“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)
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.”
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