Why this case study?
Kets de Vries gives a very detailed psychoanalytic account of a case study of an entrepreneur he names Nr. X. This case study illustrates how the inner and private life of the leader have significant effect on the performance of the leader. As the leader gets older, it is not unlikely that unresolved inner problems from childhood affect many areas of the individuals life, including his/her relationships and health.
Reason for Seeking Psychotherapy
Client: Mr. X, a 44 – year – old. Youngest of 6 siblings (2 brothers, 3 sisters). Occupation: Entrepreneur. Family Life: 21 years married but recently separated, 4 children.
Events leading to therapy request:
- Mr X. had thrown his wife out of the house.
- her increasing need for more independence had become a bone of contention.
- He complained about her lack of caring and suspected that she was emotionally involved with a younger man working at the office (she worked in his company).
- He is strongly annoyed that his children had taken the side of his wife.
- History of depressive episodes (but not thought of as serious as now).
- Has now feelings of worthlessness. No life prospects.
- Fears losing his mind.
- Problems at work due to wife’s (and young colleague’s) departure.
- Worries about the company health. Fears of bankruptcy / humiliation as result.
- Feels paralyzed at work. Not able to function. Feeling painful going to the office.
- Psychosomatic complaints: nightmares, sleep problems, severe headaches which affects eyesight. Temporary loss of vision. Diarrhea and nausea. Impotence.
Mr. X’s thoughts about his father: a salesman / entrepreneur. Often away from home due to work. Remembered as a boisterous man who laughed a lot and brought him presents from his frequent business trips. Felt that he was his father’s favorite. When he was seven years old, his father became bedridden. Having his father in the house gave the boy the opportunity to spend more time with him. He began to feel close to his father. When he was 98 years old, his father died in a mental institution. This event was to Mr. X shrouded in secrecy. Mr. X is suspicious of the fact that his mother and elder sisters transferred his father to the mental hospital, thinking it was unnecessary and that it caused his death. He had tried a number of times to find out what had really happened, but had not been able to uncover the truth. The whole incident seemed to have been suppressed as a dangerous family secret. Mr. X suspected that his father had committed suicide which, given his family’s religious orientation, would explain the secrecy around the incident.
Mr. X’s recollection about his mother: Described as a very controlling, overprecise, critical woman who constantly worried about money and the future. After the death of his father she struggled maintaining the family also with coping financially. He felt that she saw everything in a
negative light. She never made a positive comment. Nothing he did was
ever good enough. He also described her as a perfectionist. He had never
been able to live up to her standards.
Mr. X’s recollection about his childhood life: Apart from the death of his father,his childhood was described as uneventful and quite happy. He felt proud of the fact that he had been something of a rebel as an adolescent.
- Relationships with women:
- Attitude to work: He used to be enthusiastic about his company, now feels it is too complicated and wants to give it away. Similar feelings about possessions.
- Depression: feeling pessimistic, life is a sacrifice, fear of being alone. Feeling completely deserted due to wife’s departure from his life. According to Mr. X, he once used to have everything. Now things were different; his health had been ruined; his life was in a shambles. He felt worthless. He wondered what had kept him so busy at work in the past.
“He revealed that throughout his childhood he had been scared of losing control. He was reluctant, for example, to fight with other children for fear that he would lose control and kill someone.
Denial of inner reality and flight into external reality through work had
become a way of life. His defensive structure, however, of escaping into
action — ‘ the manic defense ’ (Klein, 1948) — no longer seemed to work.”
Dramatic mood swings, an all – or – nothing attitude. Very little was needed to push him in one direction or the other.
Repressed Emotions & Inner Reality
Denial of feelings of depression through unrealistic optimism, laughter, humor, frantic activity, and excessive control had always been an important element in maintaining Mr. X ’ s psychic equilibrium.
Attempts to fight his depressive state by eliminating negative thoughts. Turns to self-help books in order to improve ability to repress depressive reality.
This point of a person, and this happens often with people who are functioning and try to excel in aspects of their life through forcing themselves into change. i.e. When I feel hurt/stressed/sad/angry (any “negative” feelings), I try to escape by pushing myself to do better, to think positive. This works, but only very temporary. The breakdown that comes is usually catastrophic and very difficult to overcome. In Gestalt psychotherapy, there the paradoxical theory of change (Biesser, 1970).
Unfolding through Therapy
As Mr. X worked his way through therapy he was able to admit to himself several things that was repressed:
- that his childhood was not so happy as he made it out to be. He realized his urge to think positive and believe positive (unlike how he sees his mother, as a pessimist). He realized how he was treated “like a baby” (which also means not being respected, and made to feel small), feelings of envy of his brother for the role of he man of the house.
- He remembers using complaints of physical ailments to get attention, and being sensitive to children crying.
- Was able to acknowledge his father’s darker side. That his father had beaten his children, stifle his behavior, strict rule enforcing.
- His Oedipal memories.
- His identification with his father’s tendency to be fake, hiding feelings.
- He was able to grieve his father’s passing (which he had not the change to due to secrecy)
- He comes to terms with his anger towards his mother, and also (as a child) feared that his other would die. He had fantasies that he might kill his mother when sleepwalking. His feeling of being unwanted by her, and wanting to prove to her that he was “worth it” to have as a child, and to admire him.
- All emotions of aggression, guilt, grieve that accompanied these unfoldings.
Relationship with Women
Given the kind of relationship Mr. X had with his mother, it came
as no surprise that he perceived women as dangerous, over-controlling,
not really to be trusted.
Mr. X would divide women into two split categories, the easy and the proper. He had always been fascinated by prostitutes (and still was), but the fascination was accompanied by fear. Prostitutes were tempting but they could also be infected with diseases. He recalled an incident when he visited a prostitute. He felt that he had not treated her like other men. He had not taken advantage of her; he had gained her admiration.
As a young adult he had had many short relationships with women, treating them rather callously, usually dropping them when they became too clingy. He disliked feeling ‘ choked. ’
Dreams and Projections
He felt threatened by women. His dreams illustrated the role women played in his inner life. In many of his dreams, phallic women, portrayed as women with guns, would appear and lie on top of him, having intercourse while putting him in a passive position. He would wake up, frightened, feeling smothered. In other dreams, however, women would admire him from a distance. He described one dream in which he was persecuted by a number of large bees who kept striking at him. They were almost impossible to brush off. He associated this imagery with all the women he had dealt with in this life. Women could cling and sting, but also give honey. They could repel but also give pleasure. Gradually, however, dreams emerged in which he became more assertive with women, not taking such a passive role. Most importantly, in these dreams the degree of anxiety he had previously experienced was missing.
Being in Control
Starting and managing an enterprise had multiple meanings to Mr. X. It signified much more than a means of making a living. He had found out early in life, while employed by a German company, that working for others was too stifling.
These are projections, and much is known to be related to projections he has of his mother being controlling and having secretly done away with his father. Again identification with the father, being the victim of another’s control.
To be independent, to be in control, meant to be free from mother. His inability to work for other people (who would tell him what to do) made him decide to start on his own as his father had done before him. That was the only way to get some power, and no longer be subjected to the whims of others.
Transference of control and being controlled was reported to exist in therapy sessions.
What becomes apparent is his entrepreneurial mindset and work style slowly made sense to him, as his way of dealing with past traumas. It is his way of closing gestalts, and finishing unfinished business. This unfortunately leaves the real unfinished business open, and the only way that a person can live in inner peace is to work constantly. It is like filling water in a pot full of holes.
Mr. X also worked through other personality traits that developed as a result of being himself, basically. He was able to realize his meed for admiration, tendency for grandiose and depressive moods (bipolar disorder, perhaps), competitiveness, self-defeating behaviors,.
With the newly owned awareness and re-experiencing of past traumas, and the re-integration of his repressed emotions, Mr. X was reported to have slowly managed to get back to work, work with less stress, welcome his wife back into his life.
The process in which the patient manages to make positive changes to his life is through sitting through and experiencing what is there. What is in his real memories, his real childhood experiences. This is only possible with the accompaniment of a therapist, who is trained to support the client through the process. This process is very tedious and painful. The client has spent almost all his life trying to make changes by pushing his un-bearable realities to the unconscious. To not feel, to forget.
This is what it the paradoxical theory of change is about. When we try to elicit changes, in Mr. X case, when he tries to think positive, push himself to success, and try to do everything he can to overcome painful experiences, all he has achieved is a mountain of disappointments and stress. It is only through not changing. in just sitting in therapy and looking at all these childhood experiences, did his life really begin to change.
Beisser, A. (1970). The paradoxical theory of change. Gestalt therapy now, 77-80.
Klein, M. (1948). A contribution to the theory of anxiety and guilt. The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 29, 114.
Kets de Vries, M. (2009). Reflections on character and leadership.