Self Psychology Page 

Mutually Mutative Moments in the Psychoanalytic Experience

Ernest S. Wolf, M.D.


[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]

This paper originally was delivered at the International Self-Psychology Symposium in Dreieich, Germany, June, 1999.  It is presented here for the first time.



Throughout its first century psychoanalysis has retained the core outlook and concepts that emerged from its creation by its founding genius Sigmund Freud. To be sure, psychoanalysis has become the fountainhead for a long list of psychological theories and methods that were derived from the basic Freudian thought. These then developed further into numerous directions. No doubt, there were many factors that influenced Freud to move into that particular way of thinking which we can still identify as early psychoanalysis. It is beyond my present scope here to try to analyze in any detail how and why Freud arrived at his conclusions. It appears, however, quite worthwhile to pickup some threads that went into the web of his thinking, especially some of those formative influences that were determined by the place and time of the history of the period in which he lived. A better understanding of the then contemporaneous forces will bring into focus comparisons with related current contemporary influences. Such comparisons may well highlight and illuminate important differences between the original Freudian outlook and some modern views of analogous issues. It may well turn out that in certain instances where our current views appear to clash sharply with those of Freud we are likely dealing with genuine Freudian ideas and derivatives in continuing development. Seen through the eyes of the changed circumstances as well as the changed philosophical approaches to modern life and thought we might perhaps conclude that Freud, if he were living today, would see things much the way we do.

Of course, we cannot be certain of that. Indeed, our very uncertainty is a symptom of the changed philosophical ambience in which we think and act. Most of our leading thinkers have surrendered claims of infallibility and stress the relativity of the truth values of all of our knowledge. This is still a very controversial stand in current philosophical discussions and I am not nearly well informed enough in philosophical thinking to argue persuasively one way or the other. Yet intuitively I feel much more comfortable with today's "I'm not sure" than with the professed certainties of the great authorities of former decades, whether they were philosophers or psychoanalysts. Could it be that in my 7th decade I am more modern than I suspected?

But let's get back to Freud. His choice of a medical career was influenced by his hearing a lecture by the zoologist Carl Brühl who read an essay on Nature ascribed to Goethe. In medical school Freud adopted Ernst Brücke, the noted physiologist, as his admired idol. Brücke as a student of Helmholtz was the symbol for the revolutionary advances in physiological science. A true pioneering scientist, he aimed to reduce physiological processes to physical and chemical laws. Freud was inspired to do for psychology what had just been accomplished for physiology by his teachers. Thus Freud's aim was to reduce the chaos of psychological observations to scientifically observed psychological processes and then further to psychological laws in analogy to the laws of physiology, chemistry and physics. A most ambitious undertaking of which one may well say that he largely succeeded. Along with the other scientists of his day Freud conceptualized within the positivistic framework of Cartesianism, the reigning philosophy of René Descartes. In Freud's view, therefore, the mind became an isolated mechanistically constructed machine like many other objects in the world. Dichotomous conceptualizations such as object vs. subject, inner vs. outer, psychical reality vs. external reality, became the metapsychological pillars upon which the whole house of theory was being built. We all grew up in this Cartesian thinking and to free ourselves is extremely difficult.

Our topic here today is the therapeutic process. What happens in a psychoanalysis that is experienced as psychological change? My aim in the following is to help open the door of the Cartesian box and let me and all of us follow the psychoanalytic process from the point of view of experiencing it rather than looking at it objectively as something out there. And immediately as I write this I am experiencing some apprehension that I am attempting the impossible, that I will not be able to understandably talk about conscious and unconscious experiences. But I will try and hope for the best, just like when beginning an analysis.


What is the future analysand likely experiencing while he or she attempts to get into a treatment relationship with an analyst? I think we can assume that the potential patient who voluntarily is approaching a therapist has a number of scary questions on his/her mind. Perhaps the most universal and pressing of these questions is "I feel bad. Can I be helped and will this professional person be willing and able to help me with my feeling so bad?"

As you can see, for the time being I am restricting myself to talking about the person with feeling states of discomfort about the self. Such feeling states commonly include degrees of anxiety and depression and probably have been experienced more or less for some time. Other feeling states, such as, for example, mania, are less likely to be experienced with the immediate discomfort that calls for a remedy. However, even the patient, who comes in apparently feeling good and cheerful, is in all probability hiding the anxiety and depression that could be experienced. Fear of experiencing shameful judgments regarding the self may serve the attempt to push everything less than perfection out of mind. However, in the absence of a critical posture on part of the therapist, the patient is likely to gain some confidence that the therapist may actually try to be helpful without intentionally introducing negative consequences, such as a put-down of the patient.

The therapist may say all kinds of things that the patient agrees or disagrees with. Information passed from therapist to patient via verbal interpretation may be very illuminating and may even succeed in making something conscious that was unconscious. Yet, in order for the therapeutic work to achieve some success in the judgment of both participants something more is required than mere agreement or disagreement as expressed verbally regardless of whether the verbal exchange has increased the scope of conscious awareness or not.

That something more is an aspect of the relationship between the two participants, namely how the relationship of patient and therapist with each other is experienced. We may call it an intersubjective relationship. What the patient hopes for is the experience of being understood and accepted by the therapist. Understanding and acceptance mean more than a mere intellectual cognition and a tolerant acknowledgment of the patient's behavior, wishes, feelings, and goals. It means also that the therapist's response to understanding the patient includes a set of the therapist's own feelings which the patient can experience and sense, and which indicate that the therapist's essentially friendly and benign posture vis-à-vis the patient is genuinely representative of the therapist's self. No play-acting or following some prescribed technique of analytic responsiveness but with a personal honestly respectful spontaneity expressing good-will.

It is only when such a relationship has been established or is about to be established that experiencing a verbal interpretation or any other kind of cognitive intellectual insight can have a therapeutic impact. A verbal interpretation or some other behavior on part of the therapist can be experienced as a mutually mutative moment that advances the treatment toward a mutually agreed goal only within the context of such a reciprocally accepting and understanding relationship of both participants.


At this point, I would guess, most psychoanalysts would think of transference and the appropriate interpretation of the transference phenomena as they manifest in the relationship between analyst and analysand. However, it is important to recognize that the intersubjective relationship between the two participants that I have been discussing is qualitatively and dynamically separate and different from the transference relationship. To put it most succinctly, transference is the manifestation in the present of mostly unconscious aspects of childhood experiences and the defenses developed in reaction to these early experiences. Wishes, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and the reactions and defenses that were constructed to protect against unpleasant and destructive effects have become or remained an unconscious part of memory and are displaced in the here-and-now onto persons with which the individual is currently engaged in some interpersonal relationship. The therapist is, of course, a prime target for such displacements. While it is possible that some actual behaviors of the therapist may encourage or facilitate the transference displacements onto him/her it should be remembered that these transference displacements originate from and represent past experiences and are not at all indicative of the qualities and behavior of the person onto whom the transferences are targeted. There is a discrepancy between the actual reality of the person onto whom the transference is displaced and how this person is perceived as a result of the transference which alters aspects of how this person is experienced. Interpretation of the discrepancy may often allow a more accurate perception of the actual reality with a reduction in the power of the displaced past to influence current experience. However, as already stressed above, the power to alter the experience of the relationship in a positive therapeutic direction depends more on the reality of the therapist's posture and being than on the transference induced distortions. The experienced reality is more powerful than the verbal explanation of the transference.

An additional complicating factor is the therapist's mostly unconscious transference onto the patient. Usually this is designated as countertransference. The therapist may be partially aware of these countertransference displacements onto the patient originating in the therapist's childhood experiences. Furthermore, there may be direct reactions of the therapist to the patient's transferences that have often been labeled rather imprecisely as countertransferences and would better be designated as counterreactions. It is clear that any counterreaction is part of the actual reality of the patient's experience of the therapist and, therefore, likely to influence the therapeutic process in either a positive or negative direction. One could argue that some counterreactions are practically inescapable and that the posture of understanding and acceptance described above as needed is just a particular type of counterreaction which happens to be therapeutically desirable.


When we last met here in Dreieich in the summer of 1997 we focused our discussions on the role of interpretation in psychoanalytic treatment. At that time I briefly described how the total experience of the two participants in the analytic situation inevitably developed into something more than could be based on mere verbal interpretations. Please allow me to quote myself:

"Patients noticed much more about their analysts than the words that had been spoken. They noted the analyst's office, dress, mood, tone of voice, posture, attitudes in general and specifically the analyst's intentional or unintentional revelations about attitudes towards the patient. For their part, analysts, when honestly introspective, became aware that they were not neutral but had sometimes intense inner reactions and affects evoked by the patients. As it turns out, analysis is not a process that develops strictly within a patient nor even a process that can be described by an outside observer to be going on between a patient and an analyst, i.e., an interpersonal process. Rather, analysis consists of experiences created by both the analysand as well as by the analyst. It can fairly be said that each of the two participants' experience consists of an awareness, limited in degree of consciousness, intensity and depth, 1) of one's own inner thoughts and affects accessed by introspection, 2) to a lesser extent, of the other's inner thought and affects accessed by vicarious introspection (i.e., empathy), and, 3) most importantly yet also most speculatively, of the what the other's thoughts and affects are about oneself who to them is an other, accessed by a processing of one's introspection and vicarious introspection with whatever else one knows about the self and the other. In other words, the experience of both participants revolves almost exclusively around their relationship with each other. As a profession we are still struggling to describe accurately this experience of mutual reciprocal awareness of self with other and how we are affected by it in our thoughts, feelings and actions."


Having described how the mutually mutative moments in psychoanalysis are experienced, it remains to discuss how such experiences come into existence and how they change the dynamic constellation that we have learned to label the self or, in other words, what makes them mutative moments for the self.

The above described and experienced relationship of mutual understanding and acceptance of both participants of each other in the analytic situation characterized by cooperation and collaboration in an ambience of mutually benign friendliness that is necessary for interpretations to be effective has been labeled "Therapeutic Alliance" or "Working Alliance" by some theorists. I must stress here, however, that this important and needed relationship by itself alone is also no more sufficient for therapeutic progress to occur than is interpretation alone. To put it bluntly but simply, neither love nor rationality are enough. For change to occur, whether it is a desired therapeutic change or a not so desirable anti-therapeutic change, requires first a regressive disorganization of the cohesive self experience commonly referred to as a fragmentation (or, at least, a mini-fragmentation) followed by a rearrangement of the constituent aspects of the experience into a new more cohesive and more stable configuration.

I will again repeat from my discussion here two years ago when Kohut described optimal frustrations as a precondition [of] change when Kohut had not yet dismissed the drive-defense model:

This concept of optimal frustration became Kohut's fundamental approach to a metapsychological theory of structure formation both in childhood as well as during the psychoanalysis. Transmuting Internalization was the term that Kohut used to designate this structure building process while he was still struggling with an integration of both drive psychology and self psychology:

"Preceding the withdrawal of the cathexis from the object there is a breaking up of those aspects of the object imago that are being internalized. This breaking up is of great psychoeconomic importance; it constitutes the metapsychological substance of what, in a term closer to empathically or introspectively observable experience, is referred to an optimal frustration. The essentials of the process of fractionized withdrawal of cathexes from objects were, of course, first established by Freud (1917a) in the metapsychological description of the work of mourning." (Kohut, 1971, p.49-50)


"…the most important aspect of the earliest mother-infant relationship is the principle of optimal frustration. Tolerable disappointments in the pre-existing (and externally sustained) primary narcissistic equilibrium lead to the establishment of internal structures…"(Kohut, 1971, p.64)

Arlow and Brenner also see the creation of destabilization as desirable when they state

"What analysts communicate to analysands serves to destabilize the equilibrium of forces within the mind, leading to the analysands' growing understanding of the nature of their conflict…"(Arlow & Brenner, 1990, p.678)

More recently the same idea was also stated by Schlesinger:

"An invariable consequence of a well-timed and accurate interpretation is a disturbance of the patient's neurosis and the analytic field. In the short run, the analyst's purpose is to accomplish just that. It is essential that the analyst pay close attention to how the disturbance develops, to diagnose the ways in which the patient attempts to restore stability and to follow up with interpretation to illuminate them." (Schlesinger, 1995, p.663)

Kohut (1975?) in talking to students, however, did not think that the disturbance caused by optimal frustration should be deliberately created by the analyst:

"There is never any need--and by never, I mean never--there is never any need to be artificially traumatic. Simply to give the best you can give is traumatic enough, because you cannot fulfill the real needs… always limp behind the patient's needs….you realize his hurt or disappointment after the patient is already hurt." (Elson, 1987,.p.91)

Finally, Kohut (1985) in his posthumously published work talks about the disturbance of the analytic relationship when the patient experiences the analyst's failures:

"…[he] must ..demonstrate how, after the original resistance motivated by the fear of retraumatization by the current selfobject's empathic failure-in the selfobject transference: the analyst's failures as manifested by his erroneous, inaccurate, ill-timed, or unfeelingly blunt interpretations-had been overcome, … He must show, in brief, that the quietly sustaining matrix provided by the spontaneously established selfobject transference to the analyst that establishes itself in the early phases of analysis is disrupted time and again by the analyst's unavoidable, yet only temporary and thus nontraumatic , empathy failures-that is his "optimal failures" (Kohut, 1985, p.66).

and how optimal failures lead to new structures:

"Each optimal failure will be followed by an increase in the patient's resilience vis-à-vis empathy failures both inside and outside the analytic situation; that is, after each, optimal new self structures will be acquired and existing ones will be firmed." (Kohut, 1985, p.69) 

In summary, we have seen how Kohut based himself on Freud's concept of structure formation through mourning and developed from this the principle of optimal frustration as a precondition for structure formation. As he gradually relinquished the traditional drive-and-defense theory with a shift to a self theory based on selfobject relations, Kohut shifted from an emphasis of optimal frustration to a focus on optimal failures of the selfobject relationship with its associated rupture in the relationship. Repair of this rupture then becomes the path for rehabilitation by rearranging the fragmented self into a new and stronger configuration.


Classically the dynamics of an interpretation on the unconscious has been described as an internalization. I try to avoid words like internalize because the term is ill defined and I do not understand clearly what it goes on both consciously and unconsciously. Of course, I do understand that internalization describes results such as that an interpretation which is given from outside, is consciously perceived, and winds up having an effect on the unconscious where there is supposed to occur a change in consequence of the interpretation having been made and internalized. But to me that just labels the end result, it does not describe how and why this internalization happens. Perhaps, Freud does describe the dynamics of change that is labeled internalization. If so, I have forgotten it and I am not going to try to look it up. Kohut talked about optimal frustration and transmuting internalization. But he did not clarify either why there is an internalization and why it is transmuting. Is the unconscious not a domain, an area, with boundaries, that are not just easily penetrable? How does one get into it? How does something that I say to the patient, consciously, and is heard by the patient, consciously, get into his/her unconscious?

In the absence of a clear understanding of how one can influence someone else's unconscious I have concocted my own understanding. Let me put it in self psychological language but I am sure one could easily translate this into ego psychology, or into classical Freudian language.

I think of the self not as a structure, not as particular area of the mind but as an organization of the memory traces of a certain type and kind of experiences. (I realize that all these are only metaphors, but metaphors are the only ways that we can talk about the mind, I believe). A newborn or before birth even an intra-uterine infant has sensory experiences. These experiences are recorded somehow (I don't know how but I don't think we need to know that at this point) in the nervous system, most probably largely in the brain. One of the most important of the functions of the brain seems to be to order the incoming sensations, stimuli, perceptions, etc. Repeated identical inputs are recognized and classified accordingly. Repeated inputs that are similar to each other are classified as similar. Inputs from outside (extrospections) are classified as such, inputs from inside (introspections) are classified as such, some are classified as painful, some as pleasant, etc. pp. Another way to describe this is to say that the brain attaches or assigns or reads meaning into these experienced perceptions. A certain set of these experiences emerge as pertaining to self, others pertain to not-self. The various experiences pertaining to self are organized into an overall integration of self-experiences that as a whole is experienced as a coherent self-experience, and can be conceptualized as a self. But it is important to me not to think of this as a structure but as an organization of experiences. Since many, and probably most of the experiences that are organized into a sense of self come from outside the individual, the resulting sense of self depends on the environmental context as much as on the individuals' givens with which he/she was born. The impact of the experiences from the outside on the inherent givens strongly influence and even direct development. The latter, therefore, is as dependent on the environment as on the inherent givens and the developing sense of the self experience, therefore, depends to an appreciable extent on the input of experiences emanating from outside. In other words, the emerging self emerges adapted to the particular environment in which it emerges. Since the self consists of the experiences that constitute it and which were organized into a cohesively integrated sense of self, the infant's sense of self is adapted to the milieu, that is, to the ambience created by the parents and other caregivers. This results in certain potentials for development being encouraged and stimulated while other potentials remain unattended and without stimulation they tend to atrophy (=disappear). Each developing self, consisting of the inherent givens, modified by the added outside experiences, and by the development and non-development (=atrophy) of potentials is a unique self.

In self psychology we are most interested in those experiences that lead to the emergence, maintenance and modification of the sense of self. In the past we have labeled these selfobjects because we used to think of them as objects that thus shaped the self. However, not all are objects. Some are symbolic experiences that stand for objects, e.g., musical experiences and other artistic experiences. Kohut described four types of selfobject experiences (mirroring, idealizing, alter-ego, merger), three more types (adversarial, efficacy, vitalizing selfobject experiences) have been described since Kohut's initial definitions. But more about that some other time.

In psychoanalysis a relationship develops between the analyst and the analysand. Because of the particular structure, that is, experience, of the analytic situation (regular sessions, frequency, relative quiet, calmness, attuned responsiveness, protected confidentiality, etc. predisposing to a certain kind of relaxation) the two participants both regress somewhat with some disorganization of their self experience. Hopefully the analysand will regress much more than the analyst. With the regression of the self experience there is a degree of disintegration of the constituent experiences making up the self experience. This allows for a closer attunement of the two participants to each other, a more perceptive awareness of the other's experience that can even be enhanced by a conscious effort to be aware via empathy (as defined as vicarious introspection). It seems to be in the normal nature of individuals to want, or even to need, to feel understood and accepted. Such an experience of being understood and accepted strengthens the integration of the self experience; the absence of the needed experience of being understood an d accepted weakens the self experience and facilitates further regression and disorganization, disintegration, fragmentation (choose whatever term seems most descriptive to you) of the self experience into its constituent parts that initially were integrated into the organization of the self experience. Such a disorganization is painful and mobilizes motivation to reintegrate and to again experience being understood and accepted. Re-integration takes place as the constituent parts are rearranged in adaptation to the currently prevailing ambience created by the analyst and analysis: the rearranged organization of self experience is better adapted to the current situation than the old organization that was first created and then further developed from childhood on.

In other words, the old self had to encounter a disruptive experience that caused a regression which could then be reversed by adaptation to the current analytic experience, thus yielding a new, better adapted organization of the self experience. One could describe a series of conditions that are needed for such a therapeutic change to occur. But let that wait also for another time.

© 1999 Ernest S. Wolf and 3b.
All rights reserved.

[ Self Psychology Bulletin Board ]

© 1999-2000
All Rights Reserved
Published by 3b