by Sigmund FreudFebruary 25th, 2023
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The actions described so far, in which we recognize the execution of an unconscious intention, appeared as disturbances of other unintended actions, and hid themselves under the pretext of awkwardness. Chance actions, which we shall now discuss, differ from erroneously carried out actions only in that they disdain the support of a conscious intention and really need no pretext. They appear independently and are accepted because one does not credit them with any aim or purpose. We execute them “without thinking anything of them,” “by mere chance,” “just to keep the hands busy,” and we feel confident that such information will be quite sufficient should one inquire as to their significance. In order to enjoy the advantage of this exceptional position these actions which no longer claim awkwardness as an excuse must fulfil certain conditions: they must not be striking, and their effects must be insignificant.
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Psychopathology of Everyday Life by Sigmund Freud, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. SYMPTOMATIC AND CHANCE ACTIONS


The actions described so far, in which we recognize the execution of an unconscious intention, appeared as disturbances of other unintended actions, and hid themselves under the pretext of awkwardness. Chance actions, which we shall now discuss, differ from erroneously carried out actions only in that they disdain the support of a conscious intention and really need no pretext. They appear independently and are accepted because one does not credit them with any aim or purpose. We execute them “without thinking anything of them,” “by mere chance,” “just to keep the hands busy,” and we feel confident that such information will be quite sufficient should one inquire as to their significance. In order to enjoy the advantage of this exceptional position these actions which no longer claim awkwardness as an excuse must fulfil certain conditions: they must not be striking, and their effects must be insignificant.

I have collected a large number of such “chance actions” from myself and others, and after thoroughly investigating the individual examples, I believe that the name “symptomatic actions” is more suitable. They give expression to something which the actor himself does not suspect in them, and which as a rule he has no intention of imparting to others, but aims to keep to himself. Like the other phenomena considered so far, they thus play the part of symptoms.

The richest output of such chance or symptomatic actions is above all obtained in the psychoanalytic treatment of neurotics. I cannot deny myself the pleasure of showing by two examples of this nature how far and how delicately the determination of these plain occurrences are swayed by unconscious thoughts. The line of demarcation between the symptomatic actions and the erroneously carried out actions is so indefinite that I could have disposed of these examples in the preceding chapter.

(a) During the analysis a young woman reproduced this idea which suddenly occurred to her. Yesterday while cutting her nails “she had cut into the flesh while engaged in trimming the cuticle.” This is of so little interest that we ask in astonishment why it is at all remembered and mentioned, and therefore come to the conclusion that we deal with a symptomatic action. It was really the finger upon which the wedding-ring is worn which was injured through this[Pg 217] slight awkwardness. It happened, moreover, on her wedding-day, which thus gives to the injury of the delicate skin a very definite and easily guessed meaning. At the same time she also related a dream which alluded to the awkwardness of her husband and her anesthesia as a woman. But why did she injure the ring finger of her left hand when the wedding-ring is worn on the right? Her husband is a jurist, a “Doctor of Laws” (Doktor der Rechte, literally a Doctor of Rights), and her secret affection as a girl belonged to a physician who was jokingly called Doktor der Linke (literally Doctor of Left). Incidentally a left-handed marriage has a definite meaning.

(b) A single young woman relates: “Yesterday, quite unintentionally, I tore a hundred-dollar note in two pieces and gave half to a woman who was visiting me. Is that, too, a symptomatic action?” After closer investigation the matter of the hundred-dollar note elicited the following associations: She dedicated a part of her time and her fortune to charitable work. Together with another woman she was taking care of the rearing of an orphan. The hundred dollars was the contribution sent her by that woman, which she enclosed in an envelope and provisionally deposited on her writing-desk.

The visitor was a prominent woman with whom she was associated in another act of charity.[Pg 218] This woman wished to note the names of a number of persons to whom she could apply for charitable aid. There was no paper, so my patient grasped the envelope from her desk, and without thinking of its contents tore it in two pieces, one of which she kept, in order to have a duplicate list of names, and gave the other to her visitor.

Note the harmlessness of this aimless occurrence. It is known that a hundred-dollar note suffers no loss in value when it is torn, provided all the pieces are produced. That the woman would not throw away the piece of paper was assumed by the importance of the names on it, and there was just as little doubt that she would return the valuable content as soon as she noticed it.

But to what unconscious thought should this chance action, which was made possible through forgetfulness, give expression? The visitor in this case had a very definite relation to my patient and myself. It was she who at one time had recommended me as physician to the suffering girl, and if I am not mistaken my patient considered herself indebted for this advice. Should this halved hundred-dollar note perhaps represent a fee for her mediation? That still remained enigmatic.

But other material was added to this beginning. Several days before a woman mediator[Pg 219] of a different sort had inquired of a relative whether the gracious young lady wished to make the acquaintance of a certain gentleman, and that morning, some hours before the woman’s visit, the wooing letter of the suitor arrived, giving occasion for much mirth. When therefore the visitor opened the conversation with inquiries regarding the health of my patient, the latter could well have thought: “You certainly found me the right doctor, but if you could assist me in obtaining the right husband (and a child) I should be still more grateful.”

Both mediators became fused into one in this repressed thought, and she handed the visitor the fee which her fantasy was ready to give the other. This resolution became perfectly convincing when I add that I had told her of such chance or symptomatic actions only the previous evening. She then took advantage of the next occasion to produce an analogous action.

We can undertake a grouping of these extremely frequent chance and symptomatic actions according to their occurrence as habitual, regular under certain circumstances, and as isolated ones. The first group (such as playing with the watch-chain, fingering one’s beard, and so on), which can almost serve as a characteristic of the person concerned, is related to the numerous tic movements, and certainly deserves to be dealt with in connection with the latter. In the second group[Pg 220] I place the playing with one’s cane, the scribbling with one’s pencil, the jingling of coins in one’s pocket, kneading dough and other plastic materials, all sorts of handling of one’s clothing, and many other actions of the same order.

These playful occupations during psychic treatment regularly conceal sense and meaning to which other expression is denied. Generally the person in question knows nothing about it; he is unaware whether he is doing the same thing or whether he has imitated certain modifications in his customary playing, and he also fails to see or hear the effects of these actions. For example, he does not hear the noise which is produced by the jingling of coins, and he is astonished and incredulous when his attention is called to it. Of equal significance to the physician, and worthy of his observation, is everything that one does with his clothing often without noticing it. Every change in the customary attire, every little negligence, such as an unfastened button, every trace of exposure means to express something that the wearer of the apparel does not wish to say directly, usually he is entirely unconscious of it.

The interpretation of these trifling chance actions, as well as the proof for their interpretation, can be demonstrated every time with sufficient certainty from the surrounding circumstances during the treatment, from the themes[Pg 221] under discussion, and from the ideas that come to the surface when attention is directed to the seeming accident. Because of this connection I will refrain from supporting my assertions by reporting examples with their analyses; but I mention these matters because I believe that they have the same meaning in normal persons as in my patients.

I cannot, however, refrain from showing by at least one example how closely an habitually accomplished symbolic action may be connected with the most intimate and important part of the life of a normal individual.[54]

“As Professor Freud has taught us, the symbolism in the infantile life of the normal plays a greater rôle than was expected from earlier psychoanalytic experiences. In view of this the following brief analysis may be of general interest, especially on account of its medical aspects.

“A doctor on rearranging his furniture in a new house came across a straight, wooden stethoscope, and, after pausing to decide where he should put it, was impelled to place it on the side of his writing-desk in such a position that it stood exactly between his chair and the one reserved for his patients. The act in itself was certainly odd, for in the first place the straight[Pg 222] stethoscope served no purpose, as he invariably used a binaural one; and in the second place all his medical apparatus and instruments were always kept in drawers, with the sole exception of this one. However, he gave no thought to the matter until one day it was brought to his notice by a patient who had never seen a wooden stethoscope, asking him what it was. On being told, she asked why he kept it there. He answered in an offhand way that that place was as good as any other. This, however, started him thinking, and he wondered whether there had been an unconscious motive in his action. Being interested in the psychoanalytic method, he asked me to investigate the matter.

“The first memory that occurred to him was the fact that when a medical student he had been struck by the habit his hospital interne had of always carrying in his hand a wooden stethoscope on his ward visits, although he never used it. He greatly admired this interne, and was much attached to him. Later on, when he himself became an interne he contracted the same habit, and would feel very uncomfortable if by mistake he left the room without having the instrument to swing in his hand. The aimlessness of the habit was shown, not only by the fact that the only stethoscope he ever used was a binaural one, which he carried in his pocket, but also in that it was continued when he was a surgical[Pg 223] interne and never needed any stethoscope at all.

“From this it was evident that the idea of the instrument in question had in some way or other become invested with a greater psychic significance than normally belongs to it—in other words, that to the subject it stood for more than it does for other people. The idea must have got unconsciously associated with some other one, which it symbolized, and from which it derived its additional fulness of meaning. I will forestall the rest of the analysis by saying what this secondary idea was—namely, a phallic one; the way in which this curious association had been formed will presently be related. The discomfort he experienced in hospital on missing the instrument, and the relief and assurance the presence of it gave him, was related to what is known as a ‘castration-complex’—namely, a childhood fear, often continued in a disguised form into adult life, lest a private part of his body should be taken away from him, just as playthings so often were. The fear was due to paternal threats that it would be cut off if he were not a good boy, particularly in a certain direction. This is a very common complex, and accounts for a great deal of general nervousness and lack of confidence in later years.

“Then came a number of childhood memories relating to his family doctor. He had been[Pg 224] strongly attached to this doctor as a child, and during the analysis long-buried memories were recovered of a double phantasy he had in his fourth year concerning the birth of a younger sister—namely, that she was the child (1) of himself and his mother, the father being relegated to the background, and (2) of the doctor and himself; in this he thus played both a masculine and feminine part.[55] At the time, when his curiosity was being aroused by the event, he could not help noticing the prominent share taken by the doctor in the proceedings, and the subordinate position occupied by the father: the significance of this for his later life will presently be pointed out.

“The stethoscope association was formed through many connections. In the first place, the physical appearance of the instrument—a straight, rigid, hollow tube, having a small bulbous summit at one extremity and a broad base at the other—and the fact of its being the essential part of the medical paraphernalia, the instrument with which the doctor performed his magical and interesting feats, were matters that attracted his boyish attention. He had had his chest repeatedly examined by the doctor at the age of six, and distinctly recollected the voluptuous[Pg 225] sensation of feeling the latter’s head near him pressing the wooden stethoscope into his chest, and of the rhythmic to-and-fro respiratory movement. He had been struck by the doctor’s habit of carrying his stethoscope inside his hat; he found it interesting that the doctor should carry his chief instrument concealed about his person, always handy when he went to see patients, and that he only had to take off his hat (i.e., a part of his clothing) and ‘pull it out.’ At the age of eight he was impressed by being told by an older boy that it was the doctor’s custom to get into bed with his women patients. It is certain that the doctor, who was young and handsome, was extremely popular among the women of the neighbourhood, including the subject’s own mother. The doctor and his ‘instrument’ were therefore the objects of great interest throughout his boyhood.

“It is probable that, as in many other cases, unconscious identification with the family doctor had been a main motive in determining the subject’s choice of profession. It was here doubly conditioned (1) by the superiority of the doctor on certain interesting occasions to the father, of whom the subject was very jealous, and (2) by the doctor’s knowledge of forbidden topics[56] and his opportunity for illicit indulgence.[Pg 226] The subject admitted that he had on several occasions experienced erotic temptations in regard to his women patients; he had twice fallen in love with one, and finally had married one.

“The next memory was of a dream, plainly of a homosexual-masochistic nature; in it a man, who proved to be a replacement figure of the family doctor, attacked the subject with a ‘sword.’ The idea of a sword, as is so frequently the case in dreams, represented the same idea that was mentioned above to be associated with that of a wooden stethoscope. The thought of a sword reminded the subject of the passage in the Nibelung Saga, where Sigurd sleeps with his naked sword (Gram) between him and Brunhilda, an incident that had always greatly struck his imagination.

“The meaning of the symptomatic act now at last became clear. The subject had placed his wooden stethoscope between him and his patients, just as Sigurd had placed his sword (an equivalent symbol) between him and the maiden he was not to touch. The act was a compromise-formation; it served both to gratify in his imagination the repressed wish to enter into nearer relations with an attractive patient (interposition of phallus), and at the same time to remind him that this wish was not to become a reality (interposition of sword). It[Pg 227] was, so to speak, a charm against yielding to temptation.

“I might add that the following passage from Lord Lytton’s Richelieu made a great impression on the boy:—

Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword,’

and that he became a prolific writer and uses an unusually large fountain-pen. When I asked him what need he had of this pen, he replied in a characteristic manner, ‘I have so much to express.’

“This analysis again reminds us of the profound views that are afforded us in the psychic life through the ‘harmless’ and ‘senseless’ actions, and how early in life the tendency to symbolization develops.”

I can also relate an experience from my psychotherapeutic practice in which the hand, playing with a mass of bread-crumbs, gave evidence of an eloquent declaration. My patient was a boy not yet thirteen years of age, who had been very hysterical for two years. I finally took him for psychoanalytic treatment, after a lengthy stay at a hydrotherapeutic institution had proved futile. My supposition was that he must have had sexual experiences, and that, corresponding to his age, he had been troubled by[Pg 228] sexual questions; but I was cautious about helping him with explanations as I wished to test further my assumption. I was therefore curious as to the manner in which the desired material would evince itself in him.

One day it struck me that he was rolling something between the fingers of his right hand; he would thrust it into his pocket and there continue playing with it, then would draw it out again, and so on. I did not ask what he had in his hand; but as he suddenly opened his hand he showed it to me. It was bread-crumbs kneaded into a mass. At the next session he again brought along a mass, and in the course of our conversation, although his eyes were closed, modelled a figure with an incredible rapidity which excited my interest. Without doubt it was a manikin like the crudest prehistoric idols, with a head, two arms, two legs, and an appendage between the legs which he drew out to a long point.

This was scarcely completed when he kneaded the manikin together again: later he allowed it to remain, but modelled an identical appendage on the flat of the back and on other parts in order to veil the meaning of the first. I wished to show him that I had understood him, but at the same time I wanted to deprive him of the evasion that he had thought of nothing while actively forming these figures. With this intention[Pg 229] I suddenly asked him whether he remembered the story of the Roman king who gave his son’s envoy a pantomimic answer in his garden.

The boy did not wish to recall what he must have learned so much more recently than I. He asked if that was the story of the slave on whose bald skull the answer was written. I told him, “No, that belonged to Greek history,” and related the following: “King Tarquinius Superbus had induced his son Sextus to steal into a Latin city. The son, who had later obtained a foothold in the city, sent a messenger to the king asking what steps he should take next. The king gave no answer, but went into his garden, had the question repeated there, and silently struck off the heads of the largest and most beautiful poppies. All that the messenger could do was to report this to Sextus, who understood his father, and caused the most distinguished citizens of the city to be removed by assassination.”

While I was speaking the boy stopped kneading, and as I was relating what the king did in his garden, I noticed that at the words “silently struck” he tore off the head of the manikin with a movement as quick as lightning. He therefore understood me, and showed that he was also understood by me. Now I could question him directly, and gave him the information[Pg 230] that he desired, and in a short time the neurosis came to an end.

The symptomatic actions which we observe in inexhaustible abundance in healthy as well as in nervous people are worthy of our interest for more than one reason. To the physician they often serve as valuable indications for orienting himself in new or unfamiliar conditions; to the keen observer they often betray everything, occasionally even more than he cares to know. He who is familiar with its application sometimes feels like King Solomon, who, according to the Oriental legend, understood the language of animals.

One day I was to examine a strange young man at his mother’s home. As he came towards me I was attracted by a large stain on his trousers, which by its peculiar stiff edges I recognized as one produced by albumen. After a moment’s embarrassment the young man excused this stain by remarking that he was hoarse and therefore drank a raw egg, and that some of the slippery white of the egg had probably fallen on his clothes. To confirm his statements he showed the eggshell which could still be seen on a small plate in the room. The suspicious spot was thus explained in this harmless way; but as his mother left us alone I thanked him for having so greatly facilitated the diagnosis for me, and without further procedure[Pg 231] I took as the topic of our discussion his confession that he was suffering from the effects of masturbation.

Another time I called on a woman as rich as she was miserly and foolish, who was in the habit of giving the physician the task of working his way through a heap of her complaints before he could reach the simple cause of her condition. As I entered she was sitting at a small table engaged in arranging silver dollars in little piles: as she rose she tumbled some of the pieces of money to the floor. I helped her pick them up, but interrupted the recitation of her misery by remarking: “Has your good son-in-law been spending so much of your money again?” She bitterly denied this, only to relate a few moments later the lamentable story of the aggravation caused by her son-in-law’s extravagances. And she has not sent for me since. I cannot maintain that one always makes friends of those to whom he tells the meaning of their symptomatic actions.

He who observes his fellow-men while at table will be able to verify in them the nicest and most instructive symptomatic actions.

Dr. Hans Sachs relates the following:—

“I happened to be present when an elderly couple related to me partook of their supper. The lady had stomach trouble and was forced to follow a strict diet. A roast was put before[Pg 232] the husband, and he requested his wife, who was not allowed to partake of this food, to give him the mustard. The wife opened the closet and took out the small bottle of stomach drops, and placed it on the table before her husband. Between the barrel-shaped mustard-glass and the small drop-bottle there was naturally no similarity through which the mishandling could be explained; yet the wife only noticed the mistake after her husband laughingly called her attention to it. The sense of this symptomatic action needs no explanation.”

For an excellent example of this kind which was very skilfully utilized by the observer, I am indebted to Dr. Bernh. Dattner (Vienna):—

“I dined in a restaurant with my colleague H., a doctor of philosophy. He spoke about the injustice done to probationary students, and added that even before he finished his studies he was placed as secretary to the ambassador, or rather the extraordinary plenipotentiary Minister to Chili. ‘But,’ he added, ‘the minister was afterwards transferred, and I did not make any effort to meet the newly appointed.’ While uttering the last sentence he was lifting a piece of pie to his mouth, but he let it drop as if out of awkwardness. I immediately grasped the hidden sense of this symptomatic action, and remarked to my colleague, who was unacquainted with psychoanalysis, ‘You really allowed a very[Pg 233] choice morsel to slip from you.’ He did not realize, however, that my words could equally refer to his symptomatic action, and he repeated the same words I uttered with a peculiarly agreeable and surprising vividness, as if I had actually taken the words from his mouth: ‘It was really a very choice morsel that I allowed to get away from me.’ He then followed this remark with a detailed description of his clumsiness, which has cost him this very remunerative position.

“The sense of this symbolic action becomes clearer if we remember that my colleague had scruples about telling me, almost a perfect stranger, concerning his precarious material situation, and his repressed thought took on the mask of symptomatic action which expressed symbolically what was meant to be concealed, and the speaker thus got relief from his unconscious.”

That the taking away or taking along things without any apparent intention may prove to be senseful may be shown by the following examples.

I. Dr. B. Dattner relates: “An acquaintance paid the first after-marriage visit to a highly regarded lady friend of his youth. He told me of this visit and expressed his surprise at the fact that he failed in his resolution to visit with her only a short time, and then reported to me[Pg 234] a rather strange faulty act which happened to him there.

“The husband of this friend, who took part in the conversation, was looking for a box of matches which he was sure was on the table when he came there. My acquaintance, too, looked through his pockets to ascertain whether he had not put it in his pocket, but without avail. Some time later he actually found it in his pocket, and was struck by the fact that there was only one match in the box.

“A dream a few days later showing the box symbolism in reference to the friend of his youth confirmed my explanation. With the symptomatic action my acquaintance meant to announce his priority-right and the exclusiveness of his possession (it contained only one match).”

Dr. Hans Sachs relates the following: “Our cook is very fond of a certain kind of pie. There is no possible doubt about this, as it is the only kind of pastry which she always prepares well. One Sunday she brought this pie to the table, took it off the pie-plate, and proceeded to remove the dishes used in the former course, but on the top of this pile she placed the pie, and disappeared with it into the kitchen. We first thought that she had something to improve on the pie, but as she failed to appear my wife rang the bell and asked, ‘Betty, what happened to the pie?’ to which the girl answered,[Pg 235] without comprehending the question, ‘How is that?’ We had to call her attention to the fact that she carried the pie back to the kitchen. She had put it on the pile of dishes, taken it out, and put it away ‘without noticing it.’

“The next day, when we were about to consume the rest of the pie, my wife noticed that there was as much of it as we had left the day before—that is, the girl had disdained to eat the portion of her favourite dish which was rightly hers. Questioned why she did not eat the pie, she answered, somewhat embarrassed, that she did not care for it.

“The infantile attitude is distinctly noticeable on both occasions—first the childish insatiableness in refusing to share with anybody the object of her wishes, then the reaction of spite which is just as childish: ‘If you grudge it to me, keep it for yourself, I want nothing of it.’”

Chance or symptomatic actions occurring in affairs of married life have often a most serious significance, and could lead those who do not concern themselves with the psychology of the unconscious to a belief in omens. It is not an auspicious beginning if a young woman loses her wedding-ring on her wedding-tour, even if it were only mislaid and soon found.

I know a woman, now divorced, who in the management of her business affairs frequently[Pg 236] signed her maiden name many years before she actually resumed it.

Once I was the guest of a newly married couple and heard the young woman laughingly relate her latest experience, how, on the day succeeding her return from the wedding tour she had sought out her single sister in order to go shopping with her as in former times, while her husband was attending business. Suddenly she noticed a man on the opposite side of the street; nudging her sister she said, “Why, that is surely Mr. L.” She forgot that for some weeks this man had been her husband. I was chilled at this tale, but I did not dare draw any inferences. The little story came back to me only several years later, after this marriage had ended most unhappily.

The following observation, which could as well have found a place among the examples of forgetting, was taken from a noteworthy work published in French by A. Maeder.[58]

“Une dame nous racontait récement qu’elle avait oublie d’essayer sa robe de noce et s’en souvint la veille du marriage, à huit heur du soir, la couturière désespérait de voir sa cliente. Ce détail suffit à montrer que la fiancée ne se sentait pas très heureuse de porter une robe d’épouse, elle cherchait à oublier cette représentation[Pg 237] pénible. Elle est aujourd’hui ... divorcée.”

A friend who has learned to observe signs related to me that the great actress Eleanora Duse introduces a symptomatic action into one of her rôles which shows very nicely from what depth she draws her acting. It is a drama dealing with adultery; she has just been discussing with her husband and now stands soliloquizing before the seducer makes his appearance. During this short interval she plays with her wedding-ring, she pulls it off, replaces it, and finally takes it off again. She is now ready for the other.

I know of an elderly man who married a young girl, and instead of starting at once on his wedding tour he decided to spend the night in a hotel. Scarcely had they reached the hotel, when he noticed with fright that he was without his wallet, in which he had the entire sum of money for the wedding tour; he must have mislaid or lost it. He was still able to reach his servant by telephone; the latter found the missing article in the coat discarded for the travelling clothes and brought it to the hotel to the waiting bridegroom, who had thus entered upon his marriage without means.

It is consoling to think that the “losing of objects” by people is merely an unsuspected extension of a symptomatic action, and is thus[Pg 238] welcome at least to the secret intention of the loser. Often it is only an expression of slight appreciation of the lost article, a secret dislike for the same, or perhaps for the person from whom it came, or the desire to lose this object was transferred to it from other and more important objects through symbolic association. The loss of valuable articles serves as an expression of diverse feelings; it may either symbolically represent a repressed thought—that is, it may bring back a memory which one would rather not hear—or it may represent a sacrifice to the obscure forces of fate, the worship of which is not yet entirely extinct even with us.[59]

[Pg 239]

The following examples will illustrate these statements concerning the losing of objects:—

Dr. B. Dattner states: “A colleague related to me that he lost his steel pencil which he had had for over two years, and which, on account of its superior quality, was highly prized by him. Analysis elicited the following facts: The day before he had received a very disagreeable[Pg 240] letter from his brother-in-law, the concluding sentence of which read: ‘At present I have neither the desire nor the time to assist you in your carelessness and laziness.’ The effect connected with this letter was so powerful that the next day he promptly sacrificed the pencil which was a present from this brother-in-law in order not to be burdened with his favours.”

[Pg 241]

Brill reports the following example: “A doctor took exception to the following statement in my book, ‘We never lose what we really want’ (Psychanalysis, its Theories and Practical Application, p. 214). His wife, who is very interested in psychologic subjects, read with him the chapter on “Psychopathology of Everyday Life”; they were both very much impressed with the novelty of the ideas, and so on, and were very willing to accept most of the statements. He could not, however, agree with the above-given statement because, as he said to his wife, ‘I surely did not wish to lose my knife.’ He referred to a valuable knife given to him by his wife, which he highly prized, the loss of which caused him much pain.

“It did not take his wife very long to discover the solution for this loss in a manner to convince them both of the accuracy of my statement. When she presented him with this knife he was a bit loath to accept it. Although he considered himself quite emancipated, he nevertheless entertained some superstition about giving or accepting a knife as a gift, because it is said that a knife cuts friendship. He even remarked this to his wife, who only laughed at his superstition. He had the knife for years before it disappeared.

“Analysis brought out the fact that the disappearance of the knife was directly connected[Pg 242] with a period when there were violent quarrels between himself and his wife, which threatened to end in separation. They lived happily together until his step-daughter (it was his second marriage) came to live with them. His daughter was the cause of many misunderstandings, and it was at the height of these quarrels that he lost the knife.

“The unconscious activity is very nicely shown in this symptomatic action. In spite of his apparent freedom from superstition, he still unconsciously believed that a donated knife may cut friendship between the persons concerned. The losing of it was simply an unconscious defence against losing his wife, and by sacrificing the knife he made the superstitious ban impotent.”

In a lengthy discussion and with the aid of dream analysis[60] Otto Rank made clear the sacrificial tendency with its deep-reaching motivation. It must be said that just such symptomatic actions often give us access to the understanding of the intimate psychic life of the person.

Of the many isolated chance-actions, I will relate one example which showed a deeper meaning even without analysis. This example clearly explains the conditions under which such[Pg 243] symptoms may be produced most casually, and also shows that an observation of practical importance may be attached to it. During a summer tour it happened that I had to wait several days at a certain place for the arrival of my travelling companions. In the meantime I made the acquaintance of a young man, who also seemed lonely and was quite willing to join me. As we lived at the same hotel it was quite natural that we should take all our meals and our walks together.

On the afternoon of the third day he suddenly informed me that he expected his wife to arrive on that evening’s express train. My psychologic interest was now aroused, as it had already struck me that morning that my companion rejected my proposal to make a long excursion, and in our short walk he objected to a certain path as too steep and dangerous. During our afternoon walk he suddenly thought that I must be hungry and insisted that I should not delay my evening meal on his account, that he would not sup before his wife’s arrival. I understood the hint and seated myself at the table while he went to the station.

The next morning we met in the foyer of the hotel. He presented me to his wife, and added, “Of course, you will breakfast with us?” I had to attend first to a small matter in the next street, but assured him that I would return[Pg 244] shortly. Later, as I entered the breakfast-room, I noticed that the couple were at a small table near the window, both seated on the same side of it. On the opposite side there was only one chair, which was covered, however, with a man’s large and heavy coat. I understood well the meaning of this unintentional, none the less expressive, disposition of the coat. It meant this: “There is no room for you here, you are superfluous now.”

The man did not notice that I remained standing before the table, being unable to take the seat, but his wife noticed it, and quickly nudged her husband and whispered: “Why, you have covered the gentleman’s place with your coat.”

These as well as other similar experiences have caused me to think that the actions executed unintentionally must inevitably become the source of misunderstanding in human relations. The perpetrator of the act, who is unaware of any associated intention, takes no account of it, and does not hold himself responsible for it. On the other hand, the second party, having regularly utilized even such acts as those of his partner to draw conclusions as to their purpose and meaning, recognizes more of the stranger’s psychic processes than the latter is ready either to admit or believe that he has imparted. He becomes indignant when these conclusions drawn from[Pg 245] his symptomatic actions are held up to him; he declares them baseless because he does not see any conscious intention in their execution, and complains of being misunderstood by the other. Close examination shows that such misunderstandings are based on the fact that the person is too fine an observer and understands too much. The more “nervous” two persons are the more readily will they give each other cause for disputes, which are based on the fact that one as definitely denies about his own person what he is sure to accept about the other.

And this is, indeed, the punishment for the inner dishonesty to which people grant expression under the guise of “forgetting,” of erroneous actions and accidental emotions, a feeling which they would do better to confess to themselves and others when they can no longer control it. As a matter of fact it can be generally affirmed that every one is continually practising psychoanalysis on his neighbours, and consequently learns to know them better than each individual knows himself. The road following the admonition γνῶθι σεαυτὁν leads through the study of one’s own apparently casual commissions and omissions.

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This book is part of the public domain. Sigmund Freud (2022). Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved October 2022

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