Certain clients, especially those with personality disorders or issues related to bipolar disorder symptoms, often idealize their therapists, putting them up on a pedestal and worshipping every word they say. Behind these feelings often lies a desire to merge with the therapist and to take part in that ideal life as a means of escape from personal torment. These ideas of merger represent a kind of growth-by-annexation where, in fantasy, the client wants to get inside of and take complete control over the therapist. This wish usually goes hand-in-hand with a belief that the client’s own internal world is so damaged as to be beyond repair; they believe this magical usurping of the therapist’s identity represents their only hope to get better.
As a therapist, you might notice that the client starts talking like you, echoing your phrases and speech patterns or developing a collegial manner in your relations. Such fantasies of merger are especially visible in dreams, however. Two dreams from one of my clients, someone I saw many years ago, illustrate the dynamic very well. He entered treatment because of occasional but severely debilitating depressions in which he felt unable to work. On the surface, Jim (mid-20s) appeared extremely appreciative; he was always telling his friends that I was a wonderful therapist and every week he’d repeat to them my “brilliant” interpretations. He’d been in treatment for a few months when he brought in the following dream.
My wife and I (in fact, I was unmarried at the time) were giving a large party at our home and he was in attendance. While there were no actual celebrities at the party, the atmosphere felt glamorous: a musician in tails at the grand piano, French champagne flowing freely, etc. My wife, he told me, was very beautiful and exquisitely dressed. He began to feel out-of-place at the party, as if he’d snuck inside without permission, and wondered if I’d be very angry with him. He worried that, if I caught sight of him, I might have him thrown out.
Around that time, following a ski vacation where I’d injured myself, I returned to work on crutches. At the beginning of each session that week, I gave my clients the minimum explanation I felt they needed to understand those crutches — “minor injury on a ski trip, nothing serious.” Not long after that, Jim brought in the second dream. It was short and very simple. He was skiing alone, executing perfect turns down a challenging slope, performing like a black diamond skier. In reality, he told me, he’d only been skiing once and was a rank beginner. In his associations, he told me he felt sure that I was a great skier and must’ve injured myself on a very difficult run.
Here’s what we made of those dreams in our work together. During his depressions, Jim experienced his internal world as a disaster area and felt himself to be irreparably damaged. The only hope, he felt, was to become somebody else entirely. To that end, he wanted to “get inside” of and become the me he idealized — a therapist with a perfect life instead of his own damaged self. We see this in the skiing dream, where after my skiing injury, he imagined me to be an excellent skier and then assumed my identity. Likewise in the party dream, he “snuck inside” where he felt he didn’t belong, wanting to inhabit my perfect life, but then worried that I’d be angry with him for trying to take me over.
Working through such fantasies, along with the underlying despair, takes a long time. Helping someone learn to face and cope with feelings of internal catastrophe is a great challenge, especially when his or her entire defensive structure is rigidly constructed around finding perfect answers to hopeless problems. Therapists must be on the watch for idealizations that might look like simple appreciation from a client. The genuinely appreciative client wants to make use of your knowledge and experience; the client with merger fantasies wants to take you over entirely, to annex that knowledge and experience to themselves because, at heart, they have no faith in genuine growth.
Finding Your Own Way:
Have you ever wished you were somebody else entirely, rather than yourself? Most of us at one point or another have engaged in such fantasies, simple daydreams of a grandiose nature. Small children routinely fantasize in this way and normally outgrow the habit in due course. Failure to do so is a sure sign of trouble. Do you still spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in fantasy of an escapist nature? It may be because you feel hopeless about your personal reality. Sometimes this concerns external facts, the limitations imposed by a harsh reality; it may also reflect feelings of despair about your internal world.
Even if you don’t have such characterological issues and only fantasize on occasion, the fantasies that appeal to you obviously reveal a lot about the “you” you’d prefer to escape. Superiority vs. shame, strength vs. weakness, big vs. little, winner vs. loser, beauty vs. ugliness — these are some of the paired issues to look for. A certain amount of fantasy is normal and even healthy, especially if it shows you what you want and sets you thinking about possible changes and efforts you might make. The repetitive, drug-like fantasy that saps your energy and leads nowhere is another matter altogether.