IAPSP Interviews

A column by   Annette Richard, M.Ps

This column attempts to explore the lives and work of IAPSP members from different parts of the world. In this sixth interview, I am pleased to dialogue with Xin (Thomas) Li from Beijing, China. Xin is Founder, chief Therapist, clinical supervisor and training specialist of the Li Institute for Psychology in Beijing. With two of his Chinese colleagues, he participated to the last Psychology of the Self Annual International Conference in Boston. As I was curious to find out how he came to be interested in and pioneered Self Psychology in China, he graciously accepted my invitation to be interviewed for eForum.

Xin Li was born in 1968 in Tianjin, a city 120 km east of Beijing. After majoring in Psychology at Tianjin Normal University, he taught in a medical school and obtained his Master's degree in Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He moved to Canada in 2004 and studied at McGill University. He worked there until he went back to Beijing in 2010. He then started a study group in psychoanalysis, his private practice, and set up the Li Institute for Psychology. This Institute is a pioneer in introducing Psychoanalysis and Self Psychology in mainland China. Xin is currently leading workshops and courses in Beijing, Shaoyang and Hunan.

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Interview with Xin Li from Beijing, China

Annette: Hello Xin! Thank you for accepting my invitation to be interviewed for eForum. I'm happy to get to know you, and to learn about your life and work in Beijing, such a foreign part of the world for me where I never traveled. You have an advantage on me; you know Montreal for having lived here for 6 years, and I don't know Beijing. I'm also interested in having our IAPSP community get to know you. First of all, I'd like to know how you got interested in Self Psychology?

Xin: Hello Annette! It is an honor to have this interview with you for eForum. I would gladly welcome you to Beijing, a fantastic and exciting city. I would be happy to guide you or any other IAPSP member who has the chance to visit here. You can have lots of fun here meeting different people from different cultures. Especially in the autumn, the view from where I stand on the top of "jing mountain" is charming looking over the Forbidden City. It's the same feeling I had in the Summer standing on top of Mount-Royal looking over Downtown and the St-Lawrence River in Montreal. Maybe you were at this small restaurant on the St-Lawrence street in Montreal where a lot of people wait in line every day for their delicious smoked meat burger; but if you did I am sure you will love the Peking Roast Duck by "Quanjude" which is a famous restaurant very close to the Tiananmen Square.

Back to your first question. One time, I was invited by a publishing company to give an open lecture about the history of classical psychoanalysis and the essentials of Sigmund Freud's drive theory to members of a psychology club which they had organized. After the meeting, the chief of the company gave me a book as a gift; it was "The Analysis of the Self". Reading the book, I felt really excited by Kohut's new ideas. Gradually my understanding of Self Psychology became clearer; it redrew the map of psychoanalysis in my mind, and became also a strong influence in my private practice and supervision. Then I started reading the other two books written by Kohut, and some academic papers on Self Psychology. At same time, I set up a weekly reading group to study the Self Psychology theory, the selfobject concept, empathy, and others. Through reading and discussing the books and my practice, I got to understand it more and more deeply. And I became eager to meet other people interested in Self Psychology and to get more and more knowledge and information. It gave me some new hope in my field of work and it really encouraged me to do something to popularize the theory and share the benefit I got from it.

Annette: Thank you Xin for such a warm invitation to visit you in Beijing. We do share the appreciation of the Schwartz smoked meat in Montreal and I would be delighted to share the Peking Roast duck with you in Beijing. Your fortuitous meeting with Kohut's work and the influence it had in your work seems to have been life-changing for you. How long ago did it happen? Can you tell me more about how it changed your work and your life?

Xin: Thank you for reminding the name of the smoked meat restaurant, Schwartz, so I can refer it to my friends who will visit the city.

I remember I received Kohut's book in 2011.

Following your question, some old scenes, like a movie floating in my mind, emerged from my memory. In 1988, when I was an undergraduate student, I started to read "The Interpretation of Dream". It inspired me to dream, a dream to find the secret of human being's psychic world, a dream to become a psychoanalyst, and a dream to explore my deep unconscious realm. From then on, I took part in some tutorial class and seminar in psychoanalysis. It was during this very early time that people started to study Freudian psychoanalysis in mainland China.

"This new sun among the sciences of man will shed its understanding, its warmth and its explaining light" (Kohut). From that time on, I read a lot of books and papers by Freud and other early psychoanalysts, and I was influenced by some tutors who taught the theory at the time. But from the very beginning, I had a lot of doubts on the practicing techniques such as "evenly hovering attention", "neutrality", "abstinence", etc. I was always struggling and confused in my own private practice: should I isolate myself from the clients to help them complete independently the undeveloped part of their psychic world, gain autonomy, independence, cut their relation with the "mother" in their fantasy world, even encourage them to fight the persons on whom they were dependent? I felt something was wrong or didn't make sense in that perspective, but at the time, I didn't understand what it was until I met Kohut. Then, another new sun appeared. I do agree with Bob Stolorow who said in an interview with me that he likes Freud, but he doesn't like a lot of Freudians. Gradually, I am strongly against some Freudians in China who are very absolute in their thinking, and in some ways have twisted the essence of Freud's contribution, and are causing a lot of people to become confused and to struggle in their own private practice. Like Kohut said, people are unable to cut those ties if they want to survive, in the same way that we need air and sun for living. Kohut's thinking brought me a new hope and path in psychoanalysis, both in my private practice and in my personal life, I'm clearer about what I should do, and it really helped me in my professional career, and in my personal relations with my family members, relatives and friends.

Annette: I can appreciate the extent of the revolution your meeting with Kohut brought about in your life and work, Xin. It's been only some 6 years since you read his book and I would like to know more about how you have managed to get involved with our international community, how your own community has been developing in mainland China, or maybe only in Beijing for now, and the difficulties you are meeting.

Xin: I think I have known self-psychology for a very long time, because I always tried to find my "self" since the very beginning of my study of psychoanalysis. There is a Chinese proverb which says "it feels like we are old friends from the first meeting"; when I first met the Kohut's work, then Shelley Doctors, Eldad Iddan, George Hagman and other people in the IAPSP community, and you Annette, I felt I was in my subjective world, that we knew each other since a long time, and that finally I had found the right people and right place to store my heart.

I set up Li Xin Psychological Institute (Li Institute) in Beijing when I came back to China, to begin my private practice and to train therapists and psychological counselors who were interested in psychoanalysis. I also provided online training in Classical Psychoanalysis, Ego Psychology, Object Relations and Self Psychology. At same time, I ran some workshops and seminars in different cities in China. It was really tough work at the beginning. After several years of efforts, we have already established a good reputation in psychological circles, and have a lot of resources for students and clients. Now we are more and more focusing on training programs in Self Psychology - my true relational home.

This year my institute will collaborate with IAPSP to popularize Self Psychology theory in mainland China, and we will provide a program called SPEP (Self Psychology Educational Project) to Chinese students initiating them to Self Psychology. At the same time, our institute will offer a series of activities to broadcast and popularize Self Psychology, such as we have already organized in Beijing: an English Literature Reading Club in Self Psychology and in Intersubjectivity theory, and also a series of live online lectures. Next March 6th, Dr Joseph Lichtenberg will give a lecture on Self Psychology history and on his Motivational Systems Theory. Moreover, we will hold teaching workshops in Intersubjectivity theory and Self Psychology this summer in the main cities of central China, that is Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Chengdu and others.

We do need some good senior tutors for the training programs, so we welcome any IAPSP members who would like to cooperate with us to develop Self Psychology in China. With your help and our efforts, we could do more to help the Chinese therapists and psychological counselors to know and benefit from Self Psychology, and we would like to join the international community to contribute from our own perspectives.

Annette: Wow! I'm really impressed by what you accomplished in such a short time. Do you take the time to sleep? It sounds to me like you're working day and night... I know how organizing activities like that, let alone teaching them, takes a lot of energy and time. I hope than many people in IAPSP will hear your call and offer to help you. You must also have some very good colleagues with you. I met some of them with you in Boston last October and I really liked them. It's also moving how you described that Self Psychology was like meeting your own "self", or some friend you've known for a very long time. Now, what I'm curious about is to know whether Self Psychology theory has to be adapted in your teaching and practice to the Chinese culture and values and if yes, how?

Xin: Your empathic mirroring responsiveness and understanding make me feel refreshed and cheer me up. I do pay a lot of attention and efforts in my professional career. And like you said we really welcome any help from the community of IAPSP.

Fortunately, I receive strong support from my wife, my colleagues, my friends, and many of my students. Otherwise I cannot keep on going at this hard and tough endeavor. Deeply in my heart, I am very grateful to my wife, to my fantastic colleagues, who encourage me and render me able to cope bravely with the difficulties I meet every day. I must say there are a lot of high quality self objects surrounding me.

When I was around 15 years old, I read a book by Karl Marx criticizing Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach Guiding Principle, some works by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, like Shorter Logic, which I studied in middle school. Actually, I was not very clear what it was really talking about at the time, but I just felt that very wise people could guide me to the same wisdom, helping me become a better and strong enough person. At the time, I frequently felt lonely and depressed. I was born in a three generations family, and my mother was a very successful professional women; she was always busy and rushed for her career, but took less care of the family. What I remember is that she always had high expectations for my schooling success and put a lot of pressure on my getting high scores. Also, the traditional Chinese culture at the time emphasized the collective, limited individualism, emphasized obeying instead of articulating. I believe this was the background which made Freudian psychoanalysis gradually popular in the public; it really helped people like me who had new points of view to look elsewhere in the world and to articulate deeper human needs. The "self" was recognized and was more respected. This was the dominant tendency for almost 40 years after the policy of "reform and opening" was implemented by the Chinese government.

Accompanying industrialization, the need for selfobject experiences in human beings was becoming more clearly missing. Interestingly, selfobject needs corresponds exactly to the core of Chinese traditional culture. 2500 years ago, Confucius articulated his philosophy about life and its regulation as a social person. What was called the Confucius Culture has influenced the development of the Chinese culture until today. It emphasized relationships between people, self and selfobject bond, intersubjective interplay among people. This new point of view in psychoanalysis was already inscribed deeply in the Chinese psychic world. So, this is the main reason I believe Self Psychology will become a new tendency in psychoanalysis in China, and will also be the new guidance in clinical practice.

Today, with those changes in the Chinese culture over the last 40 years, we have more diversity than before. Different types of patients show the multiplicity in clinical practice. In some popular therapeutic psychoanalytical, many approaches like Ego Psychology, patients are being encouraged to become more independent, to keep their distance with the analyst, and to solve their problems by themselves. It focuses more on the "self", and ignore or neglect the important role and functions of "selfobject". That is why I believe our new psychoanalytical formulations give the therapeutic process more efficacy and balance, helping patients gain more adaptable psychic functions for their social life. I must say I find that the Self Psychology and Intersubjectivity approach is providing me with a very useful "guidance" in my private practice. It has also become the core of the psychoanalytic training program which we offer to therapist interns and to newcomers in the field.

Annette: This is so very interesting Xin! I know most of our readers will also be interested in learning that Self Psychology and Intersubjectivity theory is in accordance with Confucius culture! You seem to be at the cutting edge of a new revolution in China, the intersubjective revolution. In closing this interview, I would like to know what is your vision for the future of your Institute and Self Psychology in China. What are you hoping for? What particular needs do you have for this development to happen?

Xin: Our vision is that our institute will become the initiator to popularize Self Psychology and Intersubjective theory in China and will become the bridge between China and international Self Psychology community, to help more and more Chinese people and professionals know, study and practice Self Psychology and the Intersubjective approach. Hopefully the spirit of these perspectives, combined with Chinese culture, will serve Chinese people.

I hope we can do our best and contribute our efforts to the Self Psychology revolutionary movement, and I hope we can overcome all difficulties that we will meet on the road. What we are doing now can really work, and has value to our people's lives.

I hope our institute will become an academic base for the study and practice of the Self Psychology and Intersubjective approach here in China and will become a base linking the international Self Psychology community and the Chinese Self Psychology circles.

I hope SPEP becomes the most professional Self Psychology educational program to help Chinese professionals improve their theoretical knowledge and their achievement in their private practice. It should attract good quality attendees from both students and teachers.

Last April 26, the first online course "Self Psychology Basic Theory and Application" in the frame of the SPEP (Self Psychology Educational Project) has started in China; an "Intersubjective Self Psychology Workshop" will be opened in Beijing and other several central Chinese cities in August this year. This will be the first introduction to an intersubjective approach by a workshop to Chinese people; we will also organize a series of activities to promote SPEP and IAPSP in China, getting to be known by Chinese therapists, counselors and all those interested.

With the development of the SPEP, we really need more official support from IAPSP, and more help from the IAPSP community and members. Again, I invite all of you who are interested to help us attain our vision, those of you who are interested to give online open lectures to introduce Self Psychology and Intersubjective theory, who can teach the online or ground courses and who can supervise, we welcome you to join the SPEP team, to help make Self Psychology and Intersubjective theory thrive in China, and to realize my dream and our mission around Self Psychology.

Annette: I really hope your call is heard by many in the IAPSP community and that you will have more offers that you can actually use to achieve your vision through the SPEP. I'm certain that any of us who will contribute will also learn, as I have by interviewing you, a great deal from this contact with your culture and your people and that you will contribute to enlarge our knowledge of being human. I hope to meet you again in our next International Conferences, or maybe even in Montreal or Beijing!

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