Most people understand what free association means: to voice all thoughts, feelings and ideas that come to mind during a therapy session, without deciding in advance whether they’re relevant or “worth saying.” At the beginning of traditional psychoanalysis, clients are instructed to freely associate and occasionally reminded to do so as the treatment proceeds. We call it the “fundamental rule” of psychoanalysis; we believe that free association brings apparently unconnected ideas into relation with one another, revealing links that give us access to the unconscious.
Here’s an an example. In session this week, my client Tom was discussing his work schedule. Tom is a highly successful entrepreneur with several thriving businesses; he works enormously long hours and operates himself as if he were a machine, with little regard to his needs, feelings and limitations. In this particular session, Tom spent a long time discussing the demands of the workplace in a light-hearted manner, telling jokes about problems he encountered, making light of his frustration. In a practical vein, I kept pointing out that he could say “no” to certain demands upon his time. I wondered aloud whether he had room to acknowledge just how exhausted he felt, how far beyond his limits.
Tom abruptly shifted gears and said, “I don’t mean to change the subject, but I heard from Jennifer the other day that her friend’s son committed suicide. He threw himself out of a window. And get this — his family decided that the best thing to do under the circumstances was just to move away. He only died on Monday and already they’ve moved to their vacation home in Hawaii!” It gave me a way to address a split-off and neglected part of Tom who’s in extreme pain. Tom wants nothing to do with that part of himself; he prefers to stay busy, to “move away” and keep his distance from his suffering. To an outsider, it might seem as if I’m reading too much into Tom’s change of subject, but there’s been ample material of a similar nature in prior sessions. It felt right to me; more to the point, Tom agreed, even if he still couldn’t allow himself to go near those feelings. Not yet.
To my mind, there’s no doubt that free association helps the work along, helps me get to know my clients better and more quickly. In a couple of recent sessions, I came to a deeper understanding of why most clients resist it, and why some resist more than others. It’s an outgrowth of some thoughts I expressed in my recent post about keeping secrets from your therapist.
When I was urging my client Isaac to freely associate, he looked very uncomfortable. He eventually told me that many of his thoughts focus on aspects of himself he finds “ugly” — primarily but not entirely physical ugliness. He found it too painful that another person should know the full extent of these thoughts. Another client thought that if he were honest about the kind of thoughts that randomly occurred to him, or the paucity of emotion he experiences, he’d appear to be some kind of autistic freak. Earlier in my career, I might have talked about a harsh superego, projected into me, and the development of transference; these days, while I still find value in such a view, I focus more on shame and vulnerability.
If you freely associate, telling me exactly what you think and feel, you relinquish control over my view of you. You’re no longer holding back certain details and emphasizing others in order to promote a skewed view of yourself. There’s a very high likelihood that you’ll feel shame as a result. In order to avoid that experience, you may resist free association; if shame is a central issue for you, your resistance may be intense. You’ll keep certain thoughts to yourself because you’re afraid I’ll reject you if I know about them. You won’t describe your preferred way of masturbating — say, with a finger in your anus — because I might then find you “disgusting.” Or maybe you won’t tell me that the only way you can reach orgasm with your loving partner is to fantasize about rape. You’re certain that nobody would understand or sympathize with such a “perverse” fantasy.
In other words, to associate freely means to be more fully seen. Most people who come for therapy want relief from their suffering, of course, but they often hope to get it without having to reveal their most painful secrets. Clients with no prior experience of psychotherapy usually hope to receive advice or learn techniques to alleviate suffering; they don’t realize that psychotherapy means revealing yourself fully to another human being in order to be known and understood. For some, that’s the very last thing they want. They’re hoping the therapist can help them escape from themselves, to become another person altogether, rather than having their pain and shame fully exposed. For this reason, they’ll question and resist the suggestion that they freely associate. They’ll repeatedly “forget” that they’re supposed to do so.
It’s not a terribly profound insight, but it feels important to me.
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