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Balint, E. (1963). On Being Empty of Oneself. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 44:470-480.

(1963). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 44:470-480

On Being Empty of Oneself

Enid Balint


A. Reconstruction of Pre-analytic Developments

1. Sarah's mother did not notice, or ignored, or could not respond to, her daughter. She could therefore not provide the proper feed-back or echo which was needed. This faulty relationship continued during Sarah's childhood and throughout her whole life.

2. Because of this lack of feed-back Sarah felt that she was unrecognized, that she was empty of herself, that she had to live in a void.

3. If she was empty of herself, no one could recognize her; she was ignored, alone, and relatively safe.

4. To have something, Sarah created a nightmare world which she felt was located in her head. This also served as an outlet for her aggressive impulses.

5. In order to try to satisfy her parents, Sarah did well until she was about 17, although constantly suffering from strain and feelings of impending catastrophe, which went unnoticed.

6. Finally the feeling of unreality became unbearable, and when she arrived in London (where she knew analysis was available) she broke down.

B. Developments During Analysis

1. During analysis she became aware of her feelings of being empty of herself, expressed often as seeing herself outside her body. She felt that on the couch she was a shell with an eye in it. Inside she was full of dead people and objects.

2. She then began to experiment with putting bits of herself into me (and my room) and getting my response to them. She gave me drawings, representing sensations, movements, and parts of her body which were collected in my room, as were her associations, she felt, inside me as I demonstrated when I remembered them.

3. Sarah began to have body feelings—i.e. felt herself to be inside her body—and parallel with that the external void began to fill up.

4. This led to fear of losing herself again and to a phase of paranoid anxiety.

C. Theoretical Conclusions

1. It is well known that the ego and the self develop in certain respects spontaneously or autonomously by what is called maturation. In other respects, however, their development depends on a proper interaction between the growing individual and its environment.

2. In this paper I have tried to describe one mechanism of the interaction which I have called an echo or feed-back. The infant, by his behaviour, stimulates the environment, and foremost his mother, to various reactions. Echo and feed-back can be described as what the mother contributes to the stimulus and reactions out of her self.

3. The infant then gets to know what he is like in terms of someone else's—the mother's—experience; the mother lending her ego to integrate and reflect back the child's communications. The infant therefore gets to know himself, and his mother at the same time, by how she reacts to him. If the mother's reactions do not make sense to the child because, for instance, she is too preoccupied with her own ideas or feelings, then it is not a proper feed-back. On the other hand, good mothering, or proper feed-back, is what makes sense to the child.

4. There is no possibility of the development of a healthy self when there is no proper feed-back at acceptable intervals. My idea is that these need not be at fixed moments or periods. A few may be enough—and each can be valuable and start a development. (Possibly even a rejection or a reproof may be experienced as a feed-back if it makes sense to the child.)

5. These ideas lead to interesting problems regarding technique, such as the difference between interpretations and feed-back, and the different treatment necessary for withdrawal or secondary narcissism.

To end my paper, I would like to say that in general, if the interaction between the growing individual and the environment leads to severe disappointment, two reactions can be observed:

a. The increase of aggressiveness and hatred in the individual.

b. Deficiency symptoms in his development. Sarah's analysis enabled me to isolate (more or less completely) this deficiency reaction, and led me to the theoretical conclusions which I have just summarized.

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