Lightmind Extract 024
when anyone is in a position of authority there is a psychological power imbalance.
this is not wrong. it is not a choice.
it is psychologically unavoidable.
it starts with our relationship to parents and other adults when we are kids.
we idealize them. we imagine them to be all good, all powerful, all knowing etc….
we have what heinz kohut calls “idealization needs”.
it’s how we grow.
gradually we are able to surrender the idealized images of our parents, but only as our sense of self becomes strong enough to tolerate their humanity. if we are forced into this reality prematurely it causes trauma that results in unresolved idealization needs, amongst other developmental and relational difficulties… this can happen in a number of ways.
as adults, whether the relationship is to a psychotherapist, spiritual teacher, bodyworker, or a fantasy relationship with a famous person or leader in our field, we continue to idealize and to need others to play certain roles for us.
In traditional psychotherapy, the practitioner is very careful never (even accidentally) to see the client outside of the office. this is to keep the psychological space open for the client, so that they can become vulnerable, and start to develop a transference relationship to the practitioner. What does this mean? The client starts to unconsciously transfer their feelings about their parents onto the practitioner. typically, you know that transference has begun when the client starts to idealize the practitioner. Because the screen has been kept blank, and the practitioner has been accepting, the client can project their fantasies onto the practitioner, much like a child projects onto adults. it is important in a healing relationship, for a positive transference to emerge.
As this happens, the client will trust more and more, their ego-defenses will soften and their unconscious material will start to surface. They will then require the practitioner to play a certain role for them, as they regress into childhood feelings, memories and associations from the past. The different phases of the client’s identity, at different ages, will start to be accessed, and the client will form a powerful psychological bond with the practitioner. Part of this bond is usually a strong (but often consciously denied) erotic feeling, combined with a sense of deep trust. As infants and young children we have an innocent but powerful erotic charge around our parents. We especially “fall in love” with the parent of the opposite sex and long intensely for their touch, approval and attention. this is natural, it’s how we grow. Our whole body pulsates with pleasure when we get this attention.
When a wounded parent is unable to understand this vulnerable innocent eroticism, and acts out in various ways to break this trust physically, emotionally or sexually, the relationship and the child’s psyche are damaged. A wounded teacher or healer will enact or re-enact the same kind of trauma on a vulnerable student/client.
So the transference is the client’s unconscious (deeper than the protective ego-defenses, deeper than the conscious ego’s idea of itself) finding a way to relate to the practitioner, in order to complete unfinished developmental streams and heal old traumas, in order to move forward.
As this process intensifies, the client will start to exhibit curiosity about the practitioner and want to know more about who they “really are,” if they “really like me,” or “if we weren’t in this healing relationship, could we be friends, or even lovers?” The client wants more, and bristles at the limitations of the relationship.
None of this is wrong or problematic, it’s quite natural. however, the resistance in the client’s psyche to healing, a resistance that has enabled survival thus far, a resistance borne of the initial traumas that broke the child’s trust, will try to sabotage the positive transference to prove that the practitioner can’t be trusted. typically, after a big opening, the client will start to manifest some of these fears or rationalizations. A negative transference is often part of the process too, as the client projects the bad parent onto the screen. all of this is often quite necessary as the material gets unwound.
Sometimes the client will also try to befriend or seduce the practitioner in order to defuse the tension that the healing alchemy is creating and so change the context of the relationship.
As children we ideally go through a process of gradual, tolerable disappointments in which we realize that mommy, daddy and our teachers are ordinary, imperfect people after all. These are ideally “manageable disappointments” that allow us to individuate and develop a healthy, independent sense of our own center. This process may happen in the context of the healing arena as well. When these disappointments are combined with trauma and betrayal and an underlying, ongoing sense of dysfunction in the child’s life all of these processes go awry. However we have a need to idealize, it’s part of how we grow. As we humanize, and usually to some extent, reject, our parents we start to idealize music and film stars, and then as we get older, we idealize political or professional mentor figures, healers or teachers.
In traditional psychotherapy, dual-relationships are avoided. It complicates and contaminates the transference, and most would say it definitely shouldn’t be done. Now, in the last 40 or 50 years, there have been different schools of thought about these issues and boundaries, and some communities, especially the alternative, humanistic ones are less rigid about it all. However the dual-relationship is still challenging and more complicated than a straightforward, one setting, one context relationship.
Often, transference is not discussed between client and practitioner. Sometimes, however, when the work is of a certain caliber, discussing the transference, and consciously working out any glitches can add a powerful dimension to the healing process.
However, when someone in a healing or teaching position forgets the power imbalance and the psychological vulnerability of the student/client in order to gratify their own desires, something very, very problematic occurs and the client/student is usually very damaged by the experience.
This is poignantly ironic because the client/student has come seeking healing or growth and has transfered super positive (in the case of gurus, almost supernatural) feelings/energy onto this person. to then be manipulated and used to gratify the person in the power position’s unresolved/unconscious needs is painful and violating.
the teacher/healer is also hurt by this occurrence, because they are trying to get their own needs met in an indirect way that ultimately is unsatisfying and all about their misidentification with the power position (ego inflation based in wounded insecurity)
because of how ubiquitous this has been in the eastern interaction with the west, transpersonal psychology has tried to deal with this problem by bringing a more psychological understanding to what goes on in spiritual communities and teacher/student relationships.
understanding the dynamics of transference and counter transference is essential if one is to truly be of service as a good and responsible healer or teacher. not taking the time to study this huge concept and naively pretending that it can be transcended or intended away is an incredible form of self-sabotage and denial, usually based in a narcissistic inflation and addictive need to not be grounded in reality.
kornfield and welwood both have really, really good takes on this serious problem.
as soon as we get over the naive fantasy-based “enlightenment” red herring, we can start to hold spiritual teachers to at least the same level of ethics and personal responsibility as we hold therapists, parents and schoolteachers.
unfortunately most who buy into the child-like idea of enlightenment are, by definition, vulnerable to this kind of abuse, and most who sell themselves as enlightened are caught up in a pretty potent and dangerous narcissistic inflation.
Filed under: Heinz Kohut, Jack Kornfield, John Welwood, Lightmind Extracts, Psychotherapy, Transference/Countertransference | Leave a Comment