Integration: a psychodynamic perspective
Updated: May 28, 2020
The word integration has been abuzz as of late and I thought I would weigh in on my perspective as to what it is, why it’s so important and the role it serves in therapy. I will be examining this from several different lenses or approaches that I use in my practice.
From a psychoanalytic perspective the meaning of integration is defined as “the process by which a well-balanced psyche becomes whole as the developing ego organizes the id, and the state that results or that treatment seeks to create or restore by countering the fragmenting effect of defense mechanisms.” That’s quite a mouthful, understood by those of us in the field, it may not be as clear to everyone else. So, let’s break it down a little.
First let’s start with some of the terminology. “Psyche’ is Greek for what is also known as the soul, spirit or mind (not to be confused with the physical brain). It’s the part of us that generates thoughts and feelings, not only from our conscious but from our unconscious as well. According to Freud, the psyche is made up of the id, the ego and the superego. You’ve all heard and use the term ego right? For clarification, the ego is mostly conscious, and it's where we get our sense of self from. It's also the part that has to do the balancing. The ‘id’ is the more primitive of the three factions. It’s very impulsive and childlike. It’s responsible for things such as libido, and getting basic needs and desires met. The superego is the ethical component of the personality and provides the moral standards by which the ego operates. We need all 3, but we need to find a balance, as without that balance, we have start to see issues. Do you have one that is stronger than the other?
Next let’s explore defense mechanisms. These are behaviours we ALL use, mostly unconsciously, to protect ourselves. By protect, I am not necessarily referring to our physical selves, but our sense of self or egos, or psychological ‘self’. We protect ourselves from feelings of anxiety, guilt, trauma or other discomfort. Some common examples of defense mechanisms include denial, projection and rationalization. It’s important to understand which ones you use when you are starting along your journey towards integration. It's also important to know that having defense mechanisms is part of the human experience.
Lastly, I want to touch on the concept of becoming ‘whole’, or wholeness. I don’t necessary align with the idea that we are broken. I believe that we are whole, yet there are reasons that we have needed to disavow or hide away some part of ourselves, due to trauma, lack of safety, or simply not being seen. Ultimately, whether you are seeking wholeness or as I like to call it 'integration', the goals and process are the same. In this journey, you are are bringing to light the shunned parts, dealing with the shame, providing a missing experience, and allowing a reprocessing and acceptance of these parts. This essentially integrates them back into your ‘self’. There is a gentleness required to loving the parts of you that kept you safe. Remember that these parts were adaptive to your environment at the time. It’s also ok to admit that this way of dealing with things is no longer working.
So, what does all this have to do with psychotherapy you ask? One of the best ways for us to become aware of our defenses, our ego structure and other unconscious behaviours is in the safety of the therapy room. With an experienced therapist, who is comfortable working psychodynamically, or with parts (i.e. Hakomi, Gestalt or IFS) they can gently reflect back to you where you’re getting stuck in old patterns. They can bring the unconscious to light and highlight the defense mechanisms you use. They can also guide you and provide a new experience. This can include work with parts, as I mentioned, inner child work, empty chair work and more.
I would be remiss if I did not also touch on the somatic component of integration. If we are only addressing the cognitive aspects of trauma, we often will miss the wounds that are still stored in the body. A lot of times when we are hyperaroused, or in our ‘fight or flight’ system, we are acting unconsciously. We say things we don’t mean and do things that are not aligned with our best selves. So, part of the work is to educate on the processes in the nervous system and allow for a calmer awareness. This can be done through mindfulness and meditation, learning to notice your defenses coming up with curiosity and taking breaks during conflict or difficult situations.
Therapy isn’t just about giving you tools to ‘deal’ with your anxiety or emotional pain, it’s about exploring what’s underneath and providing a safe space for healing the root of the issues. I’m not saying that tools aren’t helpful, because they are, and I will give you plenty. I will also allow you the opportunity to safely explore and integrate your experiences in order to work through the stuckness and pain and learn to live in a way that is more aligned with how you want to be.
Stay tuned for the next look at integration, this time from an interpersonal (IPNB) perspective.