Transference happens. We could argue about how much, exactly how, and whether the name is right, but that would be pointless. The point is that we can, at times, react towards another person as though they were not who they actually are (friend, boss, shop assistant etc), but an important other from our own past or distant lives.
Some of us do it more than others. Some people seem almost to do nothing else. It can be trivial, but it can also seriously hamper relationships and personal development. People who enter therapy are likely to be doing so exactly because they do have problems with their relationships and their personal development. They may be expected to be particularly prone to this type of relating. For this reason, therapists need to be adept at managing the situation.
Therapy encourages transference by 1) establishing a particular kind of relationship which has inherent in it a degree of asymmetry, and then 2) having as its remit the exploration of areas in which the patient or client is unconfident or unskilled and which evoke earlier relationships. Some styles of therapy may further encourage this by their use of silence and by developing what has been called the “frustration tension”.
The therapist cannot simply dismiss the confusion by saying, for example, “Stop it. Don’t be ridiculous! I’m not you mother!” They have to keep it going enough for it to be seen, understood, and worked with. It would be unforgivable, though, if the therapist were to encourage or consolidate the confusion, by continuing to play the part and recapitulate the original trauma.
In other words – and here I am getting to the crux of it – the therapist has to be able to be enough of all these others (these fathers, mothers, lovers, siblings etc) to be plausible to the client’s unconscious whilst manifestly NOT being these people. In a sense, they need to be able to be any number of people whilst emphatically not being them.
Not being should perhaps have a hyphen, because this activity of not-being is different to a simple absence. As in the mind-experiment of trying to not think of a pink giraffe, not-being to a large extent draws attention towards being. Not-being subsumes a degree of being. In a sense, it flirts with being. Think, for example, of the counsellor whose skill set should include knowing how one might take the session deeper, in order to not-do so. Or the doctor who is required to be able to prescribe a medication before their decision to not-do so can take on significance. The mountain guide must know what would be a reckless action in order to be saved from carrying it out.
Adding to this, the therapist must also be genuinely themselves and 100% present whilst in a way leaving much of themselves outside the room: bringing their skills, attention, and beneficial intent into the room – giving them a voice – yet leaving their own factual lives outside. They have to remember the right things. They have to remember who they are without the constant rehearsal of self-revelation and, whilst stripped in this way, they have to not-accept the roles and characteristics transferred within the therapeutic relationship.
Therapists, then, if they are to be therapists rather than functionaries, have to be sufficiently capable and supported to perform this balancing act; a balancing that includes things repeatedly touched upon in Being With and Saying Goodbye such as equipoise, believing whilst suspending belief, uncertainty, and paradox. The space between being and not being (which I have here called not-being) is what Winnicott might have termed a “potential space”. It is there yet not-there; the essential ambiguity needed for the play that is therapy.
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