Response to Critics of “Transformational Encounters”

Glendale, California
February 28, 2016

Dear Readers,

I hope to amuse you with a tale about the history of ideas, in this case related to my efforts to introduce the phrase “transformational encounters” into the psychoanalytic lexicon. I have been working for some years now, using political, scholarly, and rhetorical means, to convince psychoanalysts of ways to unify their clinical practice. It has long troubled me to see the Kleinians fighting with the Freudians, or the Intersubjectivists bickering with, and splitting off from, the Self-Psychologists. In the view of many others besides me, psychoanalysts or, as I prefer to call them, depth psychotherapists, actually work, in real time, in a much more similar than dissimilar way. In confirmation, Borbely (2013) writes: “most analysts of divergent persuasions would agree today that all schools attempt to and, in general, succeed in establishing a psychoanalytic process with their analysands.”

At least one basic assumption would be required for any unified clinical model of depth psychotherapy, and that would concern using theory as metaphor rather than as “truth.” I addressed this in my last blog posting. Another basic assumption would consist of viewing psychoanalytic relationships as the sine qua non of personal change. Psychoanalytic processes occur within the context of intimate if assymmetrical (Aron, 1996) relationships in which emotionally-tinged, interpersonal encounters occur. I argue, as do many others, that cognitively-based interpretations of unconscious structure, i.e. “you distance yourself from men because of the way your father abused you,” prove of little actual help. To be sure, patients benefit from some basic understanding of the dramatic themes that populate their unconscious minds. However, this intellectual knowledge alone has little mutative effect. Many types of psychoanalytic encounters create change. Ideally, but not always relevant or possible, this type of unconscious dynamic is worked through as it maps onto the psychoanalytic relationship itself, e.g. through the transference or counter-transference. In other words, as the patient distances herself from the psychoanalyst, he or she brings this to her attention, chases it, confronts the distancing behavior, elicits the conflicts or deficits that lie beneath it, etc.

One reviewer from the editorial board of Psychoanalytic Psychology wrote, in rejecting the idea of “transformational encounters,” that “they could easily apply to practically anything, such as taking LSD, being robbed at gun point, skydiving, etc., because any encounter could potentially be transformative for the psyche.” More recently, in rejecting yet another paper of mine, Jay Greenberg, editor of The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, writes: “A further problem is the unexplained need to label what you did [in the two case histories I present in the paper] a “transformational encounter;” this term itself is likely to disenfranchise sophisticated and experienced readers.” Really? Remember when “encounter groups,” which specifically referenced interpersonally intense and transformative group meetings, were so popular?

In retrospect, I think both critics make a a fair point. As I have also written in this blog, the word “psychoanalysis” is problematic, specifically because it implies a linear, cognitively-based analysis of a person’s subjectivity. I will need to modify the phrase “transformational encounters” in some way to account for how psychoanalytic ones are specifically transformative. However I ultimately modify the phrase “transformational encounters,” it nonetheless appears clear from my forays into the world of scholarly psychoanalysis that a. the field has become so fragmented that even Jay Greenberg himself recently wrote, ““it is very difficult, ultimately, even to say what psychoanalysis really is” (Greenberg, 2015); b. introducing any kind of new words into the psychoanalytic lexicon will likely prove extremely difficult, given the way old ideas die slowly and the devotion to many words, like psychoanalysis, that reflect an empiricism and scientism alien to human subjectivity, is strong, and; c. psychoanalysts are like artists, meaning that they will, and perhaps even should, have difficulty agreeing on any unifying models or even nomenclature. It would be difficult to collect a group of painters that agree on their form of art. They would tend to splinter into impressionists, cubists, etc, just like psychoanalysts divide into Freudians, Jungians, and so on.

I welcome any comments or questions, and thank you for taking the time to read my varied ramblings about the field of psychoanalysis.

With affection,

Alan Karbelnig


Aron, L. (1996). A meeting of minds: Mutuality in psychoanalysis. New York: The Analytic Press.

Borbely, A. (2013). Metaphor and metonymy as the basis for a new psychoanalytic language. In S. Montana Katz (Ed.), Metaphor and field: Common ground, common language, and the future of psychoanalysis (pp.79-91). New York: Routledge, p. 82.

Greenberg, J.R. (2015). Therapeutic action and the analyst’s responsibility. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 63, 15-32, p. 15.

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