‘The Ultimate Freedom’

  • Viktor Frankl
‘The ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances’

This quote is taken from Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning; offering a grounding insight into the necessity to find meaning in suffering.

Frankl expresses that one ‘final freedom’ in the midst of suffering, is a person’s ability to choose their attitude towards their circumstances.

A thought-provoking concept. On the one hand what an empowering idea; we have autonomy in our thoughts, in our mindset, in moments where our lack of control over external events stares us in the face.

But is it true? Do we have control over our attitude in the face of adversity or tragedy or betrayal? Or is this stretching the capabilities of humanity a little?

From a psychodynamic point of view we are the making of our past experiences; our past casts a specific light over our present day; meaning we are very likely to perceive today based on what we’ve experienced before.

The psychodynamic view suggests that our attitude to events; our actions and reactions; are heavily influenced by what we’ve gone through before. This makes sense to me as I recognise patterns of behaviour that I commonly have, and my predictable reactions to things.

From a psychodynamic perspective, what Frankl is suggesting; that we have a choice in our attitude, can be true if we become aware of what is going on in our unconscious; by that I mean we have to revisit the past, feel it again, unearth what we might be burying, and understand how it is influencing our understanding of events in the here and now. This is not a simple task, but it is absolutely achievable.

The idea that we have autonomy over our attitude echoes existentialism; that a person is responsible for who and how they are.

‘Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself’ Sartre

This however, feels unforgiving. Accountability has it’s place in therapy for sure but too much pressure to feel accountable can also feel self-disparaging. Where is the compassion for the feeling of injustice when a person is met with tragedy? And where is the space to explore, validate and accept the presence of all feelings, or attitudes, in significant life events? Jealousy, anger or contempt for example, have just as much right to be here as gratitude, pride and peace. If we strive to choose an attitude that meets a certain acceptability I worry we’re at risk of dismissing or worse, shaming, parts of ourselves that feel otherwise.

While I discuss Frankl’s sentiment here, it’s important to note that the context of Frankl’s idea of choice being the ultimate freedom is founded on a person finding them in deep suffering where hope is nearly all but lost. I can only imagine the small comfort gaining control of your attitude over events out of your control might bring, and how invaluable and necessary for survival feeling able to choose might be.

I advocate accepting all parts of our selves, shame dies when we share. And in terms of choice, I consider our unchosen attitudes to be of most interest and often, the most authentic.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

How many ACEs do you have? They’re far more common than we think. Studies have shown strong neurophysiological links and the number of ACEs an individual has.

Counselling can help. If we can talk about our adverse childhood experiences, process them and see them in a new light, it can feel freeing. Not only that, receiving counselling can reduce physical manifestations of our trauma in our bodies too.

Succession through the lens of Object Relations Theory

Anyone who has watched the recent HBO series Succession will attest to the incredibly complex, dysfunctional and competitive family dynamics; matched with a palpable undercurrent of deep rooted self-loathing, shame and pain running beneath the exterior of each Roy child and Logan himself.

Succession. Photo: HBO

Object Relations offers a lens with which to hypothesis what transference patterns are taking place between the family members and which ego structures are in play. In other words, ‘who is the speaker and to whom is he speaking, and why?’ Paula Heinmann 1956

Exciting object (Dad) / libidinal ego (children): Creating an urgent desire.

Logan Roy creates a swarming frenzy amongst his children by presenting himself as a ‘exciting object’; hard to reach; difficult to please; powerful; complex; showering praise and expressing passionate interest one moment, to utterly dismissive or at worse, indifferent, the next. How is this alluring? By presenting himself in such a way to his children, he creates a magnetic pull; he becomes a puzzle to solve; inviting his children on an ‘I could be the one’ voyage. The potential pay off? The chance to feel approval and/or acceptance from their caregiver; one too necessary to turn away from. He is the exciting object, and in turn his children yearn to be ‘the chosen one’ .

During the series there are multiple moments in which the siblings disclose a childhood memory, often perceptibly shaming. Yet, consistently, the siblings appear to have conflicting memories of the same event. Interestingly, the event in question is met with denial by the subject of the story; e.g., Roman being reminded of being locked in a dog cage and eating dog food.

When an exciting object is in play, they aim to lure the subject exclusively into their libidinal ego, where good memories and feelings reside in relation to the exciting object. In this way the exciting object demands collusion.

The anti-libidinal ego: pushing down painful memories

The depression of painful memories in the antilibidinal ego has another agenda too; bereft of consistent parental care and love, Siobhan, Roman, Kendall and Connor each have their own struggle with self-loathing. Object Relations theory understands self-loathing as an internalisation of a ‘bad object’. For if the siblings were to acknowledge the downfalls of their parents, they are to come face to face to a reality that evidences they were not cared for, nor nurtured, nor shown love by their parents; this can feel devastating. This is taken to it’s height when we see Roman getting sexual pleasure whilst being demeaned, reinforcing his narrative that he is ‘bad’ and in turn keeping his parents ‘good’.

Effects of ‘bad object’ parents

Take this a step further, to acknowledge that these downfalls as evidence of their parents as people incapable of showing love, unkind, spiteful, manipulative and selfish, they would be, at the same time, throwing their own concept of the world as a safe place into question. After all, if our parents are ‘bad’ what is ‘good’? How safe do we feel in a world in which even our parents are ‘bad objects’? This can feel completely shattering.

Kendall evidences the possible effects of arriving at this realisation hastily, and without the necessary support structure and tools to adjust to this new reality. We watch as he relentlessly tries to uphold a new concept of his place in the world where his Dad is no longer a ‘good object’. Kendall alters his self-image to a heightened, God-like persona, in what appears to be an attempt to become impenetrable, untouchable, all-knowing and all-seeing; this way his world might feel safe. But as we watch, we see that what is merely a trick of the mind is not sustainable, nor realistic. In Kendall’s failure to sustain this unrealistic standard of self, he is left disappointed, depressed and feeling ‘not good enough’. He once again retreats to being the ‘bad object’ but this time falls into a depression.

Protecting our ‘World’ as we know it

To avoid shattering our concept of what feels safe and familiar, Object Relations theory suggests we habitually, and unconsciously, protect our external sense of security at the cost of our internal sense of security. We internalise the ‘badness’ of the bad objects by instead claiming the badness as our own. ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I was always a handful’, ‘I’m a fuck-up’.

As each sibling is played off against one another; yearning for approval, and systematically experiencing rejection, they instinctively turn on each other. Here we observe each sibling projecting the rejection and anger they receive from Logan onto one another. They identify with the rejecting object to avoid feeling the pain.

Hostile transference to a ‘safe object’

Cyclical rejection, and in the case of the Roys, humiliation, from a parent can feel intolerably painful. Our defences want to rid ourselves of feeling pain and hurt. As if wearing the weight of a heavy ball, the siblings throw the burden elsewhere so they might feel the pain and hurt rather than themselves. Even better still, since in doing so they adopt the rejecting object role, they become in control of dishing out these feelings to others. e sense of control can feel powerful. What we are watching is hostile transference to a safe object.

You often see this dynamic play out between Siobhan and Tom, and in turn Tom and Greg. When Tom faces rejection from Siobhan e.g., denying him a monogamous relationship on their wedding night, Tom is left feeling confused and powerless. This leads to outbursts of rage or calculated and spiteful comments towards Greg, the ‘safe object’ for Tom’s hostility. When Tom proceeds to trash Greg’s office and become aggressive toward Greg, Tom becomes the rejecting object, re-asserting himself in a place of control and momentarily ridding himself of intolerably painful feelings, and in turn Greg feels rejected, powerless and confused.


The pendulum swing between exciting object and rejecting object appears to be the dominant pattern for Logan Roy. We watch as each child is favoured and rejected. Logan Roy’s ability to switch from exciting object to rejecting object is instantaneous, and significantly, what precedes his changing position is an expression of an alternative view to his own. Ultimately, when Logan is acting as an exciting object, he is doing so with goal in mind, to lure his child into colluding with him whole heartedly; in Object Relations terms, the child will be acting from their libidinal ego state exclusively. Any expression of disagreement from his child feels personal since it threatens his image as an ‘exciting object’ and breaks the collusion.

Generational Trauma

We learn that generational trauma takes a hold here too when it’s revealed that Logan Roy was abused as a child, sustaining scars on his back. Understanding Logan’s past gives meaning to his role as the ‘rejecting object’ – when he demeans his children, humiliates them and discards them; he, like his children, is attempting to rid himself of pain and shame carried since childhood. The ‘Boar on the floor‘ is a disturbingly tangible example of adopting a the rejecting role and projecting unwanted feelings onto others and in return regaining control.

What is particularly manipulative about Logan’s switching between exciting and rejecting object is that he uses his previously favoured and now rejected child as a target for his momentarily less-favoured children to eagerly replace. And so, predictability, where one falls, rather than go to their aid, they seize the opportunity to jump into the space left in their wake – a space not only for succession, but far more importantly, and the basis for survival of all humankind;-it is a space that teases approval, acceptance and connection.

Excessive idealisation

Whilst the suggestion of acceptance, connection and approval is one too desirable for his children to ignore, Logan is merely dangling a fantasy before his children created via manipulation and excessive idealisation, playing into what they lacked but needed as children, and tragically rooted at intolerable generational pain that has never been processed. This cycle of dysfunction is even inescapable by Logan’s death, since the exciting object leaves in it’s wake bitter disappointment for any that colluded; I failed at being ‘the one’, and, like a misleading compass, so vehemently directing them toward their caregiver to find self-worth, they are left in disarray, utterly disconnected with their central ego and lacking any eminence of sense of self.

Bibliography: Celani, D, Fairbairn’s Object Relations Theory in the clinical setting, 2010

Quote of the week

“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings”  – Nietzsche

I love philosophy – this quote encapsulates a fundamental idea found in many of the therapy models. We start by taking a moment to explore a thought and to sit with the thought, and inevitably, we arrive at the feeling.