Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Dangerous Imagination

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 22, 2014


Fearing one’s brain is the root of resistance. Patients, generally speaking, are afraid to speak freely, for fear of what they might say, despite the fact that the consultation room is private and safe from outside forces. This fear, this resistance, to some therapists is the frustration in psychotherapy, but to psychoanalysts, this resistance is the meat of the relationship. Gloria, for example, had a counting obsession. Whenever she was unsettled, she would begin to count by threes in her head. As we explored her self-imposed mandate to count, we discovered that counting distracted her from exploring the cause of her anxiety. She was afraid to think about what she was thinking. The intrigue in fearing one’s own mental processes is gripping, in that the mental state is not scary, but rather the reaction to the mental landscape can be frightful. Her counting, in Freud’s words, was the way she inhibited free association. “I always dream about getting to my desk, and not knowing what I should be doing,” Gloria says, expanding Freud’s ideas that what might be scary to relay as a thought, becomes safe to relay as a dream. “It was just a dream,” is a frequent quip to explore the deep recesses of the mind, without admitting to full ownership. Like tone, a dream is a back road into some deeper, more obscure spaces, of the mind. If Gloria could trust that whatever her mind served up, she could manage, then she might feel more relaxed and open to new and interesting experiences. Instead, at the moment, Gloria relapses into counting, so as to maintain a mental tightness of control and rigidity. She has mixed feelings about this controlled existence, so she hopes and fears that she can let go, that she can allow herself her own imagination.

3 Responses to “Dangerous Imagination”

  1. Shelly said

    But seriously, how “safe” is the therapist’s office? In your patients’ minds, the therapist is a judge of their experiences and mental statuses. When your patients speak, even if they know they are coming to you for help, you still make diagnoses and judgments about them. And therein lies the rub…they are fearful of what to reveal because you reflect or mirror what they fear: however you may put a medical spin to their behaviors. If you help them with medication, then you verify and validate their fears of being “crazy.” Therapists are only people, after all. Even if you don’t mean to judge…you will still lecture them about overeating, getting more exercise, to stop abusing drugs and alcohol, unprotected sex, etc…So…Gloria perhaps trusts her mind, but she may not trust hearing yours.

    • Jon said

      Shelly, I beg to differ with your last sentence. I do not think that Gloria trusts her mind, as much as her instincts. It seems to me that she is using her mind, as Shirah suggests, to hind from her mind. Arithmetic routine allows her to escape deeper exploration, both Shirah’s and her own.

      There is an interesting parallel here as well. Mathematics is, in part, the exploration of deep patterns. Arithmetic is a rather boring surface to a fascinating structure. If Shirah can help Gloria go beyond a surface – in this case a barrier – then Gloria may gain deeper understanding of herself.

    • This is an interesting discussion. The issue about Gloria caring about my judgment brings up the issue of transference, as I may have some ideas about her thoughts, but it is also possible that she is assuming my ideas based on her previous important relationships. These assumptions are the holy grail of our work, as she could be projecting these thoughts on to me, and other current relationships, and thereby hindering her ability to develop intimacy. I am not sure that I “lecture” about health habits, as much as Gloria might fear that I will.
      Yes, Jon, the issue of arithmetic versus mathematics makes sense in this context. From surface to depth, is the motto, but one has to be able to leave the surface, and, at the moment, the fictional Gloria is fearful to do that. Thanks.

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