Against Countertransference

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Transference is perhaps Freud’s most important contribution to psychotherapy technique. Many psychotherapists who do not buy Freudian metapsychology, still believe that it is important to understand the way in which clients often experience the therapist in ways they previously interacted and related to others in their past. Likewise, countertransference can be understood as the way in which the therapist experiences the client based on his previous experience with important objects. However, Lacan defines countertransference as “the sum total of the analyst’s biases, passions, and difficulties” (Ecrits, 183).

This is not a popular opinion in more postmodern, relational dynamic theories. The current mainstay is that psychotherapy is an interaction between two people in which both therapist and client contribute to the transferential matrix. The psychotherapist cannot be this neutral, objective expert who remains disengaged merely offering interpretations of the client’s behavior. Rather, the psychotherapist must fully engage the client in an egalitarian manner admitting her own biases and limitations that invariably affect the psychotherapeutic process. This sounds great, and this more postmodern conceptualization of therapy is certainly sexier than the silent analyst who remains aloof and emotionally distant. However, I think I’m with Lacan in seeing countertransference as a complete waste of time. If the client draws out certain parts of yourself that elicit reactions based on previous experiences, well then that’s your problem, not the client’s. They didn’t pay for you to work on your own object relations, that’s what supervision is for.

Today, I finished Seminar I, and I wanted to relate a humorous story Lacan tells about the analyst Balint.

“Balint does not fall into counter-transference – that is to say, in plain language, he is not an idiot – in the coded language we wallow in, we call the fact of hating someone ambivalence, and the fact of being an idiot counter-transference. Balint is not an idiot, he listen to this bloke, as a man who has already heard a great many things, a great many people, a man of experience. And he doesn’t understand. That happens. There are stories like that, you don’t understand them. When you don’t understand a story, don’t blame yourself immediately, say to yourself – the fact that I don’t understand must mean something. Not only does not Balint not understand, but he considers that he has the right not to understand. He says nothing to this bloke, and asks him to come back. The bloke comes back. He carries on telling his story. And he lays it on a bit thick. And Balint still doesn’t understand…So Balint says to his client. What’s strange is that you are telling me lots of really interesting things, but I must confess that I can’t make head or tail or your story. Then the bloke brightens up, with a big smile on his face. You’re the first honest man I have met, because I’ve told all those things to some of your colleagues, who straightaway saw in them an intimation of an interesting, sophisticated character. I told you all this as a test, to see if you were like all the others, a charlatan and a liar” (Seminar I, 227-8).

I laughed at this piece for a bit. The analyst doesn’t bother getting lost in all the dimensions of transference and countertransference, which of course the mere naming of gets you nowhere. If you tell the client you’re experiencing me in the same way you experienced your mother, the intelligent client will likely say, “yeah, why do you have to be so much like her?” The point of this narrative is that the previous analysts had botched this man’s analysis by trying to make something out of nothing, creation ex nihilo. They probably tried to analyze the client’s story along with their own reactions with reference to analytic jargon. Nobody ever bothered to ask, “does this even make any damn sense?” Ultimately, although countertransference might be a rich source of information for the therapist’s personal knowledge, many of the times it’s really just an excuse for mistaken interventions and interpretations.

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