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Forum Q&A: What is the relationship between holes in roles, omnipotence and incompletions?

  • 27 Oct 2019 5:04 PM
    Message # 8079430

    Reader Question:

    What is the relationship between holes in roles, omnipotence and incompletions?

    Answer from Jim Amundsen PhD:

    I first heard Al Pesso talk about incompletions as being a symptom of holes in roles in 2005 at the 5th International PBSP Conference in Minneapolis. He said, “If you see someone having trouble with completions, look towards holes in roles.” At the time he didn’t explain what he meant, and I spent several years thinking about what he meant. First off, what’s a completion? Probably most of you are familiar with the “voluntary movement” exercise. In this exercise we first explain how a voluntary movement is comprise of three steps: make a goal, executing a movement toward meeting the goal, and then checking to see if you met the goal and noticing what adjustments must be made, and repeat until the goal in accomplished. Meeting a goal would be an example of a completion. So, Al was saying that if you have clients that can’t finish meeting their goals (losing weight, cleaning house, putting together a resume, and so on), expect that the person will need to do holes in roles structures.

    Omnipotence is the felt experience of, “I’m the only one, there is no other.” Omnipotence is a fantasy of self-sufficiency. In holes in roles problems, there is an omnipotent fantasy that “I am the only one who can relieve the suffering of another.” This fantasy forms at a young age when the child/infant is exposed to the suffering/unhappiness of someone around them, like a parent, sibling or other extended family member. It’s not any suffering but suffering that appears as chronic and never ending. Because of mirror neurons and the innate sense that all humans are born with compassion and justice, the young child can feel the suffering of another as if it is their own. Think of seeing someone running to catch a bus and they fall, badly scrapping their hands as they catch themselves on the sidewalk. All of us would grimace with pain, knowing how it would feel, and most of us would want to go to the person and see if they were alright. When young children, especially before the age of 5, are exposed to suffering they feel the same kind of thing. If the pain they are exposed to is never ending, like a depressed parent who isn’t doing anything about it, the child will be overwhelmed (vicarious trauma) with the suffering of the other. To get over this, since there is no interpersonal help (they can’t turn to the depressed parent for help) the infant mind can exercise its imagination and picture that he or she has the power to take away the suffering of the parent. This is like dealing with being cold in the wintertime by fantasizing that you are on a warm tropical beach. While I’m having the fantasy, I may feel relief from the cold. However, the minute I engage in embodied interactions with the real world, the fantasy doesn’t work. Outside of my fantasy world, it’s below freezing.

    To put this all together, if I as a child/infant am trying to make myself feel better by fantasizing that I am the one that can fix my mommy or daddy’s depression by my interactions it means that now I have to maintain a fantasy about my healing powers. You could say that the child has a fantasy goal that outside expert judges would say is impossible to meet; it’s an unattainable goal. As a therapist, think of what it takes to help someone out of a depression! A one, two, three, four, five, or even ten year old child is not going to be able to achieve that goal. And yet, the child’s mind thinks that it must be able to in order to stop the pain that he or she is vicariously experiencing. This leads to the avoidance of engaging the interactional world with actual completions of meeting goals. This is because to maintain the omnipotent fantasy I can’t allow the fantasy to engage in actual feedback loops with reality. Because the mind seems to be incapable of “pin-point bombing,” i.e., it can’t just repress and/or disassociate from just one completion, the whole category of completions must be repressed.

    There are many more details to this picture, but in general, this is how I’ve come to think of the relationship between holes in roles, omnipotence and the inability to make completions.

    (For a more detailed discussion see Jim Amundsen's paper, “Holes in roles from the perspective of affect regulation,” available for download under “resources” in this website.)


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