Early in my personal therapy, my analyst used to tell me I was trying to control him. He’d talk about the way I left pointed openings for him to speak. He identified a pattern — how I’d relate events in order to elicit a particular response from him, the one that I wanted. He showed me how I would bring in material that repeated themes from prior sessions, hoping I could “predict” what he would have to say.
This kind of interpretation focuses on the role of unbearable need and dependency in the psychotherapy relationship. When we can’t tolerate needing someone else and having to wait for him to give us what we need, we feel helpless. One response to such a feeling of helplessness is attempting to control the person you need. This view holds that control is a defense mechanism developed during infancy, where the helpless baby strives to control the object of need — i.e., the mother. It assumes that, as an adult, he or she will have similar issues with dependency and control in other relationships. Clients who want to feel in control of their therapists would likely strive for control in any relationship that stirs up feelings of need, dependency or helplessness.
As a younger therapist, I used to make many such interpretations with my own clients, at least with the ones in intensive treatment where the transference had developed, and interpreting defenses against the awareness of need is still an important part of the work I do. But two recent sessions made me realize that I’d shifted my focus over the years without quite realizing it. While clients may try to exert control over a person, what they really want to control is the way they feel. It’s a small but important distinction.
One of my clients has a habit of responding to interpretations I make with a set of questions she’d like me to answer. The questions come so quickly and automatically, it often feels to me that she doesn’t take in what I’ve just said. I suppose I could point out to her that she’s trying to control me with her questions, but I think what she’s actually trying to do is control her own feelings. She doesn’t want to let what I’ve said penetrate inside and upset her. This is a woman whose entire life is organized around efforts to manage (usually kill off) her feelings. Her family background is full of trauma, abandonment and sexual abuse; with the virtual absence of a reliable mother, she never learned how to manage her own emotions, and killing off or getting rid of them is the only way she managed to survive.
Another client exerts control in a different manner. Again and again, he falls into familiar old stories that feel almost like tape loops. He returns to the past, to painful experiences from his childhood, high school and college. Even though I’ve been seeing him for only a few months, I’ve already heard many of these stories several times. In a similar vein, he’ll repeatedly voice what we refer to as his “familiar laments.” He returns to similar complaints and worries about other people, using almost identical language. When he talks this way, I often feel that he is shutting me out.
This client suffers from extreme anxiety of a debilitating nature. He constantly worries that something will happen to disturb his routine, upsetting him so much that he won’t be able to cope. From one point of view, you could say that his repetitive stories are attempts to control and render me ineffective, but it’s only because he’s afraid that what I say will provoke upsetting feelings and he won’t be able to manage them. For the most part these days, when I notice that clients behave in ways or say things that seem controlling, I assume it’s because they’re afraid — afraid of what they might feel.
Not only does this view seem more accurate to me, it also feels kinder and more empathic. Although I’m sure my analyst didn’t mean it that way, I always felt vaguely criticized by those interpretations about control. The implication seemed to be that I should stop trying to control him and accept that I was deeply dependent upon him for help. It was undoubtedly true — he saved my life and I never would have made it through those dark years without him — but shifting the focus from the act of control to the fear behind it would have helped. He talked about unbearable need and how much I hated it, rather than the fear of all those scary emotions that can come up when you truly depend upon someone. I did hate neediness, as many people do, but I think it also terrified me. When another person matters that much to you, you can never predict how he or she will make you feel.
Interpreting hatred and anger when present is still an important part of the work I do, but I try not to lose sight of the fear that often lies behind it.