Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer


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.

6 Responses to “Intersubjectivity”

  1. Shelly said

    How can the therapist separate inserting his private feelings versus his therapeutic ones into a session? Perhaps you were only stating your feelings as a therapist and reminding Noel that it did not help her to be too judgmental of these types of social settings if, let’s say, she wanted to enlarge her group of friends (for example)? I realize that what you said could be described as “losing empathy” but there is a difference between interjecting one’s personal opinion (“being judgmental”) and being therapeutic.

    • Yes, there is a fine line between helping someone through their critical/judgemental side, and being judgemental yourself, as the therapist. The idea, for teaching purposes, is to encourage psychotherapy students to constantly monitor their reaction as potentially helpful, and/or coming from a place which is unhelpful and purely critical. Like a teacher who reads a paper, the comments could be constructive criticism, or just plain criticism. The idea is that if therapists are open to their own fallability as therapists, then a more genuine and authentic relationship can develop between therapist and client, and with this authenticity comes trust in oneself, and others. Thanks.

  2. Eleanor said

    “….. and I wondered why she ‘felt’ so strongly that the hosts did a very poor job.”

    Sometimes I have to let a post sink in for a few days as in this one to see what my reactions are. Speaking from my experience only, psychoanalysis was about ” feelings and more feelings and yet more feelings” combined with insight and understanding on deeper levels. I see the key word in your comment as “feel” and thus do not interpret this as “criticism”. In addition, I’ve been in situations too many times not to also know sometimes others interpret a tone of voice in ways that may be more of a protection on their part rather than my actual tone…certainly not always but sometimes. ( and yes I’m sure I’ve projected in similar ways with others also:-)

    Were you really bring critical as possibly she “perceived” ( for whatever reason of her own) you to be, or were you actually concerned with how she “felt”…this is the way I see this anyway…just adding another view point. (In addition not actually hearing your tone of voice makes this subject to multiple interpretations.)

    • Interesting, Eleanor. The subject of tone as another royal road to the unconscious, adds to our knowlege that both patient and therapist have a tone which is subject to narratives about the meaning of that tone. Intersubjectivity theory reminds us that the unconscious tone is bilateral, and as such, we, as therapists, need to not just to consider the tone of the patient, but the tone of our own. Having said that, the patient, in this fictional example, took objection to my tone, causing me to consider what she was, indeed, picking up on. As opposed to the more old school approach in which I would have assumed she was projecting, I took her comment seriously and created a space in which we could talk about how my tone impacted her, and I gave legitimacy to her comment, that indeed my tone could have been hurtful. This openness to my unconscious harm, allows for me to repair that hurt, and thereby create a new experience in the patient, where hurt happens, but so do apologies and repair. This act of repair is the growth step, which allows her to expect from relationships, an openness to feedback, followed by an opportunity to rebuild, after feelings are hurt. This paradigm is new to Noel, but as she absorbs this process, she will elevate the quality of her relationships. Thanks, as always.

      • Eleanor said

        Impressive……this newer approach adds greater depth and dimensionality to the interaction regarding verbal clues. More insight for one’s self on the part of the analyst not to mention an example of humility. For the patient, he or she not only feels “heard” but also possibly less vulnerable and less defensive. I will have to “modernize” my thinking a bit :-)…This approach is of course helpful in any conversation. Thanks for your further explanation.

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