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Understanding The Subtext Of The Therapeutic Relationship

When we talk about psychotherapy, one aspect of what we look at is the process of what occurs in the therapeutic relationship.  This is an important part of psychodynamic-based psychotherapy, meaning psychotherapy that is derived from the theories put forth by Freud.  Psychoanalysis (the purest form of psychodynamic psychotherapy) includes an emphasis on events that occurred during childhood, and a focus on understanding what goes on in the relationship between the therapist and the patient, including the transference and counter-transference.

In some of our posts, our friend Jesse has commented about how it’s important to understand what transpires in the mind of the patient when certain things are said and done.  Let me tell you that Jesse is a wonderful psychiatrist, he is warm and caring and attentive and gentle, and he’s had extensive training in the analytic method, he’s on my list of who I go to when I need help, so while I want to discuss this concept, I don’t want anyone, especially Jesse, to think I don’t respect him.  With that disclaimer…..

On my tongue-in-cheek post on What to Get Your Psychiatrist for the Holidays, Jesse wrote:

When I say the Shrink should look at the context, even in small matters a gift might come with a subtext: “I just told you some terrible things about me and I want to be sure you still like me.” It can be a bribe. It can be a seduction. It can simply be a gift given out of gratitude. The important concept is that we think about everything. Unlike a physical examination done by an internist, everything that occurs might be some window into how we can help the patient, and we do not want to lose that opportunity.

So wait, the patient comes to me because he has symptoms of a mental disorder, often depression or anxiety, or problems controlling his behavior, or he’s overwhelmed with stress and isn’t coping well. Why is it so important that we understand every aspect of the sub-texted interactions?  How does this cure mental illness?  Why is it bad to accept (or not) a gift and move on?  Why do we have to think about everything?  And if it’s really important, won’t it come up again?  Is it really crucial that we not lose that opportunity?  Maybe I just want to take the cookies and say ‘thank you’ because

  • A) I don’t want to hurt my patient’s feelings,
  • B) it can be difficult to look at the meaning without upsetting the patient or putting the patient on the defensive and so the patient has to be fully on-board for this type of therapy and those patients generally don’t bring gifts (ah, maybe we should be asking all analytic patients why they didn’t bring gifts, now that might yield interesting information), and
  • C) I like cookies.

So the truth is that on these posts, the comments are always the most interesting part, so do write in and let me know what you think, not specifically about the cookie/holiday gift example, but about how important it is to understand the interactions that occur within the context of the psychotherapeutic relationship.

Just so everyone knows that I am still Jesse’s friend, I am linking to the video he sent me of his late grand-chinchilla, Chinstrap.  And yes, Jesse had a grand-chinchilla.  He does assure me that Chinstrap was having a good time in this video, because I wondered.

And I’d like to thank Steve over at Thought Broadcast for providing the graphic for today’s post.

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

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