Disappointment and disillusion

The distinction between the effect on seeking and disappointment and disillusion that we will present was stimulated by my (JL) discussion of a paper by Mor Shechory-Stahl at the IAPSP meeting in Vancouver 2019. We will present Mor Shechory-Stahl’s paper followed by my discussion. This is a series of clinical narratives of brief or lasting disillusion from my years as Resident and Clinical Director at Sheppard-Pratt Hospital and my own analysis.

Disillusion: its negative impact on seeking

Humans seek to fulfill their needs and desires by being a doer doing adapting to the actual world. Infants move toward their approaching mother, open their mouth to be fed, push the nipple out when satisfied, and seek pre-verbal communication and interplay. Throughout life, a person’s failure to accomplish their intentions and goals in the actual world leads to disappointment and hopefully to an attempt to modify the approach taken or a search for an alternative fulfillment and success. In addition, humans seek to fulfill their needs and desires by forming an illusion of themselves as a successful doer doing in a fantasy narrative. Infants replace their absent mother by rubbing, cuddling, or hugging a blanket, bottle, or stuffed toy against their body, nose, and mouth (Winnicott’s 1953 transitional object). Throughout life, disruptions of an illusion being relied on to fill the gap of a missing resource leads to startle, confusion, and often a period of intention disillusion that frequently paralyzes carrying out intentions.


All creatures are born with some capacity to seek to discover what they need and want and to seek to obtain it, removing obstacles if necessary. Humans add to the motivational systems involved in successful seeking a recognition of the meaning of their seeking to their own welfare and the welfare of others. But humans are able to take a hugely important step further with their agency: in the absence of what they seek they can imagine -that is, create in fantasy - an illusion of the desired. With this illusion they can live for periods of time more happily and often more productively. They can be less disappointed and antagonistic. They can sometimes remain on the lookout for the actuality of the sought out if it becomes available while at other times elevating the illusion to be an entity in itself to be clung to. When dealing with an actuality, success in its attainment leads to pride and an incentive to seek for the success, and failure results in disappointment and an incentive to modify and review the effort. When dealing with a significant illusion, success in its maintenance may lead to little incentive to modify or make further effort to pursue a flexible intention and goal. Disruption of a broadly maintained illusion is often traumatic, leading to feelings of disillusion, the cessation of effort, and deep feelings of pessimism, helplessness, confusion, shame, and loss of vitality.

The transference-countertransference activated in psychoanalysis lends itself - we might even say invites - illusion. Who does the patient come to believe her analyst is: the father she never had? The mother whom she wanted to have a deep understanding of her? Who does the analyst come to believe her patient is: a person fully committed to the treatment? A person who has full and deep trust of the analyst’s skills and intent? Idealization of this nature provides powerful bonds holding the commitment of each -of analyst to this patient, of patient to this analyst. Disruption of a moderately idealized other generally can be tolerated and discussed. When the illusion is intense, is being clung to desperately, disbelief, especially if abrupt, leads to shock, confusion, and disillusion.

I will present several examples from my residency analytic training and an experience of my own. In addition, I will present papers describing treatment by Dr. Mor Shechory-Stahl and my discussion. I will then broaden the discussion to consider the myths that bind together cultures, religions, and societies.

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