Relevant Psychoanalysis: "What Does This Email Mean?"

iPhones are increasingly the third person in individual therapy sessions

Posted Sep 23, 2015

On longing, transference, and iPhones

Special guest post by Rachel Blakeman, psychoanalyst and LCSW

Never has Cyrano De Bergerac been a more central figure in our romantic lives (and therapy sessions) than he is now.  Single women and men alike, in attempts to understand their uncoupled status or relationship histories, or predict the direction of a new courtship, frequently offer for analysis excerpts or an entire discourse from their e-mail and text filled phones.  Accompanying the phone (at times a prominent third presence in the sessions) is the wish that as an analyst, I can, with authority answer the ensuing questions:  “What does it mean?”  “Does he/she like me?”  “Is he or she angry with me?”  “Isn’t there meaning behind the three hour response time?”  I am expected to be the final authority, declaring the intended meaning underlying the written words.  After all, my patient has anticipated this session ever since the notification tone indicating the email or text’s arrival wreaked havoc on his or her inner psyche.

Patients are frequently disappointed when their urgent proffering of emails or texts containing “real word” evidence of “something” is met with an analytic stance—the need to explore the underlying meaning to the patient of this “evidence”—employing the same open-minded collaborative approach the patient has experienced in other sessions.  After all, as their analyst, I should be able to authoritatively define that “something” and simply declare “s/he likes you” or “s/he was simply busy thus accounting for the delayed response,” right? 

For some, the wish that I gleaned the author’s intention from the correspondence is so powerful, my assertion to the contrary is met with an assumption that I am denying knowledge to create a learning experience for them and that I would certainly tell a friend the underlying meaning of such correspondence.  

In part, they are correct that with a friend I might engage in the fun, but useless armchair analysis of an email author's motivations—as if I can with any certainty determine the psychology of a person I've never met.  However, to indulge in with a patient what is at times a fun discourse if engaged in with a friend, under the guise of my having more information than he or she can access or with the contention that my assertions would be helpful to the patient is false and unhelpful.  It is in the discovery of the meanings that the patient assigns to the correspondence where there is an opportunity to explore what we call the transference and in so doing actually help the patient.

As we learn about the intent the patient ascribes to the author of each message and play with the ideas contained therein, we begin to uncover that which is most useful to the patient—the way that his or her mind works and the historical influences contributing to his or her perceptions.  The patterns of thought and resulting actions that are played out in so many other situations in the patient's life unfold here too.

The patient’s script is a powerful one and through our exploration of the emails, the patients begin to understand how much they superimpose their own experiences and assumptions onto the message.  Because emails and texts contain words and lack not only tone of voice, but also facial expression, they are ripe for transference—much like in an analysis where a patient is in a supine position, unable to see the analyst’s face and more likely to experience the analyst how he or she experiences others in the past and present.  By encouraging the patient to imagine the intended meaning of emails and then to consider other possibilities, we learn the extent to which we bring our own histories to bear on our current relationships and our compulsion to repeat patterns influenced from our past. 

By avoiding the gratification of offering a patient an interpretation of an email and providing the space and freedom for patients to analyze correspondence with the same level of curiosity as is applied to all other interactions, patients can discover the inner workings of their minds in such a way that empowers them to consciously write their own life scripts as opposed to living in accordance to the patients’ historical play written almost as long ago as Cyrano De Bergerac, with all the many different character influences from the past unknowingly being acted out by the patient.

Rachel Blakeman, JD, LCSW, is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City.