The Healing Crowd

All about group therapy: what it is, why it works, and which group is right for you.

Manhattan Transference: Number 1

What's the difference between transference and countertransference?

Countertransference is the life-long struggle of a therapist. There is no difference between a normal transference, a word coined by Freud to identify the phenomenon where patients “transfer” their feelings from a previous powerful relationship onto the therapist. But the same thing can happen with a therapist transferring feelings onto his or her client. Here you will find a more detailed discussion.

But there are unique elements that impact on the group therapist because, well, there are a lot of people in the group, and many opportunities exist for countertransference for the therapist to take place. Much of the training and supervision I do focuses around helping the therapist become aware of the activations that can happen concerning transference between members of the group—and countertransference between the therapist and group members. But I didn’t learn about this from a book or a video, I learned about it in my training group and have written about it and other reactions to clients in my most recent book Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir. To help understand how transference and countertransference works I am serializing the chapter on my first experience with transference as a group member in a modified version. Many of my student and trainees have found this description useful in recognizing their own transferences and I hope you do as well. 

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We met every Thursday night in mid-town Manhattan at Alice’s apartment. There were eleven of us, ten women and me. All of us therapists, all interested in learning more about group therapy and psychodrama.

Alice’s apartment had a separate room for the therapy sessions, but to get to it you walked through her and Peter’s apartment. It was spacious with elegant, yet modern design. The walls were graced with photographs Alice had taken of exotic fish during a diving expedition, and next to them ancient African masks Peter had discovered on their recent safari. This was a professional group for mature therapists looking for certification in group psychotherapy and psychodrama. The leader of our group was one of a handful of extraordinary trainers in the field of psychodrama. Alice and her husband Peter had been trained by Moreno himself (a contemporary of Freud's, the founder of psychodrama and the man who coined the phrase “group therapy”). Their reputation for training and supervision were international, and this was my third year in the group. Although I had a Ph.D. and a clinical license, I'd never had any form of personal psychotherapy. Supervision had been extremely helpful, but I wanted to understand the process from both sides.

Over the past three years I had a magnificent opportunity to understand more about how women relate men, and how men were viewed. Because I was the only man in the group I played the role of every bastard on the face of the planet. I was the alcoholic father, the abusive husband, the rapist. But these roles were invaluable to my understanding of man-woman relationship, not to mention understanding the negative aspects of my own psyche.

Being in Manhattan, in Alice’s apartment gave a special feel to the training. It made it feel like special knowledge was being passed along in a safe environment. It always felt good to come here.

Then Elaine joined our therapy group. Her hunched shoulders, loose jowls, sunken eyes, and spindly fragile legs gave her the appearance of a mythical sea creature. She sported excessively large hoop earrings, a dozen cheap bracelets on each arm, and a fistful of tawdry rings that drew attention to her bent and wrinkled fingers. The smell of tuna fish and cigarettes ushered her into the room. She careened towards an empty chair belching greetings with a shrill, alternating, siren-like pitch: "Hi yuh; Hi yuh; Hi yuh." A one-woman ambulance had arrived.

It made me anxious to watch her. She seemed to be coming and going, wanting attention yet unconscious of others, interesting yet pathetic. Each article of clothing had been carefully chosen to hide some portion of her thirty (or was it forty?) extra pounds. Her lipstick color suggested a carnival, and oil slicks served as eye shadow. Lips by Crayola, eyes by Exxon. Elaine found a chair and claimed it as her private colony. With great ceremony she took her throne and dispersed belongings to declare her territory. A shopping bag, her purse, a book, and two umbrellas, perhaps she was larger than I guessed.

Within two long excruciating minutes this woman activated my deepest contempt. How could this happen? How could the leader of the group allow such woman to join? She should be removed, or perhaps shot. 

 Go to #2.

 

Daniel J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, is a licensed psychologist specializing in group psychotherapy and psychodrama.

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