The Subject Supposed to be Awkward


I’ve been thinking more about Lacan and the way we sometimes attribute certain characteristics to different people (with the therapist as the subject supposed to know). In social groups, especially group therapy, it is very common that a scapegoat emerges. Generally, this person sticks out in the group as being different or awkward. Inevitably, the group turns against this one person and alienates the person from the group. I’m going to first discuss the psychoanalytic theory that explains this phenomenon, and then take a case example with the awkward individual.

Melanie Klein is a famous psychoanalyst who led the movement of British object relational theorists. Object relations is a school of psychoanalysis that focuses on way the early-internalized objects (i.e. representations and relationships we have with others) influences our future relationships. It differs from classical psychoanalysis, in which Freud assumed that the libido indiscriminately discharges energy onto arbitrary objects. Freud thought that the libido was ultimately pleasure-seeking, whereas Fairbairn would emphasize that the libido is essentially object-seeking (i.e. relational). Object relational theorists counter Freud’s claim and emphasize the primacy that ought to be given to early relational experiences. Basically, as children we have certain experiences with early caretakers that continue to exert a lasting influence on the way we interact with others. These internalized objects impact the way we relate to others, as we often unconsciously find others who will engage us in a similar way. That is to say people are used to experiencing others in certain ways that are often replicated in future relationships. It is not merely that we find others who will treat us based on our early experiences, but it also that we unconsciously behave in such a manner that elicits responses from others that resemble the way our early objects treated us. It is supposed that people are caught in a cycle of repetitive behaviors. In therapy, one re-enacts certain types relational patterns that are similar to how one engages others outside of therapy. Initially, as in normal relationships, the client projects certain feelings onto the therapist that resemble the way in which they are used to relating to others. Eventually, the therapist is able to hold this projected object for the patient, and in the time the client (by gaining insight into their unconscious views of self and others) can re-integrate this projected object back into the self.

Here, I need to introduce the rather difficult term of projective identification. This is Klein’s definition: “In projective identification, not only does the patient view the therapist in a distorted way that is determined by the patient’s past object relations; in addition, pressure is exerted on the therapist to experience himself in a way that is congruent with the patient’s unconscious fantasy” (McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, 110). Projective identification involves two people. One person splits off some unwanted idea or feeling and projects it onto the other. The person who projects then behaves in such a manner so as to elicit the expected reaction from another. Let me offer an example. A client, who hates himself and cannot believe the therapist actually likes him, will split off the feeling of hating himself onto the therapist by assuming the therapist dislikes him. He will then relate to the therapist in such a way that the therapist, in time, grows to dislike him. For instance, he might continue to deny any empathic gestures made by the therapist and question the therapist’s good intentions. This, in turn, only serves to further frustrate the therapist who eventually does begin harboring dislike for the client. In summary, the client splits off some intolerable feeling onto the other, and then acts in such a way as to confirm his erroneous beliefs that are elicited from the other.

Let’s move onto the subject supposed to be awkward (SSA). I’ve found that in social groups it is common that one person is often scapegoated as the awkward person who is teased by others for being different. For instance, I know in my own experience the SSA can repeat the exact same joke as someone who the group highly values, but the group will react negatively towards the scapegoat and laugh with the more popular member. Any action the SSA performs will always be greeted with suspicion and will inevitably be interpreted as awkward regardless of the actual behavior. While, I won’t deny that certain people are just awkward, I do believe that after awhile the person’s behaviors are unjustly criticized as awkward despite the actual behaviors. They essentially are stereotyped as the awkward individual who will never catch a break from the group. So, what the hell is going on? It is my contention that everyone has fears of being excluded or being thought of as awkward by his/her peers. All of us, at times, commit social faux pas. The group functions better when this constant threat of being ostracized is minimized by incorporating the SSA in the group. So, initially this person will be spotted as the different other who may behave in inappropriate ways. Consequently, the group members detect this weakness and jump at the opportunity to find someone who can hold everyone else’s fears of being awkward. What happens is that every group member projects his/her own fears of awkwardness onto the SSA, and then engages this individual in such a way as to provoke awkward actions. In turn, the SSA holds these projections for the group, and he is experienced by the group as the awkward group member.

I know this sounds rather theoretical, but I suspect if you think about your group of friends you can quickly spot the person who everyone makes fun of because of their social awkwardness. The SSA is structurally necessary for any group to function effectively by decreasing the group member’s fear of group exclusion. In fact, I would argue that the group tends to come together stronger and quicker if someone in the group can be sacrificed as the SSA. Everyone can then be in solidarity with each other against the individual who is far enough away so as to not infect the members with his awkwardness, but close enough to hold everyone’s social fears and anxieties. If this individual is too close then the group members become overwhelmed by his social inepititude, but if he is too far away then it weakens the ties holding the group together and runs the risk of having another group member fulfil the position of the SSA.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: