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To Be Known

What does it mean to be known by another? To be recognized for who one is, warts and all? The good with the bad and everything in between? I think we might be talking about the precondition for love, and about what it means to love another person, about the way we negotiate and make meaning with another, possibly forging a connection that can be deeply stabilizing to our sense of self. Recognition is one of those ideas that captures something simple about what all of us need, yet much more difficult to find and experience. I am referring to a feeling that is universally sought by all, that feeling that another has seen you, really seen you, and understood the most basic parts of who you are. That person gets you, and you are left with a feeling of being known, a feeling so powerful that it translates into a sense that all is right with the world, and further, that all will be all right. Yes –recognition is what its all about, and we are all in search of it, sometimes, without knowing that we are. It may even trump love or be the actual definition and/or pre-condition for true love.


Uh huh. I think so.

In psychoanalysis, the notion of recognition came about during the feminist movement of the 1960’s and was coined as a term and elaborated by the psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin. Recognition involves a particular kind of identification with the other; I say a particular kind, because it is an identification that is based on one’s ability to identify with another while retaining our individuality and subjectivity and allowing them theirs. And this is not an easy thing to do when one is in a relationship of any kind. Most of us relate to others based on our particular needs and desires- the other(s) appeals to us because we think alike, like the same things, agree on important issues, look the way we like to look, etc. We identify with others narcissistically and this then becomes the basis for our relationship to them. But with recognition, something quite different is going on, something that many are unable to arrive at or sustain because it involves using their aggression to destroy the very thing that is wanted.

This is an idea that the great British psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott articulated as a necessary process in our psychological development. He spoke about our ability to destroy the other in fantasy, ruthlessly and based on our own needs, wants and aggression, as a necessary developmental skill that led us to the ability to form intimate relationships in mature life. If the other actually survives our destruction of them- meaning that they continue to be who they have always been with us- it leads us to understand and recognize that the other is not subject to our (mental) control, but rather, a person in their own right. Benjamin takes up this idea and articulates it further: our destruction of the other establishes their subjectivity and helps to manifest ours. In this way destruction leads to a deeper connection because the other now becomes known as a subject with his or her own desires and autonomy, rather than our object. Thus recognition of the other brings us closer to knowing them for who they truly are, allowing us the possibility of being who we are on the way to intimacy.

Benjamin –who studied philosophy prior to training as a psychoanalyst- offers a solution to Hegel’s paradox by reformulating the relationship between destruction and survival, wherein destruction is a necessary part of becoming an autonomous being and leads to being seen and recognized as such. In the struggle for recognition all of us must take the risk of obliterating the other, of being alone with our destructiveness, and of denying that the other is a subject with all our might, so that we can experience the realness of the others’ subjectivity and difference as well as our own. There is no hope for recognition without such destruction and survival. This dyadic tension between destruction and survival is at the heart of being known by another, and I would say, is at the heart of “true” love.

There is something about the feeling of being known that changes everything experientially. This is because recognition has a regulating effect: the fact that we feel understood and seen by another helps us to feel secure, safe, and emotionally balanced. All is well with us and all is well with the world. Recognition goes beyond verbal speech and actions and begins with early (think mother infant), non-verbal experiences in which something is shared with another person – some understanding of a feeling, a sense, a movement. Such implicit knowing that the mind of another is in sync with ours while remaining other constitutes the very magic of the connection that intersubectivity relies on. It is also the reason that we continue to search for it in our lives, and immediately respond and connect with it when we experience it with another.

So is it the basis for true love?

To the degree that recognition involves our ability to deal with our aggression and destructiveness in a way that allows the other, outside and different to come into being as a subject instead of a preconceived other that we might require, perhaps it is the foundation for true love, in that it demands that we ongoingly negotiate differences and meaning in what Benjamin calls a space of “thirdness”, which necessarily involves mutual recognition. Where this ability is lacking, the space for negotiation of otherness collapses, along with the ability to see the other for who she or he is, destroying the possibility for intimate contact. Thus, many relationships are based on an idea of the other and of love, rather than the grounding that can come from the mutual recognition of difference and otherness.

All of us have a need to be recognized and have the capacity to recognize others, uneven as it may be. Such inconsistencies in our ability to recognize others, and the exploration of what keeps us from being able to do so, can be said to be one of the areas that psychoanalytic psychotherapy considers.

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