Transference In Psychoanalysis Research Paper

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1. Definition

Transference, and its counterpart, countertransference, have been recognized as among the most fundamental organizing concepts of the psychoanalysis created by Freud. Basically, transference is the conception that our past, our lifetime of experience, lives on in us and plays a formative role in our interpersonal behaviors in the present. Transference was discovered by Freud quite inadvertently. In accord with his original conception that neurotic symptoms and behaviors were representations of earlier mental conflicts that patients had been impelled to repress from conscious memory, Freud devised the method of ‘free association,’ requiring that the patient try to verbalize every thought as it arose, without regard to usual considerations of logical and tactful expression, i.e., no matter how seemingly nonsensical, offensive, embarrassing, or shameful. To his dismay, he found that, no matter what the patient’s conscious intent, this process of sequential narration would on occasion be blocked, with the patient lapsing into embarrassed silence or claiming that simply nothing came to mind. When pressed, the patient could often acknowledge that unbidden and unwanted thoughts or feelings about the analyst had come to mind, displacing the historical recounting.

Freud at first saw this as an unwelcome intrusion upon, and an impediment to, the joint therapeutic task of uncovering the originating traumatogenic events, and tried therefore to disengage the patient from such distracting impingements. He soon, however, realized the regularity of this occurrence, that it was not an accidental or inadvertent happenstance, but rather a regular ‘transferring’ onto the person of the analyst of reactions to the earlier major figures in the patient’s life, primarily parental and other family figures, but even more widely, any significant figures from the past who had played formative roles in the past experiences that were under present therapeutic scrutiny. In Freud’s words, ‘They (transferences) are new editions or facsimiles of the impulses and phantasies which are aroused and made conscious during the progress of the analysis; but they have this peculiarity … that they replace some earlier person by the person of the physician. To put it another way: a whole series of psychological experiences are revived, not as belonging to the past, but as applying to the person of the physician at the present moment’ (Freud 1905). To state it simply: a feeling of anger welling up towards the analyst, perceived at the moment as an overbearing and arbitrary authority, would be a re-presentation of a sequence of childhood interactions with the patient’s father, experienced often in just that light. Within this line of thinking, Freud designated transference reactions as father or mother transferences (or sibling, or mentor, or whomever), and as positive or negative transferences, depending on their emotional valences, whether affectionate, hateful, or some intermediate admixture.

Conceptualizing this way, Freud reversed his reaction to transference manifestations, from seeing them as impediments to analysis, to rather viewing them as essential vehicles for the analytic work. By ‘analyzing’ the transferences, i.e., unraveling their meanings in the interactions within the analytic session, and tracing them back, as representations in the present of pathogenic interpersonal interactions from the past, the patient’s repressed traumatic past experiences would inevitably be brought to light, and their continuing formative role in the maintenance of neurotic behaviors in the present would be progressively dissipated. To revert to the example already given, the patient’s chronic damaging interactions with his work superior, perceived as overbearing and arbitrary, that impeded his job satisfaction and could threaten job promotion or perhaps even the job itself, would be progressively eased, and even eliminated entirely, the more the patient could come to see them as unwitting re-enactments of his earlier experiences with his father (and to see concomitantly his own provocative role in eliciting those repetitive interactions).

Freud shortly came to feel in fact that just because of the emotional intensity experienced in the transference interaction in the immediate therapeutic situation, as compared with the remoteness of describing historical interactions in the long ago past, that the patient was most susceptible in the transference to the jarring emotional impact that could disrupt established, automatized behavior patterns, and lead to the shifts that we call insight and therapeutic change. This effect is described in one of Freud’s most famous sentences as, ‘For when all is said and done, it is impossible to destroy anyone in absentia or in effigie’ (Freud 1912). In a well-known paper by Strachey, one of Freud’s early adherents, interpretation of the transference was described as the only truly ‘mutative’ interpretation, all other interpretive efforts only leading up to, and supportive of, interpretation in and of the transference (Strachey 1934).

Freud’s technical advice from the start was to allow the analytic transferences to unfold gradually, as they inevitably would, and only to interpret them as they clearly crystallized in the analytic situation as resistances to the ongoing work, either as negative transferences of hateful feelings directed at the analyst, or as erotized positive transferences of loving feelings. Freud did make an exception for what he called ‘unobjectionable positive transferences,’ the benign feelings that led the patient to the best possible conscious cooperation in the analytic work with the analyst, experienced by the patient as expert, helpful, and interested in effecting therapeutic change and cure.

In more modern times, some analysts have split off this so-called ‘unobjectionable positive transference’ into a separable conception alongside the transference, called the ‘therapeutic alliance’ (Zetzel 1956) or the ‘working alliance’ (Greenson 1965), usually operating automatically as a protective framework within which the transference vicissitudes—all of the complicated ambivalent relationships that characterize the human experience as it is lived out over a lifetime with all those who have played significant roles in each of our lives—could safely unfold, but at times, or regularly with some sicker patients, itself needing specific attention and nurture. Other analytic authors have, however, been dubious about this unobjectionable transference, seeing it as a defensive cover, hiding other much more objectionable transference manifestations, that would ultimately themselves need to be interpretively undone in the interest of the completeness of the psychoanalytic work.

As the transference unfolded over the course of the analysis, Freud further conceived of the evolution of what he called the ‘regressive transference neurosis,’ in which the presenting neurotic symptoms and behaviors dropped away in the patients’ outside life, as their psychic life, with all of its neurotic components, came to full expression in the transference interplay within the analytic situation. To Freud, such a fully evolved transference neurosis, focused completely on the person of the analyst, recapitulated what he came to call the ‘infantile neurosis,’ the set of childhood maladaptive interactions that established the template for the later evolved neurotic illness that was to bring the patient to psychoanalytic treatment. It was the interpretive resolution of this fully-fledged regressive transference neurosis that Freud, and for long, most of his followers, regarded as the central task of the analytic treatment, which could only be declared properly successful when the transference neurosis was fully resolved, and the various transference distortions were transformed into an objectively realistic relationship of the patient with the analyst.

2. Transference Psychosis

A related, and subsidiary, concept to that of the transference neurosis developed a good deal later, in the 1950s (but with roots back to Freud’s close collaborator, Ferenczi, in the teens of the twentieth century), that of the transference psychosis. This conception developed along two distinct lines. The one was a precise analogue of the concept of the transference neurosis, i.e., that just as neurotic patients taken into psychoanalytic treatment display ‘neurotic’ transference reactions to the analyst, culminating in the full-fledged transference neurosis, so do psychotic patients taken into psychoanalytic treatment display ‘psychotic’ transference reactions which can coalesce into a fully formed transference psychosis. The other conception was that of a neurotic patient, seemingly well-suited for a classical psychoanalytic treatment, who under the regressive pressures of psychoanalysis could erupt (in an unforeseen way) into a psychotic transference response with loss of the usual reality moorings that maintain the transference as an ‘as-if’ phenomenon. I have reviewed this particular literature in detail elsewhere (Wallerstein 1967).

3. Understanding Of Transference At The End Of The Twentieth Century

Since Freud’s day, our understanding of the transference has been altered and transformed significantly. A signal figure in this effort was Gill and Hoffman (1982) who, in a series of papers and a major monograph, squarely challenged the notion that transference manifestations consist just of the projections of the patient’s past relationship patterns upon the neutral objective analyst who could be the epistemic arbiter of reality, clearly separating transference distortion from objective perception, and doing this from a position outside the transference display, as neither a participant in it nor a contributor to it. Given the inherent ambiguity in all human relationships, Gill saw the transference as the patient’s plausible construction of his or her experience of the analyst and of the analytic interaction, with the analytic task then, the construction between analyst and patient of how they each differently perceive the same interaction, each perception being the product of the individual life experience of the perceiver, with the individually different predispositions then towards preferred ways of endowing meaning to the encounter.

The therapeutic focus would of course be on the psychology of the patient, what in the patient’s life experience disposed him or her to construe the therapeutic situation and interaction in the manner manifested, and in that way to link the lived past to the present transference manifestations. Thus, the past is still present in the transference as a formative underlying template of interpersonal expectations, but the focus has shifted to a present-day interaction in the here-and-now of the therapeutic encounter as immediately experienced by the two participants, with again, the stated focus on the light that could be thrown thereby on the patient’s prior life experience and the enlarged meanings that could now be ascribed to the life development. The focus has thus been shifted from the discovery of the past emergent in the present (in the transference), a focus on the there-and-then, to the new focus on the interaction in the present, in the here-and-now, as framed and colored by the past.

Along with that has been the concomitant shift from the transference as a purely intrapsychic phenomenon within the patient, projected onto the reflecting and assessing screen of the neutral, objective, and uninvolved analyst (what is now called the embodiment of a one-person psychology), to the transference as an interaction of two subjectivities, each bringing their own built-in predispositions to that interaction, with the focus again of course on the patient’s characteristic construal of the situation, embedded in the life experience and consequent neurotic structuring of the patient, whose neurotic difficulties in living are, after all, the raison d ’etre of the therapeutic undertaking. This is called now a two-person psychology, the intersubjective interaction of two participants, albeit focused primarily on the difficulties of the one, the patient. These altered conceptions of the transference have been developed further as a fundament of what is called the object relational perspective in psychoanalysis as distinct from Freud’s perspective, called now drive structural, or put differently, two-person vs. one-person psychologies. (For a full development of these distinctions, see the volume by Greenberg and Mitchell 1983.)

4. Analytical Techniques

These modern alterations in the conception of the transference have led to many consequent alterations in the technique of analysis. The focus is now more on the early interpretation of the transference, and on seeking out implicit allusions to the transference, and rendering them explicit, again, as early as feasible. The conception of the unfolding of the full-fledged transference neurosis as a necessary recapitulation of the infantile neurotic experience has given way to the experience of a great variety of transference manifestations in the present, more or less intense, more or less covert or manifest, of great range in emotional valence, and each embedded in uniquely characteristic relationship patterns, with past and present relationship experiences in constant dialectical interplay.

This entire history of transference development has been well summarized in an article by Cooper (1987) in which he contrasted what he called the ‘historical’ and the ‘modernist’ models of the transference. In Cooper’s words, ‘The first idea, close to Freud, is that the transference is an enactment of an earlier relationship, and the task of transference interpretation is to gain insight into the ways that the early infantile relationships are distorting and disturbing the relationship to the analyst, a relationship which is, in turn, a model for the patient’s life relationships. I shall refer to this as the historical model of transference, implying both that it is older and that it is based on an idea of the centrality of history. The second view regards the transference as a new experience rather than as an enactment of an old one. The purpose of transference interpretation is to bring to consciousness all aspects of this new experience including its colorings from the past. I shall refer to this as the modernist model of the transference, implying both that it is newer, in fact still at an early stage of evolution, and that it is based on an idea of the immediacy of experience.’ Implicit of course, though not directly stated, is that in the historical concept, transference is an intrapsychic phenomenon in one person, the patient, and in the modernist concept, it is an interpersonal phenomenon, involving two people.

5. Countertransference

One cannot talk about transference of course without considering countertransference. Originally, countertransference was conceived by Freud as the analyst’s inappropriate and nonobjective responses to the patient’s transferences, stemming from unresolved issues in the psychology of the analyst that were stirred up by the patient’s transferences. This would necessarily cloud the analyst’s proper evaluation of the transference, and was a conception therefore quite parallel to Freud’s original viewing of the transference as an impediment to the analytic work. In this conception the recommended remedy was constant watchfulness by the analyst, to monitor such inadvertent and inappropriate responses, and to control as fully as possible their expression, in order to keep them from contaminating the transference display. If such monitoring and control to keep the countertransference from impinging on the transference proved ineffective, the further remedy would be rigorous self-analysis or a return by the analyst for more personal analysis of his or her own—in order to overcome these interfering neurotic residues. This view later came to be called the ‘narrow’ conception of the counter-transference. Later, others, especially analysts working with sicker-than-neurotic patients, came to a wider conception of the countertransference, as the totality of the analyst’s emotional responses to the patient, including countertransference proper (the specific neurotic response to the patient’s transference), as well as emotional reactions by the analyst to the patient as a whole and to the activity of analyzing itself. This wider conception was called ‘totalistic’; some analysts (Winnicott 1949) divided this overall countertransference into ‘neurotic’ and ‘objective’ components.

Though Freud came to see the transference, which he first felt to be an impediment to the analytic work, as, rather, the essential vehicle of the analytic therapy, with success hinging upon the successful recognition and interpretation of the transference, he failed to take the same step in his consideration of the countertransference. It was only about a dozen years after his death, in the early 1950s, that psychoanalysts, first in the UK, began to view the countertransference not as an occasional inadvertent and inappropriate intrusion upon the psychoanalytic process that needed to be guarded against, and only dealt with when it nonetheless manifested itself, but rather to the countertransference being an inevitable and constant expression of the analyst’s involvement with the patient in the two-person, mutually interactive, treatment process. This was a reflection of the, by that time, almost universal shift to the totalistic conception of the countertransference as the totality of the analyst’s emotional responses to the patient, whether in specific reaction to the patient’s transferences, or whether stemming from the analysts’ own developmental history and their overall (emotional) responses to the patient and to the situation between them.

It was further developed that through careful monitoring of their countertransference thoughts and feelings, the analyst could obtain useful insights into what the patient was trying to get the analyst to think or feel, and thus to obtain a wider knowledge of the patient’s psychology and developmental history. This process of the arousal by the patient of emotional responses within the analyst has been variously called ‘projective identification’ (by the Kleinian school of psychoanalysis) or ‘role responsiveness’ (by the classical Freudian school; cf. Sandler 1976). Conceived and utilized in this way, the perception of the countertransference has likewise shifted from the initial view of it as an occasional and inappropriate intrusion upon the work of analysis (to be mastered and overcome by the analyst), to an inevitable and vitally necessary vehicle to the enlarged understanding of the patient, in this way, and many years later, following the same path as our understanding of the transference, seen first by Freud as an unhappy impediment to the analytic work, and seen only later as an essential conceptual and technical vehicle for that work.

In this sense, transference and countertransference are completely equivalent, neither being just a response to the other, but each stemming from the psychological development of the respective parties to the psychoanalytic process. Some analysts (cf. McLaughlin 1981) have therefore even called for the elimination of the word countertransference, calling both sides of the responsive interaction transference, and privileging neither as just a response to the other.

Countertransference evocations tend to be more subtle and more contained with psychologically well-functioning analysts, and with classically typical neurotic patients, and more severe and difficult to contain with those sicker patients, called narcissistic or borderline in their character organization, seen nowadays with increasing frequency in psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic practice. In this mutually interactive psychoanalytic situation, the intense transference-countertransference interplay results often in what are called ‘role enactments’ in which the analyst feels impelled to take on the role (punitive authority, benign rescuer, neglectful parent, or whatever) that the patient, through speech and behavior, is working, more or less unconsciously (usually more) to elicit from the analyst. And it is through the dawning awareness of having inadvertently taken on, or fallen into, the assigned role in the psychological interplay between them, that the analyst often becomes first aware of his or her countertransference involvement, and can then use this to trace out the psychic pressures from the patient that, when identified, become insights into the patient’s character predispositions, with their linkages back into the patient’s developmental history.

A major issue in this regard that is at present a matter of much professional controversy, is that of the circumstances in which it may be useful for the analyst to communicate to the patient aspects of understanding of the countertransference, when arrived at by the analyst. There are some who, while fully utilizing countertransference as additional avenues of access to the understanding of the patient, would avoid completely any countertransference ‘confession’ to the patient, as only an unnecessary, and varyingly troubling, burden for the patient to bear. Others advocate, at least at some times, or under certain circumstances, sharing their countertransference responses with the patient, as useful avenues towards the patient’s understanding of what kind of reaction they were working to evoke in the analyst (and of course therefore with others in their daily life outside of the analysis), and the kinds of responses (so often consciously not desired by the patient) that are elicited in the other. And of course there are other instances where the patient detects the countertransference response before the analyst is aware of it (‘You’re angry at me and taking it out on me’), and at such times the analyst does need to deal with this truthfully, albeit tactfully, rather than to try to deny or avoid it.

A last and very important point about transference and countertransference: The psychoanalytic situation is a highly contrived arena in which these phenomena—emotional reactions to each other when individuals are engaged in an intimate and intensely personally meaningful dialogue—are highlighted and can be subjected to mutual scrutiny for the enhancement of the psychological understanding of the neurotic issues (and their developmental history) in the patient seeking relief from mental and emotional difficulties in life. But it is implicit in everything said to this point, and should be made explicit now, that we all live, all our lives, by transferences, in all of our human relationships. We always bring ourselves, our personalities or characters, as shaped and colored by our pasts, into all of our interpersonal encounters, and see our relationships and expectations in the present in very significant part through the dispositions built into us by the whole lifetime of our past experiences. In fact, it can be said that our entire capacity for relationships, for empathy with others, even for creative endeavor in any arena, rests on the transferences that we bring and live by (cf. Loewald 1980).

6. Summary

All of the issues covered in this research paper are explored at great length in Section III (more than 100 pages) in a book by Wallerstein (1995), The Talking Cures: The Psychoanalyses and the Psychotherapies, a volume that traces the historical development and unfolding of psychoanalysis and the derived psychoanalytic psychotherapies.


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