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The Space Between: Transference & Countertransference

Humera Quddoos explains why transference provides a rich and fertile field for therapeutic work.

Therapeutic space has three fields within it: one occupied by the client, one by the therapist, and a third space that’s co-created by the therapist and client and overlaps into each of their personal spaces.1 Transference and countertransference arise in the individual spaces but inhabit and seek expression in the third space; a field mutually created by both parties that’s informed by each of their personal histories – the only difference being that the therapist is trained to be aware of her field, and to utilise the insights it provides her to facilitate change for the client.

Transference

In A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, transference is defined as: ‘The process by which a patient displaces on to his analyst feelings and ideas, which derive from previous figures in his life; by which he relates to his analyst as though he were some former object in his life.’2 This definition covers two critical components of the early thinking on transference: that it’s the projection of early developmental relationships, and that this relationship is now being repeated in the room, with the analyst standing in for one or multiple figures from the client’s past. The primary task of analysis is to analyse these projections from the past that make up the transference phenomena.

Freud recognised that not all transference phenomena were one and the same. He classified transference into positive and negative,3 and recognised that transference includes resistance, the erotic, the repressed and, in his understanding of the human psyche, un-discharged libidinal energies from the patient’s unconscious. Transference then is a rich and fertile field in which the therapeutic work of change can take place.

The idea that relationships with early caregivers are played out in the here and now, and in particular in the transference with a therapist, is one of the core concepts of object relations theory. By analysing and paying attention to how clients respond and relate to the therapist, the therapist can map out how they were responded and related to as infants. From this, object relations theorists have hypothesised and reconstructed what the early experiential world of the infant must have been like.4

Object relations theory built upon Freud’s classical theory of human development and maturation, mapping out key milestones and processes. When disturbance and failure occur – when the caregiver is inconsistent, volatile, unavailable or over-intrusive – the nature of that disturbance can be traced in the transference field. Alongside the deficit, the transference will also provide information about the defences that were mobilised to manage the failures.

These sophisticated theories offer therapists a framework in which to understand and interpret the transferences arising in the field, and build a platform from which to make interventions. For example: a client arrives and ends sessions on time, always has the exact change, gives plenty of notice of her holidays, and has never cancelled a session. Given what she has told me about her mother, an authoritarian school teacher, I can interpret that one of the elements in the transference field is that I too am responded to as such a figure. Her defence against the anxiety of not being good enough to be loved by her mother was that she has to be good. So, in order to be loved and accepted by me, she must be a perfect and well-behaved client.

What this example highlights is that transferences are often most transparent around the boundaries (though they are present throughout the therapeutic field). From a psychosynthesis perspective, the early object relational transference field can give the therapist vital clues as to where the primal wound of empathic failure occurred for the child.5

Countertransference

All the discussions of transference so far have included the therapist as the object of the projection or transference. However, in the therapist’s room, there are two human beings, which means that there is another receiver and projector: the therapist. In the early days of psychoanalysis, Freud discounted the therapist’s feelings, ideas and beliefs towards a patient as having little or no value. However, as we shall see, this has proved to be limiting. Later psychoanalysts such as Gill and Kohut1 have gone on to develop theories that place the interaction between therapist and client at the heart of the change dynamic clients are seeking. Kahn writes: ‘Countertransference is now commonly considered to be all of the therapist’s feelings and attitudes towards the client.’1

The therapeutic relationship

Having established that both client and therapist occupy a joint field of experience, awareness and contact, it becomes important to understand the processes that occur within that. As we have seen, the earliest and most straightforward interpretations of transference are those that utilise the early object relational models of the field. The therapist is said to stand in for early parental figures. However, ‘knowing’ something is not in itself enough to facilitate change; the therapist and client must create an opportunity for that knowing to change the client. Freud referred to this process as ‘emotional utilisation’, Gill as the process of ‘re-experiencing’ and Kohut as the opportunity for a ‘corrective emotional experience’.1 Therapy can create an opportunity for something that didn’t happen ‘then’ to happen ‘now’.

To the layperson, it would seem that if the transference tells the therapist about a client’s unmet need from childhood, the therapist should then gratify and meet that need. If you had a cold mother, for example, a warm and loving stance from your therapist would meet that need and heal the wound. However, psychological growth doesn’t come from the straightforward gratification of unmet needs, but from a client growing those structures within themselves that were inhibited by early failures. In Kohut’s theory of self-psychology, the resilience, cohesiveness and responsiveness of the self is built through good enough experiences with mirrors in the environment. These mirrors, or ‘self-objects’, as Kohut calls them, facilitate a process of ‘transmuting internalisations’, which add self-structures to an individual’s personality.

The role of the therapist is to function as a good ‘self-object’ so that a client can have the experiences she missed in order to successfully build a cohesive sense of self. This is a similar and parallel process to what Firman and Gila refer to when they talk of the therapist functioning as an ‘empathic external unifying centre’ for the client.5

Types of transference

Stern6 distinguishes between two types of transference: type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is the classical understanding of transference as the therapist being related to as the ‘old’ object from infancy. Stern calls this the known ‘repeated relationship’. The role of the therapist here is one in which she transcends the pathological re-enactment through withholding gratification in order to establish more authentic contact. Type 2 transference, which is more in line with the views of Kohut and other self-psychologists, is that clients are seeking new self-objects in order to create the ‘needed relationship’.

Stern sees that part of the role of the therapist is to master the type 1 transferences that are pressurising the therapist to behave in the ways of the repeated relationship. The therapist does this by expanding her ability to dis-identify from the transference so that a new ‘needed’ relationship can occur. Within this, the client has a basis for a new relational experience and the opportunity to ‘evolve new psychological capacities’.6

Type 2 transferences call on the therapist to see herself as embedded within the interpersonal matrix with her client. Together, they are co-creating a new relational matrix that will allow the client to experience the ‘needed’, rather than the ‘repeated’, relationship. This is similar to other relational views of transference that Gill, Kohut and to some extent Rogers also talk of: that the therapist is not a distant, neutral object but an embedded participant in the therapeutic process. As participants, therapists then have a responsibility to foster authentic, empathic and honest contact with their clients. This requires therapists to hold a non-defensive stance, honestly examining their countertransference, and sharing appropriately and empathically with their clients.

Empathy is at the heart of all these approaches to understanding and utilising transference responses in service of the psyche. Kohut defines empathy as ‘the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person’.1 It is empathic failures that have wounded clients,5 and therefore it follows that it will be through empathic relational connection that clients will experience healing.

It’s important then for a therapist to be highly in tune with, and constantly alert to, her own history and experiences when sitting with a client. This will support her to sift through the transference phenomena and determine that which is pressurising her to repeat what’s known from history, from that which is offering opportunities for genuine, empathic relational contact.

However, given that the therapist is also human and therefore limited, it’s inevitable that empathic failures will occur. All the writers on the subject are agreed that these empathic breaks are golden opportunities. If the therapist can hold herself openly, honestly and non-defensively in exploring these with her client, they can offer immense potential for empathic connection and mirroring.

Projective identification

Some transferences are so powerful that they unconsciously hijack the therapist and cast her into either playing out a role in a repeated drama or taking on feelings that unconsciously the client cannot manage.1 These can be classified under the heading of ‘projective identification’. Caught in a projective identification, a therapist experiences an overwhelming pressure to behave and/or act in certain ways. It can feel as though the therapist’s psyche has been hijacked or hypnotised by an outside force.

For example, a longstanding client came to therapy a week after being bereaved. Though initially warm and empathic to her loss, I found myself becoming increasingly irritated that there was an issue she wasn’t addressing. I became more forceful and insistent in my interventions, culminating in some very direct statements in which I lost all memory of her recent loss. She finally burst out that this was too much and she couldn’t bear listening to me. Immediately I felt as though I’d been woken from a dream.

In this exchange, the part of her that could not manage the loss was being trampled on – the projective identification I had become caught in. I immediately apologised for the hurt my interventions had caused. I then wondered aloud with her why I had behaved in this way. Was this familiar to her – that those close to her ‘trampled’ on her feelings? By engaging openly and honestly with the empathic break, we could then interpret how what had happened now, was related to what had gone before. With the key difference that as her therapist I could articulate and be in relationship with what had occurred. This offered us the potential for empathic connection and a ‘corrective emotional experience’.1 The longed for and needed relationship could be ‘experienced’ in the here and now, with me.

More than the past

The classical understanding of transference so far is one that views the transference phenomena as arising out of a client’s history, in particular their experiences with primary caregivers. The transference phenomena has embedded within it the early imprints of those experiences, as well as the defences the psyche erected to manage these developmental failures and deficits.3 By being alert to and interpreting these transferences, the therapist and client have an opportunity to address the deficit and build the capacities necessary for healthy psychological functioning.

However, a broader view of transference would not limit understanding and interpreting transference phenomena to a regressive replay of infantile relationships. The definition quoted by Firman and Gila is much more inclusive: ‘…transference is defined as the conscious and unconscious responses – both affective and cognitive – of the patient to the therapist.’5

This expands the transference dynamic to be more than a repeating of history. It can allow transference phenomena to come from any developmental area of a client’s life: infancy, childhood, adolescence, the here and now. And the transference can include within it processes beyond early caregiver patterns, such as universal (archetypal) psychic processes and emergent psychological potential within a client’s higher unconscious.8

As psychosynthesis asserts both dimensions of human experience – personality and soul – by holding bi-focal vision, 5,8 it then follows that it’s a modality that can work with transference and countertransference in both realms.

Jung

Jung too saw transference as a projection onto the analyst – projections that, as the analysis continues, are worked through and withdrawn. As analysis progresses, these projections move from infantile processes and content to becoming more impersonal. By this he was referring to the content of the projections moving from the personal dimension to the impersonal – the archetypal dimension. Once liberated from personal content, why might this force be seeking expression?

For an answer Jung turned his attention to esoteric texts in which transformation occurs; the study of alchemy. In the Middle Ages alchemy was the process of liberating matter to achieve a transformation of states of existence. As Hoeller puts it, alchemy ‘deals primarily with the transformational symbolism of the human soul’.9 Briefly, the process involves the following stages:

1. What is trapped, the confining structure, needs to be broken down, and this can be a very brutal dis-membering and dismantling.

2. What then follows is creative chaos.

3. What has been deconstructed is now free to interact with its opposites and take on new forms and structures.

4. The end result is an alchemical union (‘coniunctio’).

This process of alchemical union is seen as a metaphor for the transformation of the material and natural aspects of human nature. In man, alchemy is a process to ‘redeem the spirit or psychic energy locked up in the body and psyche… and make this energy available for the greater tasks of the spirit or spiritual man’.9 Tasks that psychosynthesis and Assagioli would say serve the unfolding of the soul, the ‘I–Self’ relationship in the world.

In the Psychology of Transference,7,9 Jung uses 10 images from an alchemical text known as the Rosary of the Philosophers to illustrate this psychological journey of transformation through the figures of the Lunar Queen and Solar King. These archetypal processes are seen as metaphors for describing the processes that occur in therapeutic work. For the de-construction of what is known to the client, the chaos and grief that follows and the union or creation of new forms, new psychic capacities and structures within.

Post-Jungians such as Fordham7 have gone on to distinguish between two types of countertransference: the illusory and the syntonic. The illusory is stirred up in the therapist’s unconscious from unresolved issues and conflicts in her own psyche. This can be attended to through supervision and personal therapy. The syntonic arises through the analyst being empathically attuned to the client and through that attunement potentially being able to experience aspects of the client before they have conscious awareness of them.

The syntonic countertransference can carry within it shadow aspects of the client’s psyche.7 Writers such as Lambert consider this to give rise to projective identifications, where an analyst’s psyche is hijacked by the client’s in order to act out a negative internal object process.

Shawartz-Salant goes further to say that in the countertransference field both analyst and client are constellating the unconscious. This consists of a ‘capacity to experience and participate in a shared, imaginal realm, which exist outside of space, time, and any notion of causality and which manifests itself primarily in coniunctio imagery.’7

As a psychosynthesis therapist, this understanding of transference and countertransference as a process dynamic fundamentally expands and multiplies the meanings and interventions we can make. It is the difference between working in two dimensions – the here and now and the past – and working in three: the here and now, the past and what is emergent. As a client’s symptoms are understood and held bi-focally – as communications from both the personality and the soul – so too can transference and countertransference phenomena be. Winnicott’s terror of non-being is not only that of the infant facing a non-empathic caregiver, it’s also the archetypal void into which all known forms experience a death before re-emerging in a new form. It is the death void, the lifeless place in the Rosary of the Philosophers, the ground of soul and ‘self’.

Archetypes

Understanding that transference can take on archetypal energies can allow a therapist to work with myths and fairytales. These give transference in the realm of ‘self’, roles to inhabit and speak through. I often think about clients in relation to the fairytale they remind me of. I will ask clients if they have an image for a feeling state or body experience in the moment, for transferences and projections can also take form through the body. As Mindell says, ‘…the body uses projections and psychological problems to stimulate discovery of its different parts’.10

In archetypal psychology, the demands for participation, co-creation and self-awareness through the countertransference of the therapist are as necessary a part of the therapeutic encounter as they are for object relational therapists. In fact, Jung states that it’s not only the client that’s offered an opportunity for change and transformation but also the therapist.7

In archetypal psychology, what I become for a client is not only limited to an early caregiver figure but can inhabit any one of multiple roles from the archetypal and mythical library. In a negative transference, I may be taking on the role not only of a persecutory father but also the archetype of the hunter. With one particular client who experienced me as persecutory and attacking, I asked him to think of an image of what I was doing to him. He said I had a sword that was cutting him. From earlier reflections on his archetypal soul journey, I was holding a journey metaphor for him that saw him as man unwilling to pick up his sword and engage in the way of the warrior. In psychosynthesis terms, we could say that this was the call from ‘self’. In the archetype of the warrior are ideals and processes from his higher unconscious, the fight for truth, justice and honour.

A transference interpretation that relied solely on object relations theory would limit the interpretation of this transference to an early parental deficit and address it at the level of the personality. However, by thinking archetypally, I have a choice about how and where to make an intervention. Given his symbol of a sword, an elemental archetypal image from the world of soul, I chose to work archetypally. I asked him to describe what I was doing. How deep was I cutting? Did it hurt? Was there a lot of blood? He became uncomfortable. It emerged I was hacking him to pieces in this image. Eventually he said, ‘Why won’t you stop?’ My own countertransference response was of a heightening frustration: why wasn’t he fighting back? Where was his sword? We followed though the imaginal archetypal role-play that possessed us both. This ended with him having an insight that he doesn’t have to be a passive recipient, as he was in his history – that in the here and now, with me, he can find a sword and use it to defend himself.

Another example of an archetypal understanding of transference can be applied to the idealising transference. From a psychosynthesis perspective, the idealising transference need not have arisen only out of an early parental deficit – the therapist as the longed for ‘good’ object that was missing – but can also come from a projection onto the therapist form the client’s higher unconscious, his own as yet unrealised capacities for goodness, love and wisdom. In psychosynthesis terms, the transference can be both an expression of unmet early need and a projection of unrealised potential from the client’s higher unconscious. This repression or splitting off of qualities within the higher unconscious is known as the ‘repression of the sublime’.11

Conclusion

Transference and countertransference phenomena are key to the therapeutic encounter and form the ground in which the work of change occurs. For psychosynthesis therapists, the symptom is held as both a deficit from wounding in the personality and as a harbinger of change and transformation from the ‘self’. The psychosynthesis practitioner will work with transference and countertransference phenomena both object relationally and archetypally. Dependent on the process content of the moment, the relational field, the presence or absence of images or soma, the psychosynthesis therapist will make a choice about how and where to deploy the information the transference and countertransference have provided. What is key, and stressed in both interpretation approaches, is that the therapist makes herself available as a vehicle for her client. She can become a good enough, empathic, non-defensive ‘self object’, or be possessed by an archetypal role. Whichever approach is taken, it’s clear that effective therapy requires the encounter between therapist and client, transference and countertransference.

[Ends]

References

1. Kahn M. Between therapist and client: the new relationship. London: Holt Books; 1997.
2. Rycroft C. A critical dictionary of psychoanalysis. London: Penguin Books; 1995.
3. Ricoh J. The transference phenomena in psychoanalytic therapy. In: Wolstein B (ed) Essential papers on countertransference. New York: New York University Press; 1988.
4. Mahler S. On the first three sub phases of the separation-individuation. In: Buckley P (ed) Essential papers on object relations. New York: New York University Press; 1986.
5. Firman J, Gila A. The primal wound: a transpersonal view of trauma and addiction. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press; 1997.
6. Stern S. Needed relationships and repeated relationships: an integrated perspective. Journal of Psychoanalytic Dialogues 1994; 4(3): 317–337.
7. Young-Eisendrath P, Dawson T (ed). The Cambridge companion to Jung. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2008.
8. Whitmore D. Psychosynthesis counselling in action (2nd edition). London: Sage Publications; 1997.
9. Hoeller S. CG Jung and the alchemical renewal. Gnosis: A Journal of Western Inner Traditions 1988; 8; Summer.
10. Mindell A. Working with the dreaming body. London: Arkana Books; 1997.
11. Haronian F. The repression of the sublime. Presented at a seminar of the Psychosynthesis Research Foundation,
December 15, 1967.

Humera, is a British born, daughter of Pakistani immigrants, who received her Therapeutic Counselling diploma from the Institute of Psyhchosynthesis in 2006 and her MA from Psychosynthesis Trust in 2013. She lives in Manchester and has been in full time private practice there since 2012. Amongst her life achievements she would consider that a career as a psychotherapist has transformed and sustained her to meet, marry and co-create an alternative family through long term fostering. All of which has added richness, colour and vibrancy to the art and practice of her as a human and as a psychotherapist.

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