my ethics and integrity, I too could have gotten major press( Wall Street Journal, NY Daily News, Salon.com, Fox News, etc), a full case load and $25 more an hour than I make.  However, I prefer having a small case load, my ethics and the ability to actually do good work rather than fame and fortune for questionable practices . Once I got my envy out of the way I got to really thinking about this “Naked Therapy” and I put on my professional hat, shirt and other apparel of licensed and degreed expert, having written my thesis on The Genesis of Shame: The Fig Leaf of Fashion and Its Place in Psychotherapy I had a lot to say on the subject.

Continue reading ‘Naked Therapy’

Top 10 Psychoanalysis Blogs (that Jung and Freud Would Read)

Blogs.com asked me to compile a list of the Top Ten Psychoanalytic blogs. I was, as you can imagine, thrilled to have the task of creating the definitive who’s-who of bloggers who mine the unconscious from the relative comforts of a .com couch.

When I got the assignment I was sure I would be overwhelmed for choice. Sadly it wasn’t true. The truth is that hardly anyone is writing about being in therapy and not many therapists write about what it is like to do therapy. What I did find were dozens and dozens of wonderful psychoanalytically oriented blogs who had long ago given up the practice of blogging( interesting to note that many of them quit blogging in July. August is the month when analysts take off. My theory on this is that Freud, Jung, Rank and the others took August off because all of their patients went away for August as is done is the vacationally superior European countries. I guess Freud and his analytic circle went off to Bermuda or Club Med or to Sandals for the summer [just for fun try and imagine Freud in Speedos and sipping a MaiTai and see if you can do it without needing a session or two of therapy to wash that image from your psyche]. This tradition stuck and analysts all over the world continue to take the month of August off). So anyways, many psychoanalysts that were blogging quit in July and never returned after their summer break. It happens a lot. It is so common that I worried that I might not be able to come up with ten active psychoanalytically oriented blogs  for my list.
Continue reading ‘Top 10 Psychoanalysis Blogs (that Jung and Freud Would Read)’

Liar

I am constantly lying to myself, or rather I should say that my Superego lies to me. Do you know your Superego? Let me introduce you. According to my pal, Sigmund Freud, the human personality is made up of three aspects. First there is the Id. The Id is the most primitive part of ourselves and it is what we are born with. All the Id wants is to fulfill its needs and it has some serious ones. Id wants food, sex, and pleasure and it wants them all NOW. I like to think of the Id as Animal from The Muppet Show—not very sophisticated but powerful and very clear about its wants and not at all concerned about the rules. The ego is the part of the personality that is developed next. The ego is born our of the Id when the Id learns that it can’t get all if its needs met on its own and so it is going to have to deal with reality in order to get its needs mets( i.e. the Pleasure Principal leads to the Reality Principal or the birth of Continue reading ‘Liar’

Little dream, big meaning

If someone were to deliver a custom made gift and deliver it to your door and you couldn’t immediately open the package as it was a wrapped in a way that made accessing it somewhat difficult, would you throw it away? I think not. Well, it is my sense that is what we do when we don’t look at our dreams. We, I believe, are throwing away a custom made gift from our psyche.

When I start to work with a patient and I ask them about their dreams it is not uncommon for them to tell me that they don’t remember their dreams. I don’t ever let that deter me. First I instruct them on some simple ways that they might be able to remember their dreams and then I ask them about the last dream they had or the last dream that they remember. Often there is one that they can remember. However sometimes the client insists “it wasn’t a real dream, I don’t remember all of it—it was just a fragment”. To me hearing there is a fragment is the same as hearing there was an hour long dream that I wrote down in detail. Actually, sometimes the fragment is far better than a big dream. Why? Because one image or just one word can give profound psychological insight and offer more insight than a dream loaded with characters and transitions and multiple locations with more complexity than a Cecil B.DeMille film. Dreams that are epic in scale can be impossible to grasp and unknowable in their entirety.

Last night I had a dream fragment. Here it is, hold on, be prepared to be wowed by mythological symbolism that was last seen in the dreams of Hieronymus Bosch. Okay, maybe not quite that grand. I dreamt that I was on a Pilates reformer. Did I do too much buildup? Did I over sell the dream? Perhaps. However, even though this simple dream is low on character and content, it is a symbol loaded with info for those with the tools to unpack its secret.

I will start with my personal associations or the subjective level of the dream.
So what are my personal associations to a Pilates reformer? When I hear the word Pilates reformer this is what I think: I used to take Pilates. I liked it. I should do it again. I just got that Pilates CDs out of storage. It would be good to do them. If I added a few clients to my practice I would start doing private Pilates again. But I don’t really like Pilates with just anyone. I had a really great instructor. But she is back in Mexico. And I am sure I could never find another teacher as great as she was. She was getting a M.A. in somatic psychology so she really understood the psychological aspects of the body, of movement and blocks.

Now let’s move onto the objective level of the dream:
What exactly is a Pilates reformer? Pilates is an exercise program that was designed to heal/strengthen wounded dancers. It is a piece of exercise equipment that works on one’s *core*. It is a piece of equipment that promises to *reform* one. It is usually done in the context of one on one work. It is a piece of equipment that is not turned on—rather it is the users movements that activate the movement of the reformer, meaning that the energy of the movement is activated by the user. Many different kinds of exercises can be performed on the one machine unlike exercise machines such as treadmills or ellipticals which are designed for one type of movement. A reformer’s lines are linear. Up and down—straight lines. One can lay, sit or stand on a reformer. This work is about lengthening and strengthening. It is slow and focused work that emphasizes breathing, controlled movements and precision.

Where we are in our dreams is symbolically where we are in our psyche. The dream is saying that this is where I am now. It is not saying this is something I *should* do. It is saying *this is where you are*. The place my psyche is in is one that is working on my core. I am being “reformed”. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary “Reform” means to be made better. So where I am, in my psyche, and what is happening now is making be better. It is taking some work. It isn’t easy work. And it is work that takes assistance and it is slow and focused—it is done in private with the assistance of one who is experienced in understanding the body       (is this speaking of my work with Igor?). The reform work is strengthening my *core* and repairing what is damaged. Pretty nice dream for one that is just one sentence long. Huh?

Want to give it a shot. How about sharing a recent dream image (one word or more) and give it a quick association? I will happily share my associations to your dream image, if you would like. Or, if you would prefer, let me know what you think my dream means.

About Me

My name is Tracey, aka La Belette Rouge. I am a psychotherapist and the author of Freudian Sip @ Psychology Today. I blog about psychology, my therapy, dreams, writing, meaning making, home, longing, loss, infertility and other things that delight or inspire me. I try to make deep and elusive psychodynamic concepts accessible and funny. For more information, click here .
These blog posts are informational only and not meant to replace individual psychotherapy, counseling or medical advice. If you are in need of help, reaching out to a professional may help you decide how to proceed or how to find the care you need. For a referral, contact

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