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Shopping for Change: Transformational Objects

ImageOne of the first essays I ever published was a piece called “The Search for Sacred Accessories”. The editors at Mode Magazine sadly did not get how clever the title was and they changed the name of the piece to “Practical Magic”, which was a pretty lame title if you ask me. My essay was about an experience in which I found of pair of feathered gloves that I felt convinced would transform me into the person I had always wanted to be. I would, I believed,  with the purchase of these Holly-Go-Lightly gloves become my ideal self. Alas, I did not. What in fact happened is that I wore the gloves to a party and when I reached for an appetizer the ostrich feathers caught on fire and they went up in smoke as did my dreams of their being the vehicle to a more perfect manifestation of myself.

Even though the feathered gloves did not allow me to live up to my full potential, I have continued to seek ordinary items that promised to transform me. There have been shoes, dresses, and handbags that all, in their pre-purchase state, promised a new and improved me. However once I purchased the said item, I found that I had a sort of anti-Midsas touch and turned the numinous object into an ordinary one that left me exactly as I was before and turned the object into something much more ordinary than I imagined it to be.

Christopher Bollas, the psychoanalyst and author, would describe what I was doing as an attempt to create a “transformational object”. A “transformational object” gived us the potential for a “transformational experience”. According to Bollas the mother creates for their babies a “transformational process”.  Mothers change the internal and external environment to meet the infant’s needs, but babies do not know that a separate person is performing these functions and so they experience the transformation as a process and not coming from a person. Bollas explains: “We see how hope invested in various objects ( a new job, a move to another country, a vacation, a change of relationship) may both represent a request for a transformational experience and at the same time, continue the ‘relationship’ to an object that signifies the experience of transformation. We know that the advertising world makes its living on the trace of this object.: the advertised product usually promises to alter the subject’s external environment and hence change internal mood. The search for such an experience may generate hope, even a sense of confidence and vision, but although it seems to be grounded in the future tense, in finding something in the future to transform the present.”

Very often, when we want something we are actually wanting the transformational experience. We want the shoes or the trip or the  house to give us a different experience of ourselves. Or at least that is something I experienced. I have imagined that when I had the new car, new furniture or that Ferragamo bag that I would be transformed in some permanent way. Only, it has been my experience that objects rarely, if ever, give us the imagined character qualities that we believed they would.

Here is the equation of the transformational object prior to the purchase :

Me+Desired Object=Me as more.

Here is the equation of me after the purchase:

Me+Possessed Object= Me as the same as before,  with some initial and temporary excitement and, perhaps, some grief and depression that said object did not make me more than I was before.

That said, there are some shoes in my closet that do have a “Ruby Slipper” quality, in that they remind me in someway of my essence. But, like Dorothy, I had the essence all along and the shoes just reminded me of who I am—they didn’t turn me into something I wasn’t.

Thanks to Bollas, and YEARS of therapy, I now deconstruct my desire. Each time a desire is born I ask myself, “What qualities do I believe that these Black Jimmy Choo Verdict Cutout Sandal’s will give me?” If I am clear that I will be the same once I acquire them then I am feel free to go on longing them, which is not necessarily a good thing as they are ridiculously expensive and, perhaps more importantly, they don’t have them in my size.

This is the Christopher Bollas article that inspired this post.

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


Cinderella in my closet

On a sunny Southern California day in January, the month we moved to Chicago, I took a trip to an outlet mall outside of the city. I was there to find coats, gloves, scarves and other winter weather gear. We were ill prepared for the freezing temps of Chicago and I had to stock up fast or face hypothermia and/or freeze our tuckuses off. Thanks to Eddie Bauer’s subzero line I was over-prepared for the snow in one stop and I even bought unnecessary hand warmers that one uses for skiing and car lock deicers that I never used. But since I was already there at the outlet mall, I thought I would do a little more shopping just to see what I could see. What I saw was a beautiful and delicate pair of black lace pumps at Cole Haan’s outlet store. I knew, at once, that they were highly impractical. I also knew that I didn’t have a life that required much in the way of evening shoes. However I fell in love and I was feeling that wonderful “we are moving out of L.A. ” dream come true feeling and everything felt like it was coming up roses and that soon all our wishes would come true. And since the shoes were on sale, I, without too much rationalization, bought them.

The Cole Haan black lace pumps went in a moving van across the country and they, unworn, found a home in my Lake Bluff closet. The entire time that we lived in Chicago an occasion never arose in which these lacy shoes were needed. They stayed in their box patiently waiting for the day when they would have their time in the sun( or the snow). The day never came.
Continue reading ‘Cinderella in my closet’

Should I stay or should I go now?

I wish that the incident that I described in the last post was the only trouble I was having in the psychoanalytic psychotherapy class. It isn’t. I had another run in about a clinical issue. I recieved such a bad and unprofessional reaction to something that I presented that I came home and decided that I will not be doing any further prevsnting in the supervision group.

When I told Igor he described the incident as “sadisistic”. If I could tell you what it was you would agree with him. Igor encouraged me to tell the supervisor my feelings about the incident and I am so glad he did. Conversely, as Igor knows the players in this drama, he most definitely did not advise me to confront the memory-phobic instructors.  I did, however, call the chair of the program and tell her about the troubles I have had with the envious-amnesiacs. The chair was gracious and even apologetic—and she seemed eager for me to write all that I had shared with her in my course evaluation., “this is the kind of thing we want to know when planning for next year.”

When I contacted the supervisor  I initially chickened out and said via email: “Just FYI:, I will not be presenting in supervision anymore.” The instructor wrote back immediately and said , in essence, “Of course. You should only do what is best for you. That said, is there anything I should know about. Do you need to process anything that happened?” I wrote back and said, “Well now that you mention it…” and then I told him how much I had enjoyed the supervision and how I had valued what I had gotten out of learning about his theoretical lens of perspective but that something had happened( I’m not at liberty to share the details with you of what happened) but I did tell him what happened and why I would be doing no further presenting. As soon as I sent him the email I felt both terrified and liberated. Why terrified? I was afraid of getting in trouble. I thought he would be defensive and deny the incident. Minutes later I got back an email in which the supervisor took complete blame for the incident and he sincerely apologized. His reaction felt honest and sincere and I was wonderfully surprised and felt something close to vindicated and acknowledged. I love it when people are mature, responsible and accountable.
Continue reading ‘Should I stay or should I go now?’

I dream of boots and beauty and making up

My  84-year-old  fantasy boyfriend and the father of Archetypal psychology, James Hillman*, says that a great clinical question to ask patients is “what do you want?” Hillman wants to know what patients are fantasizing about having? He wants to know this not to help them make that desire happen but to get where their libido is and what they are symbolically trying to get. He says that to know what a patient wants it is more important than to know about who did what to who when they were five. Not to disagree with my brilliant BF, but I do tend to think that what happened at five is pretty important stuff, but I also think what we want says a whole lot about us and lately I am wanting stuff. I want lots of stuff. And all the stuff I want is stuff that I wouldn’t dare tell Igor about. Continue reading ‘I dream of boots and beauty and making up’

Tory Burch shoes and subtle sexism by, *ahem*, psychology professionals

First I feel that I must tell you something that I am sure goes without saying, I take my professional life VERY seriously. When I go to work I dress professionally. It is important to me to communicate to my clients that I take our work together seriously and part of how I do that is through how I present myself visually. Actually, and I say this not out of any kind of hubris but based on somewhat objective standards that I feel sure that most of you would agree with (and, yes, I appreciate that you have a bias that would favor me as you are my friend or at least a friendly reader who has bothered to read this far), I am fairly confident that I dress better than your average therapist and I, without question, have nicer shoes than your average Rockport/Mephisto/Birkenstock wearing male-therapist.

When my toe was broken and I had to wear Tory Burch thongs to work (as it was the only thing I could get my foot into) I HATED it. I hated that my shoes might in anyway communicate that I am not a professional and that I take my work with my clients anything less than 100% seriously. I tell you all of this to tell you what some of you already know, the guy that I rent my office space from(who is also a therapist) had the nerve to ask me if my $320 Tory Burch Leopard Pumps were “professional?”. I answered reflexively, “Why do you say that?” and I feel sure my face added the non-verbal address of , “you,  in those shoes and that outfit are daring to ask me about my shoes”.  He fired back without any indication that he was aware that he was entering some seriously dangerous territory in which I was, given the time and space, capable of invicirating him even though I am declawed and highly proffesional, “well,” he went on “you are psychoanalytic. And aren’t you supposed to be a blank screen? And those shoes are kind of wild-woman.”  As soon as he completeted his accusation I  heard the door of the lobby open, my client had arrived. I left my clueless colleague behind and walked away in my beautiful shoes. I greeted my client and invited her into my office. Want to know the first thing she said to me before we sat down? “I like your shoes.” I thanked my client and we immediately got to work.

It was when my work day was over and I was on my way home that my mind returned to my colleague’s uncalled for comment and it was then that  I had the time and space to think about what exactly my colleague was saying. How dare he question my professionalism, it wasn’t like I was wearing lucite stripper heels? I was wearing designer shoes that I bought at Neiman Marcus. It wasn’t the cut or quality of the shoe that my peer had a problem with, it was the print. He was saying, in the subtext of his question, that leopard is a symbolism of sexuality. He was inferring that I was too much of a sexual object to be a professional. He was saying that my shoes made me seem like a “wild woman”.  His comment was telling me that he, when he saw me in those shoes, no longer saw me as a professional but rather as a sexual object. And you know what, that ain’t my issue. That is his. He needs to get his Dockers covered ass back into therapy and look at why he has to split women into either “professional” or “sex object”. And I have to wonder if he would say something like that to some therapist dude in a surf shirt and faded and un-ironed trousers? Would he dare to bring his professionalism into question?  Would he point out the impact of such thoughtless and unprofessional attire? I doubt it. Grrrrr!!! This leopard wearing therapist is mad.

The more I thought about his sexist and inappropriate comment the more that I wanted to go back and give him a taste of how fierce this leopard shoe wearing woman was.   The image of him in his camp shirts and his Dockers and his VERY bad shoes and his incredible gall to infer that I was in anyway unprofessional had me in a wild fury of contempt. It has been several weeks since this happened and I am still mad about it—yet I have said nothing. And I know why, I fear that if I say something that I will lose my office space. I don’t want to have to find another office space. I am not proud of this reason for not confronting him about this–but it’s the truth.

I hadn’t planned on telling you about this here as I already vented about this a bit on Facebook but then I ran into subtle sexism from a psychology professional #2 and it started to seem like a theme in my life that I can’t ignore. Actually, I am not sure how subtle either of these examples really are. Okay, so I was in my psychoanalytic psychotherapy class and the analyst in charge was lecturing on the three different Freud’s: the American, The British and the French. All was well until we get to the French Freud and the instructor started talking about Lacan and this is where everything went pear shaped. So the instructor asked if any of us had read Lacan, before I could raise my hand, a guy in the class blurted out “I was in a practicum in which this Lacanian analyst was speaking and she was a typical French bitch.” I tell you, my friends, I almost lost my mind. I feel sure that my eyes turned into the size of buffet plates and that my jaw hit the desk below me in disbelief; I looked like an animated cartoon character. I could not believe my ears, which in true Warner Brother’s style, had steam coming out of them. Happily the instructor stopped him from further slurs with a “Hey now, guy!”.

Even as the instructor moved us onto the impact of Lacan on psychoanalytic theory and away from this guy’s gender and Xenophobic slurs, I couldn’t get past what had just been said.  If the Lacanian analyst had been a man he would have called him a jerk or dumb or pompous or ill-informed but he wouldn’t have likely attacked his gender. If she or he had been from Canada he wouldn’t have brought her nationality into the equation. But because she was a French woman he attacked both her gender and her country of origin. I was relieved to see that his diatribe wasn’t going to be allowed, however something happened in that “French bitch” comment. He had, with that comment, told me a lot about who he is and, if I should I dare to say something he disagreed with, what the consequences would be. If I were to raise my hand and say that I actually like Lacan a lot and that I found Ecrits to be a fascinating extrapolation of Freudian theory that I might get dismissed and be boiled down to a stereotype. He, with that comment, silenced me and perhaps the other women in the room.

All weekend I have been thinking about this guy. I have thought about writing an email to the instructor and thanking him for not allowing that kind of speech to stand. I have thought about calling the head of the program and sharing with her that in truth I don’t think the instructor took a strong enough stance and that it is my wish that someone talk to this guy about that comment. I have decided instead to wait to talk to Igor today and see his take on this. I guess what’s holding me back is that I feel some concern that I am overreacting. Maybe I am being too sensitive. Maybe by saying anything to the instructor or to the head of the department that I will get identified as an over-sensitive troublemaker. I don’t want that reputation and yet, to tell you the truth, I can’t stop thinking about this guy’s inappropriate outburst and how it has changed my feelings about being in the class. I guess the thing is that I don’t want to be the Anita Hill of the psychology set. It didn’t go so well for Anita and, as you know, Clarence still got the job even after she dared to speak up. I will admit that I have had fantasies that I could go into class week and belt out La Marseillaise in resistance ( I can’t see this scene in Casablanca without crying)—too bad I don’t have the voice or the words, or the courage.

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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