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Posts Tagged ‘counter-transference’

As a teacher in a psychology graduate school where the emphasis is on personal growth and healing, I have had ample opportunity to come in contact with multitudes of women of every stripe, shape and color. From time to time one of them and I will resonate over a wide range of harmonic chords. When we do, that’s often initially a sign that both positive transference and counter-transference are running pretty high, i.e. we’re both overlaying emotionally charged memories onto one another of significant people from each of our personal pasts. Invariably, over the time we spend together, some powerful relationship dynamics will show up inviting healing trying to happen. And in the best of all nourishing worlds, it will.

Harmonic Convergence

Not-Tori

Tori was one of those “harmonic” students. Deeply interested in trauma and the brain, she became an informal graduate assistant. Over the weeks and months we began spending more and more time together collaborating on a number of research projects, co-creating highly energized times filled with all kinds of exciting, applied research possibilities.

One day Tori brought me a brochure describing a seminar at Esalen: The Body Keeps the Score. Bessel van der Kolk and Peter Levine were co-presenting a weekend on healing trauma through Somatic Experiencing. “Want to go?” Tori offered. “Sure,” I said. “Book us a couple of rooms.”

When we got to the highly charged environment that is Esalen, somehow or other the room reservation got bungled: they only had one room with two beds in it. “What do you want to do?” I asked. “We’ll take it,” Tori told the woman at the desk.

We walked over and dropped off our bags in the room, looked around at the two beds, one single and one double, and then headed over to the dining room for dinner.

Over garden salad, pilaf and pecan pie, Tori and I began talking about the room and the change in sleeping arrangements. At one point in the discussion, she became quite serious, looked at me and said: “Here’s the deal. I know myself pretty well. We can sleep together tonight and make love – and it will be some of the most sublime, ecstatic sex you’ve ever had – and we might continue our relationship as lovers for a year or two, but then I’ll be moving on. I’ll probably never have anything to do with you again after that. Or, we can not sleep together tonight, in which case the odds of us remaining lifelong friends increases substantially. The choice is yours.”

What followed then was one of the most memorable nights of my life.

Dyn-o-mite!

Back in the room fresh from the hot springs, we both changed into pajamas. Tori crawled into the double bed and got under the covers. I came over and propped up a pillow and got into bed beside her … on top of the covers. Along with me I’d brought my Inspiron laptop computer. I slipped in a Netflix disk and for the next ninety minutes Tori and I spent an unforgettable evening watching Napoleon Dynamite. When the movie was over, I kissed her on top of her head goodnight, and then went over to the single bed to sleep alone. Driving home from Esalen we both experienced more love, connection, innocence and joy than either of us had ever felt with sex.

Every few months, these many years later Tori and I email or talk on the phone. We didn’t buy into the powerful Illusion of Separation that becoming lovers and then breaking up often orchestrates. Occasionally we collaborate on projects, or spend time visiting together when one of us shows up in close proximity. When we do, our secret, smiley, heart-connection phrase is: “Vote for Pedro!”

Self, Respecting Women

I offer up this story for several reasons. As a brain educator and trauma researcher, I was more than familiar with Tori’s personal trauma history. As with many students training to be healers, hers was particularly painful, filled with multiple violations and betrayals by important people in her early life. Knowing how trauma, in an attempt at healing, will often draw us back into situations that replicate early overwhelming experiences, I was more than aware of that possibility unfolding between Tori and me (The poetic irony wasn’t missed by us that we were at a seminar focused on healing just such trauma as Tori’s. Reenactment between us would most likely not have led to healing in the least).

Over the years I have borne personal witness to untold suffering visited upon other graduate faculty who have succumbed to such enticing offers as Tori’s. Not only did such faculty add yet another traumatic reenactment to the already over-encumbered neural real estate of the student, but they inevitably added more trauma to their own storehouse of suffering. Promising careers became ruined, self-esteem plummeted. I’ve seen police get involved, lawyers, prosecutors … trauma upon trauma leading to suffering on top of suffering.

Even in a permissive, super-charged sexual environment like Esalen (and external environs can play a big role in such dynamics), Tori’s offer of erotic nirvana held little draw for me. My interests have long been in something greater, something much, much different. It’s something evoked by the easily remembered, child-like innocence that unfailingly arises every time I hear the rallying cry, “Vote for Pedro!” As Napoleon Dynamite himself would say … “Sweet!”

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At the graduate school where I’ve taught and learned for awhile now, the very first student assignment in the very first class consists of this: identify five people in your personal life whom you feel great affinity for. List some of the qualities you most appreciate about them. Next, identify five people in your personal life whom you feel some kind of aversion towards and list some of the qualities that you dislike about them. Now write a paper about how each of those qualities is alive and actively operating in you. The name of this exercise is “Reclaiming Our Projections.”  

Women outnumber men enrolled at my school by a wide margin. Many of them come from very difficult family histories involving both mother and father. As an older male, I often initially show up as “good dad.” Invariably though, through the magic of transference and projection and traumatic dissociation, at some point during the two years of the program I will inevitably be turned into “bad dad.” I intimately understand that the bulk of the brain’s processes take place below conscious awareness, and I am super-scrupulous about not consciously violating sexual and physical boundaries. And not solely out of altruistic and compassionate concern for others, but also out of enlightened self-interest: to act otherwise would profoundly damage my own heart, brain, mind, body and soul. Neurology never sleeps; it bears witness 24/7 to all trespasses, both for and against us (I’m pretty convinced it’s from that neurological reality that the notion of an all-knowing, all-seeing God has arisen; God’s kingdom, as Jill Bolte Taylor so powerfully reminds us, lives in the depths of the right brain mostly as embodied implicit memories).

Inevitably, even though I understand the dynamics intellectually, I am always a little bit astonished and disturbed every time I find myself transformed into Bad Dad. After all: they’ve done the reading; they’ve completed the assignments; they’ve written the papers! Bad Dad isn’t me, alive and threatening outside of them; he’s alive and overlaid upon the present and running the show from within them.

Painted Ladies

I struggle most with the students I have both strong negative and positive counter-transference toward. Women who remind me of significant females (and sometimes men!) from my own personal past pose more of a challenge than others. One woman, Adriana, stands out in recent memory.

Adriana and I had an easy, instant connection. She loved to write, and I arranged a grant for her through a woman’s foundation to do a book on a topic she had great passion for. Adriana had a wry, sharp sense of humor and made a living much as I had for many years: buying run-down San Francisco Victorians – Painted Ladies – and fixing them up to resell at a profit. I felt considerable affection for her. Adriana also had an alcoholic father, who was hyper-critical and abusive and extremely unskillful with boundaries. One day in a classroom exercise in which I elected to also participate, I paired up with Adriana. One part of the exercise was to offer two words that encapsulated our feelings or experience of the other person in the moment. Thinking about the remodeling work we shared in common, my two words for Adriana were: “painted lady.”

Well, painted lady is also the name used to describe prostitutes, and the moment the words left my mouth, by her strong reaction I knew that I had inadvertently violated a psychological boundary. Adriana’s face turned paper white. Her pupils dilated and her breathing stopped. In an instant she was no longer in the room doing this exercise with me. She was transported back to an earlier time, fully immersed in a very painful dissociated interaction with her own father, and she didn’t even realize it.

When Adriana mentally returned to the room, the dissociative episode was only partly abated. She stood up crying and screamed epithets at me. She threw her  textbook at my face and ran out of the classroom. She resisted all later attempts by me, the school administration and her fellow students to reengage and try to repair the damage that had been done. Even the sincerest apology rarely reorganizes neurology. Adriana went non-contingent and later wrote a scathing, damning letter to the school president and dropped out of the program – a personal history of suffering catalyzed, but not healed, by the inadvertent use of two unfortunate words. 

Unfit for Human Habitation

Over the years, partly in the wake of lesser variations of the above episode that didn’t result in a permanent relationship rupture, I have had many women confess to me that they felt “unfit for human habitation,” and express the desire to become a nun or go live as a hermit in a cabin in the woods. They longed for absolute safety and a strong container. While I fully understand such impulses, and have come to learn how early abusive childhood experiences profoundly disorganize the brain and confuse thinking and feeling – especially under stress – I am also deeply saddened by them. In the Gnostic Gospels Jesus said: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Jesus was a master neuroscientist. He knew from long experience that any boundaries we place around our brains and hearts need to be like the boundary around a healthy cell – semi-permeable and flexible, lest we end up simply locking the demons inside. But what Jesus doesn’t mention here is the importance of honoring flexible boundaries, of readiness, and the timing that is so critical, such that what is inside us may be brought forth gently and patiently bit by bit,  rather than be ripped out wholesale like a bindweed from a flower bed.

Hold a Hand When Heading Home

Almost universally women like Adriana are of extraordinary intelligence, exhibit great sensitivity and have huge, compassionate hearts. They are women with the makings of great power, each on deeply intimate terms with the suffering that undergirds our world. Had Adriana remained in the program I would have hoped to have offered her this healing possibility from trauma expert John Palumbo: 

There cannot be effective emotional connectedness without understanding. I am suggesting that we attempt to directly enter the world with (the traumatized person). Not solely from an impassive theoretical arena, but to actually walk, feel, see, smell, taste the trauma. “Hold my hand. I want to go back there with you. I am afraid, and I don’t like where we may be headed together, but I need to go there with you. Maybe then, I can truly understand what now I can only glance. Maybe then, together we can touch this thing and take it out of the shadows.”

Some part of me deeply wishes for a world that could walk hand in hand with all of its abused and battered women, rock them, cradle them and sing them each a soothing lullabye; provide them with a kind of neuro-cardio do-over and assure them that “everything’s gonna be all right, rock-a-bye.” 

And with some of these extraordinary people, we and they, may ultimately be best served by simply honoring the organic, mysterious unfolding of their journey.

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“If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend who you don’t like to play with much.” ~ James, age 7

When I was a kid, I was a canny little outlaw who somehow managed to finagle a little black and white Philco TV set to watch in my own bedroom. Whenever my mother wanted to punish me, she would take one of the vacuum tubes out of the back of the TV set. I would fly into a rage in response to this clearly unfair act, which would promptly cause her to get a belt and threaten to beat me if I didn’t go immediately to my disabled-TV bedroom (I don’t ever recall her actually hitting me with a belt, but threats to do so were not uncommon). I would then reluctantly go to my room and stay there.  During summers, when school was out, I would end up staying there for days! Ultimately, hunger or loneliness or boredom or all three would work to get me to gingerly emerge from that self-inflicted prison, but nothing would be discussed about the incident at all, ever. It was as if nothing out of the ordinary had even happened. No discussion intended to repair this relationship breech ever took place.

Ambivalent Attachment

This early lack of reliable engagement and contingent communication was profoundly detrimental to my early brain development. It directly led to a way of being in the world for me that developmental psychologists would identify – using the Adult Attachment Inventory – as “Insecure-Avoidant/Ambivalent.” A simple way to describe that orientation is how my mother would often say it: “People make me ‘nern’.” People make me nervous. They made her nervous, and her way of parenting unfolded such that it ended up making me nervous as well (had she actually beaten me with the belt, the odds of “disorganized” attachment being the result would have significantly increased, along with the probability of me ending up in jail for one “Impulse Crime” or another).

Fierce Listening.jpgBeing nervous around other people, whether as a result of painful early experiences at their hands, or by neglect, is not so good for intimacy or everyday social-emotional engagement. It’s also not so good for brain development in general. In order to regulate the stress chemicals that being around other people generates, I would frequently be forced to withdraw and spend excessive amounts of time alone. People sometimes call this tendency “being an introvert” (nevermind that Oxford professor of neuro-pharmacology, Susan Greenfield thinks that technology may be creating a whole planet of “introverts” – people excessively anxious around other humans). One way to think about my introversion is that I simply didn’t have sufficient operating bandwidth in my brain to allow me to easily self-regulate in the company of others (one of the reasons I teach listening skills to clinicians and have written 5 books on the topic is because skillful listening is a great practice for carving out internal space. Listening allows me to buy time around other people so I can center and emotionally self-regulate).

Ghosts of Days Gone By

Gradually, over the years I’ve discovered that when I spend time with different people over an extended period, if they don’t initially show up as someone important from my past, sooner or later my brain will morph them into someone of significance. Usually someone I have some unfinished business with … most often, mom or dad (which Freud recognized as transference and counter-transference nearly 100 years ago). In my case, my older sister Andrea, who functioned as my mom in the early years, is also a morphing possibility.

Unfinished business seems to live in the brain and body (and probably the heart and other parts of the somatic hologram as well) as repositories of emotionally charged memories – collections of neurons that have been taken offline for prolonged periods. With the neural real estate holding traumatic memories reclaimed and restored to good network operating condition, our brains become capable of processing exponential increases in energy and information. We become smarter, healthier and much more capable of showing up fully in the present moment. Except for one thing …

Good Corner Man and Cut Man

… healing painful early experiences in the present is NOT EASY and NOT FUN. It’s painful! If the choice is hanging out with people who trigger painful explicit conscious memories (or unconscious painful implicit memories) or hanging out with people who are fun and a joy to be with, most of us will choose to hang with the latter. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Until those people morph into some ghostly Painbringer from the Past, of course. I’ve written about this difficulty before because of how crucial, critical, essential, vital and important I think it is. Electing not to repair ruptured relationships is like a neuron in the temporal lobe – essential for hearing – deciding not to maintain crucial connections with a speech or language neuron in Broca’s or Wernicke’s area in the brain. The network ends up not working very well. When whole collections of people assembled in countries elect not to repair ruptured relationships, the world ends up not working very well.

My experience with people offering their services as healers is pretty extensive, and mostly unsatisfactory. But what I’ve found is that the few of them who were skillful healers tended to operate as good “Corner men” or “Cut men” in boxing. They went beyond the healer role and had the skills to address whatever happened in the ring. Through experience I came to trust that by the final bell, they’d still be there in my corner. And no matter what it took, I could count on them to get me through the ordeal. They continually managed to explicitly and implicitly answer The Big Brain Question Yes! for me. Somehow, I came to trust their experience and their expertise. But most importantly the quality of their presence and compassionate heart would work to soothe and calm me and help restore my emotional equilibrium after a ten round psychological battle with the demons arising from my personal past. Without that trust and confidence in their capable heart, the possibility of reenactment without resolution comes with too high a neurological price. And it’s one that I’m no longer willing to pay.

How then, best to skillfully do the work of repair? A crucial, critical, essential vital topic for another day. But note: sometimes it takes a posse.

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