Topics discussed :Externalization, Not Knowing, Ending Taboos

I have found many times that Transference is a subject that is covered with Taboo. It seems to be only discussed in intellectual settings. For some reason it has been moved off of the page of reasonable discussion. This is a curious thing since very often clients and therapists experience it within their work.

For example, if I may share something personal, I have worked with a supervisor for a year and have at times experienced an awareness of transference, experiencing it as if she were a sister to me advising me gently and with great compassion. I shared this with her once, and said to her, “Hey this is so interesting. I think I understand this experience of transference.”But she ignored the message.  Again I was left wondering, “What is unspeakable about this experience?”

I started learning therapy in the decade of the ’70’s when all sorts of boundaries were being questioned.  But even then transference was considered dangerous, always signifying that a therapist had broken some significant boundary in the therapist-client relationship. This was a frightening reality. Whenever transference was mentioned we all appropriately shivered at the thought.  As the years rolled by I started hearing stories about clients feeling safe and euphoric in their counseling.  I wondered if this has anything to do with transference, but the taboo prevailed and it was never talked about.

Today, over 30 years later, I have heard many stories of special feelings, and a new awareness based on feeling like I had a mother or father figure that I never had in my life. I am hoping that it will not be shocking to wonder what would happen if the therapist and client were able to explore this experience within the boundaries of safe client/therapist positions?

 

I once had a conversation with Michael White, my teacher in narrative counseling, about boundaries and taboos. Michael once had taught that it is alright to share when we are moved emotionally by the work our client was doing.   I had learned that the American Association of Psychiatrists had published a paper about appropriate limits in a client therapist relationship.  I asked Michael, “How do we know where to draw lines with clients?” He responded, “For me it has to do with a personal sense of what is comfortable. If it is not comfortable then it won’t work for me.”

Today I am asking you the reader and all of my colleagues at the Jerusalem Narrative Therapy Institute, what would it be like for you to be open to an externalized discussion about Transference?  To explain what I mean, let me review the Narrative concept of “externalizing conversations”.

 

In Narrative therapy people are seen as People and problems are seen as Problems. This means that problems do not necessarily live within a person, but rather they are culturally produced influences to which we fall victim. As we begin to explore the Problem as living in culture instead of within a client, it offers distance and safety to explore the problem. This often leads to a new positioning of the Problem in the life of a client.

 

I am wondering that if Transference was not a taboo subject, then a client might walk in and say I am feeling that I am giving you too much authority as if you are my mom or something.  I might ask a number of questions about this like, Well how is that for you to give too much authority to me or anyone? Is that a Problem or Uncomfortable or interesting or something else?

Once a client and I had been working together for 6 months. She was struggling with how the problem of Abuse was affecting her relationship with her children.  She had begun a wonder-filled new process of appreciating her children, freeing her relationship from Abuse. She walked in one day looking very concerned. She said “I have stop working with you immediately!”

I asked her, “Hmmm, Would it be okay if I asked you what has you knowing this?”

She replied,” I just bought a pair of shoes exactly like yours and I realize I am trying to be like you! So I must stop working with you.”

I asked, “What does this have you thinking about the work you have done?”

She replied “This has gone too far if I am trying to be you!”

“What would happen if you took a step away from this practice of being like me and we both agreed that being like you would be best?”

She smiled at this thought and asked “What shall I do with these shoes they are so wrong for me?”

I wondered, “Might you be able to return them?”

She laughed and started thinking this was not as Big a problem as it seemed at first.

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I am wondering today what might have happened if the idea of transference could have been discussed? What if she could have shared a concern about how much authority she was giving me in our work? What if she could have asked why might I be granting you so much authority in my life?

I am uncomfortable about this?

I might have asked her,” What are your thoughts about this?”

 

I am hoping to stimulate the practice of stepping away from a taboo in therapy and incorporating ideas of transference as a regular part of a dialogue.

When Transference is externalized it no longer means any one certain experience. As an externalized presence it might mean that a client is feeling love and nurturing at the hands of the therapists. Transference could mean that a client feels like they are being parented in some funny or interesting way. It could mean anything if I as a therapist take an unknowing position. By opening the dialogue to this then it could protect the Client and the therapists from the “breaking of safety in relation to appropriate boundaries.”

The practice of not knowing is a favorite practice of many narrative therapists. Not knowing means I am not an expert about the meaning of what we are discussing.  Rather I am curious about what meaning topics have for my client. I am not asking normative questions and I am not asking knowing questions, nor am I trying to get a client to see what they (must mean) by a topic. I am approaching any discussion wondering what any issue could mean to my client and then working with the sense my client gives me even if I have another idea about what this might mean.

I was working with a 23 year old art student. She was quite delicate and had a very soft voice. She was speaking about feeling lost and helpless and was suffering from nightmares and fatigue and isolation. I found I was experiencing a sense of needing to protect her, which was not the topic of our discussions. I walked into a session and asked, “Would it be okay if I ask you about an experience I have been having in our work? I have been feeling like I should protect you and even take care of you like a child of mine. What does this sense of mine sound like to you? Is this something you find yourself wanting from me or am I imagining this in some way?”

She said, “I would very much like for you to protect me, for about 5 minutes and then I very much want to stand on my own.”

We both laughed. I asked her questions about this 5 minutes she wanted to be protected and about the desire for the experience of standing on her own. After this session we both had shifted in our position and the sense of her needing to be protected dissolved. [I am wondering as I write this what would have happened if I had been able to ask I am feeling somewhat like you are a child I should protect, What do you make of this sense I have? My experience of this possibility is it would have created something freer and clearer perhaps for both of us.]

I am imagining the possibilities of a support group for people who had experienced deeply moving transference who would like some support for the experience. I am wondering what kinds of questions such a group could come up with to help this experience be useful or a learning experience. A woman who once came into my office looking quite sad. She told a tragic story of experiencing great love for her therapist for a long period of time and one day decided to express these feelings as they were becoming uncomfortable and confusing. Immediately after she had shared this, her therapists announced he would no longer work with her and had never spoken with her again. She had spoken to five other the therapists about this that each had helpfully suggested she get over it. This was not a helpful idea and so she felt quite abandoned and grief stricken over what had occurred. I wonder what would have happened if we could have shared questions about a transference she might be experiencing and what had happened as a result of this. I could imagine asking her what grief was saying. What had happened as she was offered the notion of getting over it? What other thoughts had this experience created about her life, her therapy and her love? I am to this day quite curious what kind of dialogue we would have experienced. This happened over 20 years ago before I was wondering about these things.

I have often been moved emotionally in a nice way over gratitude that has been expressed by a client as they grew and changed in the process of therapy. Before today I would keep very still and smile a bit and then get on with the session. I suspect today I might be very curious about this experience and its meaning for the client expressing these feelings. I have been referred to as a mother, a guru, a fortune teller and a friend. Once an elderly man came to tears as he spoke a out “what I had become in his life” Sadly I will never know what this meant and today I am left wondering. I am imagining these conversations and wondering if one day we might proclaim transference as a wonderful phenomenon and something we are grateful for as a significant movement within the boundaries of an ethical and healthy therapy relationship.

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