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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM22-PP7: Group formation as a birth trauma. One the interaction between people, space, and task

Parallel Papers Session 2
Friday 1 July 2.45pm-4:00pm (14.45-16.00) CEST
Paper Code: PP7

Group formation as a birth trauma. One the interaction between people, space, and task

Presenter: Steen Visholm, Anette Højgaard Jønson & Tove Skrumsager Frederiksen


The pandemic has placed spaces and furniture on the agenda for managers and employees, organizations, and families in new and surprising ways.

Many of us have had the opportunity to learn to work online from home, which on the one hand facilitated flexibility, gave a high degree of geographical independence, and saved transportation time, but also resulted in a lack of collegial presence and of the informal kit that holds employees and organizations together. Where work entered the living room at home, the family also often entered the workplace – the zoom screens of the other colleagues. In families where at the same time the parents had to take care of their work from their own computer as well as teach their children at home, it was inevitable that family dynamics sometimes interfered with work dynamics.

The call for social distance, masking, and restriction of togetherness in general were to prevent viruses from spreading from one to the other. A psychological challenge was the fact that victims and perpetrators were located in the same person: the sick victim could infect others. Viruses found ways to cross body boundaries and attack our interior.

At the same time, the refugee crisis created border challenges and several places around the globe became means of ‘social distance’ with steel wire fences and particularly harmful barbed wire, brutal soldiers, and pushing around with people in need.

In this paper, we work on developing a research technology or method that can provide knowledge on how the physical environment is experienced by the participants and how this data can be understood from a psychodynamic systems approach. The perspective in this is twofold: partly to contribute to better architecture and interior design and partly to plead for the inclusion of spatial understanding when working with human development, leadership, cooperation, and conflict resolution.

In the 50s, Le Corbusier, standing on the shoulders of Vitruv and Leonardo da Vinci, worked in his search for the golden ratio of architecture, the scale of tones or the harmonies of the chords or anything else natural that could guide the proportioning in the living and urban environment with a model: the 183 cm tall man / person, or 226 cm tall, with stretched arm. This abstract human being (= man) has been revealed as a bad model for human beings who, as you know, exist in many different shapes and forms (adults, children, men, women etc.). After Le Corbusier, in the 60s, the psychologist Ingrid Gehl, in collaboration with the architect Jan Gehl, worked to bring the human factor into the urban environment. Ingrid Gehls thoughts was based on Maslow's pyramid of needs and Erik H. Erikson's developmental psychology. In this paper we add a more situated understanding via psychodynamic systems theory (individual, group, couple, family, organization - all with primary tasks), a more space-oriented psychoanalytic theory via Melanie Klein and Donald Meltzer and scenic understanding via Alfred Lorenzer.

We have the opportunity to include a research dimension at a working conference in March 2022, where a space perspective is integrated into a traditional group relations conference framework. In the organizational exercise, the groups must establish themselves in different characteristic locations, examine which associations these rooms give rise to and in parallel reflect on how rooms and furniture take part in the group processes. Group formation processes can be seen as parallel to the traumatic transition of birth, a movement from one reality, the intrauterine, to a radical different one.

We will continuously collect data about these processes, process them based on Lorenzer's cultural analysis concept and on this basis formulate hypotheses about connections between space, people, and task solution.

In his article on psychoanalytic gang theory, Mark Stein describes how uncontained social trauma can trigger a split between one group acknowledging reality and processing the loss and another denying the loss and building a destructive fantasy-based group culture. In a time of pandemics, climate crisis and emigration crises, it is important to develop ideas for the integration of the divided. This is also about leadership.

Learning Objectives

After this session participants will be able to:

  1. Recognize how being in and sensing space activates thoughts, feelings and fantasies belonging to both the sensing subject and the sensed object.
  2. Identify how the physical environment is shaped by the human bodies and their interactions.
  3. Critique architecture that sabotages the creative potential in the human bodies and their interactions.

Biographic Summary

Professor Steen Visholm, PhD. (Roskilde University, Denmark).

Education: MScA (Psychology), University of Copenhagen 1983, Ph.D., University of Copenhagen University 1995, Approved as specialist and supervisor in psychotherapy (1995) and specialist (2004) and supervisor (2007) in work and organizational psychology. The Danish Psychological Association.
Staff member on more than 50 and director on more than 25 Group Relations conferences at OPU, MPO, NAPSO and NOV.
Director for MPO (Master of the Psychology of Organisation), Roskilde University, 2001–,
ISPSO AM Chair Elsinore 2010, board member 2014-22, AM Co-Chair 2017 Copenhagen, President 2019-21.