(or What’s Love Got to Do With It?)
My absolute favorite part of the New York Times is the Sunday Style section. It’s where I get to read my favorite column “Modern Love” and an advice column called “Social Q’s” and usually some juicy celebrity gossip. It’s the one section that I love to read in print and will avoid online, even if an article pops up in the “Most Popular” or “Editor’s Picks” sections.
So last week, as I quickly perused the headlines over breakfast, an article on the front page of the Style section immediately caught my eye. It was titled “Still Talking After All These Years” and it was a recap of the American Psychoanalytic Association’s annual conference held at the New York Hilton Midtown. If I had known, I would have seriously considered crashing the “new attendees’ cocktail party” just for a laugh. Although the mere thought of 1,600 analysts hanging out together for a week is somehow deeply disturbing, even if the Times writer described the mood as “effervescent.”
How bizarre that such a recap would appear in the Style section, and not say, Metropolitan or Business or even just the front-page News. But, no. There it was in the Style section. But what really caught my attention was the mention of a seminar “on the correspondence between Freud and his protégé, Sándor Ferenczi, and their falling out, which turned into a lively conversation about boundary violations and how ideas about them have evolved.” Well that piqued my interest. I would have very much liked to have heard that conversation!
So who was Ferenczi and what was his beef with Freud? The ex-therapist was a self-professed theory-wonk, but this was a name I had never heard before.
Sharon R. Kahn, Ph.D, in her paper “Ferenczi’s Mutual Analysis: A Case Where the Messenger was Killed and his Treasure Buried” tells us that “Sándor Ferenczi (1873-1933) was an integral figure within Freud’s psychoanalytic circle. Ferenczi originated the constructs of ‘identification with the aggressor,’ ‘splitting,’ ‘projective identification,’ and the ‘corrective emotional experience.’”
Oh that. The corrective emotional experience. The idea that, if done right, therapy can allow you to re-live parts of your past and forge a better outcome, thereby “correcting” whatever deficiency you experienced the first time around. Shitty mother in real life? The therapist can become your “therapeutic” mother and teach you all things about trust and intimacy and secure attachment that you missed out on in childhood.
Or something like that. I’m not sure that I buy into that in reality. It sounds good in principle but it depends on the therapist not repeating the same shitty mistakes that landed you in therapy in the first place. And since therapists are human beings, and completely fallible, I find that to be a hard sell.
So while Freud believed in the necessity of the “blank slate” and non-disclosure on the part of the analyst, Ferenczi believed that the empathic response during therapy was the basis of clinical interaction.
Ferenczi wanted the analysand to become a co-participant in an encounter created by the therapeutic dyad. This emphasis on empathic reciprocity during the therapeutic encounter was an important contribution to the evolution of psychoanalysis. Ferenczi also believed that self-disclosure of the analyst is an important therapeutic reparative force. The practice of including the therapist’s personality in therapy resulted in the development of the idea of mutual encounter: the therapist is allowed to discuss some content from his/her own life and thoughts, as long as it is relevant to the therapy.
So the ex-therapist was most definitely a Ferenczian. I guess that’s not really a term because Heinz Kohut (and many others) seems to get credit for many of Ferenczi’s original ideas. Arthur J. Clark, in his book Empathy in Counseling and Psychotherapy: Perspectives and Practices explains: “Although Sándor Ferenczi is not widely known outside of psychoanalytic circles, his innovative treatment approach has direct implications for the integration of empathy in a therapeutic context. […] Almost three decades after the publication of Ferenczi’s final contributions, Heinz Kohut introduced empathy as a pivotal construct in his treatment approach.”
The new therapist is a devoted Freudian, which I’m not sure I appreciated or gave much thought to before. Maybe I didn’t give much thought, or any thought actually, as to the therapist’s particular therapeutic school or affiliation. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it matters greatly.
When I first started to see the ex-therapist, her willingness to self-disclose felt like a breath of fresh air. It made the sessions feel more real and personal and intimate. But it was a smoke-screen and created a false sense of trust. It made it so that the boundaries became murky and I could no longer see or distinguish between her and me, her issues and my issues. It was just one big merged mess.
If only the ex-therapist had read the caveat that self-disclosure is appropriate as long as it is relevant to the therapy. In her world, over-sharing was perfectly normal and sometimes she would talk as much as I did! Sometimes even more. I sure did get to know her, but I’m not sure that I learned all that much about me – other than the very clear realization that I crave the intimacy and closeness that she promised to provide but then couldn’t deliver because it was never rooted in reality.
In my reading on Ferenczi, I stumbled on this quote he made of a former patient:
“It is actually not a case of a ‘former’ patient but rather of one who had ‘begun’–and was then dismissed.” (Brabant, et. al, 1995, p. 253).
So despite preaching about empathy and reparation, Ferenczi was just as heartless as the ex-therapist. It makes me realize she is most definitely in this camp after all. So that is me – one who had ‘begun’ and was then ‘dismissed.’
I wonder how many clients find themselves ‘dismissed.’ I wonder how many get to revel in the satisfaction of a healthy therapeutic termination. I wonder if that only happens in the structured confines of cognitive behavioral therapy. I wonder if the very construct of psychoanalysis or depth psychology just lends itself to traumatic fallout. It’s probably why I am so terrified and unwilling to submit to any real analysis right now. The fear of just being re-hurt and re-injured all over again is too great. And I don’t think it’s unfounded or unjustified either.
There are three volumes of The Correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi that cover from 1908-1933. The third volume contains a lengthy explanation for the fallout between these two men that lasted over two years and only ended when Ferenczi died in 1933. It was a classic case of misunderstanding, difference of opinions, politics and an unresolved father-son/teacher-student/analyst-analysand power dynamic.
Likewise, there are 1,099 emails between me and the ex-therapist spanning from 2012 until the beginning of 2017. It seems that whenever I go to search for something in my Inbox, no matter the search term, an email from the ex-therapist pops up. I so wish I could move all of these emails into some alternate inbox archive – so that I don’t ever again have to encounter the hardcore evidence of being ‘dismissed,’ especially when I’m just searching for something entirely unrelated to her or therapy. I’m not ready to delete them all just yet, but I wish I didn’t have to look at them either. Perhaps one day I will be able to delete them all. Maybe I’m hanging on to them so that one day I can go back and search for the explanation of our own fallout.
I find it interesting that here we are 85 years later and still debating the issue of boundaries. Maybe the issue is that what works for one person and one therapy with respect to boundaries and self-disclosure, may not work for another. The magical intersection is to find a therapist with boundaries and ideas of self-disclosure that work with your own needs. One of the disagreements between Ferenczi and Freud was around the standardization of psychoanalysis. Freud believed in a one-size-fits-all approach and Ferenczi argued for something more customized. Ferenczi felt limited and constrained by Freud’s narrow definition and boundaries of analysis and suggested something more. It was Ferenczi, after all, who got his clients up off the couch and sitting face-to-face (Clark, 2007, p. 95).
Maybe one of the points of contention, both then and now, has to do with the subtle distinction between empathy and therapeutic love. I recently stumbled upon a blog post titled “Do Therapists Love Their Clients?”, and it started as a lovely read until a few paragraphs in when there was a quote from my ex-therapist! I just can’t get away – she continues to haunt me with every search term and random blog read. The blog post made reference to a term psychosyrupy that is a “kind of gooey, lovey-dovey kind of pseudo-therapeutic relationship which is characterized by lack of challenge, clarity and boundaries, and which might seem loving but doesn’t actually help clients individuate and grow.” Yes! I know that feeling all too well. I wonder what Ferenczi would have thought about psychosyrupy. I could venture a guess, but wouldn’t it have been fascinating to chat with him about it over a glass of wine at the hotel bar.
For me, personally, I see the role of empathy in therapy, but I think you get into dangerous territory when that morphs into psychosyrupy “love.” I know the new therapist cares for me and likes me, but she does not love me. And I prefer it that way.