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Intimately alien – Understanding psychopathologies emergent of uncanny atmospheres

“I have nothing to say —
and I am saying it —
and that is poetry —
as I need it –”
(John Cage – lecture on nothing)

In this workshop, I want to introduce a theme that is important in understanding myself and the people who come to see me for therapy.

While most of the time we are concerned with what emerges in the foreground of experience, the theme of the uncanny involves the background, and the dawning of experience from that background. It is the stuff that is often outside of awareness. It is not easy to grasp, or to name. It involves the vague, the atmospheric.

Uncanny atmospheres are involved in lots of therapeutic processes, like experiences bordering psychotic dimensions, hypochondria, panic, obsessive-compulsive and dependent experience, (post-)traumatic experience, grief. And it is first and foremost an existential theme, something that permeates our existence as human beings. It is a ground structure of human being.
In therapy, having an understanding of this area of experience can be helpful in allowing experiences that are otherwise easy to miss, to have the chance to emerge.

As it involves that which is mostly hidden from experience, it is not an easy subject to bring. I will try to bring it down to the basics, in an understandable way. This means of course that some nuance will get lost. But as I you will see: whenever we try to get familiar with something, something needs to stay in the dark.
To illustrate the theme, I will share some experiences of my own life with you. I’ve made some little drawings that hopefully clarify the theme. And I will show some works of some of my favorite artists.

But first, let me explain what the word uncanny even means:

Imagine walking through a park at night. It’s dead silent, except for the rustling of the leaves. There’s no one else around. Still you have the feeling someone else is there… You try to convince yourself, “don’t be silly”, but still you cannot help but look over your shoulder. You feel a little shiver on your back, the hair in your neck stand up. It feels like the air is pressing in your back, the inside of your body shrinks…
Have you ever had an experience like this? This is what you call feeling uncanny.

Das Unheimliche

The word uncanny doesn’t really cover the meaning though. It is the translation of a German word: unheimlich, and this has a richer meaning than in English:
Unheimlich is the opposite of heimlich – which means ‘familiar, homely, private’, but also ‘secret, hidden’.

And indeed our being at home always involves some hiddenness.
In our own homes, we want to feel protected from outside eyes. We need walls to create a sense of privacy. We feel at home when we can keep ‘the outside’ out.
Inside the walls of our house, within the sphere of the own, there is also a lot that is hidden. And this is necessary: to be able to feel at home, to secure a sense of familiarity, something needs to stay hidden.

In the experience of das Unheimliche something that should have stayed hidden, suddenly shows up. It doesn’t come to light in a straightforward way though: it shines through the homely. It makes the homely appear in an alien light. The familiar emerges as unfamiliar, but at the same time it is familiar… This is exactly what makes it so uncomfortable.

Freud wrote about Das Unheimliche in a famous essay.

He refers to a story called the Sandman by the writer E.T.A. Hoffman. In that story, the sandman – who is a a variant of the boogeyman – is a shady person, who arrives in the dark after bedtime to sprinkle dust in the little children’s eyes, to make them close their eyes and go to sleep. But some children keep their eyes open… They see things in the dark they shouldn’t have seen. As a punishment, the sandman plucks out their eyes. He steals the eyes of little children who see too much.

And what they see, is that the solid rational beliefs of the adult world aren’t so solid after all. When growing up, we learn to make clear distinctions between what is reality and what is imagination, what is inside and what is outside, what is alive and what is lifeless, what is normal and what is not, and we learn to keep these areas neatly separated.

But what turns up in the experience of the uncanny, is that these areas are not so nicely separated at all.
Take for instance our experience of our body. In everyday life we take it for granted as being just ‘us’, moving, touching, feeling, alive. But when you break a leg and a bone sticks through your skin, it stares you in the face as an alien object. And the thing that makes this so eerie: that bone is as alien as it is intimate.


This is where another typically uncanny theme emerges: that of the Doppelgänger, the double. My skeleton is me, and at the same time it is alien.

My past self can also emerge as a double. For instance when looking back on a past love, trying to imagine that you were once so intimately connected with that person. It is me, and yet… is it?

Or a story my mother told me: she was lying on her bed, dozing off. And when she opened her eyes for a second, in the window she saw the image of her father lying on his death bed. It was only after a long moment, that she realized it was her own reflection in the window.
What makes this so uncanny, is the premonition of death in your own living body.
And also the repetition of generation upon generation of living and dying, that shines through your first person experience of being a unique self. Fate shines through your feeling of autonomy.

In the uncanny atmosphere, the background of experience that we usually take for granted, loses its neutrality and becomes ambiguous. Thereby, all of experience is rendered in an eerie, unfamiliar light.

I’d like continue and explore several aspects of feeling at home, starting big, with our being at home in the world, and then gradually zooming in to how we are at home with ourselves. At every stage, I hope to show you how the homely always involves the not-at-home, the alien.

At home in the world

My feeling of being at home in the world rests upon a tacit understanding of the world as a meaningful whole. Things, and people, do not appear as isolated objects for me, they appear as meaning. And they emerge as meaningful in how they are interrelated, one referring to the other, one involved with another.

Maybe you could allow yourself for a moment to notice where we are right now: in a room, in a building, in a city. And notice how in this moment we are embedded in a vast context of meaning. I am here as a gestalt therapist, among my colleagues, we are of the broader context we call psychotherapy, it involves a world of practices, books, whole histories. This room is another room than all the rooms I encountered before, but I know it is a room. I see and feel it in 4-d, including time. I know this is a floor, it is embedded in a context of floors, walls, buildings, of standing, moving.

(*)The relationships are primary here. For instance, it is of the relationship between that piece of wood and my ass, that that thing emerges as a chair. And both wood and ass appear as what they are, from out of a larger context of relationships.
Of course it isn’t a 2-dimensional context like in the drawing. It is 4-dimensional, including time. It is a shared context of interrelated movements, practices, objects, persons etc.

I am more or less at home in that context, I don’t have to pay much attention to it. It is what I take as normal. It is the background of experience, that I take for granted. When things are normal, I don’t necessarily realize that meaning making is what I do, and what i am. Meaning making withdraws to the background.

I am concerned only with the things that stand out from it, that catch my attention: for instance a chair to sit down on.

The world of meaning preceded me, I was born into meaning and my being was loaded with meaning before I was even there: white – Dutch – girl – having all kinds of meanings for the family I was born into. I was born into my specific situation with others.
Before there even was an experience of an I, “i” was already constituted(*) within a network of meaning (*). I began somewhere else. And from moment to moment, I find myself in a new way within this context, like right now here with you, I am experiencing the world and myself in a slightly new way. In every new situation meaning emerges anew.
In this way, our context of meaning gradually changes. Also, our shared experience of what is normal is constantly updated.

While mostly these changes are subtle, there are times when meaning making undergoes intense changes. In these threshold experiences, meaning making can be thoroughly disrupted.
For instance when covid arrived and the lockdowns came. Where, formerly, being among a group of people appeared as normal, the relationships between people were suddenly charged with infection.

When a person wanted to shake your hand , that hand could suddenly appear as a possibly infected object.

You could still recognize it as someone’s hand, and knew what the gesture meant, but it appeared in an alien light. Also common things, like door knobs, appeared in a different light.
Meaning wasn’t completely lost, but it was no longer to be taken for granted. Something unknown shone through the familiar. The relationships between people, things and practices themselves were suddenly at stake.

Several things can happen:

  1. Because so many of the relationships from which things emerge as meaningful were disrupted, our whole experience of being in the world was disrupted. The meaning of things, people and practices wasn’t so obvious anymore.
  2. In all kinds of ways, what is usually in the background now pressed to the foreground. Meaning making itself became an issue. It showed up as contingent. We noticed that what we took for granted as being simply ‘our reality’, is not to be taken for granted at all. Things could have just as well been different. There is a groundlessness in our ground.
  3. When the background presses to the foreground, the space in between things becomes charged, tense, pressing in. Atmosphere prevails, and all figures tend to appear in a slightly vague, ghostly sphere. This is the uncanny atmosphere. Remember the empty streets at the beginning of the lockdown?
  4. When the background of meaning becomes ambiguous and meaning making is at stake, attempts of meaning making can be sought in for instance paranoia, hallucinations, conspiracy theories.

Covid formed a huge disruption of meaning making in society as a whole. Like #metoo did, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And more recently, the earthquake in Morocco.
Throughout life, there are all kinds of threshold experiences like this, bigger and smaller, in public sphere or in a more private sphere, in which meaning making is disrupted and can become problematic.
For instance: The different shifts in meaning making children go through –  from an animistic experience to a rational one, from the smaller context of the family, to the bigger context of world. Grief, especially when losing someone very close by. Trauma. Violence can be seen as the tearing of meaning.
But also every night, when going to sleep, from light to darkness. And, really, in a lot of smaller transitional moments during the day.

It was interesting to notice how in the beginning of the pandemics, in some ways I found myself surprisingly at ease with the world. Because this awareness of unheimlichkeit is something I have always lived with.

In the house I grew up in, normal things – like brushing your teeth – could have catastrophic consequences. Often it wasn’t clear what those consequences would be, only that they would be terrifying, like the world could collapse. What made it a little more difficult, was that it wasn’t clear what was the wrong way to do things, and if there even was a right way.
This unpredictability complicated things. If fear doesn’t have a defined object, it tends to permeate everything. This is what anxiety is: fear without an object. You cannot give it a meaning. Everything gets drenched in fear, every possibility becomes doubtful.
In a situation where unpredictability prevails, the relationships between things remain in a state of restlessness, they cannot be taken for granted. When chaos can just burst through the seams of every experience, it is difficult for a stable figure to form, and the background cannot recede to the background as it should.
Nothing can be taken for granted. Even bodily functions that are usually background process, can suddenly press to the foreground. Like the ability to hold your pee, or to walk.
Any sense of familiarity will be charged with the possibility of collapse.
So from early childhood on, I grew up with a heightened sense of contingency. I’ve always had a sense for uncanniness.

And really the uncanny is quite a normal experience. Everything IS subject to entropy. Meaning making IS contingent. There IS a groundlessness in the ground of our meaning making. But it is usually hidden from experience.
Like in the story of the sandman, this little child saw things that shouldn’t have been seen. At least not so early, so clearly, and so isolated from a context of relationship in which they could be held.
Where normally contingency and entropy have the time to be balanced with a sense of stability and predictability, founded in a solid relational ground, in our house it didn’t have enough of that balance.

Notice how, after covid, we are in a new “normal” now. It is what we do, we weave with these experiences to form a new homely meaningful whole. And doing this, things are again hidden from sight. We forget the astonishment we felt, when during the lockdowns there were suddenly so much more birds in the cities. We forget the experience of alienation that was all around. We forget the awareness of how fragile our experience of reality is. Sickness, death and entropy are again neatly put away in preserved areas, disappeared from the foreground.
And it’s true, this hiddenness is necessary to live. In our feeling of being at home, something has to stay in the dark. The Sandman is right.

It is this darkness though, that a lot of our clients are in touch with. They cannot always close their eyes. And sometimes, they suffer from the ways they have found to deal with what they see.

(Dis-)placed in time

Let’s have a look at the role of time in all this.
Against the meaningful background we are immersed in, meaning is emerging in every current moment. Chair, me, you, the words I am saying to you. You could say experience is a flow of emerging en receding meaning.
I like the word ‘current’ here: it points at time flowing. Think of Heraklites’ saying that you can never step into the same river twice. You could say we are the river, time moves through us.

I also like the image I heard once of time as a rocking chair, moving from past, in the current moment, towards a next.
Grounded in the memory of what went before, in every current moment i am reaching beyond who and where I already am, and beyond what I already know. ‘Reaching’ is not always some big gesture: attention is already a form of reaching towards something.

The Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard said that we are above all passionate creatures. We are always desiring, reaching beyond where we already are, towards new meaning. We are not simply determined by our environment, or our instinct. We can imagine a future, we consider different paths, “what if this will happen…”, “what if that…”. Possibility fills each moment with meaning.
The word ‘existence’ speaks of this, it means to stand out, to stand out of oneself: ek=out  sistere=to stand.

This means that we never fall in place with ourselves, we never coincide. Existence is a constantly becoming.

This is beautiful. I am lucky to be a very passionate person. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the possibility to be here with you today.
But although the word “possibility” sounds beautiful, it can be burdensome too. What if I make the wrong choices? What is the right choice? The past can be haunted by possibility too, since things might have also happened differently.

And of course there is one possibility that can be especially burdensome: death, the one absolute possibility. It is absolutely possible that we will all die.
The fear of death is also a fear without an object. This is what can make it terrifying.

(artwork: Roland Topor)

Also, I’m given only one life, and I want to live it to the fullest. I want to live it in the most meaningful way possible. But what on earth is the fullest? Can I ever be full? Searching for fullness, I am confronted with an gap that can never be filled. I can never fully fall in place with myself. There is no one true self to coincide with. My future self is an alien self. I cannot grasp it.
There is no one true choice, or maybe better: every true choice is a leap of faith, a surrendering, to something that cannot be fully grasped.
This can give rise to anxiety as well. It is the anxiety that Kierkegaard calls dizziness of freedom.

It is another appearance of the uncanny feeling. It is a reaching that cannot find a definite object(*).

Again, these experiences are ‘normal’. It can be tough, it can be beautiful, but I think this is how life is.
But when there is no trustworthy ground to yield with, when there is insufficient relationship to carry you from a shared past into a shared current moment, moving forward towards a next, you can fall prey to the indefinite. This is what can happen in anxiety, and in panic attacks. These are attacks of unbearable uncanniness, suffered in solitude.
In the absence of a firm ground to leap from, the call for a leap can appear as a gaze into the abyss.

Like mentioned before, these leaps are threshold experiences. They can be bigger ones and smaller ones. Crossing a threshold calls for the thrust that on the other side there is some kind of ground that will continue. Every little risk is easier to take when held in the arms of a shared world.

An illustration from my own life:
Due to circumstances, i left our unhomely home way too early. I had just turned 16. I had been living with anxiety since I was a little child, and dealt with it in several ways. But with this leap I lost whatever relationship that had somehow held me before. And there was not so much to catch me on the other side. Especially at night, at the threshold from waking to sleeping, from light to darkness, I fell into extreme anxiety. By daytime there was still some kind of familiar ground, to walk on, the shared context of school to be held in, but at night, alone in my bed, I had to surrender and let that go. That was like a falling into nothingness. The plain fear of death.
When there haven’t been enough solid relationships that were assimilated to form a secure enough ground, a next step can feel like falling off of the world.

And note that I made the decision to leave home myself. This is how possibility can turn against you.
Horror movies also play into this: It is always because of your own actions that the monster seeks you out. Like a vampire can only enter when invited.

Of course this is a big issue for instance in our increasingly liquid society. There is a lot of pressure on the individual, to make choices that might make the difference between ending up as a winner or a loser. And there aren’t a lot of stable social structures to ground these choices in.

Mood & the home of the own

How we reach towards a next and open onto possibility, is dependent on our mood. Mood attunes us to our situation in a certain way. More accurately: we are always attuned to our situation through mood. We are always in a certain mood, attuned in a certain way.
In a joyful mood, the world appears full of promise, it invites me, come! In a bored mood, nothing appears as attractive to me. In boredom, the objects are there, but meaning withdraws. Meaning making itself comes to the foreground: it appears as meaningless, as groundless. Boredom is one of the moods in which our uncanniness emerges.

I cannot choose my mood. Mood comes from elsewhere. Sometimes it’s the atmosphere of the dreams i wake up from. But then maybe I when I look at my love lying next to me, the atmosphere changes a bit.
Mood befalls me, I find myself in it. This is a passive aspect in experience: the area of the pathic (remember how Kierkegaard already spoke of passion).

It is neither inside, nor outside, it is atmospheric. It is more sensed, than known. A pre-knowing. It is the dawning of experience.
The gestalt theorists of perception write about this phenomenon (Kurt Lewin, Wolfgang Köhler): All perception begins with something coming to my attention, imposing itself on me, attracting or repelling me, affecting me.
So again something comes from the outside, we are passively seized by something. It is the moment of the Vorgestalten. The perceptive experience is diffuse, undifferentiated, and global. A figure has yet to emerge as separately from the background; It is a moment full of restlessness, as self-process is pushing towards clarity, towards meaning. And when clarity comes, it comes as a relief. “Ah, that’s it…”

This again is a threshold experience.
In the area of the pathic it is not clear what is moving and what is moved, what is you and what is me. When clarity comes,  there is an emerging of what is “own” as separate from what is “not own”.

With the clarity of figure forming, the atmosphere withdraws. Our attention is with what emerges through it, with the figure that stands out – like my reaching for the knife to cut off a piece of bread when eating with friends, or – in another atmosphere – to throw it at you.

But it can happen that in this process nothing clearly emerges, and atmosphere sticks around in the foreground. This can be awkward. Maybe you know the moments of silence in therapy, when there’s nothing clearly there yet, just something in the air, and  there’s a feeling of unease…
It can be that nothing really stands out, and time stretches – like in boredom. Or sometimes everything seems to stand out, without anything specifically becoming clear, and everything presses in – anxiety. Or you feel like there’s something there, but it doesn’t become clear what it is. It can also feel like the background is fluctuating, becoming ambiguous– like in the example of the park at night. These are uncanny atmospheres.

Of course there are other atmospheres that tend to linger on: it can happen during creative process.  Or when in a club, dancing and moving with the music. This is what is evoked by taking XTC: the atmospheric lasts for hours, in a delicious way.

When crossing the threshold of the pathic: something emerges and at the same time something withdraws. Like when waking up: I awaken to myself in the waking world, and the world of my sleep withdraws. My sleeping self is me, and at the same time beyond me. It exceeds me.
And when you think of it, there is a lot of “me”, that exceeds me. Take my experience of my body. My flesh and bones are me, but they are at the same time beyond me, exceeding me. I cannot comprehend my being bones and flesh, but at the same time it would be crazy to deny I am so. The experience of my body is very intimate, and at the same time there’s something alien to it. It withdraws, it is beyond me.

(artwork: Lara Verheijden)

For example: Take your attention to your mouth for a moment, and notice the moisture in your mouth. Notice how familiar the feeling is. When your mouth is dry, it is often less comfortable than when it is moist. You can feel the moisture around your tongue, maybe taste it a little. Then see if you can gather some of that moisture in your mouth. And now just imagine spitting it into a cup. And then, imagine drinking the cup.
For lots of people, this is a good example of the intimate alienness of the body. Maybe you are left with an uncanny feeling for a while.

Another example is the unvoluntary bodily response rape victims can have while being violated: getting wet, or having an erection.

Or the aging body. Suddenly seeing the skin of your arms dangling in the mirror. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be…!”

These experiences are different for everyone. For instance, to a certain extent, a body builder may be more familiar with the muscles and bone structures – the thingness – of the body, than with bodily sensations through which feelings emerge. Becoming aware of your heart beating faster when meeting the eyes of an other, can be an uncanny experience for some. “Oww what’s happening to me…?”

Also, i  feel my body only through something else touching me, like the air around me. Or someone else: I found my body through the touch of the arms of my parents, when I was a baby.

I like the word Lacan uses: extimacy. Intimacy is an extimacy. The experience of myself starts elsewhere. Where I am trying to look inside to find something of an authentic core self, what I will find is an intimate alienness. There is something strange to me at the heart of me. And of course: looking inside already means having an outside perspective. We encounter ourselves from the outside.

This is where symbols are helpful: they make something present that we can otherwise never encompass or fully relate to. In this way symbols can bring a kind of relief, they relieve us temporarily from the tension of dealing with something that is so intimately beyond us. They take something upon them, they carry a process for us.
Like a wedding ring, or an icon in church, fetishes, or the black band people wear around their arm when grieving. Smoking a cigarette, for a few minutes you can feel relieved of the tension of standing outside of yourself. In these minutes, you feel like falling in place with yourself. The alien is externalized.
Smoking is at the same time symbolic and ritual.

Rituals help to mediate threshold experiences. They support these transitions by giving the undefinable a shape that can be shared and held within a relationship, a community. They carry experience through the threshold, so you don’t have to pass them alone. Bedtime stories, rituals when graduating from high school, burial rituals, marriage, students drinking lots of beer at gatherings.
There are also rituals that are carried out in solitude. Like checking the gas 30 times before falling asleep exhausted.

My solutions

I had to hold my heightened sense of uncanniness in solitude, in an environment where terror lurked in the background. So I came up with several ways of adapting. They were attempts of relief, but in the end they heightened my solitude, and with the relief came more trouble.
Ritual was an important aspect in all of them: OCD – obsessive-compulsive experience – the control of food intake – anorectic / bulimic experience – and addiction – several periods of alternating types of substances: years of continuous use of speed and cocaine, other years with weed and alcohol in the foreground, but mostly I just used whatever I could lay my hands on.
These different adaptations are linked. It is not uncommon for these three experiences to emerge in succession, one passing the stick to the other.

Of course I can only discuss some aspects of them very briefly, while they are each huge topics in themselves.

Obsessive-compulsive experience

When I was about 7, I started to check the gas at night, on the threshold between waking and sleeping. Although this started as a response to a rather realistic threat, it soon got a life of its own.

In the obsessive-compulsive experience, the fear without an object that emerges in the uncanny atmosphere, is temporarily given an object.
In OCD, there is a feeling that chaos and decay are creeping in through the seams of the homely, the familiar. What is ‘normally’ neatly hidden, now comes seeping through. (illustration) And because no clarity can be reached, no object can be stably formed, tension rises to the unbearable.
Compulsive acts, like checking the gas, give a temporary relief by providing a figure to the shapeless, something to act upon, to be completed. The trouble is, that when completed, you have to start all over again. After checking the gas, while returning up the stairs, to my bed, I already felt the memory of the gas button fading in my hands. Chaos crept into the memory, it fell apart in my hands. I started doubting again: didn’t I accidentally touch it the wrong way? I had to go back to check again.

It is like you are trying to secure a leaky house from chaos flooding in, using little scotch tapes. After putting on a tape somewhere, it starts leaking beside it.
When you focus on something too intensely, it tends to lose its meaning. The meaning of the gas button faded, as well as that of the act.
You are caught in a pointless loop: acting, a little relief, to feel the past fading, and having to start over again. Emerging from out of the fog, and being sucked back in. A broader sense of time is lost.

More subtle versions of obsessive compulsive experience can be found in all kinds of situations, when chaos comes creeping into the familiarity of everyday life. To name just a few examples:  Or obsession after being confronted with a cheating partner. The overfocus perfectionism can bring. Or the obsession with fixed binary gender identities and the obsessive online stalking of queer people, in a world where so many foundations of identity are shifting.

Food control

During the threshold of puberty the body changes. Hair, curves, fluids, smells emerge through the familiarity of the lived body – an uncanny experience as it is. In my solitude I had a hard time making sense of these things, knowing what was normal, and what was suspicious.
What made it more complicated, was that all of these things were loaded with meaning coming from elsewhere. The meaningful whole of my body within the world got flooded with alien meaning, and exposed to unfamiliar ways of feeling seen. It gave an eerie feeling of being subjected, while not ready to respond as a subject. (*link to alien gaze: feeling of being seen > experience of other as one who sees > experience of i as separate from them)

Like OCD, controlling food started with the remarks of people around me about my weight. But soon, it got a life of its own. Like in OCD, the rituals of vomiting and counting calories are performed in solitude. It is like an exorcism of alien meaning, of alien gaze that has to be continuously maintained.

Addiction – dependent experience

(artwork: David Shrigley)

Like for everyone else, though in a bit more extreme way, my teens were a threshold experience where the stage of my lifeworld shifted from the sphere of the familiar – oikos – to that of the bigger world – polis. The relational tissue of meaning that formed my ground was stretched, to make room for worlds to enter, and for me to enter worlds. A sense of alienation grew. In threshold experiences like these, the outside can come washing in so strongly, that the ground cannot hold a stable sense of self.

Doing drugs is helpful in several ways, some general, others more specific to certain types of substances.
Again, ritual is important. In addiction, it is not only about the effect of the substances. The ritual itself plays a big part. For instance when doing speed, you carry a little box with you, with a little bag of powder in it, and a mirror, a little knife to cut the speed with and to make the lines. And then sniffing it. I loved that so much, i could do that all day.

This ritual mostly starts out as a shared ritual. And again, the ritual is helpful to mediate threshold experiences. For instance the threshold of moving from being alone to being in a group, or from the firm daytime context of work, to the letting go of ties at nighttime. There is a letting go of firm context, in favor of less clearly defined ties. Having glasses of beer together, taking hits of coke, etc. can relieve the uncanny atmosphere these thresholds can bring.
A sense of shared practices and meaning is forged.

My co-users felt almost like family, we shared the same bubble. We were no longer outsiders, but insiders. It was not so much about creating a feeling of being at home in the world, but mostly of cherishing an alien world.
In this way, I think of it as a form of loyalty to the uncanny feeling that was always with me. Not trying to keep the chaos out, but inviting it in on my own terms, within more or less controlled conditions. Opening onto the atmospheric and not needing or even wanting to emerge from it.

When addiction grows, the relationships in this narrow context of practices and people becomes so strong, that there’s a loss of interest in other relationships. The context of familiarity gets increasingly narrowed down. Isolation grows. And finally, the sharedness of the ritual often disappears.


When addiction grows, you find yourself becoming more and more confluent with the alien. There is a Doppelgänger experience, and it’s no longer clear who the real you is: the day person – the sober one – or the night person – the drunk one. The overall sense of alienation is one of the reasons why working with addictive experience brings strong feelings of unheimlichkeit.

Lastly, the experience of craving is an uncanny experience par excellence.


As you notice, I’m still alive, and doing very well. Of course the process of becoming where I am now has been a lengthy one. Too much to share today.
The biggest difference is that I now feel embedded within a shared world.
But what didn’t change is my sense of unheimlichkeit. I think of it mostly as a talent now. It allows me to be open to the experiences my clients bring. I am happy that we can share in these experiences.
It also allows me to have a sense of wonder. Wonder is a sibling of the uncanny. When wondering, the meaning of things isn’t taken for granted either.
Humor is another sibling. In a good joke, meaning making is disrupted. To me, humor and wonder are important in therapy.

For me it was important to share these insights with you today, instead of focusing on how to bring them into practice. Because when you have an understanding of how these things work, it is easier not to jump into action when the uncanny atmosphere arrives, but to wait.
Like all atmosphere, the uncanny atmosphere is more sensed, than known. It is felt through sensations such as goose bumps, the shivers, boredom, unease, dizziness, a feeling of falling – even while sitting down. Or disgust, a feeling that is often felt when in dependent, anorectic or bulemic and obsessive-compulsive experiences.
These are uncomfortable feelings, and we tend to want to avoid them. So it is easy to become reactive to the uncanny atmosphere or become confluent with the adaptations involved.
For instance

  • by pushing the figure, to prematurely grasp for clarity. Moving into action too fast.
  • by focusing on the symptoms – not that the symptoms aren’t important. I often work in cooperation with for instance a psychiatrist to care about the symptoms.
  • by clinging to automatic responses, things we already know. Lecturing the client for instance, or using predefined interpretations, experiments or protocols.
  • by doing too much, for instance talking too much. In these experiences it can be tempting to flood the situation.
  • by presenting yourself as whole and splitting off the alien to the client. Problematizing them.

These are ways of splitting the familiar off from the alien, it is very tempting to do that. They heighten the solitude and alienation in the situation (*). When I notice myself getting into these things, I use it as diagnostics: “hm.. there’s something going on here…”

It is difficult at times, but what is important is to allow myself to be overcome by the alien, and to allow for meaning to emerge in its own time. This calls for me as a therapist to work on myself, instead of on the client. To bear the atmosphere, while noticing what’s happening to me. To wait until something attracts my attention. It might be a curiosity, a desire, a crazy idea. Then to wait some more, and see if it persists, or if it changes. And only when it persists, to speak from it, or to propose some other movement.
Of course this can only happen in the presence of a trustworthy ground, of a timeline of past, presence and future with my client. Where there are clear limits that designate an area of possibility. Field perspective is a big support in working with this.

We are together in in meaningful meaninglessness, in intimate alienation.
Chaos, death and contingency cannot be overcome. Human being is being-not-at-home. But when these experiences can be held in relationships of meaning across time, there can be a shared experience of belonging in not belonging.
To me this process is not about banishing out chaos and meaninglessness. The beauty to me is to be aware of them, and to still find meaning.

(artwork: Wile E. Coyote & the Roadrunner by Chuck Jones

(In progress) list of elements to be put back, elaborated on or nuanced:

*1 difference unheimliche & uncanny (ground structure & atmosphere)
*2 constitute
*3 contingency & singularity of thrownness (35 J-L Nancy)
*4 the sum and the parts
*5 atmosphere vs mood