Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 12, 2015
There are two people in the psychotherapist’s office. This means that there are two subjectivities, two impressions of what is the meaning of the interaction. Understanding this dynamic, that two subjectivities merge to create an “analytic third” was the subject of my class last evening. The concept that distortions happen on both sides of the couch imply the fallibility of the analyst, along with the opportunity to repair, which some, such as Jessica Benjamin say is an important opportunity to repair the damage done by not listening to the music of the psychotherapy. Capturing the main idea, being present while someone is talking, is an art which fluctuates based on the amount of sleep, the diet, and the activity level of both parties. Moods, in other words, change the ability to listen, and hence opens both parties up for self-examination about what went wrong, when either party feels they have lost the flow of the session.
Noel, seventy-one, comes to mind. She went to a party for New Year’s and she was quite critical of the party, including the food, the company, and the general atmosphere. I was confused by her criticism, and I wondered why she felt so strongly that the hosts did a very poor job. Noel, suddenly felt criticized by me, and felt that I was not empathic with her need to vent about this “awful party”. “How do you understand my confusion?” I asked her. “I think you judged me for being so judgmental about this party,” Noel says, striking me as a very accurate statement. “Yes, I can see that, and that was wrong of me,” I quickly replied, understanding that my tone sounded critical of Noel, and I inadvertently hurt her feelings. It is this apology, that Jessica Benjamin, sees as the key elements to a therapeutic cure. Noel was able to tell me that my tone hurt her feelings, and rather than me, making her feel “too sensitive,” which has happened throughout her past relationships, I owned my tone, thereby validating her feelings, and reminding her that my hurting her feelings, made me feel bad. Together, Noel and I could see that in those brief moments, I lost empathy with her, and so there was a need to repair that moment. The repair allowed for the acceptance, not just of my fallibility, but for hers as well. It was a modeling that empathy fails, but repairs can fix them. The empathy failing is a repetitive experience for her, but the repair represents a new way of being in the world, which allows for growth and development, as opposed to more hurt feelings and more self-loathing. This is a more contemporary model of psychotherapy, one that is harder to teach new students, as there is more subtlety, and there is the need for more seasoning in practicing psychotherapy, that lets you appreciate the need for authenticity on both sides of the couch.