Being a Psychotherapist: The Role of Transference

Working as a mental health professional is taxing on the individual. Some recent studies have shown that 78% of psychiatrists and more than 50% of psychotherapists reported work-related burnout, according to self-reports (Summers et al., 2020; Olazagasti et al., 2021)

As a psychotherapist myself, I can speak to the reality of this experience; however, I would like to explore the underlying psychodynamics of the phenomenon of burnout by examining psychotherapy from a psychoanalytic perspective.

In Carl Jung’s 1933 book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, he provides a physical analogy to illustrate the dynamic within the therapeutic relationship, stating, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed” (p.49).

This quote serves as a starting point for tracing to main themes: the bi-directional nature of the therapeutic relationship and the need for physical comparisons to ground psychic experiences.

Elaborating on both these themes, with an emphasis on the latter theme, Jung drew this comparison between medical doctors and psychotherapists while lecturing at the Zurich Medical Society in 1935, “Just as all doctors are exposed to infections and other occupational hazards, so the psychotherapist runs the risk of psychic infections which are no less menacing. On the one hand, he is often in danger of becoming entangled in the neuroses of his patients; on the other hand, if he tries too hard to guard against their influence, he robs himself of his therapeutic efficacy” (p.19).

Not only does this quote further expound upon the specific “occupational hazards” associated with psychotherapy (and mental health professions, broadly), but it also highlights how therapist and therapeutic effects are interrelated and dependent upon the psychotherapist themselves. This is not strictly speaking about clinical methods and techniques; as Jung states elsewhere, “Every psychotherapist not only has his own method—he himself is that method” (p. 88).

The emphasis here is less on clinical methods and differences in therapeutic approaches and more on the central importance of the therapeutic relationship between the patient (or client) and the psychotherapist (or counselor). Jung describes that it is the psychotherapist’s responsibility to “voluntarily and consciously tak[e] over the psychic sufferings of the patient,” which, subsequently, “exposes” the therapist to “the overpowering contents of the unconscious” (p.176).

The theoretical explanation of the process that follows from this initial encounter is an activation (or constellation) of unconscious content in the psychotherapist that corresponds to the “activated unconscious content” that the patient brings into the consulting room. This results in the initial therapeutic relationship being “founded on mutual unconsciousness,” which is where the risk for the psychotherapist lies, who might be “affected in the most personal way by just any patient” (p.176).

However, as mentioned in the second quote of this essay, introducing the term “psychic infection,” Jung believed that the manifestation of the unconscious materials was not just associated with risks but also “therapeutic possibility,” though this demands that the psychotherapist is “better able to make the constellated contents conscious,” lest risk “mutual imprisonment” (p. 176).

Therefore, the challenges posed to the therapist are, as Jung puts it, to “the whole man.” Moreover, the challenges are inextricably linked to both the therapist themselves and the emergence of the therapeutic effects. And all of this is shrouded in a veil of danger – a risk to let the tides of the unconscious rise within and take back territory that one’s consciousness had gained. This is the battle that each of us faces within, a push and pull between the tension of opposites, but, for the psychotherapist, the danger is magnified, and there seems to be no escape; thus, one must press onward.

References

Summers, R. F., Gorrindo, T., Hwang, S., Aggarwal, R., & Guille, C. (2020, October 1). Well-Being, Burnout, and Depression Among North American Psychiatrists: The State of Our Profession. American Journal of Psychiatry, 177(10), 955–964. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.19090901

Jung, C. G. (1933). Modern man in search of a soul. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Jung, C. G., Adler, G., & Hull, R. (1985, December 1). The Practice of Psychotherapy: Essays on the Psychology of the Transference and Other Subjects (Bollingen Series) (Second Edition Used). Princeton University Press.

Olazagasti, C., Velazquez, A. I., & Duma, N. (2021, July). Tackling Burnout: An Endemic Problem in the Medical Field. ASCO Daily News. https://dailynews.ascopubs.org/do/tackling-burnout-endemic-problem-medical-field

Internal Infrastructure: Building Bridges

The mind is prone to wandering. The ego has a tendency toward striving. To ground oneself becomes a continual challenge while withstanding the pushes and pulls of life. It is as if you are a boat being pushed to and fro by the turbulence of the sea in search of an anchor to drop, which would allow, at least, a brief reprieve from the waves. An anchor fixes you to a point in a physical sense.

However, its function in this case is not a physical sense; rather, it is a mental (or psychic) image of an object that offers a sense of feeling more grounded. The mind will soon wander once more or confront another unsettling visitor who comes and knocks at our mind’s door; so it is with life.

There is always more to be drawn out from the shadows—as long as light continues to shine. The scope of the unknowable is and will always be unknown; through repetition and indirect of methods of approximations, the distance between the known and unknown can be lessened, inferences and hypotheses can be made with reasonable certainty—however, it will forever remain a limit of human knowledge to determine the extent to which content stills remains lurking in the darkness of the depths. The totality can never be reached through rational thought, only approximated; to assert otherwise is to demonstrate one’s unconsciousness by pretending to have mapped and ascertained that which, by its very nature, is unknowable, both in scope and nature.

This point of not only acknowledging the existence of that which is unconscious but also appreciating the necessary way in which it exceeds are limited ego-consciousness is a point Carl Jung raises throughout his works. Jung was emphatic that the unconscious cannot be ignored nor overlooked, and Warren Colman encapsulates Jung’s sentiment on the matter quite succinctly, writing, “Jung repeatedly insists on this radically unknown quality of the unconscious: since everything known is a content of consciousness, the very idea of the unconscious presupposes all that is unknown and, since it is unknown, we cannot have any knowledge of its nature or its limits. All that we can say about it is said on the basis of its manifestations in consciousness” (p. 157, Papadopoulos, 2006).

Therefore, according to Jung, through this acknowledgment of some unknown, unconscious factor that exists within and without, our task emerges: to form a relationship with this unconscious self from the stance of our ego-consciousness. It is through this relational bridge that we ferry back-and-forth from one side to the other, striving toward an increasing sense of wholeness. Jung referred to this as the “process of individuation.” It is a manner of forming an integrated personality of selfhood that is unique, full, and rich through the arduous and continuous process of self-refinement. A central method of this process is our relationship with those unconscious parts of ourselves and how we work toward reintegrating those pieces that are split off for one reason or another. However, all of this hinges on the connection between the two sides, conscious (ego)/unconscious, if one side is denied existence, then not only are these methods of healing not allowed, but “dangers” emerge from this “one-sidedness” that can lead to “psychic epidemics” (1959).

References

Papadopoulos, R. K. (2006). The Handbook of Jungian Psychology: Theory, Practice and Applications (1st ed.) [E-book]. Routledge.

Jung, C. G., & Hull, R. (1959/1990). The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1) (Collected Works of C.G. Jung, 48) (2nd ed.). Princeton University Press.

Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F. C., & Shamdasani, S. (1958/2010). The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams (Jung Extracts, 37) (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press.

Thoughts for Ponderance: Humility & Inquiry

There is always more to be drawn out from the shadows—as long as light continues to shine. The scope of the unknowable is and will always be unknown; through repetition and indirect of methods of approximations, the distance between the known and unknown can be lessened, inferences and hypotheses can be made with reasonable certainty.

However, it will forever remain a limit of human knowledge to determine the extent to which content stills remains lurking in the darkness of the depths. The totality can never be reached through rational thought, only approximated; to assert otherwise is to demonstrate one’s unconsciousness by pretending to have mapped and ascertained that which, by its very nature, is unknowable, both in scope and nature. Therefore, humility will always be a necessary requirement for true intellectual and personal inquiries.

Unified Rationality

In today’s socio-political climate, our attitude toward each other is often characterized as polarized, hostile, intolerant, divided, and so forth. The current situation’s emotional charge intensifies as the confluence of significant factors (e.g., pandemic, natural disasters, scarcity of resources including economically) both increase in magnitude and expand in scope. Consequently, the continuation of these tests continues to test the integrity of the system, as a society and as individuals.

As those experiencing these events transpire in the present, at the most technologically advanced point in history, there is a natural human tendency to amplify the significance of what is happening in the present and characterize these events as unprecedented. While these events may be unprecedented in many ways, particularly in their magnitude and scope, the psychological forces at play are anything but unprecedented. In fact, it is only due to our assumption of superiority over all previous stages of civilization that allow us to maintain a position of confidence when discussing these psychological matters, citing the advances in neuroscience among other disciplines of the mind to console ourselves that the deepest and most terrifying stages of psychic development are behind us, as a collective.

To expand on this point, I will return to Carl Jung’s 1957 book The Undiscovered Self for a humbling and frightful quote: “Consciousness is a very recent acquisition and as such is still an ‘experimental state’ ––frail, menaced by specific dangers, and easily injured” (p. 74). By returning to the level of consciousness, we shift to a universal plane of thought that is shared by all and even extends historically, stretching back to the origins of consciousness itself. Even through doing this as a cognitive exercise, there already is a greater degree of separation from the present day. Moreover, Jung reminds us that despite our technological advancements, that our consciousness is not to be taken for granted, explaining, “The development of consciousness is a slow and laborious process that took untold ages to reach the civilized state. . .Although the development since that date seems to be considerable, it is still far from complete” (p. 73).

If these quotes about consciousness seem too abstract and unrelated to the initial points of the first paragraph, then it might be useful to pivot toward addressing why this disconnect directly: Why does thinking of the term consciousness provoke a sense of resistance? Maybe it’s that discussion or thought of the matter seems arbitrary and futile, or possibly it is easier and simpler to dismiss the topic altogether, selecting from the various connotations linked to consciousness as a way of sidestepping further investigation into the matter.

There is another reason for the resistance or uneasiness to the idea of consciousness that also accounts for why mental health and psychology have lagged behind that of the physical sciences, as Jung puts it, “When it comes to psychology, one of the youngest of the sciences, you can see misoneism at work” (p.72). Misoneism is defined as “the hatred or dislike of what is new or represents change.” As Jung identifies its role in psychology, I am extending it to our general uneasiness toward the topic of consciousness and our specific aversion toward the talk of unconsciousness.

While our society may be characterized by stark divisions and widening schisms of perceived and real differences, we share many similarities with how we respond to the notion and the reality of the unconscious. While the mere mention of the unconscious may provoke an urge to double down on the supremacy of rationality, declaring “our present knowledge of nature to be the summit of all possible knowledge,” we, nevertheless, can be “possessed and altered by our moods, we can suddenly be unreasonable, or important facts unaccountably vanish from our memory” (p. 74). Furthermore, this “basic resistance of the conscious mind to anything unconscious and unknown” serves to further our state of division from one another and dissociation from ourselves (p. 72).   

Resistance toward change is at the core of both of these rifts, within and without. They fuel one another as we seek to compensate for our feelings of inferiority evoked by the mere acknowledgment of unconsciousness. Through rational compensation and continued one-sided emphasis of consciousness, we, at the forefront of humanity, revert back to primal methods of denial and suppression, just as our ancestors did when faced with unprecedented events. The primary difference between our moment in time and that of our ancestors is the artificial integration that the internet and, specifically, social media platforms have provided us with that allow us to pull at the seams of not only our individual psyche (the container of consciousness and unconsciousness) but also that of the collective psyche. Our fears are absolved as we allow ourselves to be dissolved into a group that grants us an escape; this temporary refuge can blur over time and transform into a constant on which we depend and from where we operate, creating such a degree of normalcy and familiarity that we invert even the most basic principles to the point that “the right hand does not know what the left is doing, and in a state of violent affect one frequently forgets who one is” (p. 74).

While people are finding ways to accept the severe divisions among political parties, ideologies, and directions for the future of these United States, it is of the utmost importance for humanity that we do not forget that “Even in our days the unity of consciousness is a doubtful affair, since only a little affect is needed to disrupt its continuity” (p. 75).  

References:

Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F. C., & Shamdasani, S. (2010). The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams (Bollingen) (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1957)

The Fundamental Divide

Many living in this modern age will agree with the statement that “we have never been more divided.” If not to this extreme, then at least to the degree of acknowledgment of the strong division among the citizens of society.

While I am specifically referring to the discord within the United States, the principles and mechanisms of actions underlying this division are far more universal than any single country or period within human history.

Often when thinking about divisions within society or among peoples, there is a basic mistake made in the first movement of thought; that is, the natural tendency appears to look outward and continue the investigation from this starting point. However, while this can yield useful and insightful discoveries, it also serves to overlook another source of division because of this initial outward movement: We neglect to inquire into internal divisions.

The consequences of this inward inquiry are different from that of the outward one; however, there are many similarities between the internal and the external. Both are necessary for deepening understanding of each other.

Throughout the work of Carl Jung, there is an emphasis on the inner and outer, moreover, the interplay between these two. There is a tremendous amount to expand on from this point, so instead, I would like to redirect to the initial divide that he so often wrote about: the division of the physical and the mental (i.e., psychic).

While Jung is by no means the originator of this idea, his psychological approach to this mind-body division was novel for the time since this question had previously been delegated to the realm of philosophers. Moreover, Jung was one of the forerunners for the relatively young field of psychology, beginning as a discipline around the late 1900s. Still, more than a century after Jung’s first publication in 1912, it is only in recent years (especially the last two decades) that the field of psychology, mental health, and the psychic side of life are beginning to gain traction. At least, relative to being treated on equal terms with the physical side of life.

As a society, there is a growing movement to remedy injustices and advocate for equality. Yet, even with the increased acknowledgment and receptivity to the reality of mental illnesses and the necessity for psychiatric and other related interventions, the inner world or the psychic side of existence still must overcome a more considerable burden of proof than the physical side.

Jung emphasizes this disparity in our treatment of the physical and the psychic in his 1957 book The Undiscovered Self, writing, “One can regard one’s stomach or heart as unimportant and worthy of contempt, but that does not prevent overeating or overexertion from having consequences that affect the whole man. Yet we think that psychic mistakes and their consequences can be got rid of with mere words, for ‘psychic’ means less than air to most people” (p.47).

Even today, the term “psychic” is likely to be less well-received than “mental” or “psychological.” However, the correspondence between the terms physical and psychic is the most logical pairing and usage for the natures being described. This may seem like an arbitrary point, but I believe that solidifying psychological terminology is essential to increase understanding and awareness of the nature, components, and disorders that occupy this psychic landscape.

Moreover, Jung’s quote can be applied to the original point of societal divisions, for he is indeed addressing a very similar topic. This is evident in his subsequent writing, “when everyone admits that the weal or woe of the future will be decided neither by threat of wild animals, nor by natural catastrophes, nor by the danger of world-wide epidemics, but simply and solely by the psychic changes in man. It needs only an almost imperceptible disturbance of equilibrium in a few of our rulers’ heads to plunge the world into blood, fire, and radioactivity” (p.47).

While on the surface, these outer divisions appear distinctly separate from that of those inner divides, Jung’s work highlights how our inner and outer worlds are deeply interconnected. Furthermore, he emphasizes how the outer worldly situations are collective externalizations of suppressed content from our inner worlds. For example, the increasing focus on materialism and objectification has parallels to how the physical side of life, and, particularly the rational and scientific side more recently, represent a one-sidedness that obscures and diminishes the significance of the inner, psychic side of life; both on the individual and collective levels.  

As psychology and the mental world gain more acknowledgment and receptivity than in previous points in time, and there is increasing focus on the outer world, Jung’s work invites us to explore the inner world as a method for understanding and addressing the variety of manifestations that arise within the outer.

Reference:

Jung, C. G., Hull, R. F. C., & Shamdasani, S. (2010;1957). The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams (Bollingen) (Revised ed.). Princeton University Press.