What Does Erotic Countertransference Look Like?

Words are hard labor. Let’s therefore add some pictures. The moving kind in matters of the therapist’s heart.

Much is written about erotic transference, but this is countertransference. Ladson and Wilton (2007) report:

The intense emotional experience of countertransference in psychotherapy … is not rare. Some studies have reported 95 percent of male therapists and 76 percent of female therapists admit they felt sexual feelings toward their patients.

The above video, from the HBO series In Treatment, offers you a glimpse. Enough to know — if you are open to knowing — how a therapist’s erotic countertransference can divert psychotherapy from its intended aim.

Observe TV’s portrayed counselor (Paul). His discomfort is evident in his speech, his body, his silences. The grip on his role is slipping.

The first and last two minutes of the nine-minute excerpt offer the session and the words. The center segment is given over to silent film.

Do you believe their relationship will turn out well? Do you think office hours will remedy the problems for which Laura booked her first appointment?

The second clip begins with Paul looking for guidance from his analyst Gina. He has lost himself to a mutating agenda. Laura came to him to improve her psychological state. This man was sought as an expert healer, not a man soon to be in love.

The pair now struggle with a different goal. Doc Paul is like a person hanging from the wet window ledge of a twenty-story building. The strength and clarity of the woman who is his client will overpower his ambivalence. The flashing EXIT sign makes no difference.

The most remarkable moment in these two fragments opens at 7:47 of the first one. Paul is told who he is, what his weaknesses are, by his perceptive patient … and that she loves him just as he is. No wonder the ledge is slippery. To be known and accepted — here is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

You might be stirred or troubled by your own transferential emotions if you are in treatment yourself. Perhaps you hope for physicality, but should the professional’s self-control crumble, the collapse renders impotent all his education and ethical resolve; and your safety with it.

A therapist must draw a line never to be crossed.

Lower your eyes to his office floor. The indelible mark was present long before your meeting.

Any other barrier, more movable or less precise and clear to him, risks injury to both of you.
STOP signs help only if you recognize where to look, and the brakes still work.

Sweet Memories and the Drowning of the Sun

A murder of sorts happens every day. You’ve seen it, but didn’t think to make a police report.

Remember the day at the lake? Or was it the ocean? You thought you watched the sunset.

Nope.

The invisible hands of the water pulled the yellow ball down, inch by inch. The flaming star drowned. The day was done and done for.

The world departs us without even a goodbye note. Well, you might say, the sun will rise tomorrow and you’d be right. Other things, different types of disappearances, are less predictable. A final meal with a parent or friend that seemed routine when it happened. The last conversation with a comforting voice. A live recital by a musician you won’t hear again. In the moment you don’t realize the “next time” is an idea about to be defeated by fate, but some day you’ll say, “Oh, that was the last time, wasn’t it …”

No, it’s not so serious. The old buddy might still be out there. The pianist is yet performing, but no longer at his artistic peak. Best not to go to his next concert, you say. Better to remember him at the height of his perfection. Some folks — athletes and actors, singers and trapeze artists — stay on stage too long. Of course the latter reside above the stage, but you get what I mean.

Last times happen because we cannot hold the globe still any more than we can stop a bull stampede.

Reading The Night Before Christmas to your little ones becomes a swan song, too. I loved my two charming girls cuddled around me on the eve of the once-a-year gift-athon. What they thought or felt I can’t be sure. Perhaps enjoying the ritual, my voice, and the closeness; but impatient to fall asleep, the better to jump over the nighttime to the morning.

As the years passed I’m pretty sure this habit of December 24th came to mean more to me than to my little sweeties, by then less little. I found uttering the words ever more touching. The girls were getting to an age when such things wouldn’t fit: the end of their childhood and a passageway leading to one fewer intersection of our lives.

I can’t tell you when we laid to rest the pre-holiday custom, but whatever the year, it was one of those things about which I am philosophical. Life can’t be freeze-dried, tiny creatures kept small in perpetuity. Put the flight of this ritual under the heading “a small price to pay for their growth and maturity; their flourishing.”

Thursday night, though, came an encore. The unremarkable routine of baby sitting at my youngest’s house offered no foreshadowing. Bedtime approached and with it the three books my grandson’s mom put next to the recliner in his room, his invitation to dreamland.

My boy responds to the drill as well as I do. He sits in my lap after we put on his pajamas and, once the recitation ends, gets tucked in.

How lengthy he’s gotten! He no longer fits snug in my lap. Remind me to buy a larger-sized space between my chin and my knees. Soon this three-year-old — long-limbed for his limited span of years — will be too big for this position.

I was about to pick up the first book when I spotted the title: The Night Before Christmas.

My eyes moistened, but I plunged in. He’d heard it before, but not from me. I’m an animated reader, so I gave the job passion: speeding up, slowing down; some parts louder, others softer. A performance.

The tear that started at the start made its way down my right cheek by the finish. I wiped the dew away and turned the mute printed words of the other two children’s stories into sound. Afterward my parents’ great grandchild scrambled into his bed, I kissed him, and we exchanged the words “I love you.” Once the lights were dimmed I left the room.

There have been moments in my life in imitation of eternity. Maybe they are eternity if you fully inhabit them, lose yourself, forget the hourglass and the daily sunset. Reciting this verse to my progeny makes me immortal for the few minutes it takes.

The man I am is well-past thinking money is the solution to anyone’s troubled soul, outside of purchasing necessities. I am incapable of religious faith, never my strong suit. I am done asking the question “What is the meaning of life?”

As a young man I wondered and wondered.

Choose your own meaning or no meaning, but for me I’ve never come up with a more pleasing one than revisiting The Night Before Christmas with my children; and now the first male in my parents’ genetic line since my brother Jack. So long as I can do that, the sun will hover in the sky, the flaming thing keeping all my loves warm, safely beyond the water’s reach.

The idea of a river drowning the sun was borrowed from Matsuo Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1694. The top photo is a Sunset from Zebulun Beach, Herzliya, Israel. The photographer is RonAlmog. The last picture is the work of Maureen Boyle: Freya’s Golden Tears in the Style of Gustav Klimt. Both the sunset and the Boyle were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Fathers and Memory

A woman I dated in college later gave a female friend the self-published autobiography of her dad. Mr. H was a complicated guy, something my old love seemed to indicate by her inscription on the inside cover of her gift:

Fathers!

If “Fathers!” meant he was narcissistic, she was right. The long account of his life mentioned his two children in only one paragraph. Their mother received a little more coverage, but the self-preoccupied writer failed to get their correct divorce date. He missed by a couple of years!

Dads and moms are on my mind because both my folks were born in November. I therefore offer you a few thoughts on how we remember people.

For example, I had several of Milt Stein’s baseball caps, but recently threw out most of them. I saved them after his death, all still holding his scent. His unique human fragrance was the whole — the remaining all one could then retain of his physicality. Now, lacking that redolence, they mean less to me. So long as I keep a couple I am satisfied.

My father’s electric razor held his presence, too; in the bull dozed bits of beard and the detritus of flaked skin. They reminded me of my face momentarily next to his in an embrace, the roughness of his after-workday epidermis, the substantial musculature of his body, the manness of his being.

I’m not alone in this attachment to aroma and sensory memory. My friend Mel, after the abrupt death of his wife, kept all her clothing for a time — and for the same reason.

We all remember people in photos, but our search for such vanishing wisps of creaturely residue recalls a closer closeness. Scent, sounds, and strands of hair are the evidence of physical nearness beyond what can be seen. They retrieve the touch, sonority, and smell of the other. In this we recapture the animality of our senses and the story they tell us of our past.

Mel agreed to be interviewed by me for an oral history late in his nine-decades-or-so of life. He was something of a father figure after my dad died in 2000; one generation younger than Pops, but still not young. So I have his voice, as well as a similar four-hour video interview I did of my father.

My treasure chest also includes not precious stones, but audios of a few of those who meant and mean something to me. Among these are my adult children when they were little. Mom’s spoken words own a place there, too, coupled with a bit of her singing. Though she never acquired vocal training, the tape displays undeveloped talent.

Jews, among others, remember people symbolically with illumination, lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a death. They also memorialize the name of the departed by giving it to an offspring whose birth happens soon after. Thus, the name does not die, despite Goethe’s assertion that “names are like sound and smoke.”

The usual explanation for this practice is the parents’ hope that in receiving the name of an admired family member, the child will emulate in life the virtues of the deceased namesake. To a certain extent, too, it is believed the soul of the loved one lives on in the child who now bears his name.*

All this, of course, takes no account of any convoluted feelings we might have toward parents. But these memorials assume a kind of idealized love for (and from) one’s guardians. Such emotions are baked into the cake of the connection between any small child and his sire; any small child and his mum. Therapy deals with the complications, but the remembrance remains.

Judy Collins created a different tribute to her father in a semi-autobiographical song. She emphasizes the sentiment, not the factual details, in her short introduction:

 

A prominent physician with whom I went to Chicago’s Mather High School dedicated his life to medicine because of the early death of his dad to cancer. Such stories aren’t hard to find.

When my best school friends and I established the Zeolite Scholarship Fund at our alma mater, we gave awards not only in honor of deceased and living classmates, but recognized several surviving teachers. They all appeared grateful to be recalled 40 years or more after we graduated.

The most touching story I know about ways of remembering involved two “star-crossed lovers,” no longer young as in “Romeo and Juliet,” from which the leading use of those words derives.

When their relationship came to its inevitable end, the woman told her beloved she would never wear a particular dress he favored; at least until such time as they again met. Only later did he emerge from his stupefaction and realize he too had reserved shirts he connected to her; and — so he said — purchased for her. Until then he didn’t grasp why he hadn’t worn them any other time. His unconscious alone kept the secret.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

—–

The top image is Salvador Dali’s Portrait of My Father. It is sourced from http://www.Wikiart.org/ The Missing Painting is the work of En-cas-de-soleil and comes from Wikimediacommons.

*The quotation regarding Jewish naming practices comes from http://www.Kveller.com/

Letting Go of Your Therapist and Other Losses

What shall we do about the people beyond reach? I’m talking about those we’ve lost through broken friendship and fractured romance; death and the end of therapy.

September is now autumn. Never a fan of descending leaves, I’m not a fall guy in any sense, nature’s signal of the close of things.

Soon comes the small tragedy of every baseball season’s autumn-end, a loss to mimic all the others. No less than a Yale English Professor, Bart Giamatti, captured this untimely time of year:

Baseball breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

Our species loses much of value: parents, friends, and youthful bloom; the cartilage in our knees, favorite pens, and jewelry. Therapists who helped us and with whom we had an erotic transference so much like love it might have been an early-stage, “too good to be true” version of the thing itself.

Thoughts return to the peopled world more than mislaid writing tools and bracelets. Here are the ones we meet and speak with and those who live in memory. Let’s talk about the latter, persistent missing partners in imaginary conversations.

Their posthumous life is in us because it is not outside of us. Were the beloved nearby we could touch and share. We could watch, know. An internet search offers little. Some are living, but estranged or unavailable; occupied elsewhere. Others no longer of this world. Why are they often so difficult to get over?

Therapeutic wisdom — a knowledge I relied upon — points to insufficient or postponed grieving of normal losses. Counselors also deal with a specialized version of this problem when erotic transference refuses to disappear. They help the client to recognize their affection and idealization of the counselor as a kind of mistaken identity. He is not their father and, by working out the feelings about the dead parent, the therapist becomes the smaller man he is, not a stand-in on a parental pedestal. The spell breaks, a solution that works except when it doesn’t.

Mourning is essential for everyone, but for many an imprint of the departed remains. We are creatures whose flesh craves the tattoo artist’s needle, a polished steel stylus inscribing a name on the heart.

Take grieving for what it is: an emotional expression of bereavement intended to reconnect us with the world. Not a resumption of life with all wholeness restored. The ache dissipates, but not every wound vanishes.

Recognize this. On the killing fields of today’s wartime, dying soldiers cry for the same person their distant predecessors did before the walls of Troy: mother.

Were mourning 100% successful in erasing the hurt, some of our memories would also disappear. In effective lamentation they diminish, blur, or fade; unless you are so gifted or cursed to relive the bygone like a video rerun.

Bloggers and their readers write about the long-abiding soft-spot for the therapist or an inability to find a love comparable to the idealized counselor. And how many carry a hope of reunion with the absent romantic other (at least in heaven); another chance or a final meeting with a mother or brother or misplaced-lover to say what was unsaid, receive what was never heard, or listen to what was heard before — once more: a “last moment” last moment memory designed to be lasting — beating the door to its bang.

Who would turn down another day with a beloved parent, long deceased? What would happen? I can tell you my imagination of such an opportunity with my dad.

I’d break down hearing his reanimated voice. Seeing him “alive,” the same. Embracing him and on and on. The two of us said everything we needed to say in his lifetime. We shared in words the love we shared in life. There would be no extra closure of something already accomplished, as might occur with sentiments unspoken by you or to you in a past relationship.

But what then, beyond the intensity and wonderful/horrible delight as the seconds ticked away? My grief might reopen. Months after Milt Stein died 18-years-ago, the kids asked my wife, “When will dad be himself again?” Not the single time I also asked the question of myself.

If you were mourning someone still living? Another meeting risks delay or disruption of the needed recovery. Perhaps a desire for renewal, restart. More to remember and sustain one party might bring exquisite pain to the other.

Back to enamored clients again. Consider the stirring inside you — still entranced by the transference — if you talked to the doc every six months post-treatment. Is the offer of such an opportunity a kindness or an obstacle to your 100% focus on your current life partner? Or the quest for one?

Would shared phone reunions be a balm? No answers here, only questions. Many other potential problems exist in post-treatment friendship. Each of you is different and no two of us come through the process or away from it in a unison of emotion.

Perchance you, in the sorrow of ended association or love, will yet be surprised to find someone as important to you, as well-fit to your temperament and interests — to your unique experience of life — as the departed one. Perhaps you won’t, but do you need to put your effort into a new soul despite his inevitable shortfalls — to give yourself whatever chance you have for intimacy? And, if he is not found, then your energy must go somewhere external, be it grandchildren, work, creating a better world, painting, friendship, healing the sick, or educating the young; all beyond the boundaries of your own skin.

Part of what we are dealing with is not (or not only) the casualty of passionate competition or obligation, our unique imperfections or human kindness, but the nature of life. Our time is short. We stretch to grasp and hold tight selected loves. Nothing lasts, as Bart Giamatti knew.

I did not make these rules. Neither did he.

Yet even in fall-fueled dystopic moments, I’m drawn to life’s poetry. The rhythm and rhyme bind me to those I love: those who brought me laughter, beauty, and generosity; past or present. So let Giamatti’s poetic sensibility speak once more of the bittersweet game of ball he did not wish to get over:

It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time For Paradise: Americans And Their Games

——————–

Bart Giamatti was not only a university professor, but spent his last few months as the Commissioner of Baseball.

The first image is A Water Drop by José Manuel Suárez from Spain. The following three are by Roger McLassus: Impact of a Water Drop on a Water Surface, Impact of a Drop of Water, and A Water Drop Detaching from a Water Tap. All were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Does Emotional Infidelity Consist of?

You tell yourself you are faithful. You love your spouse. You pray every day, attend religious services once a week. You believe in the strength of your will — the ability to resist temptation, the perfumed heat emanating from a delicate hand.

Ah, how we fool ourselves. All around are enticements. They are the banana peels you don’t notice, the black ice waiting to skid the vehicle of your soul into dyscontrol, the quicksand but a step ahead. Springtime and flowers and a glass of wine. A comely presence attached to a sympathetic listener (a therapist, maybe) when you are unhappy about something.

There can be so much in a smile and a tilted head. And those eyes!

How do you know when you are unfaithful, even a little? Or heading for it?

A few questions:

  • Do you sometimes think about the “other” when talking to your spouse?
  • Do you, even a bit, wish your mate were more like someone else?
  • Do you imagine what you’d do if free to pursue something elsewhere?
  • Does your present lover know the stranger exists?

The ice is getting thin, no?

  • What do you imagine your mate would think if he/she overheard you talking with this special person or read your email?
  • Does the arrival of a new message give you a rush?
  • Can you sense the “sex of things” even if you haven’t acted on it?
  • Do you lie to disguise any aspect of the new relationship?
  • Is the mental and emotional space devoted to the stranger enlarging?

None of the above necessarily includes any sexual contact, not even a kiss.

  • Do you engage in secret phone calls with the other?
  • Have you arranged meetings in a park, coffee shop, restaurant or the like?
  • Do you share confidences not offered to your spouse?
  • Is your sexual desire for your mate now much smaller or larger than before you became otherwise preoccupied?
  • Are photo exchanges part of your new, hidden life?

Many of these actions can be rationalized. The new friend perhaps is a co-worker or someone you met on a commuter train. Each step seems small enough and might be something you minimize. Flirtation is enlivening. Sympathetic listeners are necessary in any life. A new person is fresh by definition and the glare from the unwrapped cellophane hides whatever imperfections reside in the package.

At some point the frail self is caught in a wave, swept away, young again. The experience moves you from underneath a pedestal to the top of one. Routine breaks. Your spouse knows you too well, but the fresh friend is dazzled. Your life goes from static to ecstatic. You assume your mate will not find out. You don’t face what your friends or kids or parents might think. No one will be hurt, you say to yourself. STDs? You laugh thinking they can’t happen to you and nothing will pass to your mate.

You are a fool in love. The early stages of love make us all fools. I do not disparage amour here, but surely you recall muttering (in the past, of course), “What was I thinking?” The question comes too late.

Some argue you should simply enjoy the ride, ignoring that you are not encased in protective bubble wrap. Better, ask yourself what is of ultimate importance in your life. What are the reasons you chose your spouse? Consider the gratitude you feel still toward him or her; all you share and have shared. How can you enliven the relationship to make it better? Who are you really, your best self? Who do you want to be?

An emotional affair is still an affair of sorts, even if not yet so dreadfully complicated. The new romance will almost make you believe the other is Christopher Columbus and you are the America he discovered. And vice versa. All this while you are upside down and so much the plaything of your emotions that you will not even recognize you are drowning. Your stable life was built of blocks made of prose (and prose is essential to sustain any lasting relationship), but the weights pulling you under are full of poetry.

Perhaps you can find some of the old poetry back at home, too.

You have my best wishes and deepest condolences. No judgement here: these things happen even without seeking them. Friends and therapists are waiting to help.

Just remember:

The brakes on your being are balky. The steering wheel is unresponsive. You’re heading for a cliff at high-speed.

Think about it.

Oh, but wait!

I forgot your brain no longer works.

The Conflict and Triumph of Living in a Family

Most think of a family as a place of safety. Think again. Not always.

At its best, surely it is a place of love. Yet humans interact there, with their potential for a fractious collision of moving parts. Conflict is always possible and sometimes essential, as in all groups.

Even within the nest, the big and little birds are looking for something from the other: dominance, protection, recognition, support, encouragement, gratitude, and guidance. Let’s take this apart a bit, focusing on the issue of dominance and transcendence. By transcendence I mean the individual’s desire to test himself in the peopled world: flourish, make something of himself, strive to “overcome” and take pride in his overcoming. No one wants to be last in line.

Ego and self-assertion are essential for all of us. Without a sense of our “self,” we amount to nothing, get rolled over and pushed around.

Start with the mom and dad. Cooperation is necessary between the parents, but 100% agreement isn’t possible. Definitions of fairness and equity are found in the eye of the beholder. Sexual stereotypes regarding a man or woman’s role interfere. People change over the course of a long marriage. Some of the alteration is a matter of aging, some learning, some of finding oneself. The marriage contract must be revised to accommodate transformation of even one of the mates.

I always asked a new marital therapy couple what drew them together. The answer became predictable: “He/she was hot and we had a lot of fun.” Of course, in twenty-years-time the instant heat has usually diminished a bit and the fun always has, otherwise the team would not be in for a tune-up.

We seek ourselves through others. They reflect our image back to us in work, friendship, and affection. In conflict, too. How we negotiate disagreement in a marriage leads to many possible outcomes: mutual growth, increased or diminished intimacy, and more or less security. Our well-being is affected. Does the couple triumph together, apart, or not at all?

The children, too, are impacted. A first-born can be recognized, loved, and lauded simply for his existence. He needs to test himself, nonetheless. Such challenges come first in getting the parents’ attention and care. Later, the same people will play the role of obstacle on the long road to his self-rule. Siblings (who threaten to take his spot on center stage) represent another hurdle. Outside the home, he seeks the kind of image he wants in the world of strangers.

The child (as he grows) doesn’t need approval for everything, but encouragement in his striving. He must find a place for himself without becoming a doormat at the foot of the staircase of life: someone invisible who may crave self-effacement in a misguided search for safety. Self-aware or not, he requires respect and freedom, striving to create an impact on at least a sliver of humanity, rather than existing as a mistreated and passive instrument for the fulfillment of ambitions in those around him; tossed aside when the user has no more use of him.

If the parents can manage the task, the battles within the family lead to learning and growth. Everyone wins, though bruises are inevitable. For the child to learn to bounce back, he must have someone to bounce off of. Everyone in a well-functioning home gets enough of what they need to take on the world with growing confidence. Toxic parents might enable some children to thrive, while others — those who serve as family punching bags — don’t receive adequate tools to achieve satisfaction and a measure of triumph outside of it: a victory characterized by making a mark worthy of an admiring look and respect; and the confidence to become a productive member of the human community: secure enough, happy enough most of the time, sufficiently persistent and resilient to manage the challenges that come to us all.

Looking at your family, both family of origin and the one you made, helps you to be grateful for what you did get, know what you yet must find, and recognize your part in raising your children to ensure their rising.

We are never free of the need to strive for something — to experience the sense of producing a positive effect in the world of man and nature. All goals will not be achieved by anyone, but we are so arranged that not everything one wishes for is required to make a satisfying life.

—–

The top image is The Painter’s Family by Grigorio de Cherico. The second is The Appearance of the Artist’s Family by Marc Chagall. Both are sourced from Wikiart.org/

Why Therapists (and Others) Don’t Always Understand

How often we hear someone say, “I understand.” How often we think, “I only wish it were so.” Beyond the imprecision of language, I want to consider 10 reasons why true comprehension – recognizing the other person as he is and in depth – is difficult.

  • The fog of appearances: We instantly react to the individual in front of us, even before he makes a sound. Beauty (including a lovely voice) or its absence rose with the dawn of man. Sometimes revealing, sometimes obscuring; sometimes enhancing, sometimes diminishing. Sometimes all of the above.
  • Stereotypes: Beyond what we take from the person’s facial symmetry, shape, and size, other factors can cloud deeper comprehension. Gender, age, race, religion, and nationality interfere with vision beneath the surface.
  • Secrets and history: Polite conversation sets boundaries around self-revelation. Many of us believe we have been misunderstood – judged to the point of harm – and hesitate to reveal much. Even in therapy this is an issue, though with time and growing trust, significant secrets are often divulged. Without exposure, the job of comprehending you is far harder.
  • Our limited access to important data: Think about what information you might need to understand someone else. No one can access to all three sources below:
  1. The individual is the only person who perceives his life from the inside. He does not, however, see himself from the outside and will be shocked the first time he hears a recording of his voice. His grasp of his own motivations cannot be assumed accurate and may not reflect the work of the unconscious. Similarly, he interprets his life without the benefit of external perspective; except whatever is received, understood, and accepted of the other’s body language, tone of voice, praise or criticism. Most of us would be unsettled to know what others say about us in private.
  2. Friends and acquaintances hear what the same individual says about himself, what he reports of life apart from the observer, as well as experiencing his behavior in real time. Even his intimates must contend with the fact that “a mask of him roams in his place through the hearts and heads of his friends.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil).
  3. Finally, the therapist has the most limited exposure to the client in real life. Ideally, however, the patient is more open to the therapist than perhaps he has even been to himself. The counselor has the training to “figure out” who is facing him, and the opportunity to ask the most essential questions with some expectation of penetrating to answers not offered in the public world. He sees not from the inside and not only from the outside, but,  from closeup, below, and through.

  • How remarkable are you? Though I evaluated and/or treated well over 3000 people, I encountered only a handful who were unique. Such individuals represent an enormous challenge to one’s understanding.
  • Countertransference: We can have reactions to our patients that grow out of our own unfinished issues with persons of consequence who they resemble in appearance or personality. This is called countertransference. Objectivity and unbiased analysis flees the evaluator under those conditions.
  • The limits of our experience. One who hopes to grasp the essence of another will not have encountered the whole of humanity. If, for example, most of his contact is with like-minded people (let’s say small town residents of one religion) he will be at a disadvantage with those whose backgrounds are different. On the other hand, therapist and non-therapist alike can meet an individual with whom he is “in sync.” In that event, both might find friendship and sympathetic intuition effortless and uncanny.
  • The listener who wants to be right. Insecure counselors can be troubled, sometimes unconsciously, by their own uncertainty. They tend to find it more comforting to put people in a box than to recognize when someone doesn’t fit. The job of evaluator (not a judge) calls for two qualities not often mentioned. First, enough confidence to say to yourself, “I don’t understand yet.” Secondly, “I can do better and I’ll work until I get this right.” Therein they offer an odd combination of humility and security. From time to time the therapist must clean the slate and start over.
  • The observer’s own emotional wounds and defenses: Our personal wounds (we all have them) place a limit on the ability to absorb, accept, and seek the truth of all humanity. Indeed, who is to say there are not many truths. The best of us never fathom all we encounter.
  • The listener’s capacity and willingness to endure the other’s pain: Hearing personal stories, even with the therapeutic distance healers work hard to achieve, still creates vulnerability to the most poignant encounters. Too many such episodes close in time risk either overwhelming the counselor or making him callous. To understand the human condition one must recognize his limits.

Final thoughts. Treatment by someone who opened-wide your self-understanding can make you believe no one on the planet will ever know you so well. I’ve long believed that if you then allow yourself to take more real-life personal risks, other satisfying and close relationships are achievable. Nonetheless, the special nature of a therapy relationship may include a hard-to-duplicate quality of perception and acceptance “as you really are.” You then will want a friend or lover who is psychologically-minded, a patient and dedicated listener, and one who makes the effort to approximate what an expert analyst can manage. This might be a tall order.

Do remember this: you and the therapist might not have much in common beyond his comprehension and kindness. Interests, compatible temperaments, and world view count for a lot. He exists, as well, in a fantasy world of your creation: literally, too good to be true. Were the light-reflecting cellophane of illusion to come off the package, you’d find his unshaven, distracted, and ill-tempered alter-ego – occasionally.

Another thought. A psychologically profound understanding of your inner workings isn’t always essential for a happy relationship outside of the office. Love and acceptance, even without full knowledge of all your moving parts, can go a long way. Not even your counselor has a total grasp of himself or anyone else. That said, his success at his work doesn’t require perfection.

Anyone close is “out of this world.”

The first image is called Rorschach-like Inkblot by Irion. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The painting that follows is Vassily Kandinsky’s Composition VI, 1913. Finally, just above, is Honore Daumier’s Couples Singers, as sourced from Wikiart.org/