4. The Lacanian Perspective on Why Clients Desire Not To Know
What I think is an interesting phenomenon keeps occurring. A friend of mine, usually a Ph.D student in one program or another, will be at my apartment and they’ll eventually find a psychoanalytically oriented book – either on the table, the desk, or in the bookshelf. They’ll pick it up, read a few pages, and then say something to the effect of: “Yeah, I don’t know, anytime I start reading anything psychoanalytic, I start doubting myself. I start wondering about what motivates my project. That seems like a really bad thing to do.” The phenomenon isn’t limited to my academic friends; the same happens with relatives and close family friends. Importantly, it also happens with clients.
In his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis: On Resistance and Repression (SE XVI), Freud wrote that “If the perception of reality entails unpleasure, that perception – that is, the truth – must be sacrificed. What does he mean?
Like many friends and family members I know who do not have a genuine desire to change, they and clients also don’t have a genuine desire for self-knowledge… or so says Lacan.
Sure, clients arrive wanting to know what went wrong, what keeps backfiring, why their marriage and family is falling apart. But Lacan insists that underneath these concerns is a much more deeply rooted wish not to know any of those things. This is why just as the client is about to learn exactly what they have done or are doing to sabotage their lives, they usually resist going any further and bolt from the work. Avoidance is one of the most basic dynamics of human functioning, and even the smallest glimpse at one’s deeper motivations is enough to trigger such a defense.
According to Bruce Fink in his Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique, Lacan says “the [client’s] basic position is one of a refusal of knowledge, a will not to know. The [client] wants to know nothing about his or her neurotic mechanisms, nothing about the why and wherefore of his or her symptoms. Lacan even goes so far as to classify ignorance as a passion greater than love or hate: a passion not to know” (p. 7).
Lacan is confident, however, that the worker’s desire is what will allow the client to overcome their “wanting to know nothing.” The worker’s desire is the support that the client needs to engage in the process of “formulating some kind of new knowledge.” The client will likely resist, and if the worker fails to bring her or his (the worker’s) desire to bear, new knowledge will not be formulated. So the client’s resistance to knowing can be surmounted if the worker is willing to intervene. But if the worker does not intervene and bring their desire for knowledge into play, then the point of resistance is in fact the worker’s, not the client’s. That the client doesn’t want to grow, change, give anything up, or know how or why they continue to self-subvert is simply assumed. Nothing can be done to change the client’s structural resistance. Something can, however, be done about the worker’s…