Merger Fantasies in Psychotherapy

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.

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Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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18 Responses to Merger Fantasies in Psychotherapy

  1. zsanon says:

    Thank you for the best description/illustration of merger I’ve come across, as a layperson. I understand it now a little bit more distinctly from transference (a subset, would you say?), attachment, and dependence. I know these are all very complex issues, but if you had to (and are willing to :) give a brief paragraph further defining merger against those terms, I, for one, would love it. It’s not so much that I confuse them, as I find the relationship among them unclear. Just one paragraph – remember, shorter is better (and topic sentences are always necessary :) I don’t mean to issue an intellectual challenge; I’m really emotionally confused about these concepts, and my place in their rapidly moving solar system (how I currently think of them all together, I guess). And they’re all worthy of volumes of discussion. But – if you had to make a museum exhibit putting all of them together in an showcase, what are the very few words you’d use?

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Very interesting questions. I’ll try to be as clear as I can.

      Transference: in my view, everything of an emotional nature that transpires between client and therapist is transference; the idea of treating your therapist as if he or she were a stand-in for an important person in your life is too restrictive. Idealization of the therapist is a very common kind of transference; clients idealize for differing reasons. My client Jim idealized me within the transference and wanted to merge with my idealized identity. By examining this aspect of the transference, we learned how he felt about his damaged self.

      Attachment: You probably know this terminology grows out the work of Bowlby. In brief, having a strong and secure relationship with early attachment figures (i.e, parents) forms the core in later life for a strong sense of self. When this is lacking — when parents are emotionally unstable or unavailable — then the person develops a very shaky sense of self, easily threatened by internal emotional and external pressures. In my view, faulty attachment lies behind many forms of anxiety disorder and disintegration fears, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

      Dependency: The central fact of the infant’s life: he or she depends upon mother for survival in a very literal sense. The nature of this early experience of dependency for the child will affect all future relationships. If that experience isn’t good enough (too much frustration, an undependable caregiver), then defenses arise against the awareness of need. Denial of need might be one such defense. Grandiose fantasies of already having everything you need might be another. In a certain light, you could see my client Jim’s merger fantasies as a response to his unstable upbringing: being needy was unbearable so instead of feeling needy and separate in his therapy, he fantasized about getting inside of me and taking over. In order to experience true dependency, you have to be aware of separateness.

  2. Betty says:

    Joe,
    Wouldn’t patients with dissociative disorder also be at risk for merging ??

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Betty, I have no experience with clients suffering from dissociative disorder so it would be hard for me to say. Do you have an idea about why that would be the case?

  3. Mel says:

    How bizare to believe that only people with some sort of personality disorder have fantasies around ‘merging’ or idolising.

    If you look at attachment theory you will find that this a a normal and natural process babies/infants/children go through. When we are in therapy, whether [dis]ordered a personality or not [whatever that means!?] we can regress back to early defence mechanisms to protect our vulnerabale self. Its normal and needs to be understood by the therapist, otherwise we are all just seen as personality disorderd and the origin of the pain is forgotten.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Mel, you’re right, of course — the experience of merger is a part of normal development, and “regressing” to that place is a common experience in therapy, often becoming the central focus of transference interpretations for clients with a broad range of issues, not just those with personality disorders.

  4. Lynne Gordon says:

    I have to disagree with those who promote unhealthy mental desires (specifically, envy) as necessary coping mechanisms/skills from earlier Neanderthal man.

    While I suppose some might have been at that time, what relevance does that really have to a modern man who is having these experiences today?

    To suggest that some left-over life-saving emotion from 100,000 years ago may be lurking just under the surface and blame it for one’s actions today is absurd to me.

    Am I missing something?

    Love, love you blog, Dr. Joe.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      Lynne, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the genetic code we humans inherit was evolved over millions of years, in response to environmental conditions that don’t necessarily apply. today In evolutionary terms, 100,000 years is a drop in the bucket. Whatever genes we may have inherited because the behavior or emotion proved, over MILLIONS of years, to promote survival, won’t disappear in such a short space of time. That’s the theory, anyway. And in any event, it doesn’t change the fact that we have to figure out how to cope with those emotions NOW. Knowing that it might be a genetic residue of our prehistoric past doesn’t make envy any easier to bear. Thanks, Lynne.

  5. Wendy says:

    In 2004 my oldest son died by suicide. Shortly afterards, I went to a therapist for the first time and have fallen in a pit of hell ever since. First I was diagnosed as bipolar, then with major severe depresion, convinced that medication would help, after 39 different combinations of medication, months of feeling suicidal, then being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I have a very dim view of phsychology in general and psychiatry in whole… But your blog come by and I have been reading slowly through your posts.
    I have a new therapist and am working on getting off the last of the medication. But I have found that some of your posts ring so true. Disregulation, the post-apolystic anger, attachment with my therapist, dependency, etc I have learned a lot, and although at times I felt I needed to learn everything I could about psychology just to be able to defend myself, now I can see that knowledge may be able to help me accept my therapists help.
    Thank you for your commitment to your profession.
    My daughter gave me a t-shirt for christmas – it says, “If things continue to get much worse, I’m going to have to ask you to quit helping me” It rang so true with my experience. Gee, I only went for some help on issues of grief and almost ended up in a mental hospital!

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’m glad to hear you’re weaning yourself off the meds. I know it’s a very difficult thing to do, but if you have a therapist who supports that decision, all the better. I have a very dim view of my own profession, too. So few therapists have done the hard work themselves, over years of in-depth therapy, it’s not surprising they can’t really go to the hard places with their clients.

  6. Paisley says:

    Wonderful post! I am in the throes of transference with my therapist and have been since August. I have BPD and also am dissociative; I saw the earlier post from someone inquiring if people with DID are also at risk for merger fantasies – DID and BPD can run hand in hand, correct? I’m so glad I found this website.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I’d think less in terms of diagnostic categories and more in terms of your actual experience. It’s not that you are both bipolar and DID; those diagnostic labels are crude attempts to categorize an emotional/psychological experience such as yours.

  7. Dahlia says:

    I have a few problems with this post-

    1. The patient that you use as an example is an otherwise healthy person who falls into periodic depressions, not a personality disorder… so would be atypical of what you describe as “merging”

    2. Neither of these dreams indicate to me an unhealthy relationship (ie merge) The first he is at your party and feels out of place- read into that what you will, the second he is skiing (something he knows you do) and excelling at it.

    Perhaps you like being idolized? Perhaps you are a therapist because you enjoy the rapt attention? You wouldn’t be the first, but you need to be aware of who you are in the relationship.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      This comment reminds me of professional conferences I’ve been to where, after a clinical case presentation, a member of the audience stands up and explains to the presenter (the person who has spent hour after hour in session, trying to understand a client, and who has just taken the time to present that case in public as clearly as possible) that he or she entirely missed the point; the audience member, who has only heard a few minutes of distilled case notes, can of course see the “truth” much better than the presenter.

      • L K says:

        Your response made me smile Joe. I love reading how you deal with all your commenters and learn a lot from what you write but I especially find it fascinating to read how you reply to a challenge or somewhat cynical post – what you write models how I would like to be – informative, assertive, succinct, honest and true to your values. Thank you for that.

  8. Saeed says:

    Nice post!
    I’m reading a book from James Framo (Family-of-Origin Therapy) and I can’t understand this statement very well: “Perhaps, having let go of the merger fantasy, clients may paradoxically get more from parents”. May you explain it for me? especially the role of merger fantasy.
    Thank you very much.

    • Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. says:

      I haven’t read that book, but here’s what I understand it to mean. You can’t actually get what you need from someone if you’re merged with him or her; you have to be separate for that to happen. Merger is about joining identities with and often taking (unconscious) control of the other person, rather than depending upon him or her to give you something.

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