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Page Contents: Obsessed with and flirting with your psychotherapist.                    


I . . . have been in psychotherapy for almost a year. My doctor has been very sympathetic and I have found myself flirting with him to avoid dealing with the various issues for which I sought his help. As a result, I’ve felt that the sexual tension has been building between us for a number of months. I am now in the process of experiencing a strong erotic transference which I believe is a result of both of our actions.
     When I discussed the transference with him, his immediate response was “It’s not me.” Although I understood what he meant—that I was projecting my experiences in past relationships on him—I interpreted his response as defensive—almost guilty. Naturally this was very disconcerting to me. Although he was very supportive during the session and asked me if I thought he had been inappropriate, (I couldn’t bring myself to answer him honestly) I left wondering whether he believed he had played a role in activating my feelings.
     In a prior session, he happened to comment on the fact that I had gotten my hair cut. While this sounds innocuous, when he asked me about it, he sounded annoyed. Then, when I turned to face him, he said, “It looks good.” He seemed relieved. Again, I felt that his tone revealed a certain selfishness that made me think that he was looking at me as someone other than his patient. A week or so later I saw him in the gym. (Coincidentally, we belong to the same club.) It was shortly thereafter that the transference feelings emerged.
     For the last two months I have been obsessed with him, thinking of little else. I feel as if I have lost control over my life and I find myself blaming him for it. I also blame myself for flirting with him and trying to illicit a response. Although we continue to discuss the transference, I have been unable to express my anger toward him in an effort to protect myself. I realize as I am writing this that I must tell him how I feel. Nevertheless, I am conflicted about whether all of these questions about his professionalism are simply my attempt to resist treatment, or if I should in fact be questioning his behavior.

Well, first of all, congratulations to you for having recognized one of your prime defensive strategies: not talking about how you feel. That’s good work!

Now for the rest of the story.

Your experience illustrates what I mean when I speak about psychotherapists who lack the competence to deal appropriately with an erotic transference. Your doctor has not done anything unethical, but he has made a major blunder in terms of psychoanalytic conduct.

When he made his comment about your hair, he stated that he was “seeing” you (that is, looking at you). Now, that might sound innocent enough because we say such things all the time in daily life. But it’s important to understand here that “daily life” is just a mass of unconscious defenses that we use to hide our existential vulnerability and brokenness. By making ourselves look good to others, we self-deceive ourselves into believing that we are desired by the world and therefore possess some important social value.

This whole unconscious process of making ourselves seen goes back into the pre-verbal state of infancy where being noticed by a caregiver equates with our survival. At its most primal level, if you are not seen, you are not fed, and if you are not fed, you die. As we grow and mature, however, we develop the use of language—and with our acquisition of language, our lives are radically altered. From then on, mature communication depends on making ourselves heard, rather than seen. This represents a profound shift from the narcissism of self-survival to a charitable involvement with the needs of others.

Sadly, though, many children fail to receive from their parents adequate acknowledgment of their needs. This can happen through outright abuse, it can happen through authoritarian criticism, or it can happen more subtly through emotional neglect or disinterest in the child’s inner experiences. Such childhood wounds involve a lack of communication itself, and children who experience these wounds, therefore, will tend to revert to the pre-verbal state of making themselves seen by the world, as I said above, as a way to make themselves feel less unnoticed and worthless.

Making yourself seen (or, as you call it, flirting), though, does nothing to heal yourself of your inner pain. If your wounds are to be healed, it must be by learning how to make yourself heard—that is, by speaking about your pain to another person in such a manner that you hear the true unconscious meaning of that pain. This, then, is what psychodynamic psychotherapy is all about: the speech and language by which you communicate your pain to someone who can understand its unconscious meaning and then reflect its truth back to you.

So now let us return to your doctor’s remark about your hair. This sort of comment is unconsciously destructive because, technically, it plays into your unconscious need to make yourself seen by others as a way to cover up your feelings of inadequacy. It adds fuel to the fire, so to speak, and thus you end up obsessed with whether or not he notices you. Instead of feeling secure in his hearing your pain, you feel preoccupied about whether you “look good” enough to measure up to his desires. When you’re in this place, you’re, well, in the same gym with him; you’re right out on the playing field of the brutal, competitive game of life itself. But you’re not in psychotherapy.

And that’s why you feel so conflicted about his behavior. If he doesn’t understand enough about the unconscious implications of his seeing you, then he lacks the ability to understand the transference itself.

So we come to the conclusion. You seem to understand what you are doing, but maybe your doctor doesn’t. Maybe he doesn’t even understand what he is doing. And that’s why you feel the way you do.

What should you do? Well, you should question his behavior, and if this doesn’t lead to a breakthrough in the treatment, then you have good reason to terminate the treatment and find someone who can help you face and confront the transference right in the treatment and not in the gym.


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A Guide to Psychology and its Practice



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