Thinking Truly, The Use of Counter-transference
The understanding of the meaning of ‘truth’ and ‘lie’ and of the processes in thinking by which the first is brought into the domain of knowledge, and by which the second is produced from emotional need, have implications concerning the nature of thoughts. It seems to me that both kinds of thinking can take place. [These ideas emerge from the work of Wilfred Bion, but I am responsible for this, and for the way I use his work.] The conscious result of either process is the experience of an idea (or feeling or mood) in the mind. Therefore when we have an idea, the real task is to know from which category of thinking it has come, although it would appear that conscious thinking very rarely attempts discrimination in this respect. This ‘very rarely’ seems to me to apply whether the conscious thought is applied to arts or science or politics or management or helping others or anything. The psychoanalytic mode of reflection, discovered counter-transference and uses consciously in what they call a free-floating attention to analyst, analysand and the relation occurring in the moment between them. This is a lot of words to describe an idea, a mental emotional process, which is far too good to be kept only in the context of the talking therapies.
Long ago I studied the work of scientist Michael Faraday. I believe this is an example of how ‘true thinking’ can be consciously attempted in the practice of science and Faraday himself tried to explain it in a paper “on mental education” (which you can now find online). I want to consider this notion of “true thinking” in the psychoanalytic use of ‘counter-transference’.
The core premise of a psychoanalyst (and of therapists, counsellors, consultants etc. working in a psychodynamic mode) is that the unconscious exists and affects conscious awareness, in feeling, thought and action. The analyst accepts that in meeting ‘other’, he/she will affect and be affected by the other, at many levels of being, both conscious and unconscious. ‘Counter-transference’ is the analyst’s inner response to meeting, the emotions and mental processes set in motion by the analyst’s own history and the object relationships of his/her internal world. This is inclusive of:
a) narcissistic needs of self, an experiencing which takes no account of ‘other’, and,
b) reactions which, still unconscious, accept ‘other’, a taking in the perception of not-self, an experiencing which acknowledges communication between self and other.
In awareness of counter-transference affect, (a) and (b) are unlikely to appear separately. Indeed, that they do not is the source of the analyst’s doubt, and question, about his/her own capacity to ‘think truly’. One solution is to consider that verbal responses (e.g. interpretations) are experiments, albeit theoretically informed, i.e. trial and error. Their truth is evaluated from hindsight, as one sees what happens to the patient. The general public, and patients, are, I believe rightly, alarmed by this possibility. I do not think that it is what happens in analysis. As I have said earlier, the experience of being a patient is one of being engaged in what is mainly ‘trial and truth’, not ‘trial and error’.
I find it more helpful to think about counter-transference, both (a) and (b), as a holistic response in the analyst, where either of (a) or (b) is the ‘figure’ and the other the ‘ground’ in the inner states which produce the here-and-now aware experience. [I have not encountered this description elsewhere, so I am responsible for it and for the following.]
Consciously, as the analyst cultivates a consistent stance of ‘attentive reserve’, counter-transference is monitored by silent recognition of whatever emotion, mood and thought is in awareness, and, by a questioning introspection. What feeling ? Why that …? Why now ? Why so faint, so intense…? … This self questioning process is in effect a reiteration of the existence of a non-narcissistic part of self, one which operates as a participant observer, able to distinguish and relate to what is observed. The communicative aspect of the analyst’s counter-transference, (b), is strengthened, and brought to the foreground, however much its configuration may still be coloured by the background of narcissistic need.
Without monitoring counter-transference, without the consistent attempt to maintain an attentive reserve, the narcissistic aspect of counter-transference, (a), may dominate as ‘figure’. The characteristic quality of narcissism, to split off and deny the existence of ‘other’, will erode or destroy the links with ‘ground’ and the responses to communication from the other become fainter, even lost, not available for recognition. If narcissistic need is indeed figuring as the dominant process, however temporarily, for that time the communication with other is restricted to the primitive deeply unconscious mechanisms of projective and introjective identifications. In taking precedence, these mechanisms create fusion with what might have been separable and denial of what might have been related to; the processes of resisting information from reality and the ‘lie’ are engendered.
Precisely because the monitoring takes place, monitoring counter-transference (even in the older sense of holding back all counter-transference response, in abstinence and not for informational use), allows a part of self which says “me and…” instead of saying “only me”, to be the foreground figure in the unconscious state of mind. However much ‘other’ is not yet known, or perception of it distorted, at the very least the unconscious ‘figure’ is now an element of self which does not stand alone, cut off from linking, modification and growth. The primitive identifications still occur, but like those within the good enough mother caring for her infant, they are subject to inner communication, and, being modified, can be put to use as a source of empathy.
Through personal analysis and training, an analyst is encouraged to consciously ask a question similar to that I have called ‘the real scientific task’ [above]: “From which category of feeling, mine or the patient’s communication to me, has this inner response of mine come?” I am suggesting that it is not the answer to the question which creates access to ‘thinking truly’, but the factual existent event of asking it. This conscious act makes a change, however minute, in unconscious configuration. Assiduous and repetitive re-asking, the monitoring implicit in the analytic stance, develops and strengthens the mental configuration which is open to relationship with both inner and outer realities.