Shame and Transference — Part II
One thing I did not mention in my previous post was that, aside from positive transference, I was also experiencing negative transference. I alternately idealized Steven and suspected that he was a scam artist and I was falling for his ploy. The negative transference was triggered by something I read online.
In my obsession with Steven, I Googled him relentlessly. If there was ever a mention of him on the Internet, I found it. Eventually I found a book that mentioned him. The author had gone to him for a session, and she described the session in some detail. What she described was so similar to my own experience that it made me wonder if the whole thing was an act. Let me explain — her description was similar in tone to my own experience, if not in content. She did not mention many of the things Steven had told me, but her experience of the session and of Steven — the overall feel of what she described — was similar to mine.
Of course, just because Steven’s sessions with different clients feel similar does not mean that he’s a fake who’s playing everyone. After all, most of us have a persona that we use professionally, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re putting on an act or that we’re disingenuous. My rational mind knew all of these things, but something just felt wrong. I wasn’t sure why.
While I mentioned my suspicions to two friends, I did not discuss them in detail because they felt like paranoid delusions. “The rational part of my mind is watching all this and thinking, man, I’m really nuts,” I joked with one friend.
The paranoia was most likely my mind’s way of resisting change. But I couldn’t shake the thought that it would be so easy for someone like Steven to take advantage of people like me who have issues with parental abandonment. But wasn’t this the case with all therapists? Therapists are almost always in a position of power relative to their clients.
Ultimately, I decided to ignore my paranoia and trust Steven.
Steven called at 10:02 a.m. on Sunday. We exchanged pleasantries, and I immediately told him that I had role-played this conversation with three different people. He was impressed. He had a way of engaging that made me feel way more relaxed than I had expected to — perhaps it was his light-hearted tone, or perhaps it was the sound of his voice.
I followed that confession with “I’m feeling a lot of shame around this, which is why it’s hard for me to talk about.” By naming the feeling, I lessened its hold on me. But the next part was harder. I stalled, and Steven jokingly coaxed me to tell.
I don’t remember exactly what I finally said to him, but he responded with, “are you saying that you’re attracted to me?” I don’t remember my response to that either, but I probably hedged my answers because, well, I really wasn’t sure what exactly I was trying to say.
Recall how I had just realized two days ago that my feelings for Steven weren’t really romantic. I just thought they were because I had no other way to describe them. They were feelings I had never experienced before, not that I could remember anyway. But was I attracted to him? Not exactly, but I could see myself becoming attracted to him. I could easily cross that line and desire him in that way. But I didn’t want to. Becoming attracted to him would only exacerbate my feelings of shame.
Anyway, I don’t remember what I said. All I remember is him telling me that the feelings are mutual.
I wasn’t really surprised. Actually, I was kind of afraid that this would happen.
But Steven had a way of putting me at ease. He told me there was no reason for me to feel ashamed. He was flattered, and surely he must have told me that I was attractive. You told me I’m beautiful, twice, I thought.
There had been times in the past when he had been attracted to clients. “When that happens, I have to fight through the counter-transference.”
He told me about a client he had when he was in grad school. She was an undergrad, and one day she started coming to sessions in incredibly revealing clothing. He told his supervisor that one of his clients was doing these crazy things like coming to sessions in miniskirts and intentionally bending over in front of him.
“So what are you going to do about it?” His supervisor asked.
“Good,” his supervisor said. “You can think anything you want, but you can’t act on it, unless you want to destroy your career.”
“You can think anything you want, just don’t act on it” is Steven’s motto. He had told me the same thing before, in a different context.
Steven gave me twenty reasons why nothing could ever happen between us, aside from the obvious fact that it would be a violation of his professional ethics. Sure, he wanted to, but he would never forgive himself if he did. He wanted me to like him and respect him, and if he were to sleep with me, he’d be just another asshole. It would destroy my positive regard of him, and it would destroy our therapeutic alliance. “Maybe in an alternate universe,” he said. I didn’t argue.
And just like that, I no longer felt ashamed about my feelings. I’m not sure what changed, but the shame was gone. I felt okay about my transference. It was okay to have these complicated feelings about my therapist.
Steven went on to tell me that I should fantasize about him later in the day. “You and I are going to have a lot of fun in my imagination,” he said.
“Oh my God,” I laughed. My tone was both reproachful and dismissive. That was a bit much. I’m no prude, but for a therapist to tell his client to fantasize about him is at least a little bit inappropriate.
“Are you like this with all of your clients?”
“I’ve never been this real with anyone,” he said.
He told me that he’s never had a client directly tell him about their feelings of transference. He sometimes inferred transference from their behavior, as was the case with the undergrad who wore miniskirts to sessions. But no one had ever been brave enough to disclose their feelings in words.
This seemed strange to me. After all, aren’t therapists supposed to coax their clients into disclosing their feelings? Isn’t the meta conversation — the conversation about the therapeutic relationship — a key part of therapy? I did not ask Steven these questions, preferring, instead, to listen to his stories. I adored his stories and told him he’s a great storyteller. One day, he would enchant the whole world with his stories.
After that session, for which he did not charge me — he had jokingly said that he could charge me $150 per hour to tell him that I’m in love with him but he wasn’t going to do that — I no longer felt ashamed and stopped having paranoid thoughts about him.
I knew I wanted to pursue traditional psychotherapy with Steven, his somewhat inappropriate comments regarding sexual fantasies notwithstanding. I hoped he would be the one to finally help me heal those childhood wounds I’ve been carrying around my whole life. The little girl in me wished he would be my father.