Boredom In The Countertransference: Mutual Dissociation in the Therapeutic Encounter
Working through boredom to facilitate a deeper embodied connection
I wanted to write a paper exploring the nature of the therapist’s boredom as a way of trying to make sense of my own. I see boredom in the therapy room as both a derailment of the therapeutic process – an enactment – and an opportunity for therapists to explore how the dissociated parts of their psyche are in secret conversation with dissociated parts in their clients. Exploring boredom as phenomenon in which the therapist’s unconscious is in a wordless conversation with that of their client offers us the opportunity to descend into our own dissociated material. I believe that only by making this descent into the inner sanctum of our psyche can we emerge vital, changed and more able to connect to our clients.
Donald Winnicott and Adam Phillips both suggest that being bored forces us into contact with an inner reality we might describe as our core self. For some, a moment of boredom can lead to a rewarding meeting with a rich internal world, a moment of self-connection that might foster creativity, vitality and inventiveness (Phillips, 2001). For others, however, boredom and the concomitant confrontation with internal reality can be terrifying, especially if it points to feelings of emptiness fragmentation or non-existence. Because it forces us back on our internal resources, boredom can show us how fragile we really are. At the same time it can become a defence against knowing and feeling – an emotional shutdown that allows us to retreat from old pain that we have within and see without. I will argue that the therapist’s boredom is a consequence of mutual shutdown – both the therapist and the client have checked out in an unconscious mutual agreement that defends against the difficult unconscious material of each. The therapist dissociates as she tries to avoid confronting the deep, disavowed wounds she sees reflected back at her by her client, and the client dissociates in an unconscious attempt to defend against painful material.
Boredom and Dissociation
I use the term dissociation to describe an unconscious ‘defensive disconnection between different self-states motivated by an unconscious dread or discomfort about certain experiences being felt, known or sensed’ (Stern, 2010:50). Used in this way, dissociation becomes an important human resource that protects us from difficult aspects of our past or present experience. As therapists we work from the understanding that the child’s character is formed in the context of the family, usually in an environment where there is an unconscious understanding that certain self-states and experiences are unsafe or unacceptable. By cutting the child off from difficult relating and experiencing, dissociation becomes a way of preserving safety in an otherwise threatening environment (Howell, 2008). When a client is disconnected from herself or her current external reality, part of the therapist’s job is to help her reconnect with the parts of herself that have become shut off over time (Bromberg, 2011). But because the mind is inherently dissociative nobody is exempt, including – perhaps especially – therapists (Harris, 2008). Like our clients we will dissociate in sessions to protect ourselves from both their difficult material and our own. But when both the therapist and client dissociate together, and over a period of time (a process Stern calls ‘mutual dissociation’) the therapeutic dialogue breaks down. I see the therapist’s boredom as a sign of such a breakdown. Something is being acted out and the dialogue will only be restored if one member of the analytic dyad becomes aware of what is happening and can find a way to work through it.
Boredom: a therapeutic process?
My intense and prolonged experience of boredom with one client, let’s call her Victoria, has made me think deeply about boredom as a therapeutic process. This client, who I saw for nearly three years, spent the sessions describing details of her daily routine. Her timetable was highly organized so that she could maintain control of a life that seemed otherwise fragmentary, confused, isolated and unanchored. Like Winnicott’s patient who tied objects together with string in an unconscious attempt to hold and control unintegrated material (Winnicott, 1971:25), Victoria paid detailed attention to chronology (dates, times, sequences) as a way of creating security and cohesion in a world that lacked both. Although this gave me a sense of how important it was for her to feel in control, the level of surface detail seemed to have become a way of shutting me out rather than letting me in. The more I tried to penetrate her internal world, the more a connection between us felt impossible.
When she experienced frustration, anger or interpersonal conflict she would get under her duvet and ‘drift off’. It was a lovely, safe, dreamy space where she could float away from her problems. Over time, I began to believe that drifting through narrative accounts of the week’s events was a way she could find a similarly safe space in the therapy. Dissociating in the sessions unconsciously allowed her to defend against parts of herself she would rather not confront and the parts of me that she experienced as unsafe. But as she floated above the sessions, I (along with my unexpressed anger) sank deeper into a heavy dissociative boredom that rendered me ‘unable to think, to be curious or creatively ‘play’ with ideas in the session’ (Flannery, 1995:539). The therapy felt stuck. It seemed impossible for either of us to move beyond our entrenched positions.
This therapeutic stalemate, referred to by some analysts as an impasse, was extremely uncomfortable. It forced me to wonder if I was actually making things a great deal worse. As the weeks unfolded the stalemate became more entrenched and more unbearable. She was confused, unable to feel much and, I imagined, angry that I hadn’t yet made her feel better. Despite the discomfort, however, I also believed that what I was feeling had to be felt in order that the therapy could progress. At the time, I had no theory to underpin such a paradox, only a hunch that I had to stick with what felt unbearable.
My desperate attempts to interpret seemed to block the way to a shared space and deeper understanding. They showed me how uncomfortable I was staying with the moment. What was it in my client’s story that created such a strong need in me for withdrawal? My habitual childhood position had been either to make myself disappear in order to protect against my father’s unpredictable outbursts, or to become disruptive and rebellious at school in order to get the attention I needed. My interpretive stance was an unconsciously combative approach used to defend against the buried rage that Victoria often expressed through quiet, vicious sarcasm. Dropping into the feeling rather than the content of our sessions was difficult because it might mean I would have to confront the deep and distressing pre-verbal vulnerability I believed we both shared.
Both of us had spent our early months and years with mothers who were distressed and operating in a state of emotional shut down. The boredom and sleepiness that descended on me in my sessions with Victoria left me feeling like I was struggling through a dark void of pre-verbal distress and helplessness. Entering into this fog with my client was like stepping into the dark void my own mother left when she closed down her internal world. It was an emptiness that left me struggling for survival. Allowing myself to enter her dissociation and experience the terror of her emptiness in the countertransference was one of the most vulnerable places I could go. It transformed me back into a distressed and uncontained baby and forced me to confront the part of myself that felt shame for existing. It also facilitated a crucial shift in the life of the therapy.
Entering into this process in supervision and during the sessions allowed me to recognise some the split-off parts in Victoria that may well have remained hidden unless I had gone through the process of recognising them in myself (Bromberg, 2011:8). By piecing together information carried in the countertransference with more direct information, I was able to build a more complex understanding of her experience. A year after the work had started I could hold the possibility that she had experienced a dissociated mother, the double cruelty of desertion and abuse, terrifying rage, and a subsequent protective withdrawal into dissociation. My involvement in the work allowed me to explore how our stories were interacting to create a particular dynamic in the room. It allowed me to understand my boredom as a defiant withdrawal that protected my infant self from the distant and disconnected proto-mother that sat before me. In addition, I had become both her helpless, dissociated mother and, in moments of frustration, her abusive father.
Although these insights didn’t lead to immediate change, they allowed me to become more sensitive to the parts of Victoria’s story that she needed to dissociate from. I was able to be more compassionate when she withdrew and was less concentrated on effecting change. If she could rely neither on her father nor her mother to protect her, why would she trust me to take her through a potentially scary process? It made sense that dissociation was an important way of staying safe in a world that was consistently disappointing. I dropped interpretations and stuck very closely to the material she presented.
Before each intervention (and there were far fewer), I assessed whether it would be useful by predicting her response to it (Maroda, 2012). This allowed me to become more sensitive to what was bearable for her, and gave me the space to question my desire to make the interpretation. Was I intervening to drag myself out of the bored, dissociated space? I learned how to sit inside my experience of boredom and the process became, first and foremost, a trust-building exercise in which I learnt to go underneath my boredom and become more curious about the dissociative fog that sat behind it. I believe this allowed me to digest some of the painful early experiences that she had no conscious access to. Having entered the dissociation, a process that Bromberg (2011) considers crucial for the success of the therapy, I had been able to piece together a psychic map that was now guiding me through my boredom to a deeper and more embodied connection with my client.
Nicole Scott is a psychotherapist with a particular interest in how to work with the body and its symptoms. Her practice is informed by her interest in psychoanalysis, somatic movement practices, yoga and meditation. She works as a therapist in the NHS and in private practice in London.
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