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Page Contents: Introduction / A Remedy for Family Failure / Feeling Special / Flirting with Emotional Disaster / Understanding the Erotic Transference / The Real Task of Psychotherapy / Summary

 

 
HY DO MOST individuals go into psychotherapy? Well, there can be many specific reasons, but there often is one basic, underlying reason: something was lacking in their childhood family life, and this lack continues to cause problems even in the present.

 
A Remedy for Family Failure

Now, one very common lack in contemporary families is the failure to treat children with unconditional nurturing guidance and protection. So instead of learning true love in their families, children—through all sorts of family manipulation and game-playing, if not outright abuse—are essentially taught to fear love. And the pain of all this loneliness, guilt, and fear will live on in the unconscious, in a sort of timeless emotional imprisonment, even as the child grows through childhood and adolescence to adulthood.

So, suffering from psychological pain, you will seek out psychotherapy. Through healthy and honest interactions with a psychotherapist, you can learn to think and act in new, emotionally honest ways, different from the psychological defenses created in childhood, and current problems and symptoms can be remedied.

In this profound interaction with the psychotherapist, however, a new problem can emerge.

 
Feeling Special

As you begin to encounter genuine concern for your well-being, the whole experience of psychotherapy can feel overwhelming and intoxicating. Once having felt ignored and misunderstood, and now feeling noticed and understood—and not rejected—you can start to feel special. Moreover, you can begin to believe that the psychotherapist is special as well.

When this happens, everything can take on a feeling of erotic “love.”

You see quote marks around the word love in the last sentence because erotic feelings are really feelings of desire, not love. I want to know more about the psychotherapist’s personal life. I want to know what he or she likes. I want to be with him or her outside the psychotherapy sessions. I want to believe that he or she feels an attraction to me. And so on. That’s desire. It’s desire because it is based in what “I want,” not in what you or someone else needs.

  

Think for a moment about the whole purpose of family life and wonder what any infant needs. Well, an infant, born into the world completely helpless, needs protection and guidance in order to grow and develop its own abilities, so that, in maturity, he or she can go out into the world to do good for others. That protection and guidance—which is an aspect of true love—isn’t meant to make you feel “happy”; it’s meant to help you develop your unique talents and grow into a productive member of the whole human family.

  

Now, true love does have a function in psychotherapy. Love can be defined as “willing the good of another,” and this is precisely what the psychotherapist is ethically bound to do for all clients. The psychotherapist wills the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within the psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms that prevent the client from living a useful and meaningful life.

 
Flirting with Emotional Disaster

As unpleasant as it may be to admit it, erotic “love” is based on infantile needs to be received, accepted, and satisfied. When someone feels intensely received, accepted, and satisfied, then he or she is “in love.” But sooner or later that intensity will be broken. The break doesn’t even have to be the result of malicious neglect; it can simply be the result of a need to attend to other obligations in the world, and, in the person feeling neglected, intense jealousy can flare up.

This explains why “lovers,” friends, and blog readers, with all their personal needs and desires, cannot function psychotherapeutically. And it explains philosophically—above and beyond any laws or professional ethics—why psychotherapists cannot be friends or “lovers” to their clients. If they try, it will lead to psychological disaster, for without the “third person” of the unconscious in the consulting room the psychotherapy will degenerate into emotional chaos.

 
Understanding the Erotic Transference

Erotic “love” within the psychotherapy—technically called an erotic transference—is not necessarily a bad thing, though. That is, it’s not a bad thing if it can be understood as one essential step toward learning true love.

Just as any child who receives gifts from others must first go through a phase of development characterized by a “hoarding” or “clinging” mentality—Mine! Mine!—before learning to share with others, so you, in feeling the enthralling acceptance of your psychotherapist, will at first want to hoard that feeling and claim it as your own personal possession. But that feeling can’t stop there, and your psychotherapist’s job is to make sure it doesn’t stop there. The child part of you really desires love, not the person who gives the love, and your psychotherapist has to help you understand that.

  

Sadly, many psychotherapists are not very competent in dealing with subtle psychodynamic issues. In fact, many psychotherapists feel uncomfortable with a client’s erotic transference. Why? Because many psychotherapists are unconsciously caught up in their own erotic transference with the world around them. And so these incompetent psychotherapists can make a mess of the whole process. Instead of just admitting, “Sure, you’re an interesting and attractive person. But that’s not what this work is all about. So let’s get on with the real work,” they try to hide behind a forced façade of neutrality that only leaves the client exasperated and confused. And if the client tries to speak about his or her feelings, an incompetent psychotherapist will shy away from really exploring the depth and vast unconscious extent of those feelings. Or an incompetent psychotherapist will, for his or her personal satisfaction, “fan the flames” of the client’s desire. Yet none of this is psychotherapy—it’s just more of the same manipulation and game playing that has brought the client into treatment in the first place.

  

So remember why someone goes into psychotherapy: to experience a sense of genuine recognition so as to overcome the lack that disturbs current social functioning. Once all the manipulation, game-playing, and dishonesty that characterize your interpersonal relationships are dissolved through the integrity and honesty of the therapeutic relationship, then you can enter into an honest life of true love for others.

Is a psychotherapist just a “paid friend” 
or an “emotional prostitute”?
 

 
The Real Task of Psychotherapy

Your task in psychotherapy, then, after you experience that intoxicating feeling of unconditional recognition, is to recognize in the transference itself your desire to hoard that feeling. At this point it will be important to talk openly within the psychotherapy about those desires and explore their deepest unconscious significance. Talk about how good it feels to experience recognition and understanding. And talk about how painful it felt to have been unrecognized and criticized as a child.

Assuming you have a competent psychotherapist, resist the temptation to terminate the treatment so as to run from the embarrassment of honest communication. Work through the awkwardness of it all until your desires for the psychotherapist are seen for what they are: an intoxicating attempt to hoard feelings of recognition and understanding.

Then, having understood the profound difference between desire and love, and having worked through the unconscious illusions (i.e., psychological defenses) behind your intense desire for one person, you can proceed to offer genuine love to everyone.

 
Summary

When you are working to overcome the transference, keep in mind this important fact:

  

You are not “in love” with your psychotherapist; you are obsessed with the idea that another person can give you what has been missing in your life because of what your parents—especially your father—failed to give you in your childhood.

  

 

 

For a discussion of some real-life complications of transference, see
Questions and Answers about the Psychotherapy Process.

 


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