Culture & Art / Environment & Sciences / Society

Making Sense of the Unconscious: Françoise Dolto and the Use of Language

Françoise Dolto on how language is a key to shed light on the unconscious forces that underlie human beings’ conscious behaviour.

by Marion Bouvier

© Jean-Régis Roustan / Roger-Viollet

© Jean-Régis Roustan / Roger-Viollet

“Solitude, this suffering born from unavoidable partings that makes the individual, through their body and within space and time–which constitute their tactile limits-, a unique creature, is also the feeling that allows individuals to establish subtle bonds through language beyond space and time.”

Françoise Dolto[1]

A life dedicated to language

Experiencing is about getting impressions, conscious memories, and unconscious marks, but most of all it is about getting acutely aware of one’s uniqueness and loneliness, as subjectivity can never fully be shared. The desire to feel grounded and surrounded gives rise to the attempt to speak sensations, because by connecting to people we materialize our existence. Language, charged with almost magical power, thus embodies our being to the world; yet this very power may be destructive when handled carelessly or when hushed.

Françoise Dolto’s own life seems to have consecrated the unbelievable power of language both as capable to save lives and as an articulate idea inseparable from experience. At the age of eight months she almost managed to kill herself out of love through a bronchopneumonia, when she was separated from her nurse without a single word of explanation; the unbearable silence that followed what felt like abandonment by a loved one suffocated the baby. She was saved by the voice of her mother whose continuous presence and murmur by her baby’s side for 48 hours brought back to life the breathing that had left the baby just as its life impulse had. Seventy-nine years later, Dolto died of respiratory insufficiency, while throughout her life she had strived to give their breaths and voices back to her patients.

Since language starts as a longing to communicate what our body experiences, it is never a lie to the extent that it reveals things the way one feels them, or the way one tries to express something about themselves to others; it is the truthful retranscription of a biased seizing of reality. That’s why Dolto insisted on listening to the patients and sticking to their logic, as language consists in a sort of tension between a conscious structure of thought and unconscious impulses that need to be expressed. She thought her role as a psychoanalyst was to grasp her patient’s own perceptions of the world around them so that she could understand where the distortion of reality lies. What’s more, Dolto showed that language could stop the vicious circle that pushes one to endlessly relive the heartrending events that never were verbalized.

At the time Dolto began her work as a psychoanalyst, psychosis was widely assimilated to madness, but Dolto never was the kind to stick to official truth. At a time when psychotic patients were often disregarded as just crazy and given all sorts of sedatives, Dolto was the one who lent her ears to their voices. According to her, the role of the psychoanalyst was precisely to help the patients come to realize by themselves that they use the wrong object or idea as a substitute to live traumatic memories again, and to live it the way they would have liked it to happen.

The whole process of altering the sensory meaning of sensations takes place in the unconscious where raw emotions are formed. When we say “I did not do this on purpose”, in most of the cases we could instead say “I did not do this consciously”, as one’s behaviour is largely contingent on the forces that were struggling in one’s unconscious. “I did not mean it”, yet my tongue formed this sentence to express chaotic thoughts that could not find any other way of fitting in my life; and it is precisely this amazing functioning of our brain in its interaction with our body that allows the psychoanalyst to detect the difficulty to cope with unspoken previous experiences.

In Dolto’s view, it was essential to observe how speaking helps revealing unknown perceptions of events that one’s conscious memory has forgotten but that could not be forgotten and therefore were repressed into the unconscious, where they took their neurotic shape. Dolto used speech to go back to the point in time when meaningful words have been extinguished into a perpetual cry of suffering that can find no way to escape and that remains influential in the way one acts in the present.

In one of the clinical cases that Dolto relates, Frédéric, a young boy of 7, is brought to her to treat his psychotic symptoms. In class, he participates in all the activities with the children of his age, but he refuses to read and cannot write. However, Dolto notes that in his drawings he widely uses the letter “A”, which he draws everywhere. Nobody in his family has a name starting with the letter A, and no other acquaintance whose name starts with A seems to have any connection to what is happening to the boy. But then the mother reveals to Dolto that Frédéric was adopted when he was 11 month-old, and that when she adopted him his name had been Armand. In one of the following sessions, Dolto thus calls aloud the name “Armand” as if she is searching for someone, while the boy attentively looks at her “searching” for this “Armand”. At some point their eyes meet and she tells him “Armand was your name when you were adopted” (the boy knew he was an adopted child for a long time already). Within two weeks, the boy’s symptoms disappeared and he started reading and writing like the other children his age, as Dolto helped him reconnect his body and current identity of Frédéric with the lost identity embodied by his former name, Armand.

The importance of acknowledging emotions with words

Strangely enough, we are used to thinking that, because we consciously formulate words and sentences, they can only be manifestations of conscious feelings; but they are definitely not, and they are never innocent either. Our words are either consciously chosen to mean something, or are the result of unarticulated desires that come to the surface in the form of a chosen expression charged with hidden signification -or a mixture of both.

A still from the documentary film

A still from the documentary film “Parler Vrai” © Abacaris films

The perpetual reliving of a shocking experience is itself very often linked to the absence of explanation attached to it, which could have enabled the person to speak out the awkward sensations, and thus rationalize what they felt. That is also what Dolto worked on: letting the child “talk” about their feelings, their fears and their disappointed hopes, all the emotions that are often left voiceless or are dismissed by parents refusing to name a trauma by its name. “It’s nothing,” would the well-meaning parent say when talking about a death, “he is just gone to some other place”. This kind of dismissive euphemism, although most of the time intended to prevent the child from suffering, in fact tends to dismiss the need to mourn, to accept that losses hurt and that wounds eventually heal. It also implies that death is a taboo that should not be explicitely talked about, even though the child will generally have an instinctive understanding that it exists. The negation of their verbalization therefore shrouds important concepts (such as death, a divorce, but also happiness, sex, sadness, or any emotion-provoking event) within a cloud of mystery that makes it scary and unpredictable.

In another clinical case that reveals how small events in a child’s life can become traumatic, Dolto successfully treated a toddler of 3 who was brought to her for symptoms of anorexia, weight loss, indifference to games, insomnia, nightmares and nervous breakdowns. Both the mother and the young child are present during the session as Dolto questions the mother about every event that took place three weeks before, when the symptoms started. The mother does not find anything worth telling, but as Dolto asks where the child sleeps, she is told that the little girl sleeps in her parents’ room, but the mother explains that three weeks before the session, they decided to buy a sofa for the child to sleep in her own room. Dolto points out that this date coincides with the beginning of the child’s troubles. The mother replies that nothing has been changed so far, that she is waiting for the child to be cured first; she also adds that the child is too young to understand that she will sleep in another room soon, and that she is still a baby. All the while the child looks attentively at her mother and at Dolto.

Dolto then explains to the mother, in the child’s presence, that the child is suffering morally from the idea of having to be separated from her parents, and that she is scared that it means she is not loved as much as she used to be. Dolto also tells the child that she is behaving like a baby in order not to leave her parents’ room. The child listens to Dolto’s explanations while silently crying. After the session, the parents take time to reassure the child, to explain that she is going to become a big girl who has her own bed and who would soon go to school with other children. The parents assure her of their love, and after a few days, as the child gets better, it is decided that she will sleep in the other room, while the parents go kiss her every night before bed and show that their love for her has not diminished. After 8 days, mother and child come back at the request of the child to tell Dolto that she is now fully cured.

One does not realize how vital it is to externalize in a positive way the apprehensions, fantasies, ideas that are expressions of our unconscious desires. Indeed, unconscious thoughts and desires are never inherently bad or wrong, even if some may seem unsuitable for the ‘civilized word’ or should not be acted upon. What makes them destructive is to suppress them, to treat them as necessarily wrong, and not to give them the chance to be inserted into a socialized environment through talking about them. Unconscious processes can become obsessive and potentially dangerous when they are constantly suppressed and when what the mind tries to express is not paid any attention.

For example, a young mother may have the thought that she wants to kill her child; she may even visualize very vividly how she could be tempted to throw her child through the window, yet she knows she loves the child and would never wish him/her harm. Here, the unconscious is not speaking so much of a murder desire as of the mother’s fear that she is not going to manage to take care of the child properly, or maybe of her exhaustion after many nights of little sleep and her desire to rest; or perhaps as a child she witnessed another child drowning and is reliving her guilt over her own survival and her giving birth to a new life. So what needs to be addressed is the core feeling (need for sleep, need to be reassured that I have a right to live, need to be told that I am a good mother, etc.) that is half-disguised behind the image or thought that initially came to mind. As a matter of fact, when spoken, a sentence becomes audible to ourselves as the voice of our desires, and we are then able to determine what we are to do with them, or what it is possible or not to act on. Dolto claimed that there it is necessary to acknowledge what we desire; to manage to speak it roughly and thoroughly appears to be the best way to deal with it, for children as well as adults. The distinction is crucial to be made between the ideas that ramble through our brains and our acting on it.

Our troubled behaviours tell us something about the forlornness we experience and that we ourselves have a hard time comprehending, that’s why identifying the core of our suffering is way more soothing than blaming ourselves for being “bad” or for having “bad thoughts”. For recurring symptoms such as she treated amongst psychologically troubled children, what mattered to Dolto was to search which part of one’s past was lived again in the present. And in that view the way we put what we experience into words allows us to point out the unsolved issues that keep tormenting us.

Dolto, with her simple and humanist methods, had a natural comprehension of individuals, and greatly contributed to raising awareness about the significance of analysing children as soon as possible, when speech can still be freed in a structuring way. Working with children, she often turned to drawings -that children often invest with more meaning than speech- which children would then describe, revealing the unconscious processes that show through a consciously drawn picture. The physical experience of living and the scars that words carry with them thus constitute a complex unconscious structure that language can help revealing; Dolto used it to extricate the unconscious neurotic processes from the conscious behaviour in a way that can also be applied to anyone who experience suffering in their lives.

The great gift of psychoanalysis is that it is a way of thinking that can even be applied to ourselves at home. When you are angry at your partner, is it really because they cannot put the chairs at their proper place, or because you had a bad day that made you feel weak and sad and that you want to be given love and reassurance without having to put yourself in the vulnerable position to ask for it? Sometimes we just need to take a step back, and listen to what we are really trying to say in order to understand what it is that blocks us from moving forward. Sometimes we need a third-party to hear the hurt beneath our words and to allow us to look at our traumas in the face. Sometimes we can be this person who listens carefully to a child or to an adult and give them the chance to express their truths, without judging them, to allow them to find some peace with their inner selves.

As my philosophy teacher used to say: It goes without saying, but it goes better when saying it.

An interesting documentary (in French with Portuguese subtitles) on the life and work of Françoise Dolto:


[1] Solitude, 1994, Paris, Gallimard. Freely translated from French.

Recommended books by Françoise Dolto:

In French: – Solitude, 1994, Paris, Gallimard – Autoportrait d’une psychanalyste, 1989, Paris, Seuil – L’image inconsciente du corps, 1984, Paris, Seuil – La Cause des enfants, 1985, Paris, Robert Laffont – Paroles pour adolescents ou le complexe du homard, 1989, Hattier – Quand les parents se séparent (coop. Inès de Angelino), 1988, Seuil, Paris In English: – When Parents Separate, 1997, David R Godine Pub – Dominique: Analysis of an Adolescent, 1974, Souvenir Press – Psychoanalysis and Paediatrics: Key Psychoanalytic Concepts with Sixteen Clinical Observations of Children, 2013, Karnac Books


2 thoughts on “Making Sense of the Unconscious: Françoise Dolto and the Use of Language

  1. Pingback: Making sense of the unconscious: Françoi...

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