Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Enactment Controversies: A Critical Review of Current Debates

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Enactment Controversies: A Critical Review of Current Debates

Article excerpt

This critical review of the current disputes concerning countertransference enactment systematically outlines the various issues and the perspectives adopted by the relevant psychoanalytic authors. In the light of this the 'common ground' hypothesis concerning the unifying influence of contemporary countertransference theory is challenged. While the existence of enactments, minimally defined as the analyst's inadvertent actualization of the patient's transference fantasies, is widely accepted, controversies regarding the specific scope, nature, prevalence, relationship to countertransference experience, impact on the analytic process, role played by the analyst's subjectivity, and the correct handling of enactments abound. Rather than taking a stand based on ideological allegiance to any particular psychoanalytic school or philosophical position, the author argues that the relative merits of contending perspectives is best evaluated with reference to close process scrutiny of the context, manifestation and impact of specific enactments on patients' intrapsychic functioning and the analytic relationship. A detailed account of an interpretative enactment provides a context for the author's position on these debates.

Keywords: actualization, analytic attitude, containment, countertransference, enactment, introspective-expressive gradient, self-disclosure


Various psychoanalytic controversies that characterized the field of countertransference for decades, rather than settling or resolving, are converging anew around the phenomenon of countertransference enactment. A survey of current debates about enactment calls into question the assertions of those authors who claim that recent conceptualizations of the countertransference suggest a rapprochement between various psychoanalytic approaches. In this regard, Gabbard (1995) argues that the importance accorded to countertransference and how this is understood by contemporary analysts constitutes a new 'common ground' arising from the recognition that it is a joint analytic creation. Hirsch (1998) further contends that the widespread tendency to recognize the prevalence and potential usefulness of countertransference enactments heralds a theoretical convergence toward a more intersubjective position, characterized by a focus on the analyst as ''observingparticipant in a relationship characterized by becoming irrationally lost within the transference-countertransference matrix'' (p. 96). What these authors portray is a contemporary situation in which sharply divided schools of psychoanalytic thought are setting aside previous theoretical and technical differences in favor of an emerging shared understanding of how analysts' inevitable unconscious reactions to the interpersonal influence exerted by their patients present valuable opportunities for therapeutic insights and experiences. However, debates sparked by papers by Hirsch (1996) and Steiner (2006a) suggest that, while there is a shared recognition of the importance of enactments, basic theoretical and technical disagreements about enactments persist. The aims of this paper are threefold: to critically examine the countertransference 'common ground' assertion with regard to enactment; to systematically outline the important points of the 'enactment controversies'; and to ground the debates about enactment in discussion of clinical material.

A perusal of the psychoanalytic literature suggests that the most important enactment controversies may be summarized in terms of how authors position themselves regarding the following questions:

i. Are countertransference enactments typically benign opportunities for insight and therapeutic growth, or are their consequences more often negative?

ii. Is enactment the inevitable behavioral expression of countertransference experience, or can countertransference be experienced without being enacted?

iii. Do enactments always precede and provide prerequisite conditions for countertransference awareness and resolution? …

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