A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Transference 201: A Psychoanalyst Is More Than a Blank Screen

How to know if your analyst really cares.

In my last two posts, I have been exploring the phenomenon of the transference in psychoanalytic treatment.  If a psychoanalyst can let the patient use her as a screen onto which he can project his deepest expectations, hopes, and fears, then together patient and analyst have the opportunity to understand the patient’s inner world in an alive, detailed, illuminating way. In order to see the patient’s projections most clearly, the analyst does her best to keep her own projections to herself; that’s why we call the psychoanalyst a blank screen. 

Of course, this is not to say that the analyst does not have her own unconscious inner world with her own transference reactions. Being human, she projects just like everyone else. But being a psychoanalyst, she has developed a unique relationship to her own transference reactions: she understands them and uses them for understanding.

In the professional role, there’s a name for the analyst’s transference reactions to the patient:  countertransference. As part of our training and development, psychoanalysts have a personal analysis in which we work to know ourselves at a deep level, including how our unconscious filters affect our view of things. This is essential in the development of a competent psychoanalyst. Like a rider learning to use the bridle on a horse, a good analyst must have a handle on herself so that she can use her own psyche in a lively but disciplined way to help her patients change and grow.

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Does this idea make sense to you? It is actually a relatively new idea in psychoanalysis. In the old days, countertransference was seen as a problem. It was viewed as a breakdown in the analyst requiring that she go get some more personal analysis. But these days, countertransference is seen as an inevitable aspect of psychoanalysis. and, when used with thoughtful discipline, a tool for understanding at even deeper levels. 

You see, an analyst without a psyche—if even there could ever be such a thing!—is a robot. And robots are not suited for the emotional, relational, dynamic work of psychoanalysis. In psychoanalysis, the unconscious of one speaks to the unconscious of the other. In psychoanalysis, one mind reaches another, one heart touches another. It is not about mechanical understanding, it is about deeply personal understanding.  A good psychoanalyst is more than a technician. As they say in jazz, she has to have feel

But analysts need to have a handle on their countertransference. Without disciplined effort and the boundaries of the professional relationship, analysts are prone to acting out some very powerful feelings and fantasies with their patients. In order to be of help, analysts must rein in their impulses to have a different kind of relationship with their patients—perhaps as a friend, lover, or even a parent. To be of help, the analyst must be the analyst.

There is a common misunderstanding that the analytic relationship is false, sterile, and mechanical. To put it in Martin Buber’s terms, people worry that psychoanalysis is an "I-It" rather than an "I-Thou" kind of relationship. At least for me, I don’t think that is so. 

Yes, as a psychoanalyst, I do my best to keep a handle on my own psyche and to limit its confusing impact on my patients. But the way in which I do this work is to be in very live contact with myself and with my patients. While I am more reserved and neutral with my patients than I am with my friends, I am not dead!I am actively thinking, feeling, and processing my own reactions. Quietly listening on the outside, I am dreaming, creating, associating, relating, wondering, and remembering on the inside. I am bringing my own story and my own psyche to the interaction. I am trying to sort out whether my countertransference reactions tell me more about myself, or whether they help me to better understand my patient. And I am trying to distill all of these very lively experiences into a few simple words that I might convey in the hope of helping my patients to understand themselves a bit better.

So, yes, a psychoanalyst must be a blank screen in order to do the work. But a psychoanalyst is more than a blank screen. And if the analysis is an effective one, patients know this. My patients may not ever come to know much about my childhood, or current family life, or where I live, what I like, or how I spend my free time. But patients do come to know a rather lot about me.  And the more effective the analysis, the more they get a sense of who I really am. When they can begin to see through their transferences, they pick up my style, my convictions, my sensibilities, my values. They pick up my devotion, my commitment, my care. They are not left with a blank screen. In fact, they come to see what matters most.   

Copyright 2012 by Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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