Demigods on Eggshells

“Without in the least wishing it he (the therapist) draws upon himself an over-valuation that is almost incredible to the outsider, for to the patient, he seems like a savior or a god. This way of speaking is not altogether so laughable as it sounds…Nobody could stand up to it in the long run, precisely because it is too much of a good thing. One would have to be a demigod at least to sustain such a role without a break, for all the time one would have to be the giver….”
(C.G. Jung from The Personal and Collective Unconscious
)

To be a therapist, is to spend a significant amount of time each work day being actively idealized, attempting to sustain a certain type of idealizability, and tolerating the responsibility and anxiety of the role you have been assigned: carrying the idealizing projections of others.

It is tricky and delicate business, to accept, and even enjoy the over-valuation of people who may need to see you, at least for a time, as Conscious, Wise and fully Self-actualized.

And it is essential never to actually believe a word of it.

In life, this is not so very difficult to imagine. We all know what it is to be looked up to by a young child, or through the eyes of a junior adult like a younger sibling or a new friend, a mentee, a student, or a protege.

We also know that with time, practice and age that they will end up essentially where we are. The road from there to here is not so mysterious or magical once you have walked it. Once you have developed some sufficient mastery in one area of your life, if you are healthy enough, you don’t think it gives you any magical powers or special qualities in any other area of your life, no matter how astounding it seems to others.

When my son was around five, he pulled up a stool to watch me, wide-eyed, as I made breakfast. As I whisked up some eggs in a glass bowl, turned the heat on under the pan, and poured in the scrambled goo he exclaimed:

“Mommy, you amaze me. You are amazing.”

(It was a delicious moment, one that I hang onto now that I have an eye-rolling 9 year old, who is just trying on his new shiny self-protective shell of snark-snot-and-sarcasm.)

Mommy, you amaze me.

I never for a moment believed that I had scrambled miraculous eggs. I never considered for a second that I actually had unique, magical cooking powers or that I was the most amazing cook in the world, in NYC, in my borough or even on my block.

But it was deeply pleasurable nonetheless. To see a simple act of minimal mastery through a child’s eyes: using my my mature fine and gross motor skills to crack open a perfectly packaged egg, directing its contents without spilling a drop, moving a whisk faster than the eye could see, watching the mixture whirlpool around at my command, summoning fire and flame without fear or hesitancy, prodding the spitting, sizzling eggy-glob with nothing to protect me other than a mere wooden spoon, transforming it all into comforting meal using a dangerously hot piece of metal.

Now that is something.
Maybe even the stuff of demigoddesses…

The pleasure grows from remembering when I thought it was a miracle too. From recalling my own mother’s miraculous ability to make the most delicious grilled american cheese on white bread sandwiches in the world while domesticating the threats and terrors of the wild and unpredictable electric skillet.

It is joyful to be reminded that the skills I take for granted were hard won over many over-cooked meals, burned fingers and inedible food tossed in the garbage – as I traveled from not knowing how to cook at all to competently scrambling an egg.

It was also absolutely lovely to recognize that my divine ability to scramble eggs out of thin air, made my son feel safe, and confident too – through his identification with me. If I can make eggs, tame fire, if I am able to use sharp knives safely -what can’t I do? I could certainly take down any lurking “bad guys” or monsters, with a flick of my magic whisk. He felt stronger, braver, special more capable through his secure alliance with me in all my egg-scrambling glory.

And another pleasure: knowing that very soon, all these amazing powers would be his. The pleasure comes from knowing how I developed this skill, that it can be conveyed over time and through maturity, that he would soon catch up, and probably quickly surpass me.

In fact, today I woke up, four short years later, to find him making a garlic scape (I had no idea what those were until this morning), sweet orange pepper, and cream cheese omelette for breakfast.

He amazes me. He is amazing.

Healthy idealization is ultimately, a mutually admiring experience.

In the early stages of therapy – when we are vulnerable and the healing crisis is fresh and disorienting – we often need to see therapists as intact, healthy, knowledgeable, experienced authorities. Competence, confidence, mastery are essential in making us feel safe, held, well-guided and incubated through the aftermath of the events that drove us into therapy to begin with.

Sometimes an idealized therapist serves us as a protective shell, guarding and concealing vulnerable, unformed and embryonic aspects of the Self as it consolidates.

“A successful phase-appropriate chip-off-the-old-block type merger with … the idealized father (parent/therapist) and the subsequent gradual or phase-appropriate disappointment in him might… enhance self-esteem. (Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self)

Phase-appropriate disappointment.
If only it were as easy as it sounds.

Kohut spends a great deal of time discussing the importance of manageable empathic failures, tolerable mishaps, humanizing mistakes. These unavoidable errors and revelations disrupt our idealizing transferences, and remind us that the person who is holding all our eggs in a single basket, is human, flesh and blood, not a demi-god.

Idealizing transferences have a function and a cost. The gain is the sense of hope we get from feeling connected to someone bigger and more powerful than we. The shadow is that as clients we are smaller, diminished, and fearful that we will have to stay “smaller than” in order to stay connected.

For therapists, the danger is that we can become inflated, burst our shells, accept medals and approbations that we have not earned.

Other times sitting in the therapists chair can feel stiff, brittle, and anxiety provoking as we try to keep our disruptive, broken and wounded, aspects hidden from view, our humanity banished by the necessary admiring distortion.

There is often little room for failure, for error, for the therapist to be an equal partner or a fellow traveler, or even fallible in the early phases of engagement and therapeutic relationship building.

I walk on egg-shells, waiting: its just a matter of time before I stumble, show up late, misunderstand, forget a necessary detail, repeat myself, challenge a defense at the wrong moment, bump into a painful bruise. How bad will it be? The suspense is excruciating. How long until it cracks? How deep or disruptive or painful? Will I injure, trigger, re-activate an old wound too profoundly? Will it break open before we have developed the necessary language and trust to negotiate it? Will we survive it together? Will it evoke destructive rage? The timer ticks away. Will I be the one to shatter a self-protective but illusory hope? Will the client be contemptuous if I prove to be less than perfect? Will the trust we have worked so hard to earn together fall to pieces?

I squirm imperceptibly in my seat, releasing pressure with self-deprecating wise-cracks. Fear mounts – the more the client inflates me, the more steep the drop. The more that I represent the perfectly satisfying feed, the more likely I will be eaten up. Or spit out in pieces.

I try to inoculate everyone who comes in at the initial consultation:
“It is not a matter of if I disappoint you, but when and how I will. However it happens, however small the error or annoyance – you may not even notice it until you leave the session and some comment I made, or something I did or didn’t do suddenly rises up hours later and sticks in your craw – it is extremely important that we talk about it, find language around it, and make it a part of our work together.”

Probably few remember when the time comes and I do lay a big old egg. But I have at least told the truth. I have made no false promises and did not commit myself to a perfected stance I cannot sustain. The caveat gives me the space to sit in my seat, carrying the loneliness and responsibilities of the idealizing gaze, for as long as necessary, knowing that it will not last forever.

In the folklore of most of Europe, the strength or the life of supernatural beings could be destroyed only if an egg, usually hidden in some… inaccessible place, was broken.
(see Eggs: Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend)

Ultimately, it is extremely relieving when the illusion, the facade cracks at last, and it is time to descend inch by inch, climb, fall, or be squarely knocked down off the pedestal that I had to sit upon for a time.

This is true: A healthy therapist will not ever need you to stay small. They will be increasingly relieved by their incremental over-throw, happy to rescind the authority temporarily granted to them while old wounds healed. They will step down with dignity and acceptance of their own humanity and rejoice to see you claim your own authority when you are ready.

A profound moment in my treatment, more than twenty years ago: I was waiting tables and, along with the entire wait staff, had to attend some mandatory-bull-shit-motivational-team-building-brain-washing-success-cult seminar. At my next session I spoke of how enraged, disgusted and toxic I felt. I assumed I’d behaved badly in the forced forum: I’d folded my arms, stared at the floor, sat surly and glowering as I refused to let them force their simplistic cult-speak into my mouth. I was sure, that my pouty, sour behavior was an insufficient and immature way to express my opposition to this coerced programming and that my therapist would have had some much more effective way to maturely express his disagreement and set a healthy boundary that I, in my undeveloped state, couldn’t yet conceive of.

He said: “Me? Really? I probably would have gotten totally pissed off, and screamed at them stormed out and lost my job. That’s what I probably would have done.”

Fresh air.

His admission of humanity, his discomfort with my defensive, self-negating uses of idealization, disrupted at the right moment made room for me to hatch further, aknowledge my growing powers of discernment, judgement, and impulse control.

The therapists I trust find ways to enjoy the inflating gaze of their clients and what it represents, accept it as developmental and transitional, without needing it, believing it, attaching to it, or feeding off of it. And they will release it with pleasure as you are ready and your own strength mounts.

One day, strengths will equalize, and a new relationship, one that makes room for two whole people with differentiated and individualized strengths and weaknesses will emerge.

And a new kind of intimate collaboration, between participants of equal powers, can begin.

It is sweet connection to be amazed and amazing.
It is a lovely thing to be surpassed.

It is sweeter still to work together, side by side, and to make a meal, more beautiful and inspired, than either of you could have cooked alone.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

40 responses

  1. Your writing:parallels:anecdotes all flow so perfectly together. I am grateful that you take the time to share your thoughts.

  2. So perfectly said! It reminds me of the book I’m currently reading “Power in the Healing Profession” ie the power shadow and how as therapists we are put upon a pedestal by our clients. But the fall off the pedestal will come as it must and as it should. Fantastic article putting together thoughts with well formed sentences! It was amazing :)

  3. Another wonderful post. I’m a teacher and I’ve always seen it as my responsibility to slowly make myself superfluous.

    In the beginning students need a lot of help, guidance and support. Whatever I have to say about the subject, they want to believe is set in stone. They get impatient when I don’t provide them with everything they need or want to know. Introducing exceptions to rules causes nothing short of rebellion at first but as they slowly become more proficient, they gain confidence and can tolerate uncertainties as well.

    I know we’re on the right track when they start playing with words, crack jokes and challenge me with their own observations of inconsistencies in the language :)

    I also mentor new teachers and often the biggest challenge for them is to let go of the need to control everything in the classroom. The example I tend to give is that of a parent raising a child. Whatever we do, we want to know that one day our kids can leave the house, cross the road and know that they will be alright on their own.

    I’ve been in my job for more than ten years. Starting therapy has been a complete role reversal. I’m a student again and this time the subject is my self. Your post describes the experience beautifully.

  4. So deeply validating to hear that I am not the only one that warns patients. I say, “a day will come when I do something–big or small–that you will find enraging, disappointing, or just plan annoying. You might even feel like not coming back. Please come. It will likely be the most important moment in our work together. Find a way to come back to me and talk.”

    Those moments scare me–when I fall and when my patients find a way to come back. They are also the moments when I can most clearly get a glimpse of the power of what we (people, therapists and patients) can be.

    Thanks so much for giving me the space to think about this today.

    • Thanks Dr.J.
      that means a lot, and is nice to hear.

      The moments of repair and reparation have been deeply corrective and meaningful to me too, in both seats, and would never come to pass if we were able to sucessfuly avoid our limitations.

      Thanks for reading, for the camraderie and your kind words.
      :)

      M

  5. Beautifully written. The inclusion of the story about cooking and your son made the subject more simply grasped… and it was cute.

    I’m reading solely from the client/patient perspective. I understand and relate as a patient to what you described. But, is it a bad thing to refuse to allow your therapist to fall of the pedestal? I prefer thinking he knows everything, can handle everything.

    I don’t want him to be a mere person. I refuse to allow it. Even when he does something that bothers me a little bit, I won’t bring it up. I don’t want him to let me down. I don’t want him to show annoyance or anger or disappointment in me.

    I don’t care if talking it through leads to something more equal or better -it might not. I may just get hurt and lose the one person with whom I’m safe; even if I know I don’t really know him and I know I’m cheating him (and myself) of some therapeutic opportunity.

    Right now I have someone I can tell anything to about myself and he never judges me. I don’t want to lose that. Right now I have someone I can tell anything about myself, my life, my thoughts, my feelings. I want my therapist to be who I want him to be, and I almost don’t care if that makes me a bad patient! …except, I don’t want to be a bad patient.

    ~rl

    (On a side note, I wish all parents understood -or at least had a clue- about child development. It was actually heart-warming reading your description of your 9-yr-old son “trying his new shiny self-protective shell of snark-snot-and-sarcasm.” My mom saw mine as an attack on and rejection of her. So, she attacked and rejected back.)

    • rl,

      do not rush through anything. A warm, mutually admiring alliance, a “you and me against the world” feeling is healthy and necessary for all of us to rest in, in order to learn what safety is.

      You aren’t depriving yourself, or anyone else of any deeper therapeutic experience. When you can hold on to the image of being safe with another person inside yourself, you may reach for something more, something different, but it sounds like you are exactly where you are supposed to be right now.

      M.

  6. I am moved by how you put words around the ever moving, ever shifting space that is the therapeutic relationship. I sit in both chairs, and have the experience from both sides, which sometimes makes things easier and sometimes more difficult. The permission to enjoy the gaze and to not feel foolish in gazing both strike me as critical to forward motion, both as a therapist and as a client. Thank you for wrestling with this one.

    • Yes, I think you put your finger right on it – foolish feeling, another word for shame.

      The admiring gaze needs to be mutually pleasurable in order to wash the poison-shame from our systems.
      Therapists need to confront their own shame of being gazed at, in order to return the gaze, unconflicted, and allow the client to experience the antedote to shame – acceptance and admiration.

      Thanks for that.

      M.

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  8. Very early on (few months) into my therapy, before I had the slightest idea what therapy was really all about and I naively thought it was a place I can get solutions to my problems, I read something that spoke to me. A few years into my therapy now, it speaks to me even louder… Here it is …“He had come to me, he had come in this hour. What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning. — p. 242” What struck me about this back then was the question, “What do we expect when we are in despair and YET go to a MAN?” Not, God, but man? I knew deep down, even back then, that my therapist was just that, another human being! Yes, perhaps with great knowledge, training & insight into humanity, but certainly not God, without any power to change anything in my life, unlike God. At least when one prays to God, there is the belief (or just an illusion, whichever it may be), that God is Omnipotent and can actually change my circumstances, He can change water into wine … Maybe also because my sister is a therapist and I see her with all her healthy & unhealthy ways. Also, because my Dad is an elder at a church and people come to him for “advice” to help them in their marriage … while I wouldn’t think for a minute to go to him for such advice … So I’m not sure I quite agree with Jung … but who knows I may be unconscious of it … What speaks even louder to me now tho, is the second part of the quote, “ … a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning.” That presence, which was just a hear say then, but is now an experience, has been a very meaningful one to me! One that has evolved to be that sweeter place of an “intimate collaboration” … where through another’s admission of humanity & brokenness, I have come to tolerate my own humanity & brokenness … From that place, I think what you write is amazing! You are amazing! Even tho I know you’ll stumble …. :)

    • Interesting points. In Kohuts view- (and remember I am interested and disloyal to many different theorists) there are different kinds of admiring/mirroring transferences, not all are about parental figures or authoritative archetypes
      One model, for the relational connection between client and therapist is twinship – feeling abler he need to identify with someone as a peer, or a sibling, a cohort you can recognize yourself in.

      Everyone uses the relationship in their own way- and idealization is only one way the process unfolds.

      Thanks for reading GT

  9. Nice post! I’ve been with two therapists, at it seems that with the first one there was a lot of idealization but it fell apart too soon, and over the course of about a year the relationship turned very bitter, probably from both sides.

    With the second therapist, the idealization never really took off, and I have a feeling we have never really liked each other.

    I wonder what the reasons could be for one never being able to see one’s therapist as a strong, sorted person who one can look up to?

    My therapist thinks it has to do with my negative transference towards her, where I see her as my distant mother or offending father. But I think that means saying I am incapable of being in a good therapy relationship, and I’m not sure if that is true.

    • Trust is a hard hard earned thing for some, and usually for very real, historical reasons.

      Sometimes starting right there – talking about the lack of trust, and the experiences in the present and in the past, the annoyances, the fantasies, the worries and suspicions, fears and shames that create barriers to developing trust – is the work itself for a long time.

      Sometimes, just wondering aloud together, about what trust is for, what are its limits, its costs, and its advantages. When is it foolish to trust, when is it destructive not to – can become the ground that the therapeitic relationship grows in.

      I’ve found that when we can talk openly about our distrust of each other, in all its shapes and disguises, with out shame or defensiveness – with acceptance that that is the case for now – that some connection begins to form.

      Thanks for raising a very interesting question, and best wishes.

      M.

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  11. Great post — this egg has wings!

    Eggs represent life, possibility, opportunity, and like relationships, fragility.

    In the inevitability of idealization and disappointment, the strength and beauty of any relationship lies in a transmission of trust.

    Toni

    • Yes, Toni – and the whole World Egg too, reminds of how fragile and filled with potential the universe is.

      Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments and support.
      I really like your pieces as well -so its very special to receive such kind words.

      Martha

  12. What a beautiful post, thank you for sharing. I have been seeing my therapist for 4 years and I still think he is perfect. He has made mistakes, and has hurt me at times, but that is always my fault. However, because I believe he is so perfect he is very intimidating to me, and I don’t really know how to get over that. Whenever I mention that he intimidates me he brushes it off. It’s somewhat of a dilemma for me.

  13. The big mistake my therapist made is saying “I don’t love you” to me.
    He’s unhappy about that.
    He said, “You pressured me to say that! I would never have said that to you!”
    There was a frustrated pause and he blurted, “I care about you!”
    During the first several weeks of therapy he was so empathic and caring that I felt loved.
    That confused me, how could he love me?
    I struggled with that for a year, and finally decided I needed to hear the truth.
    I knew he wasn’t “in love” with me, but I held onto a shred of hope that he loved me just as a person.
    He said, “I have care, compassion and empathy for you” but when I asked him if he loved me he sadly shook his head ‘no’.
    He said he could “supportively love” me, and “empathically love” me.
    But he doesn’t love my self.
    Now I feel like crap.
    What’s the point of opening myself up to this guy when he’s not going to love what he sees?
    I’ve never shown myself to anyone before, and I’ve never been loved.
    It’s not going to happen here, either.
    It felt just like that, it felt like being seen and loved.
    But I wasn’t loved, I was empathized with, and temporarily cared about.
    I wanted to be loved.

    • You might want to look at my post “Unspoken”

      There are very specific reasons why I, like many therapists, don’t use “love” in the consulation room – no matter how deeply attached I feel.

      I think that there are forms of therapeutic love – and they are both real and very different from what most people mean when they speak of love.

      Best wishes.

      M.

  14. That’s what makes the internet so wonderful and awful. You can read someone’s blog for years and the idealization never gets shattered. Probably why half the readers here still wish you were their therapist!

    *ducks*

    • LOL!!
      That is what caused me to write it!

      Thinking about how the brittle bits of my personality are first edited out/minimized in the consultation room by the frame, by the contract, and by projective processes….

      And then thinking further about how all the “ums”, “ers” mistimed interventions and botched interpretations can never be represented – even when I try to refer to them in writing somehow – it comes out way more eloquent than I am when I am staggering through a session.

      My inner editor seems to refuse to permit me to be as annoying on the page as I can be in life. ;-)

      (or maybe not! I’ve certainly received my share of cranky/deleted comments – another layer of editing- since starting. Maybe I am more successful at being annoying on the page than I give myself credit for !)

      Thanks!!

      Martha

      • Nice try, but you’ll have to come up with something much more convincing than “really I’m annoying and inept IRL” if you want to persuade anyone. Even if we believed it, it would just make you appear endearingly bumbling :-P My own therapist made the WORST TIMED comment ever the other week, but her apology was so sheepish that it was probably one of the most adorable things I’ve seen her do.

        As for having to remove comments…so much as sneeze on the internet and you’ll have to delete angry comments from haters. Doesn’t prove much!

  15. Reblogged this on arcticfoxfire and commented:
    “The more that I represent the perfectly satisfying feed, the more likely I will be eaten up.” Nicely said! I’m reminded of a social worker I read about, whose way of being a helper in the Aboriginal community where he lived and worked was to sit around being visibly available, but not to do anything until community members got annoyed and said, “When are you going to do something for us?” At that point they were able to start dreaming and planning together, in a community-driven way. Extreme, but there was no way for the community not to own those goals and achievements. Also reminded of the angel-battleaxe-whore projections nurses face. In community health nursing, it can sound like: “You’re the only one who ever told me that/asked me that/helped me with this,” and “You don’t care about us; you’re just here to make money!” That one is usually after being woken up at 3 a.m. and refusing to go back to the health centre for a non-emergency call.

  16. I was seeing a shrink and suppose I did idealize that person. It ended on a very bad note and I have not been able to feel the slightest bit connected with, or hopeful about, the new shrink. There is no idealization going on. There is also no demonizing. Just a sense that this person is probably just as broken as I am and possibly as dangerous as the last shrink and finally, of wondering why I bother to turn up. We forgive the small ruptures and we move on. We (patients, clients) do mostly realize shrinks are just people and not demi gods.A bad enough experience can make it impossible to develop any trust or sense of safety with someone else. I can’t say someone new since this futile business has been going on a good while. I don’t believe it is a matter of poor fit. The first shrink took away my ability to look up to anyone. That is real power.

    • It is probably especially important for therapists – and probably to some degree- for all of us- to be reminded of the power we have to reinjure, or compound the damage of a pre-existing wound to the point of hopelessness, damage and permanency.

      It also makes me wonder- if all of us were cognizant of wielding his power
      every day in all our interactions how we might conduct ourselves.

      Thanks.

      M.

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