The Importance of Neutrality in Psychoanalysis

The analyst’s posture in analysis is supposed to be driven by three aims: neutrality, abstinence, and anonymity. I want to focus specifically on neutrality. Read any psychological textbook and one always happens upon the same critique that neutrality is impossible. Freud was not always neutral, which should come as no surprise considering his case studies are all stories of failure not success. Relational analysts have emphasized two-person psychology and critiqued Freud’s neutrality as being robotic and inhuman.

I want to talk about the importance of neutrality or indifference. People going into the mental health profession tend to have certain proclivities to be caring and empathic. Of course, these attributes are necessary and can help the psychotherapist greatly who is engaging in difficult work. I wish I could find the quote from Freud that goes something like this: “the worst thing you can do is care too much about the patient”. This might strike some as odd. Aren’t psychotherapists supposed to care about the well being of others since their work is driven by a sense of benevolence? To explain why caring too much can severely hinder therapy, I want to use Klein’s idea of projective identification. This is a controversial idea that combines a couple of different notions such as: projection, introjection, and identification.

I want to first focus on the idea of projection. Paranoia is one common manifestation of projection in which one locates one’s own feelings elsewhere. For example, “I don’t harbor violent, murderous feelings, rather I suspect that you are working with FBI to kill me”. Projection differs from projective identification because the projection doesn’t “stick” since they are manifestly psychotic. The key to projective identification is that the projection somehow “hooks” onto the therapist’s psyche. Let me try and sketch this out. For example, let’s say the client is unable to experience feelings of aggression so they completely split off (banish it from consciousness) these feelings and project it into the therapist. Next, the client acts in such a way so as to provoke aggression in the therapist. The client can then, from a distance, identify with the aggression that is too difficult to experience directly. The client then acts in such a way that therapist cannot help but respond to (i.e. introject) the very thing the client has projected.

What does this have to do with caring too much? Projective identification can help us make sense of why this posture is unhelpful, unlike neutrality. Let’s imagine the client is severely depressed and has a dependent relational style. The client likely finds it difficult to care for himself and tends to excessively rely on others for help. Perhaps the client has, on some level, learned to be helpless because he has found himself unable to make any changes. It is intolerable for the client to try and change and so he splits off all feelings of hope or agency. The therapist is then “activated” to become excessively caring and maternal. The therapist contains all feelings of hope and care for the client’s well being. We could imagine that the client acts increasingly helpless which puts pressure on the therapist to hold all feelings of hope and belief that the client can change. Notice how the projected feelings of hope or change hook onto the therapist’s natural tendency to want the client to change. Unfortunately, we now have a situation where the client refuses the therapist attempts to help him change which renders the therapist feelings hopeless and inefficacious (feelings that the client himself could not own). The client can then create distance from his own feelings of uselessness by creating a situation in which the therapist carries those intolerable feelings for him. Inevitably the therapist cares too much and tries to suggest strategies and techniques to help the client change. However, this situation will not promote growth or change because the locus of control is sill external, i.e. it does not reside in the client but elsewhere. Not to mention the client continues to depend on the therapist for answers. This situation is similar to Lacan’s idea that transference is always established whenever a subject exists that is supposed to know.

Psychotherapists need to be careful to avoid using their own caring instincts to get in the way of actual change. Therapists feel extraordinarily uncomfortable when we feel useless. However, this is a test. A test that only the neutral therapist can pass because she refuses to get involved in this projective identification that ultimately renders the client dependent on the therapist and unable to embrace his own sense of agency. Sometimes caring too much has more to do with the therapist’s own needs to be useful and much less to do with what would be most beneficial for the client.

19 thoughts on “The Importance of Neutrality in Psychoanalysis

  1. What I was trying to argue is that psychtherapists should concern themselves with the content, not the person. When we try and care directly about the person we can be experienced as invasive because the therapeutic frame is violated.

    I think one finds the same issues with teacher. Teachers who are passionate about what they teach can be very inspiring and their love of learning can be infectious. However, when a teacher tries to change his students directly he can be experienced as not respecting boundaries or creepy. This is why Will Schuester from Glee is so obnoxious. He cares way too much about his students and not enough about his classroom. That’s why his boundaries are so awful sometimes, crying in front of his kids. He’s messed up the structure by trying to be more of a peer and mentor and less of a teacher. Same thing goes with therapists who get over-invested and assume the role of caretaker, which creates role confusion and can generates enormous anxiety for the client. Or perhaps the client unconsciously pulls for the therapist to be a caretaker which is ultimately counter-productive since she is not taking responsibility for herself.

  2. I do think the teacher who wants to be pals is a toxic figure — and ultimately a hypocritical one, because the assertion of authority is going to happen in the end, if only through assigning grades. At the same time, there do seem to be special temptations that beset the more emotionally distant teacher, such as the desire to seek out “disciples” who will praise you constantly. (That was probably more of a temptation for the previous generation, though — we’ve swung more toward the over-sharing model.)

  3. There’s a similar model in some types of therapy where the therapist essentially plays dumb and attempts to negate the whole power differential. It’s a bullshit move because somebody’s getting paid at the end of the day.

    I’m also not trying to praise the stoic teacher/therapist. I just think people try and move to fast by caring directly about the students. Ultimately, those who love what they teach do care about the students learning the information. But you can’t jump over that step and care directly, which often comes across as awkward and usually has much more to do with the teacher’s needs than the student’s.

  4. I agree that the stoic stance is the less-bad move, and to a degree I aspire to that — though I try to negate the unapproachability of that through humor, including self-deprecation. I don’t want my students to think I’m their close personal friend, but I also don’t want them to be afraid to come to office hours or ask questions. It’s hard to figure out the balance there, and it probably varies depending on the culture of each school.

    Do you know of any work that directly applies psychoanalytic theory to the teacher-student relationship? Our conversation here makes it seem like a pretty obvious connection, so I’d imagine it’s been done.

  5. I imagine it’s a hard balance to strike. I actually don’t know of any books, although I’m sure there are some out there.

    I’ve been meaning to read Freud’s book on group psychology so hopefully I’ll be posting something more groups and psychology in the next couple of weeks. I will say that getting a hold of projective identification demystifies so much of awkwardness one experiences in groups and at work. It’s amazing how useful it is to understand how groups function.

  6. There’s also that Jacques Ranciere book, “Ignorant Schoolmaster,” which I think draws a certain connection between psychoanalysis and pedagogy. I feel like there has to be more literature about that relation though, since it’s a seemingly obvious one.

  7. At Villanova, we have a feminist pedagogy workshop in which we focus on pedagogies of oppression and how to avoid and alleviate them. We try to then discuss more affirmative, liberating pedagogies. We do read hooks’ _Engaged Pedagogy_, which I recommend on this topic. I also recently read _Psychopedagogy:” Freud, Lacan, and the Psychoanalytic Theory of Education_ by K. Daniel Cho, which may be helpful for those interested in psychoanalysis, although it doesn’t really address Freud’s _Group Psychology_. Ranciere’s book is short and to the point. It’s free to download as a pdf:

  8. “It’s a bullshit move because somebody’s getting paid at the end of the day.” — Jeremy

    Jeremy, that reminds me of a documentary on Lacan (I think it was on Arte) in which it was claimed that Lacan sometimes charged his patients ridiculous amounts of money, even if the session was only 5 minutes long or something (his notorious “variable length” sessions…)

    Here’s an interesting article on Psychoanalysis and Money:

  9. Freud writes in “On Beginning the Treatment”:

    “Free treatment enormously increases some of a neurotic’s resistances. . . . The absence of the regulating effect offered by the payment of a fee to the doctor makes itself very painfully felt; the whole relationship is removed from the real world, and the patient is deprived of a strong motive for endeavouring to bring the treatment to an end.”

  10. Well, to be fair, analysts charge their clients even if they do not attend the session. Some will even charge if the client takes a vacation or has a family emergency. The whole rationale is that the client has essentially bought a part of the analyst’s schedule and thus owes her that money regardless of whether or not he uses that time for analysis.

    Thanks for the article.

    “One of the points that Fink made in his talk was the importance of charging something to the analysand, even if this amount was relatively trivial. This is something other Lacanian authors have commented on.”

    I can’t tell you just how important it is to charge for sessions. I work at two places. At one place, Medicaid covers therapy so no money is exchanged. At the other place I work, small amounts are charged per session ($5, $7, I even know somebody who charges $1). It is simply amazing how much of an effect charging, even a small amount, dramatically increases attendance. Moreover, the client takes the work much more seriously when some exchange takes place, regardless of the actual fee.

  11. I have a professor who shared this story about a client who would always try to start a session saying “so before we begin…” to which she would reply “we’ve already begun”. Basically, there’s no place to hide once you enter analysis. Everything is on the table for discussion, even the formality of exchange of fees is analyzable.

  12. I’m not totally closed to closer relationships with students simply because I felt very friendly with some of my undergraduate professors, but I think it’s a thin line between the relationship I had with them and pushing that as the standard approach to teaching which really does turn creepy.

    I as reading a chapter by Bernard McGinn called “Three Forms of Negativity in Christian Mysticism” in the volume Knowing the Unknowable and found these remarks about Eckhart’s negative “detachment” made me think of this post. He writes there, “What becomes clear is that detachment is not just another virtue, such as love and humility, but is the form, or perhaps better, the ground of all virtues (110).” If it is of interest to anyone the Eckhart text being discussed is On Detachment which apparently can be found in the Paulist Press edition of the “Essential Sermons”.

  13. I’m with APS: I’m sure a number of my students are creeped out by my chattiness before class–and I’m creeped out by their’s after class and in my office. I suppose this is a democratic form of awkward pedagogy.

    Somewhat unrelated anecdote: A doctoral seminar I had with a psychoanalyst creeped me out: not only did he think it was a boy’s club (he seemed to actively exclude women from conversation and attempted to pal around with what he thought were the more able male students), but the way he recounted stories of his patients (do analysts really call them clients?) was such that you could easily identify his patient if you knew how to use Google. The guy also claimed to be a big fan of Kierkegaard. He assured us, that if he wanted, he could rationally convince us that Christ, Christianity, and “English Catholicism or the Anglican Church” was absolutely true. It seemed like he missed the point. Aside from a overpowering distaste for Althusser, the other psychoanalyst I did coursework with was great. (You can now use Google to determine who the two people were…)

  14. Looking at neutrality through detachment would seem to bring neutrality close to a kind of asceticism, which makes the idea of the analyst’s neutrality much more immune, i think, to “postmodern”-type claims that neutrality is impossible, etc.

  15. “The guy also claimed to be a big fan of Kierkegaard. He assured us, that if he wanted, he could rationally convince us that Christ, Christianity, and “English Catholicism or the Anglican Church” was absolutely true.”

    Umm… who was this?

  16. Craig,

    You’re right most analysts would call them patients. I choose to call those I work with clients for a variety reasons, although most from the psychoanalytic tradition opt for patients. That analyst you studied under sounds really weird.


    I think absolute neutrality is impossible to attain. However, I think it is a goal to aspire to neutrality otherwise one is liable to cross all sorts of boundaries that ought to be respected. You’re right that is the critique offered by postmodern analysts or ‘relational analysts’.

Comments are closed.