November 18, 2022

“As If” Personalities and the Courage to Love

Sergio Benvenuto

Portrait of Helene Deutsch (1884–1982), one of the first psychoanalysts to specialize in women, and inventor of the concept of the “as if” personality.

This essay is part of an e-flux Notes series called “The Contemporary Clinic,” where psychoanalysts from around the world are asked to comment on the kinds of symptoms and therapeutic challenges that present themselves in their practices. What are the pathologies of today’s clinic? How are these intertwined with politics, economy, and culture? And how is psychoanalysis reacting to the new circumstances?


Of the partner, love can only accomplish what I called with a kind of poetry, to make myself understood, courage, towards this fatal destiny.
—Jacques Lacan1


A fifty-year-old analysand of mine more than once conjured up a scene from Ingmar Bergman’s film Scenes from a Marriage, which had greatly impressed her. The protagonist is a female counselor of couples. In comes a more than mature lady, married for decades and with grown-up children: she wants a divorce. Why? “Because I never loved my husband.” She respected him, valued him, sure, but not loved him. She has always been an irreproachable wife, an excellent mother, but now she feels she wants to live according to the truth. My analysand felt in a similar position: she had been “happily married” for twenty years, with two grown-up children who give her satisfaction, her husband loves her, they have no economic problems, no family drama … Yet a sense of emptiness, above all, had convinced her to undergo an analysis. She was troubled by a restlessness that pushed her to leave the happy family … just a fantasy. Leave where? She didn’t know. Just away … To an emptiness that seemed to be her only object.

This feeling of living as if playing a role was described by psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch in a 1934 essay on personalities that she called als ob, “as if.”2 “As if” patients give an impression of “complete normality,” yet those who attend them, and the analyst himself, have the feeling that they are “lacking” something. In particular, they seem to lack warmth and true feelings, even though they apparently cultivate rich and varied relationships of affection and friendship. Often, they themselves do not realize their own “difference,” much like the color-blind person does not know that she or he does not see certain colors and believes that he or she can distinguish them like normal-sighted people.

Writes Deutsch:

From the outside, the person looks normal. Nothing indicates a disturbance of any kind, nothing unusual in his behavior, his intellectual faculties do not seem affected, the manifestations of his emotions are controlled and appropriate. But, in spite of all this, something difficult to grasp, something indefinable, comes between this person and others and invariably raises the question, “What is wrong?”

Woody Allen was most likely inspired by this essay when he filmed the mockumentary Zelig in 1983.3 Zelig is a man who automatically assumes the personality and features of the people closest to him: he has no identity of his own, he borrows it from others. If he finds himself next to rabbis, he becomes a rabbi; if he finds himself next to gangsters, he becomes a gangster; when he finds himself next to a psychoanalyst—who tries to cure him of this forced conformism—he becomes a psychoanalyst. This last “borrowing,” which may seem funny, had already been described by Deutsch. She wrote that although “a strong [patient’s] identification with the analyst can be used to exert an active and constructive influence” on these patients, the “as ifs” often develop a “vocation” to become psychoanalysts themselves. That is, they borrow from the analyst what they lack: the passion to be analysts. But is borrowing a passion living it?

I have been able to observe, however, that often “as if” personalities are attracted by psychoanalysis even before starting their analysis; indeed, they ask for an analysis precisely because they are often true devotees of psychoanalysis. It happens that they have read some of my essays and books, and that for this reason they have chosen me as their analyst. Some would like to begin an analytic training. This enjoyment of psychoanalysis seems to me a fundamental element in understanding, perhaps, the background of the “as if” personality.


I will not enter here into the analytical disquisitions following Deutsch, which very often concern the psychiatric classification of this type of personality. Some make it an example of borderline personality, a category elaborated later, which however has blurred and confusing contours (in fact, it gives a category to various cases that simply do not square with the other categories). In particular, the “as ifs” would fall into one of the four borderline types, the one called “discouraged” (“quiet borderline”).4 Deutsch had noted that many schizophrenics lived in an “as if” manner, and she wondered if this personality type was not a breeding ground for schizophrenia, or if it was not already, even, a beginning of silent, mild schizophrenia.5 Others emphasized the affinity with depressive personalities and thus with narcissism as conceptualized by Freud.6 Heinz Kohut spoke of them as cases of “disorders of the self.”7

Rather than “borderline,” the French psychoanalysts speak of “états limites” (limit states), psychic states halfway, so to speak, between neurosis and psychosis. Jacques-Alain Miller and his school, in the wake of Lacan, reject the category of borderline and develop the concept of “ordinary psychosis” to frame the personalities “as if,” that is, a form of psychosis that does not lead to madness in the clinical sense but remains as suffused.8

We will not get into these diatribes, because often psychiatric labels are used not to really understand certain forms of life, but to believe that giving them a place in a scheme is a way to explain them. Thus, for example, involuntary self-punitive behavior is often explained by masochism; but masochism in turn is defined as a self-punitive tendency … Opium makes one sleep because it has virtus dormitiva, sleeping virtue. It is not by paraphrasing something in “scientific” terms that you really explain it.


I have the impression that in reality the world is full of “as if” personalities: they are all those who, as Lacan put it, are not faithful to their desire.9 They are so unfaithful to their desire that they no longer know what they desire. They often completely lose the notion of their object. They tend to go with the flow, and choose situations and paths that require the least amount of effort. When confronted with alternatives in life, they always choose the lowest profile. They live like someone who must find shelter, any shelter, in a storm. Finding shelter also means being financially supported by someone else (parent, spouse, friend).

When they were children, they tended to do what their parents suggested—the type of sport, the musical instrument to play, the hobby—and not what they personally would have preferred. When they have to choose an educational career, they will choose not the one they like the most but the “most practical, easiest” one, the one they think will lead them to a job sooner. If they are offered a trip to a place they want to learn about, they will say no, finding various excuses (“it costs too much,” “I have to take care of the house,” “I have to finish exams first”). In their erotic and love life, rather than choosing the beloved person, they are chosen by him or her. They tend to say yes to the one who loves them not because they love them back, but because being chosen by the other saves them the trouble of looking for love and the eventual rejection or failure. In order to avoid flops in their plans, they do not even try to draw up plans. They say they are sure to fail if they undertake something they love, because they are afraid they will fail at that undertaking. They prefer their dreams to remain dreams, because realizing them would mean … being something other than what they are. The idea of “achieving” threatens them—they think they will crumble.

If they have to do something, they prefer to work in teams. Today we live in an era where teamwork is exalted over solitary, individual work, so these people feel socially okay. In fact, they tend to “hide” themselves in the team in which they choose to work. They need a group to pull them along. If they are asked to write something, for study or work, they will always prefer to collaborate with others. Rather than looking for a job, they wait for the job to find them: whether it is proposed by relatives, friends, lovers. They usually avoid any form of conflict, with their wife, husband, children, close relatives. If they get angry with someone for some reason, they prefer not to see them rather than tell them the reasons for their resentment. It is not important for them to do the work they would like to do—after all, they have often lost the notion of what they would like—the important thing is to have a job, any job, even if they hate it. More than pursuing their own pleasure, they try to please others. They try to please everyone a little, and thus exasperate those who would be willing to love them, who expect more than surrender. Even sex, they do it to keep their intended partner satisfied.

The “as if” comes into analysis when at some point, due to various contingencies, when the patient realizes that so far he has not really lived, he has only survived. Hence an impulse in him to escape from all that has chosen him.


But what drives him to this passivity? Why doesn’t he hold on to his desire?

Deutsch advanced the hypothesis that many of these “as ifs” were the product of parents who did not give them warmth. She argued that the child, in order to be able to develop a normal emotional life, must experience the warmth of the maternal body and the libidinal current of his parents; these subjects would be deficient in precisely this, and thus would not be able to develop a normal Oedipal complex.10 Indeed, Deutsch describes the parents of one of her “as if” patients: they were remote and uninvolved with their daughter. They showed no emotion or tenderness toward her. Their daughter’s rearing was delegated to a series of nannies and governesses.

Indeed, in many cases we can trace the passivity of the subject to a certain indifference of one or both parents. The mother, in particular, may have been blameless as a mother, but she “wasn’t there” with her head and heart. But the fact remains that other siblings manifest different personality types. Could it be that these parents had such profoundly different attitudes from child to child? In any case, we can only ask ourselves about the origins of this personality après-coup, when the subject is “already made,” so that all we have of his childhood is his story, which is an interpretation of his own history.

One recurring element seems crucial to me. These people have never had a real loving relationship with someone. Or they had it, originally, but it was not fulfilled: the great love remained only a dream. They seem devoid of desire—or rather, they do not sustain what they say is their desire—because they have never really loved someone or something. Or they have suffered an excruciating love disappointment, a failure from which they have never recovered.

I will describe a case of the second type.


Guido is a twenty-eight-year-old man who spent his youth in Libya, but within his own Italian community. The civil war in Libya pushed him to come and live in Italy, followed by the rest of his family. Guido has a degree in engineering, but has not worked for years. Or rather, he works for his father, a wealthy entrepreneur. But he helps his father reluctantly. However, Guido has a passion: he reads a lot of philosophy and psychoanalysis. So, he has “found” me. For three years he has been with an American girl of Italian origin, who hardly speaks Italian. However, the girl has decided to stay in Italy for him, at least for the moment. But he confesses that he does not like this girl, he does not find her beautiful enough. He fears making a bad impression with his friends showing them his ugly girlfriend. Between the two of them there are often fights, because she tells him, “You don’t try hard enough!”—and it’s true. But he doesn’t have the courage to break up with her. Nor the courage to find a serious job. Let’s say he tends to please his father and girlfriend, who offer him the prospect of an alternative path. The girl is from New York, a city where he could study philosophy or psychoanalysis …

He says that his problems began when he was sixteen, when he had a panic attack. He began to be a hypochondriac; from being a very good student, he became one of the last in his class. This critical phase lasted a long time, then he recovered, but since then he has become skeptical, uninterested, not very alive. He gets carried away. What had happened at the age of sixteen?

At that time, he had fallen in love with an Italian girl who lived in Libya. He declared himself to her, but the girl reacted with indifference. After that, he had “the crash.” He went on to have other relationships, the latest one with the American girl, but without enthusiasm. In short, for twelve years he has been in love with the girl who rejected him. Since her rejection, he lives “as if.”

After the big rejection, he had his first sexual encounter, with an Italian girl, but he didn’t love her. In fact, he has never really loved any woman he’s been with. It seems to me that Guido lives in the nostalgic shadow of the failed affair with the first girl. The price is a kind of fearful, “as if” slothfulness.

I point out to Guido that basically his attitude towards philosophy and psychoanalysis is similar: he enjoys cultivating these two disciplines, but does nothing to turn this passion into a profession. When one chooses a profession out of passion, to follow one’s intellectual enjoyment, it is a bit like when one marries the woman or man one loves. There are many people who do the work that happens to them, and many people who marry the people who happen to them. Guido has not seriously thought (sometimes, but he is ashamed to admit it) that he could take a course in philosophy and become a professor of the subject. He has never thought of looking for a school of psychoanalysis in Italy to do training. The world of passion (be it erotic or intellectual) seems completely separated from the world of daily life. Guido “goes with the flow,” he doesn’t try to realize his own dreams.

At a certain point, it comes naturally to me to say to him, “Come on Guido, have more courage!”

In fact, the inaugural checkmate is a guarantee not to risk any more. And in fact Guido says, “I’m sick because I’m afraid of suffering. So I don’t suffer.” By “being sick” he means his “being as if.” He adds, “Deep down, I don’t want to be healed.” To be indifferent, apathetic, to allow oneself to be pulled along in tow, is an effective defense against suffering. To accept to love is to have the courage to accept to enjoy and to suffer, but for many enjoyment and suffering are too much.

Now, it seems to me that the suffering that Guido and others like him want to avoid is the suffering of love. Not the suffering of missed love, of nostalgia for what has not been there—similar to what the Portuguese call saudade—but the suffering of consuming love, I would say, in the double sense of “consumption” in Italian, as when we say “consuming a sexual relationship,” but also in the sense in which we say “my shoes are worn out.” Being blasé protects against the consumption of love in the double sense: the danger that love is lived to the fullest, but also that, over time, it can wear out, wear away. Failed love is eternalized in its non-consumption, but casts its shadow over the whole of life, which is thus lived without passion, like in a sleepwalking. These subjects seem to defend themselves from the risky love for something defined that, like anything defined, finished,11 is not worth loving. Better not to even begin what must end. It is the horror, described by Freud, for Vergänglichkeit, transience.12 Because de-finished, definite, things can be lost, either because they come to lack, or because we ourselves often leave them. Consumed love is not eternal. Dissatisfaction, on the other hand, preventing us from enjoying and suffering, is eternal.


There are some “as if” obsessive personalities. The obsessive is often a frigid, anankastic, hyper-controlled person, not very spontaneous, because he or she must always keep contradictory, destructive impulses at bay.

One of my obsessive analysands had had some experiences with women, but without real love. When he was thirty-five, he courted a woman whom he described as his opposite. He certainly did not extol her beauty. He was an intellectual interested in the arts, she instead was a “common” woman with no real culture. He was a materialistic atheist, she was a Catholic, the scion of a conservative and right-thinking family. He had perverse fetish fantasies, she instead aspired to very proper sexual relations. He wanted to break up with her, but at one point she confided in him that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, even though she had no symptoms. After this, he could not leave her. Otherwise, he would have felt like a coward. It was he himself who proposed marriage to her, even though he had always derided marriage as a bourgeois institution. I asked him why he proposed. He said, “Because I knew that’s what she wanted.” The obsessive must always obey the supposed desire of the Other. He ended up getting married in a church—he who used to tell me dreams in which the Pope appeared as a monstrous despot—to please his bride and in-laws. He said he wasn’t interested in having children, but immediately went to great lengths to have a child. Yet he always repeated to me, until the end of the analysis, that he did not love his wife.

Who was the real subject? In the obsessive personality, the “as if” becomes more intricate, dizzying. Is the true self (as Winnicott would call it13) the one who mocked the marriage or the one who proposed to the woman? Was he the perverse and materialistic subject or the excellent husband and family man that he actually became? In this case the “as if” is doubled: the subject passes off as his “true self” a self to which he does not remain faithful, that he abjures, so to speak, doing the opposite of what he wanted, but that coincides with the supposed desire of the Other. In obsessive neurosis we see two false selves at play, even if they are differently false.

But how can we not impute a certain heroism to him? He did not flinch when he learned of his woman’s illness. But he was not heroic enough to love. To be heroic does not mean pleasing the other. True courage would have been to leave a woman he didn’t love, to not give her everything he thought she wanted, including a child she couldn’t have. He acts “as if he is madly in love” with his wife, but denies that he loves her. He does courageous acts, but has no courage.


My analysand who was evoking Bergman’s film said that she had lost the streetcar called Desire. For this reason, she could not complete the professional training she said she wanted to undertake: there were always hiccups in not completing it. But at a certain point I corrected her. I told her: “You have missed the streetcar that is called Love.”

Where does all this fear of love come from? Are the “as ifs” people who don’t really love anything, and therefore pretend to love while living a blameless social life? And why can’t they love? Isn’t love something that surprises us, that catches us off guard, from the outside? In fact, when these people find themselves at risk of love, they flee into convenient choices, into those that require the least cost. In short, they lack the courage to love. To love someone, something.

I wonder if the frequent desire of the “as ifs” to become psychoanalysts, or their love of psychoanalysis, is simply a borrowing from the analyst of his passion, Zelig style. But what if it is the other way around, what if there is some “as if” in many psychoanalysts, or in some psychoanalysis?

The prescription of W. R. Bion, according to which the analyst must put aside memory and desire,14 has been very successful. But this is the typicality of the “as if”: he too suspends memory and desire. It is not that he lacks memories, but they are as if wrapped in a gloomy, gray cloud, without flashes. Now, the analyst often idealizes himself as someone who does not desire, and therefore has no desiring memory of the past, no Sehnsucht, the Germans would say. For their part, many Lacanians exalt the imperturbable apathy of the analyst, his quasi-indifference, the opposite of empathy. If today it is fashionable among many analysts to say that empathy is essential, it is precisely to break a long tradition that makes the analyst’s neutrality, his “playing dead” through an iron silence, his essential feature. The analyst, to paraphrase Freud,15 is a fascinating figure for many because he certainly crosses the Acheron and measures himself against the infernal sound and fury of the drives, but he is supposed to cross it as a superus, as a god, with a divine serenity that does not stain him with Hell. The fact that this analyst is just a mythical figure does not diminish his fascination, especially in the eyes of the “as if.”

Psychoanalytic literature, perhaps more than psychoanalysis itself, often generates the illusion of an institutionalization of the “as if.”


A terrible suspicion seizes us: what if a large proportion (the majority?) of human beings are “as ifs”?

To the eyes of analysts, the “as ifs” may appear relatively few, but it is likely that the vast majority of “as ifs” do not come into analysis. We know that leaders in civil and military endeavors, those who have initiative, those who take risks in life and work, are a minority among humans. Mostly the masses follow them. How many “good people,” instead of really identifying their desire, the Thing that polarizes them, have instead followed the wave? How many, in short, “join the herd”? In this sense the “as if” would not be a pathology—after all, for psychoanalysis nothing is really pathological—but the predominant human condition. We should rather ask ourselves how it is that some people are not content to be “as if.”

This is a suspicion of mine, not a theory. As we’ve said, the “as if” person doesn’t love anyone in particular. They get attached—so to speak—to someone close to them, their children, their parents. But, it will be said, don’t most people love someone? That remains to be seen. Are most people really capable of great loves? In fact, loving is risky. It’s good to love, but it’s also a way of getting into serious trouble.

On the other hand, one wonders, can one truly be loved if one is “as if”? Because in effect, to take up Lacan’s provocation, what is it that one loves in the other if not, precisely, his courage? I mean courage here in the sense of the ancient Greek term ανδρεία, prowess. Ανδρεία comes from ἀνήρ, adult man, and indeed it applied especially to military valor. It is customary to say that this bravery in the sense of ανδρεία is primarily what women love in men, but today, in an age where the aim is to consider both sexes as equal, I would say that men also look for this ανδρεία in women. The women who are held up today as cultural models are indeed, for the most part, women fighters, women who are no less courageous than men. But even if they are not women who risk their lives like Rosa Luxemburg or Aung San Suu Kyi, women today are to be loved for their courage in facing, too, the task of life. And the task of life is to challenge life.

But then doesn’t analysis, by showing the subject his “as if” being, navigate in the opposite direction to the tendency of most people, that of adapting to an “as if” position? In essence, doesn’t psychoanalysis, even without explicitly theorizing it, even without being aware of it, aim at an aristocratic conversion of its clients? By tacitly pushing everyone to have the courage to love, to risk themselves by loving, does it not propose to the ordinary people who come for analysis a project, even a heroic one, of andreia? Perhaps a certain ironic general distrust on the part of not just ordinary people, but also many psychologists, towards psychoanalysis—as snobbish, chic, pretentious, made for patients suffering from YARVIS (Young, Attractive, Rich, Verbal, Intelligent, Sophisticated) syndrome, etc.— grasps a certain truth: that analysis is so long and arduous because it seeks to give people courage, the courage to love someone because they have courage. Perhaps psychoanalysis is destined always to remain an experience for the few, that is, for an elite who know they have courage. Then the other psychotherapies, especially the cognitive-behavioral ones, would be destined to the masses of those who do not want to dare.

This would seem to be the opposite of what was said before, that the figure of the psychoanalyst particularly attracts the “as if” precisely because it is assumed that the analyst does not love his patient, that as an analyst he does not love or hate anyone, that he is in short apathetic, impenetrable. But perhaps this image that the analyst tries to give of himself is just the opposite of what he does: in a certain sense, sooner or later, the analyst puts his analysand at a crossroads, and tells her that she cannot remain in the “as if” dead end where she has settled. Sometimes the analyst does not even realize that he has been placed at a crossroads, but in fact he makes the risky choice: he lets himself be passionate. He no longer loses the streetcar, passionately.


Le Séminaire, vol. 20, Encore (Seuil, 1975), 131.


“Über einen Typus der Pseudoaffektivität,” Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse 20, no. 3 (1934); “Some Forms of Emotional Disturbance and Their Relationship to Schizophrenia (‘As If’ Case),” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, no. 11 (1942) .


Or maybe he was inspired by Phyllis Greenacre, “The Impostor,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 27, no. 3 (1958).


See Vance R. Sherwood and Charles P. Cohen, Psychotherapy of the Quiet Borderline Patient: The As-If Personality Revisited (Jason Aronson, 1994).


The relationship between the schizoid personality and “as ifs” was described by M. M. Khan, “Clinical Aspects of the Schizoid Personality: Affects and Technique,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, no. 41 (1960).


Otto F. Kernberg, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (Jason Aronson, 1975).


H. Kohut and E. S. Wolf, “The Disorders of Self and Their Treatment: An Outline,” in Essential Papers on Narcissism, ed. A. P. Morrison (NYU Press, 1986).


Jacques-Alain Miller, “Ordinary Psychosis Revisited,” Psychoanalytical Notebooks, no. 26 (2013).


Lacan developed this theme especially in The Seminar, vol. 7, Ethics of Psychoanalysis (W. W. Norton, 1997).


Paul Roazen, Helene Deutsch: A Psychoanalyst’s Life (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985).


Pun between “definita” (defined) end “finita” (finished) in Italian.


“On Transience,” in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 4, 1916. See also Sergio Benvenuto, “Freud, the Aim and the End,” Division/Review, 2016.


Winnicott distinguishes a “false self” from a “true self.” See his “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (Hogarth and the Institute for Psycho-Analysis, 1965).


W. R. Bion, “Notes on Memory and Desire,” Psycho-analytic Forum 2, no. 3 (1967).


Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.” Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, in Standard Edition, vol. 5, 1900.

Psychology & Psychoanalysis
Contemporary Clinic

Sergio Benvenuto is an Italian psychoanalyst, philosopher, and author.


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