Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Rent-A-Friend Vs. Psychoanalytic Listening

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 25, 2013

Rent-A-Friend, was how Professor L. described psychotherapy, letting us know, he did not have a lot of respect for the field. “The days of rent-a-friend are numbered,” he used to say, hoping we would all chuckle with delight and not squirm with discomfort, as many of us did. The squirming then did not make sense to me, but preparing for my class recently, I was able to piece together the components to that squirm. Salman Akhtar MD outlines the issue.

1. There is an entirely different sort of verbal material…in other words patients say things in therapy that they are too ashamed, or too scared to talk about with their friends.

2. The listening is for both conscious and unconscious aspects of the subject at hand.

3. The listening is done with the point of understanding on multiple levels, rather than merely providing support.

4. There is explicit consent that the listener can comment on deeper, and perhaps unsavory, motivations.

5. The mind of the analyst prepares for receptivity (I call this getting in the zone), in order to have what Freud described as “evenly hovering attention”.

When girlfriends go in a dressing room and one says “that does not look good on you,” there is love in that comment, which taken out of context would sound like a criticism. So too, with analytic discussions, “you were mean to your friend” may be unsupportive in a morning walk, but in a therapy room, that is a comment which inspires deep reflection. The courage to hold up that mirror, as the friend does in the dressing room, is the courage invested in a deeply meaningful relationship in which chances are taken in order to help the other go out into the world with consciousness and confidence. With all due respect to Professor L, who I love dearly for all that he gave me, the “rent-a-friend” comment was uncalled for, and demeaning to my other professors at the time, and now, to me, as well.

4 Responses to “Rent-A-Friend Vs. Psychoanalytic Listening”

  1. Shelly said

    I can see how this would be hurtful, if not insulting to you, especially since you think of your patients long after they have left your office. To you, each patient’s inner world is as real as the outer world. I wonder how many of us consider our friends’ inner worlds and our place in them? Your list of differences between “rent-a-friend” and psychoanalytic listening definitely is right-on–I agree with you. However, in my specific case, I can say that I have a special friend who can be both to me–a true and dear friend who at the same time is an excellent psychotherapist (but not mine!).

    • Yes, Shelly, you remind me that on my list of future posts is to open a discussion of the friend, who is also a therapist, and all of the difficulties that come with that. Stay tuned.

  2. Ashana M said

    It’s been my experience that people sometimes share different confidences with their therapist than with others in their lives: the trust is not greater, but merely different. There are confidences people will share with friends but not a therapist as well. But I think the main difference in my mind and psychotherapy of any kind–not necessarily analytic–and other kinds of relationships is simply that the burden of listening I place on a therapist is greater. There are few people I would ask to do that on a regular basis. It is difficult and exhausting and can create an almost existential sense crisis–although that is overstating it a bit. But if you haven’t thoroughly accepted and come to terms with suffering as a part of human existence, especially human-created suffering–then it’s really painful to really come face-to-face with so much

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