Home Societal / Political Community The Wonder of Interpersonal Relationships V: Coherence

The Wonder of Interpersonal Relationships V: Coherence

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Alpha and Beta

For Bion, the metabolized elements—that he labels alpha—are those that we can readily think about and articulate. In the case of anxiety operating in an organizational setting, these metabolized alpha elements would include the identified and articulated cause of the anxiety, as well as the impact of anxiety on such critical organizational functions as personnel management, conflict-management, problem-solving, and decision-making (Bergquist, 2003). Perhaps most importantly, alpha elements are often valid perceptions of reality and processes associated with the capacity of individuals and organizations to learn from experience (Bion, 1995). Today, in an organizational setting, we often describe this latter alpha state as the establishment and maintenance of a learning organization (Argyris and Schon, 1978). This setting is one in which there is an ongoing testing of reality and a desire to learn from organizational mistakes – and I would add organizational successes (Bergquist, 2003).

From Beta to Alpha

This description of metabolism is all well and good. We move beta elements to alpha individually and collectively. This is a valid analysis of successful metabolism among individuals and in organizational settings, based on observations and analyses offered by Bion and many other object-relations oriented therapists and group facilitators. However, this description doesn’t tell us much about how metabolism takes place. How do we turn Beta elements into Alpha elements? One way to approach this question is to note the critical role played by containers—as I have already suggested in my previous essay in which I describe the nature and variety of containers.

This still doesn’t do the trick as far as I’m concerned. I would suggest that Bion tends to focus on the fundamental strategies of psychoanalysis in his writing about metabolism.  These include such ego-based processes as the slow and careful introduction or re-introduction of unconscious (beta) elements into consciousness, so that they might be tested against reality and either isolated or transformed into productive action (sublimation). These also include a focus on dreams, fantasies and childhood memories, with the therapist helping their client not only gaining access to this material but also determining its accuracy and more importantly its impact on current perceptions of relationships and reality, and its impact of current decisions that are being made and actions that are taken.

What about at a collective (group or organizational) level? Much as a dream is interpreted and implications are drawn regarding how the dream’s content tells the dreamer something about their own wishes and fears, so beta elements in the life of an organization (or individual members of the organization) can be interpreted and can be sources of new learning. Bion is inclined to emphasize that once these elements are brought to consciousness, the members (and in particular the leaders) of an organization will be open to new learning from their continuing experiences in the organization.

When the conversion of beta to alpha is successful, learning is not distorted or dominated by unprocessed Beta elements (such as the basic group assumptions). Successful conversion for Bion involves the close alignment of learning to an accurate appraisal of ongoing experiences. Ego functions are in charge—whether this concerns the personal psyches of individuals or the collective psyche of a group or organization.

For Bion, successful conversion (metabolism) and sustained learning (effective ego functioning) are best nurtured within specific interpersonal relationships and group settings. In short, containers provide the setting for building strong and safe relationships. Furthermore, the processes of metabolism that accompany containment offer the prospect of a relationship (whether transactional or autotelic) that is of mutual benefit to those involved—especially under conditions of anxiety and stress.

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