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Hymer, S.M. (2004). The Imprisoned Self. Psychoanal. Rev., 91(5):683-697.

(2004). Psychoanalytic Review, 91(5):683-697

The Imprisoned Self

Sharon M. Hymer, Ph.D.

Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage.

—Richard Lovelace

In his stirring poem “To Althea, from Prison,” Lovelace (1642), who personally experienced imprisonment, suggests that if our minds are free, no cell, no prison, nothing in the world can hold us captive. Yet frequently our patients' minds become their prisons when they cannot free themselves from the gloom and darkness that has taken over their lives.

The imprisoned self is a powerful metaphor in psychotherapy. Many patients describe themselves as feeling trapped, confined, or imprisoned, and strongly resonate with interpretations that mirror these sentiments. Metaphor—on the part of both analyst and patient—can thus become a strong catalyst to move treatment forward.

From a developmental perspective, the theme of imprisonment (both physical and psychological) gains potency during adolescence when battling teenagers and parents hurl verbal volleys at each other, such as “You'll do what I say as long as you're living under my roof,” which is met with the rejoinder “I can't wait to leave.”

The home itself is often seen as a source of confinement, with the parent(s) viewed as the jailer(s). Psychological imprisonment, in turn, can take the form of the child's resentment at being forced to adhere to parental rules and dictates. More insidious is the unconscious form of imprisonment described by Alice Miller (1981, 1983) where parents bind children to them through manipulation, shame, and entrapment.

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