Carrying Roots in Mind: On Homeland, Language and Psychoanalysis

Tuba Tokgoz, PhD

The author writes about the dual journey of being in psychoanalysis and moving to another country.


When airport customs officers heard my name on the day of my first arrival at New York’s JFK airport, they could not suppress their laughter: “Tuba! Like the instrument?” they asked me with astonishment.  At that moment, it occurred to me that in this new land the meaning of my name was not only completely lost but also had become very amusing.  After a while, I got used to questions like, “Is Tuba your real name?” or “Does it really mean the instrument?”  In order to make communication easier, I quickly learned to add the phrase, “like the instrument” after introducing myself to strangers.

Losing the meaning of one’s name is one of the first experiences that foreigners encounter in a new land.  Tuba’s literal meaning in Turkish is a tree in heaven that is upside-down: its roots are at the top and its branches are at the bottom.  It is uncanny that this uprooted, upside-down tree has become a metaphor for my experience of displacement.  Perhaps, when one’s roots are removed from their familiar ground, one is forced to find a way to carry those roots, in the mind.

Being in psychoanalysis and moving to another country have many commonalities.[1]  They both represent a journey to an unfamiliar, foreign landscape (one is mental, the other is physical); they both involve regression, mourning and separation; and they both offer opportunity for psychic rebirth, growth, and integration.  Because of these striking parallels, going through these life-changing journeys simultaneously brings a dramatic quality to one’s experience.  Yet, as I discuss in this paper, being in a foreign land became more bearable for me with the concurrent experience of being in psychoanalysis.

I came to New York from Istanbul to continue my clinical psychology doctoral training at The New School, which had been previously interrupted when intense feelings of guilt around separation led me to return to Istanbul.  Daring to come to New York the second time was an even more difficult decision than it had been the first time, and one that required me to leave all my loved ones again: my family, my friends and the man who wanted to marry me.  I was feeling as if I had committed a crime and yet I did not want to escape from my conflicts this time as I had tried to do before.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that I found the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR) at this juncture in my life, when my act of leaving home had caused so much emotional turbulence.  I always felt that to initiate my separation process, I had to go oceans away from home, which might have symbolized a deeper longing for a journey within myself.

Like all newcomers to a foreign language, I was threatened not only by the cognitive gap between the mind and the word, but also by the emotional gap between the word and the feeling.  In one’s native language, words have an emotional anchor that makes communication more tangible and, maybe because of that, more courageous.  Although I began learning English when I was 10 years old and was proficient in it when I came to New York, I was still at a loss because I felt that I did not have the poetry and playfulness in English in the way I have when speaking Turkish.  I worried that because of these inevitable gaps (including my accent), I would not be able to connect with my analyst and with my patients.  How would I free associate when I did not have the tools to express my experience fully?  How would I do the talking cure when I did not have the rich vocabulary of native speakers?  I was coming from a country that did not even have a psychoanalytic institute.  How would I adapt to this new culture?

These gaps and differences, in all their linguistic and cultural dimensions, terrified me as I was beginning my training at IPTAR.  Being a “legal alien” on paper poignantly described my ongoing sense of estrangement.  I was sure that I would be an outsider in the land of psychoanalysis — a feeling that resonated with the Turkish meaning of my name.

Unsurprisingly, my initial experience as an analytic patient was dominated by preoccupations with self-expression.  On the one hand, I was thrilled that I might have a new and perhaps even freer way to express myself in English; on the other hand, I missed the ease of speaking in Turkish.  It was disorienting initially to hear my own voice speaking in English about a past that was infused with my mother tongue.  Kristeva (1991) describes this in-between experience beautifully when she writes,

Not to speak your own mother tongue.  To live with sounds, logics that are cut off from the nocturnal memory of the body, from the bittersweet sleep of childhood.  To carry within yourself … the language of once-upon-a-time that fades without ever leaving you … You have the impression that the new language is your resurrection: a new skin, a new sex.  But the illusion is torn apart when you listen to yourself … and the melody of your own voice comes back to you in a bizarre way, from nowhere … Thus, between two languages, your realm is silence (p. 15).    

I became acquainted with this silence whenever I could not put into words my own experience.  I quickly discovered that some of the Turkish words that I naturally use to represent my experience are missing in English.  In Turkish, there is a word for compassionate love (sevgi) and another word for passionate love (aşk), while in English there is only one word for all kinds of love.  Again, in Turkish there are various words for different shades of sadness (efkâr, hüzün) and for displacement (gurbet, yad eller); words loaded with emotions that I felt were lost in translation.  There also are no direct translations for some words that refer to trusted, true friendships (dost, yaren) or the more affectionate conversations one engages in with such friends (dertleşmek, muhabbet etmek).

Perhaps we can speculate that what is most valued in a given culture ultimately is what is represented in the language.  Born of a more individualistic and less relational culture, the English language has more words that highlight independence, individuality, and competition.  Words such as challenge, loser, winner, survivor, survive, and assertive have no exact equivalents in Turkish.  In line with this, Turkish has many words that emphasize the relative lack of control humans have over their own destiny.  Words such as tevekkül, alın yazısı, kısmet, and nasip are all associated with predestination and the need to surrender to one’s fate.  None of these words has a one-word English substitution.  As I was dealing with my own separation struggles in analysis, English words that do not exist in Turkish became more salient to me — perhaps because it felt as if qualities such as “assertiveness” were absent from my behavioral repertoire.  Communicating with my analyst and working with him on these difficulties involved teaching him the Turkish words for “love,” “melancholy,” and “dislocation” (and even some curse words I felt were essential), as well as learning from him new English words, idioms, and expressions.

In the commute between English and Turkish, I increasingly recognized not only the missing words in both languages, but also how different ways of being and relating in the two cultures are manifested in each language.  For example, in the beginning of my analysis, when my analyst called attention to me as a subject by adding “you” or “for you” to his statements, I would feel very sad and lonely without knowing why.  I remember that I was uncomfortable even speaking to him about how sad I felt when he would address me as “you.”  I gradually understood that my sadness stemmed from not having a similar emphasis in my mother tongue.  In the Turkish grammar, there are constructions that feature a “hidden subject,” in which the verb indicates the subjective personal pronoun and there is, therefore, no need to emphasize it.  I also realized that in Turkish, “you” and “I” are highlighted only when there is a conflict between two people.  There is even an expression that describes it: “sen-ben kavgası,” which means, “you and I fight,” as if “you” and “I” are detached only when there is a disagreement.  Otherwise the assumption is that we are one.  Perhaps the structure of a Turkish self (one that is more communal and less individualistic) is represented in the way the Turkish language is organized — it seems unnatural or even impossible to express one’s subjectivity in communication.  Perhaps this example reflects my own struggles around separation; perhaps these issues would have come up even with a Turkish-speaking analyst.  Yet, I find it striking that I discovered the distinct emotional resonance of speaking each language only in the commute between the two in my analysis: I longed for the pleasure of togetherness that I felt in my mother tongue but also for the joy of individuality that I felt the English language offered in an exciting way.

Perhaps in an attempt to find a familiar emotional landscape in my analysis, I began listening more to the tone of my analyst’s voice than to his words.  Although the words and the structure felt somewhat “foreign” to me, the music of his voice felt natural — reminiscent of home.  I felt that the song of my mother tongue resonated within his voice.  This was perhaps the beginning of my reinternalizing English in a different, more emotional way.

Over time, my second language has attained increasingly more emotional power and has thus started to feel less foreign.  This change began to appear to me in unexpected places, like humor and dreams, and I believe that my being in psychoanalysis is what allowed this shift to happen.  We learn our mother tongue in the context of lived experience — in the preverbal emotional interaction between mother and baby as they participate in the playful process of transmitting language.  Perhaps speaking in a foreign language in one’s analysis strongly evokes this earliest time — the time when words have not yet attained full meaning and the emotional and nonverbal interplay is the main channel of communication.  From the perspectives of both analysand and analyst, I have come to believe strongly that something more than words is communicated in psychoanalysis, and that nonverbal, emotional exchange is what fuels this highly personal journey.

What gradually saved me from painful feelings of loss and alienation has been the deep connectedness the psychoanalytic process offers, both to analysand and to analyst.  This connection in the space between two people has such potential that despite cultural and language barriers, it can allow contact beyond words, through the language of emotions.  What we learn about ourselves in this interpersonal space from both sides of the couch can take us beyond our selves and transform us.  Had I not had the togetherness provided by the analytic process, I would not have been able to bear the longing generated by the separation from my motherland, and by feeling caught between two very different worlds of being and relating.  It is as if this space of connection and meaning was the very thing that kept my two homes together internally, despite the impossibility of bringing them together physically.  Experiencing this involvement has made me feel that I am at home.

My training at IPTAR has facilitated the very personal journey that I had hoped to take by coming to New York — a journey through which old feelings and experiences found expression as my analytic tongue became English.  It is as if I found my childhood on the other side of the world — a time when I lived in a small village by the sea near Istanbul and my extended family and the whole neighborhood took care of me while my mother worked.  Similarly, at IPTAR, my analyst, supervisors, teachers, and friends took care of me as I longed for my motherland.  IPTAR has gradually become a familiar and new place of belonging.  It is as if my analytic training offered me a second chance to reevaluate my life, and to reinvent myself.

As I already mentioned, some of the processes involved in being a candidate resemble the processes of being a foreigner in a new country.  First and foremost, candidates are required to learn a new language: the language of psychodynamics.  Perhaps that is why Laplanche and Pontalis’ dictionary (1973) one of the classic texts of psychoanalytic literature is titled “The Language of Psychoanalysis.”  Every psychoanalytic candidate learns this “foreign language of psychoanalysis” in order to “read” themselves and others, and to experience the world of relationships in a multi-dimensional way.  Second, getting acquainted with unconscious processes may initially make one feel as though one is in an unfamiliar, strange land that is equally exciting and terrifying.  In this sense, candidates learn to commute between unknown (mental) geographies states of mind and ways of being both in their own analyses and in the analyses they conduct.  Third, candidacy evokes the sense of being on a journey that occurs in an in-between space where one is an “inside-outsider” in a process of becoming.  Like foreigners, candidates possess a unique outsider stance that makes possible genuine understanding, vision, and creativity.  I believe that this is the space of psychoanalysis an open, freeing space that not only embraces otherness, difference, and multiplicity but also fosters them.  In this sense, a candidate is like a nomad, an explorer who is willing to dwell within and between multiple worlds and experiences.

As I reflect on this dual journey of being in a foreign land and being in psychoanalysis, I notice that I now have a different sense of the intermediate area between Istanbul and New York, and between Turkish and English.  There is less sadness about this in-between space, and less silence there, too.  I now find that having traversed this space allows me more freedom and fluidity to commute without feeling extreme guilt or loss — between languages, cultures, cities, and states of mind.  This open and accepting space is something that I carry within me no matter where I am or what language I speak.  If we can dream in more than one language, then we can also symbolize and do analysis in more than one language — that is, if we trust the creative work of unconscious process, even when the physical or psychic geography of this exploration feels completely foreign at first.


1 In this paper, I use “being a candidate” and “being an analysand” interchangeably because I consider them to be similar processes containing great potential for growth.  One can choose to stay in this space even after graduation.


Kristeva, J.  (1991).  Strangers to ourselves.  New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

 Disclosures and Acknowledgments

A shortened version of this paper was read at IPTAR's graduation ceremony, New York, NY, June 3, 2012.  An extended version of this graduation speech was presented at the panel, “Psychoanalytic Training in a Foreign Land: Pains and Growth,” IPTAR, New York, NY, May 15, 2016.

I thank Dr. Clarissa R. Slesar very much for her valuable proofreading of the many versions of this article and for her perceptive suggestions.  I also thank Dr. Richard Lasky who has encouraged me to expand and publish this paper since I presented it at my graduation.


Address correspondence to:

Tuba Tokgoz, PhD

1651 Third Avenue, Suite 201
New York, NY 10128


Tuba Tokgoz, PhD, native of Istanbul, was a therapist in Turkey.  She has completed adult psychoanalytic training at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR) and clinical psychology doctoral training at The New School for Social Research.  Dr. Tokgoz received post-doctoral training in parent-infant psychotherapy from The Anni Bergman Parent-Infant Program (ABPIP).  She is a faculty member at IPTAR, its new diversity committee chair, and is in private practice in New York City.