Excerpt from Mystification, Confusion & Conflict by R.D. Laing.R. D. Laing psychiatrist

Marx used the concept of mystification to mean a plausible misrepresentation of what is going on (process) or what is being done (praxis) in the service of the interests of one socioeconomic class (the exploiters) over or against another class (the exploited).

By representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence, the exploiters bemuse the exploited into feeling at one with their exploiters, or into feeling gratitude for what (unrealized by them) in their exploitation, and, not least, into feeling bad or mad even to think of rebellion.

We can employ Marx’s theoretical schema, not only to elucidate relations between classes of society, but in the field of the reciprocal interaction of person directly with person.

Every family has its differences (from mild disagreements to radically incompatible and contradictory interests or points of view), and every family has some means of handling them. Here one way of handling such contradictions is described under the rubric of mystification.

In this chapter I shall present in discursive form this and some related concepts currently being developed in research and therapy with families of schizophrenics, neurotics and normals at the Tavistock Clinic and Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, London.[1] I shall compare the concept of mystification to certain closely related concepts, and I shall give brief descriptions of certain aspects of some of the families investigated in order to demonstrate, it is hoped, the heuristic value of the theoretical discussion and its crucial import for therapy. This paper will not, however, discuss the practical aspects of therapy.

The Concept of Mystification

By mystification I mean both the act of mystifying and the state of being mystified. That is, I am using the term both in an active and in a passive sense.

To mystify, in the active sense, is to befuddle, cloud, obscure, mask whatever is going on, whether this be experience, action, or process, or whatever is “the issue.” It induces confusion in the sense that there is failure to see what is “really” being experienced, or being done, or going on, and failure to distinguish or discriminate the actual issues. This entails the substitution of false for true constructions of what is being experienced, being done (praxis), or going on (process), and the substitution of false issues for the actual issues.

The state of mystification, mystification in a passive sense, is possibly, though not necessarily, a feeling of being muddled or confused. The act of mystification, by definition, tends to induce, if not neutralized by counteraction, a state of mystification or confusion, not necessarily felt as such. It may or may not induce secondary conflicts, and these may or may not be recognized as such by the persons involved. The feeling of confusion and the experience of conflict have to be distinguished from mystification, either as act or state. Although one of the functions of mystification is to avoid authentic conflict, it is quite common for open conflict to occur in mystifying and mystified families. The masking effect of mystification may not avoid conflict, although it will cloud over what the conflict is about.

This effect may be enhanced if the seal is placed on mystification by mystifying the act of perceiving mystification for what it is, e.g., by turning the perception of mystification into the issue of this being a bad or a mad thing to do.

Thus, the mystified person (or persons) is by definition confused, but may or may not feel confused. If we detect mystification, we are alerted to the presence of a conflict of some kind that is being evaded. The mystified person, in so far as he has been mystified, is unable to see the authentic conflict, but may or may not experience intra or interpersonal conflict of an inauthentic kind. He may experience false peace, false calm, or inauthentic conflict and confusion over false issues.

A certain amount of mystification occurs in everyday life. A common way to mystify one person about his or her experience is to confirm the content of an experience and to disconfirm its modality (regarding perception, imagination, fantasy, and dreaming as different modes of experience, a theory developed elsewhere [Laing, 1962]).

Thus, if there is a contradiction between two persons’ perceptions, the one person tells the other, “It is just your imagination,” that is, there is an attempt to forestall or resolve a contradiction, a clash, an incomparability by transposing one person’s experiential modality from perception to imagination or from the memory of a perception to the memory of a dream (“You must have dreamt it”).

Another form of mystification is when the one person disconfirms the content of the other’s experience and replaces it by attributions of experience conjunctive with self’s view of the other (cf. Brodey’s [1959] concept of the “narcissistic relationship”).

A child is playing noisily in the evening; his mother is tired and wants him to go to bed. A straight statement would be:

“I am tired, I want you to go to bed.”
“Go to bed, because I say so.”
“Go to bed, because it’s your bedtime.”

A mystifying way to induce the child to go to bed would be:
“I’m sure you feel tired, darling, and want to go to bed now, don’t you?”

Mystification occurs here in different respects. What is ostensively an attribution about how the child feels (you are tired) is “really” a command (go to bed). The child is told how he feels (he may or may not feel or be tired), and what he is told he feels is what mother feels herself (projective identification). If we suppose he does not feel tired, he may contradict his mother’s statement. He may then become liable to a further mystifying ploy such as:

“Mother knows best.”
“Don’t be cheeky.”

Mystification may be over issues to do with what rights and what obligations each person in the family has in respect of the others. For example, a boy of fourteen tells his parents he is unhappy, and they reply:

“But you can’t be unhappy. Haven’t we given you everything you want? How can you be so ungrateful as to say you are unhappy after all that has been done for you, after all the sacrifices that have been made for you?”

Mystification is particularly potent when it involves this rights obligations system in such a way that one person appears to have the right to determine the experience of another, or, complementarily, when one person is under an obligation to the other(s) to experience, or not to experience, himself, them, his world or any aspect of it, in a particular way. For instance, has the boy a right to be unhappy, or must he be happy because if he is not he is being ungrateful?

Implicit in Marx’s formulation is that before enlightened action can be taken, the issues have to be demystified.

By issue we mean, as in law, “the point over which one affirms and another denies” (Oxford English Dictionary). The issue, in our material, frequently is how to define the “real” or “true” axis of orientation: the point at issue is what is to be the issue. Quarrels are often about what the quarrel is about: what is going on is a conflict, or a struggle, to agree or determine the “main issue.” In the families of schizophrenics, one of the most fixed aspects of the extremely rigid family system is often a particular axis of orientation, which is the lynchpin, so it seems, that keeps the whole family pattern in place.

In some families, every action of different members of the family is evaluated in terms of its particular axis or axes of orientation. An action of a family member thus plotted may become the issue, or the issue may be, as stated above, what is the valid axis of orientation to hold. Judith, aged 26, and her father frequently quarrel. He wishes to know where she goes when she leaves the house, who she is with, when she will be back. She says that he is interfering with her life. He says that he is simply doing his duty as a father. He says she is impudent because she does not obey him. She says he is being tyrannical. He says she is wrong to speak in that way to her father. She says she is entitled to express what views she likes. He says, provided that the views are correct and that they are not correct, etc.

Anyone, including the investigator, is free to make an issue out of any part of the interactivity of the family. The issue may be agreed upon among all the family members, but the investigators may not see the issue in the same terms as do the family members.

Our axis of orientation both as researchers and as therapists is to pick out what the axes of orientation and issues are for each member of the family in turn. These may be expressed explicitly or be implicit. Certain members of a family may conspicuously fail to recognize any axis of orientation or to pick up the existence of any issues other than their own.

In order to recognize persons and not simply objects, one must realize that the other human being is not only another object in space but another center of orientation to the objective world. It is just this recognition of each other as different centers of orientation, that is, as persons, which is in such short supply in the families of schizophrenics we have studied.

There are as many issues as people can invent, but we have come to regard the issue of person perception as central in all the families we have studied. Although this issue may be central as we perceive it, we have to recognize that it is not necessarily seen or accepted as such by the family members themselves.

If active mystification consists in disguising, masking, the praxes and/or processes of the family, in befogging the issues, and in attempting to deny that what is the issue for oneself may not be so for the other, we have to ask how we decide what to us is the central issue, if our perception of the central issue is disjunctive with the perceptions of the family members themselves.

The only safeguard here is to present the perspectives of everyone in turn (including our own) on “the shared situation,” and then to compare the evidence for the validity of different points of view. For instance, one can pick out certain axes of orientation in terms of which the actions of the family are evaluated by particular others:

June’s mother described the following changes in June’s personality that came on (aged 15) six months before what to us were the first signs of psychosis. A change in her personality had occurred in the last six months after she had been to a holiday camp, and away from home, for the first time in her life.

According to her mother, June was:





told me everything

does not tell me what is going on inside her

went everywhere with me

wants to be by herself

was very happy and lively

often looks unhappy; is less lively

liked swimming and cycling

does not do this so much but reads more

was “sensible”

is “full of boys”

played dominoes, drafts, andcards at night with mother, father, and grandfather

is not interested in these games anymore; prefers to sit in her room and read


disobedient and truculent

never thought of smoking

smokes one or two cigarettes a day without asking permission

used to believe in God

does not believe in God


In the six months between her first perception of such changes in June and the onset of what we recognized as a psychotic breakdown, June’s mother had gone to two doctors complaining about these changes in June, which she regarded as expression of an “illness” and perhaps expressions of evil. “It’s not June, you see. That’s not my little girl.” Neither doctor could see evidence of illness or evil in June. Her mother actively attributed these changes in June, that to us were normal maturational, culturally syntonic expressions of growing up and achieving greater autonomy, etc., to expressions of a more and more serious “illness” or of “evil.” The girl was completely mystified, because although becoming more autonomous, she still trusted her mother.

As her mother repeatedly told her that her developing autonomy and sexual maturation were expressions of either madness or badness, she began to feel ill and to feel evil. One can see this as praxis on her part to attempt to resolve the contradiction between the processes of her own maturation and her mother’s barrage of negative attributions about them.

From our standpoint, June appears mystified. She feels she has a lovely mummy, she begs forgiveness for being such a bad daughter, she promises to get well. Although at this point she is complaining that “Hitler’s soldiers are after her,” not once in many interviews does her mother make any other complaints about June except to attack as bad or mad those processes of development that we regard as most normal about her.

That is, her mother’s only axes of orientation, in terms of which she saw and evaluated the changes in June, were good-evil, sane-mad. As June began to recover from a psychotic breakdown, her mother became more and more alarmed that June was getting worse, seeing intensified evidence of evil in her concurrently with our evaluation that she was achieving greater ego strength and autonomy.

Mystification entails the action of one person on the other. It is transpersonal. The intrapersonal defenses with which psychoanalysis has familiarized us, or the various forms of “bad faith” in Sartre’s sense, are best distinguished at present from ways of acting on the other. It in the nature of the mystifying action of persons on each other, rather than of each on himself or herself, that we wish particularly to consider in this paper.

The one person (p) seeks to induce in the other some change necessary for his (p’s) security. Mystification is one form of action on the other that serves the defenses, the security, of the own person. If the one person does not want to know something or to remember something, it is not enough to repress it (or otherwise “successfully” defend himself against it “in” himself); he must not be reminded of it by the other. The one person can deny something himself; he must next make the other deny it.

It is clear that not every action of the one person on another, in the service of the one person’s security, peace of mind, selfinterest, or whatever, is necessarily mystifying. There are many kinds of persuasion, coercion, deterrence, whereby the one person seeks to control, direct, exploit, manipulate the behavior of the other.

To say: “I can’t stand you talking about that. Please be quiet,” is an attempt to induce silence over this topic in the other, but no mystification is involved.

Similarly, no mystification is involved in such statements as:

“If you don’t stop that I’ll hit you.”


“I think that is a horrible thing to say. I’m disgusted with you.”

In the following instance, a threat of something very unpleasant induced the boy to deny his own memory. The tactic is not, however, one of mystification.

A boy of four stuck a berry up his nose and could not get it out. He told his parents, who looked and could not see it. They were disinclined to believe that he had got a berry up his nose, but he complained of pain and so they called the doctor. He looked and could not see it. He said, showing the boy a long shining instrument, “I don’t see anything, but if you say it’s still there tomorrow, we shall have to take this to you.” The boy was so terrified that he “confessed” that he had made up the whole story. It was not until twenty years later that he summoned up the courage to admit even to himself that he had actually put a berry up his nose. By contrast, the following is an example of mystification.

MOTHER: I don’t blame you for talking that way. I know you don’t really mean it.

DAUGHTER: But I do mean it.

MOTHER: Now, dear, I know you don’t. You can’t help yourself.

DAUGHTER: I can help myself.

MOTHER: No, dear, I know you can’t because you’re ill. If I thought for a moment you weren’t ill, I would be furious with you.

Here the mother is using quite naively a mystification which is at the very heart of much social theory. This is to convert praxis (what a person does) into process (an impersonal series of events of which no one is the author). This distinction between praxis and process has recently been drawn in an extremely lucid way by Sartre (I960).2

We unfortunately tend to perpetuate this particular mystification, I believe, when we employ the concept of family or group “pathology.” Individual psychopathology is a sufficiently problematic concept, since without splitting and reifying experience and behavior to invent “a psyche,” one can attribute to this invention no pathology or physiology. But to speak of family “pathology” is even more problematic. The processes that occur in a group are generated by the praxis of its individual members. Mystification is a form of praxis; it is not a pathologic process.

The theoretically ultimate extreme of mystification is when the person (p) seeks to induce in the other (o) confusion (not necessarily recognized by o) as to o’s whole experience (memory, perceptions, dreams, fantasy, imagination), processes, and actions. The mystified person is one who is given to understand that he feels happy or sad regardless of how he feels he feels, that he is responsible for this or not responsible for that regardless of what responsibility he has or has not taken upon himself.

Capacities, or their lack, are attributed to him without reference to any shared empirical criteria of what these may or may not be. His own motives and intentions are discounted or minimized and replaced by others. His experience and actions generally are construed without reference to his own point of view. There is a radical failure to recognize his own self-perception and self-identity.3 And, of course, when this is the case, not only his self-perceptions and self-identity are confused but his perceptions of others, of how they experience him and act toward him and of how he thinks they think he thinks, etc., are necessarily subjected to multiple mystifications at one and the same time.