Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Mother Transference

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 10, 2013

Minh, sixty-three year old man, talks to me, hoping that I will be proud of his activities. His tone and presentation invites me to say things like “wow, that is really great.” This tug to praise him makes me wonder if Minh is hoping that I can mother him in a way that speaks to his need to be taken care of. Minh is single, lonely and often distant from his feelings. He is not aware of his need for nurturing, but that is the feeling in the room. This unconscious expression of a need for maternal concern will be a deep part of our work, but not now, since in this phase of his treatment he would quickly dismiss this notion. Minh is almost always excited to see me, and enthusiastically chronicles his life over the past week. He is not interested in looking at how he makes decisions or what motivates him to pursue his interests, but he lights up when he tells me about his new adventures and his acquaintances. The process of going deeper is blocked by his stiff silence and his quick disavowal of the meaning of his various activities. Right now, we are engaged in his sharing, and me admiring his accomplishments. The understanding of transference aids in giving me the patience to see this dynamic as his communication that he needs someone to watch out for him. As time goes on, he will come to see this need and then search for a relationship that partially fulfills that, along with being able to nurture himself. Once again, time and thought and patience are critical to his treatment.

4 Responses to “Mother Transference”

  1. Shelly said

    Is fictional Minh a new patient for you? “His tone and presentation invites me to say things like ‘wow, that is really great.'” To me this implies that as a therapist, you are saying things by rote and don’t mean what you say, and that you are only saying what you are expected to say, or you think that this what Minh expects to hear. Is it possible for the therapist his/herself to find value in someone else’s experiences, personally, and to express support for them? For example, if someone I was speaking with was describing his experiences in rock climbing, I would enthusiastically say, “Oh wow! That’s great! Let me hear more,” because that’s something I would like to try. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to nurture the person I’m speaking with, and I’m not trying to explore his motivation for rock climbing. I realize that there is a very different relationship between someone speaking in a casual relationship and someone else speaking to a therapist, but sometimes a horse is just a horse and not a zebra.

    • Fictional Minh is not new to me. I am trying to describe the sensation that reminds me of when a dog snuggles up to you implying that he wants you to pet him. That is the feeling I have with Minh. It is not that my reaction is rote, but rather that as he tells me his accomplishments I am feeling that he is searching for affirmation. This feeling is the beginning of my thinking about his transference and wondering where it comes from, both in me, and in him. Thanks.

  2. Ellen said

    Good illustration of transference.

    Do you think he will search for a relationship that meets his needs, or will he be contented with having found you? Just wondering.

    • Thanks, Ellen. The question you raise is whether our psychotherapy is a bridge to deeper relationships, or whether he will get stuck on the bridge. Theoretically speaking, our relationship has such obvious limitations (sessions are time-limited, vacations, payment, asymmetry), that these constraints will be a stimulus for Minh to find other relationships that are more mutual. Having said that, for some, the bridge is very long, and it can take some time, to venture out of the safety of a “play space” meaning psychotherapy.

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