Neville Symington


Award Year: 2013

symington_2013_300Neville Symington is a psycho-analyst in private practice in Sydney, Australia. As a young man he took a diploma in Philosophy and then in Theology. He later did a degree in Psychology and took a diploma in Clinical Psychology. He did his psycho-analytic training in London and is a Fellow of the British Psycho-Analytical Society. He held a senior staff position in the Adult Department of the Tavistock Clinic from 1977-85. He was also Chairman of the Psychology Discipline for the Adult and Adolescent Departments at the Tavistock Clinic in London.. In 1986 he migrated to Sydney, Australia where he was Chairman of the Sydney Institute for Psycho-Analysis from 1987-93. He was President of the Australian Psycho-Analytic Society from 1999-2002. He is the author of The Analytic Experience published by Free Association Press and St. Martins Press, of Emotion and Spirit published by Cassell and later re-published by Karnac Books, of Narcissism: A New Theory, The Making of a Psychotherapist, The Spirit of Sanity, A Pattern of Madness, How to Choose a Psychotherapist, The Blind Man Sees, A Healing Conversation, Becoming a Person through Psycho-Analysis and The Psychology of the Person which are all published by Karnac Books. He is joint-author with Joan Symington of The Clinical Thinking of Wilfred Bion published by Routledge. He also published a novel called A Priest’s Affair published by Free Association Press and a book of poetry IN-GRATITUDE and other POEMS published by Karnac.

In 2007 he started a clinical organization called Psychotherapy with Psychotic Patients (PPP). It had its first conference in February 2010 with Michael Robbins as keynote speaker together with himself and Jim Telfer. He has lectured in Britain, Norway, Denmark, Poland, Portugal, Germany, the United States, Brazil, Israel, India, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. He has a website at

Glen Gabbard’s Introduction of Neville Symington

Neville could not make the trip from Sydney so he asked me to introduce him and read a prepared statement that he has written for the occasion. First, he asked me to pass on his reasons for not being here. He had a slight heart scare in October. His doctors are still trying to figure out if it was a true heart attack or not. He is feeling fine, but his friends have cautioned him to take it easy rather than to make the arduous flight from Sydney to New York.

I have known Neville for over 20 years and always enjoyed chatting with him during my trips to Australia. He always struck me as a renaissance man who was well-informed on many subjects and was a true scholar in addition to being a superb clinician. Born in Portugal of English parents, he was educated in England and studied philosophy and theology at St. Edmund’s College before immersing himself in clinical psychology. He spent a good deal of time at Tavistock and served on the Scientific Committee of the British Psychoanalytic Society. In 1985 he went into private practice as an analyst in Sydney and has been there ever since. He was chair of the the Sydney Institute for Psychoanalysis from 1987—1993 and was President of the Australian Psychoanalytic Society from 1999-2002.

He has been a prolific writer, having authored some 14 books on widely ranging subjects, including narcissism, psychoanalysis and religion, madness, and becoming a person through psychoanalysis. His writing has always borne the stamp of an independent thinker. That’s independent with a small “I”. While trained within the Independent group, he went his own way. He was certainly influenced by the Kleinians and by Bion, but he has approached all writers with his own form of critical thinking. A central feature of Neville’s thinking has been freedom of thought, a concept that many would view as the ultimate goal of psychoanalysis. In his writing, he has explicated Bion’s notion of freedom as emanating from a stratum that is far deeper than the realm of conscious choice. We may, in fact, be prisoners to that deeper stratum. In Neville’s own words, “When someone cannot think his own thoughts, he is not free.” His ideas about the need for analysts to think their own thoughts has been of great help to me as a psychoanalyst, especially when working with those disturbed patients who colonize us. Neville has certainly made a practice of thinking his own thoughts and has positioned himself as something of a maverick within the field. He has taken unpopular positions and argued them with skill and tact. We have been fortunate to have him as a colleague in international psychoanalysis and to have been enriched by his contributions.

What winning the Sigourney Award has meant to me

– Neville Symington

I have trodden a somewhat lone path in the psycho-analytic world since I published my book Narcissism: A New Theory in 1993. The process of investigating Narcissism in the way I did – first to give a series of ten lectures to a group of fellow professionals and then transforming them into a book altered radically the way I understood psycho-analysis. Since that time, now twenty years ago, that conception has expanded and deepened. Certain people in disparate parts of the world have been drawn to my mode of thinking and have written to thank me and said that it had helped them with their own narcissistic problems. When A Pattern of Madness was published in 2002 people again wrote to say that it had helped them emotionally. One wrote to say it had helped to heal her marriage.

I trained in London within the precincts of the Independent Group but I had strong associations with the Klein group but, after writing my book on Narcissism, I no longer felt fully identified either with the Klein Group or the Independent Group. I thought each had treasures but also things which I thought were distorted or wrong so I found myself fully identified with neither group. For instance I felt that the approach of neither group was clinically successful in reducing the damaging effects of an archaic super-ego. In time I came to think that a destructive super-ego signalled that there was an emotional function that was not well developed and I concentrated my attention on trying to discover what this was. I found that when this had been located the patient him or herself was then able to enhance its functioning and I noticed that a side effect was a diminishment in the power of the super-ego. But I did not find any references to this either in Melanie Klein and her followers or in Winnicott and other clinicians of the Independent Group.

I have had a fair quantum of disparaging comments from fellow psychoanalysts. I think this tends to happen when someone cannot be claimed fully by any one clinical school of thinking. There are certain things I have taught and proposed which put people’s backs up such as: I think a central creative agent constitutes the core of the personality and not a package of instinctual drives. I think the struggle for survival is not the over-arching motivational principle that guides people. I believe that a desire for freedom is a prime mover in human affairs. It brings to mind the striking statement that Mandela made at the end of his trial in 1962:

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

I think therefore the reason that omnipotence, envy and greed are damaging is, when properly understood, that they are obstacles to the achievement of freedom. If they are not seen in this way there is a danger that we slip into a moralistic superiority. Some time ago at a seminar attended by psycho-analysts I presented a vignette from an engagement I had with a patient. At the end of the seminar two analysts said to me: ‘But you speak to him as if you were an equal’. I replied ‘But I am an equal; we are all faulted creatures; we are all patients.’ Also I do not think that psycho-analysis can be defined by the frequency of sessions, the length of sessions or that interpretation is the agent of change. I notice that this particularly seems to irritate some psycho-analysts.

I have been extremely fortunate in my long educational journey to have encountered teachers of great breadth and depth of mind and it has been my privilege to sit at their feet and imbibe small sips of their wisdom. Some of these scholars of life have been from within the psycho-analytic world; some have been completely outside of it. It has taught me that there is a kind of wisdom-of-the-universe that is shared by people in very different disciplines of thought.

So when many analysts have taken issue with me, saying that I am not being faithful to psycho-analysis I begin to doubt, to question myself. Have I got it all wrong ? Maybe my colleagues see something that I don’t ? Maybe I am betraying psycho-analysis ? Winning this Award does not mean that I am right or that it puts all these doubts to rest but it does tell me that a group of able judges think that what I believe deeply has received their endorsement and recommended me for those responsible for making this Award. This gives me confidence and a new strength to trust what has been central to my professional and personal life. I am therefore deeply grateful to the Sigourney Trust for having given me this Award. It gives me courage to surge forward with a new energy. Thank you.