Inhibition is a very common modern-day symptom. But what exactly is it? It’s a stop sign! A red light! It’s about suddenly putting on the brakes! And the result? The subject goes into complete shutdown. When a person experiences inhibition, he or she is incapable of taking any important decisions, and moreover incapable of successfully carrying through any action. It’s a serious issue. It can reduce people’s lives to nothing.

But let’s clarify things a little further here: there are two different types of inhibition. Firstly, a ‘normal’ inhibition that is imposed by upbringing, by learning social skills, born of grasping the fact that social norms dictate that you can’t do exactly what you want, nor how you want. You must learn how to behave. Secondly, there is pathological inhibition. And this type of inhibition is what I’d like to speak to you about today to help shed light on the issue of vulnerable children in need.

The key point to remember here is that all subjects are radically divided into two by desire on the one hand, and jouissance on the other. In fact this competition, this tug of war between the two is what lies at the very heart of each and every one of us. And at any given moment, we always opt for one over the other. There is always one that is winning out. The more we veer on the side of desire, the further away we move from jouissance. And vice versa. The more we veer on the side of jouissance, the further away we move from desire. Now desire is an intense drive, a life force, a powerful upsurge: but what for? For action! Desire drives us to take action. But what pits itself against that action and prevents it is jouissance. Present-day society promises to fulfil all the jouissance that modern man can dream of. It’s one of the basics of individualism. Western society is built on this thrust towards generalized, arrogant, shameless jouissance. It is fully engineered towards attaining it. And it’s wholly attainable, but only at the expense of desire. Jouissance inhibits desire. Jouissance ensures that the action is never completed, but left suspended, on hold, dangling. It pushes us to wait, to not go the whole way but only seek comfort. People today experience jouissance, but are rendered passive as a result. They can no longer decide, make up their minds or commit to anything. And this holds true in our personal lives as much in the social and political arena. It is a vital key to understanding what drives modern society.

But it’s not just a modern phenomenon. Note that these two types of inhibition have existed in subjectivity since the very beginnings of humanity, as ancient texts testify. Which leads us to the ethical question of just how far should one go? Where is the rightful limit? And by extension, for us as psychoanalysts, where exactly should we be steering our patients? Towards which endpoint? Towards the subject’s desire, implying duties and obligations? Or rather towards jouissance, and all the freedom and goodwill that goes with it? These two directions lead to completely different lives, and shape completely different types of people and communities.

It’s important to remember that inhibition has an impact on the subject at almost every level – in terms of physical movement in the body but also on an intellectual, sexual, emotional and creative level, affecting our eating habits, our working lives, our needs and interests, how we write, speak, desire and invent new ideas. Its influence is on a major scale. Vast! Colossal! And to develop the point further, inhibition isn’t just a stop sign to an action that is already in progress, in the process of being accomplished, due to a lack of energy. It’s more the effect of an action. It’s not a lack but a surge of energy triggered by an action, a counteraction you could say, directed towards something precise - namely to stand in the way of that initial action and deliberately stop it from being fully completed.

So what gives the green light for desire? What allows it? The answer is the Name-of-the-Father: a symbolic and unconscious function that steers us towards the drive for desire. And when we have a problem with this specific reference point, we never manage to bring anything to a close, to fully accomplish something to the very end, whether that be finishing one’s studies or a project, getting a diploma or keeping a relationship together.

This general shift in modern society with its thrust towards gaining jouissance, at the expense of desire, is the reason why inhibition has reached such a grand scale in today’s world. A prime example of this is found in young people in Japan, where the phenomenon is called Hikikomori. The syndrome manifests itself in both minor and major forms. It takes shape in small, simple ways with children struggling at school, suffering from attention deficiency, concentration and memory problems, learning difficulties and repeated absences for no valid reason. However, it can also take on a more extreme, radical and serious form to the point where children just refuse outright to go to school at all. Hikikomori is a termed applied to youngsters from 7 to 17 years old, who shut themselves up their bedrooms, sometimes never coming out again for years. They cut off all ties with others, whether school friends, family friends, parents or teachers. And because the families in question are ashamed of the fact that their children have totally opted out and withdrawn from society and life as a whole, they hide the problem from their entourage, withdrawing themselves in turn. They stop having people round to the house and turn down or ignore any invitations from others. In fact it creates such a strain within the family that most parents find it hard to stay together and end up separating. Mothers find themselves having to slip meals under the bedroom door without a word, as all possible verbal communication with their child has long ceased.

Here in the West, we have a less extreme, more attenuated version of the syndrome, and we call this group ‘dropouts’ – youngsters who don’t want to go to school anymore, who reduce contact with others, and lose all interest in learning. Obviously, this goes hand in hand with having very little commitment to undergoing regular counselling from a psychoanalyst or therapist, because these types of young people avoid the sort of deep relationships that such treatment would entail. They don’t approach others but rather wait to be approached. The most surprising thing is that they don’t complain about their situation, about what they are going through. And if they do complain at all they are markedly restrained, holding back from making a fuss, seeming to not mind that they have stopped learning anything or developing their knowledge and culture. You’d think they weren’t troubled at all by the fact that they no longer do anything, have failed their education and have potentially squandered all chances of getting a rewarding job later in life. They behave as if they don’t have any prospects lying ahead of them, no future to prepare for, and therefore no present either. They have nothing left to live for in the here and now except sit around and wait alone in their bedrooms. The extraordinary thing is that this whole setup, this whole way of life is structured upon a complete absence of conflict, as if in a vacuum, evading all possible tension. Everything is framed such that there are no clashes, leaving life to move along smoothly and in silence….

How do we reach this point? How do we end up with such an extreme and silent situation? Because the parents have surrendered all efforts to exert authority on their children, which is a form of abandonment in itself, leaving their children to their own devices, without any form of guidance. And why? Simply to avoid coming up against their own children, to avoid disturbing or bothering them, to wrap them in cotton wool! And all that to feel loved themselves! But such mollycoddling, if sustained long enough, only ends up preventing these youngsters from entering into the symbolic realm, meaning they are never taught how the world or human relationships work. And by preferring to opt for the soft, cool and easy approach, these parents and society as a whole only fail to prepare children for life. So as soon as these youngsters come up against the slightest difficulty, they have no idea how to cope, and give up at the first hurdle. Note that if adults today are choosing to adopt this type of parenting approach, it is due to a wider problem – namely that people as a whole challenge authority in general, whether in institutions, society or in politics. So in our own fantasy world we delude ourselves into thinking that it’s possible to live freely without any constraints. But the upshot is that the children brought up in this context end up without will or desire, devoid of any aspiration towards making something of their lives.

If children are kept at a distance from the phallic principle, which is what structures our desire, then they are left without any notion of the basics of life. No more projecting into the future, no more effort made in the present to get ahead – all they have is a slack approach to life, opting out, drifting along and giving up. So what fills the space when a child isn’t inscribed with the phallic principle? What remains? Narcissism and the weakness that goes with it. And what could be more inhibiting than narcissism? Because if you are constantly looking at yourself and comparing yourself to others, then you never see yourself as being adequate enough to achieve anything - you feel utterly incapable. And so you don’t even bother trying! And if we rely solely on our own self-judgement, then we’re doomed from the start! We throw in the towel straightaway to avoid taking any risks.

So to conclude, because the phallic dimension is repressed, people are inhibited by their own narcissism. And on top of that, everyone is surprised, failing to understand what is going on. Their thinking is that because all constraints have been wiped out by abandoning the phallic dimension, and therefore everyone is happily bathing in love, then why should there be any problem at all? It’s a complete mystery to them why such an idyllic context could ever produce such ‘dropout children’ with such radical inhibition.

Adolescence is precisely the age at which this phallic dimension should be assimilated and taken on board in the mind, so as to enable the transition to adulthood. But because this dimension has been brushed aside, these youngsters are handicapped on all fronts. They don’t have any solid grasp of the world around them, of love or of desire. They are not in the real world, but lingering aimless on the sidelines. They are incapable of completing any task. They are lost when given duties or presented with the notion of effort or the need to make sacrifices in order to achieve an objective, or the fact that if you want to find a place in the world you have to accept rules and orders and bow down to hierarchy. So when they come face to face with the tough reality of daily existence, they give up and hide in their bedrooms to save themselves from difficulty and all that is waiting for them outside the door. Who is responsible? Us, the adults who have failed to pass on to our children the notion of phallic primacy! It’s our fault!

So a final word to round off: as a remedial measure, there’s no point trying to impose on these young people the very thing they are lacking (the phallic dimension) via education or laying down constraints. This will only drive them even further into the bedrooms! You simply need to put the function of speech back in its rightful place, because only then will the symbolic dimension be free to manoeuvre. If you like, these young boys and girls need to be ‘injected’ with the symbolic function. And that can take up to five or ten years! So the best approach is to build up a relationship of trust with them, based on speech, and then let nature take its course. What else can you do? There is no magic remedy!!