Abjection

Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash

There is a psychological mechanism that isn’t very well known yet is involved behind the scenes in many emotions. It plays a part in disgust, revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, horror, contempt, weird, outrage, terror, fear, fright, panic, dread, trepidation, hatred, hate, abomination, execration, odium, antipathy, dislike, hostility, animosity, ill feeling, bad feeling, malice, animus, enmity, aversion, shame, humiliation, mortification, chagrin, ignominy, embarrassment, indignity, discomfort and repugnance, among others. Really, just about any negative emotion has this mechanism involved.

What is this mysterious power behind the curtain of so many intense, uncomfortable emotions? It’s called abjection. Abjection is what happens when there is a breakdown of the distinction between self and other. It’s necessary for your development into an independent, functioning human being.

To illustrate abjection at its most elemental, do this simple thing. Get a glass of water. Spit in it. Now drink it. If you’re like most people, you’ll be grossed out just by the thought.

You have spit in your mouth all the time and frequently swallow it; but, by expelling it from your body, you make it an object apart from you; sort of. It’s not like any other external object because before you spit it out, it was a part of you. You had no trouble with it then and you would have no trouble drinking the water before you spit in it, even though the water was not a part of you, an other. After you expelled the spit, it became other; but a special kind of other, an other that has been abjected. Try to drink it again and the concepts of self and other become all mixed up and confused. That’s when the trouble begins.

You would have the same trouble if you watched someone else expel their spit into a glass and tried to drink that. Even though it’s not your spit, it’s still spit, an abjected thing. No one wants to drink something abjected by anyone.

The psychological mechanism is there for a reason. Its purpose is to help you differentiate. Differentiation, another psychological mechanism, is the lifelong process of changing from a cell in your mother’s body to becoming an independent and distinct human being. At every stage of this process, there’s a whole lot of abjection going on.

For instance, when you were a baby, you likely sucked milk from your mother’s breasts. Think about doing that now as an adult. It turned your stomach a little, didn’t it? In this case, the act of sucking milk from your mother’s breasts has been abjected. Abjection is what drives and confirms differentiation. It’s there, too, when, after a certain age, your mother wants to dress you in certain clothes, but you have your own stuff; when your father wants to know how your date went last night, but it went so well that you don’t want to tell him; and when you think about moving back home and sleeping in your old bed with the Spiderman pillowcases. If you are horrified at the thought of wearing clothes your mother picked out for you, telling your father about your sex life, and living once again in your childhood home, it’s because you have differentiated yourself. You have abjection to thank for that and abjection to face if you try to turn back.

When you know about abjection, it’s not hard to find yourself abjecting all over the place. Think about any part of yourself you would really rather not have. Let’s say you hate your big, soft belly. If you could just cut it off and remove it, you would; but what you settle on doing is exercising and trying to eat right, but mostly just hating it. Of course, you will not only hate your belly, you’re going to hate other people’s big bellies, too. The person you’re going to hate the most, and be the most abjected by, is going to be that big, fat person, eating an ice cream cone, waddling down the street. You’re going to think that person is disgusting. What are you disgusted by? You’re looking at an abjected version of yourself.

It’s not hard to see how abjection can be implicated in all kinds of bad thoughts and behavior. Intolerance and prejudice, narrow-mindedness and bigotry, prudishness and hypocritical self-righteousness all have their roots in abjection. But, before you abject your abjection, thank it for what it does for you. It shaped you into the unique individual you are.

If you look at abjection closer, there’s more to see. The abjected has a weird kind of grip on you. You find it difficult to turn away. An accident on the highway is an example. Emergency vehicles, wrecked cars, injured motorists, lifeless corpses are all things you don’t like to see. Why then do you slow down to see them? It’s the abjection. Emergency vehicles, wrecked cars, injured motorists, lifeless corpses are all abjected objects. Because you can see yourself as part of an accident, you’re drawn to it even though you dread the thought. You have an affinity for it, despite your disavowals.

To be precise, you are ambivalent regarding your abjected objects. You experience both a revulsion from and attraction towards them at the same time. Abjection, an exception to the distinction between self and other, is a puzzle to be solved. Who doesn’t like a good puzzle?

The reason for this ambivalence is because differentiation is not the only good thing to be pursued. In the epic journey you are on from being an egg, indistinguishable from your mother, to an adult, you are becoming someone who can change things to suit you. That’s all well and good, but wouldn’t it be better if things just suited you from the beginning? It did suit you in the beginning when you were a fetus, swimming in your mother’s womb, all your needs provided before you even knew you had them. While there is a pull to become independent, there is an almost equal pull back to the womb. At times, the pull in the womb’s direction is stronger.

This pull towards the womb is another psychological mechanism, but we won’t get into that now. That’s a whole other can of worms that will require at least another post to explain.

How can you mitigate some of the harmful effects of abjection? For instance, how can you reduce your belly without hating your belly and all those who have big bellies?

Drink that glass of water with your spit in it and you’ll demonstrate to yourself how. If you were to succeed, you would do so by telling yourself it’s all right and forcing it down. Do that repeatedly and, in time it’ll be no big deal. It’s not that you’ll learn to relish spit, but you’ll be able to drink it if you needed to. This is how garbage men and sewage workers come to tolerate their jobs, how a nurse can clean your wound of pus, and how a shrink can listen to hours of crazy talk without going crazy himself, most of the time.

How does this work with the belly? Instead of making your belly an abjected belly, one you’re ashamed of; make it a respected one. It’s not your belly’s fault it’s big; it’s just doing what bellies do. Appreciate it for its ability to expand to contain everything you put in it. That’ll go down as easy as spit, but it’s true; your belly is a wonderous thing. When you learn to cherish your belly, maybe you’ll learn to take better care of it; maybe not. The point is, you don’t have to hate your belly for it to get smaller. You just have to eat less.

When I was about five, my parents took me on a trip to New York City. We did all the usual tourist things, but what I remember best was my first sight of a man with a missing leg, struggling to get through the subway turnstile. I had nightmares of that image afterwards. I had never seen an amputee before and I was horrified in the same way you might be if you slowed down to look at an accident. Yes, you’re right; I was abjecting.

Do I still feel this way when I see an amputee? Of course not. I’ve gotten used to it. Not so much that I don’t notice when someone is missing a leg; but to the extent it doesn’t give me nightmares. I have claimed this abjection; not as something fully a part of me, but as an abjection. I have created a third class. Where there was once me and not me; now there’s me, not me, and abjected me on the border of me with only one leg, stuck in the turnstile.

When you get right down to it, abjection is an immature psychological mechanism, useful in beginning stages of differentiation, but less useful thereafter. It was good when it turned you away from your mother’s breast and made you interested in eating solid food, but when it gets you repulsed by anyone with a big belly, including yourself, the side effects start to outweigh the benefits.

The problems abjection causes are really the problems that are created whenever we only have two categories in which to sort things. Having two categories is twice as good as having one, in which everything is a single, undifferentiated mass, but it’s not as good as having many categories in which you can capture subtle differences. In other words, recovering from abjection involves recognizing that the world is more gray than black and white and the border between what is you and not you is not as solid as you’d like.

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