Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Words and Transitional Phenomena in Psychotherapy

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Words and Transitional Phenomena in Psychotherapy

Article excerpt

In analytic psychotherapy, language provides form for the patient's conscious and unconscious material. Therefore, language creates a space for patient expression and a medium for therapeutic work. The space of language in analytic therapy is comparable to Winnicott's transitional space. The transitional space of language is independent of the number of languages the patient uses in therapy but transitional space of language is made particularly manifest during the moments of language switch. Paying close attention to language switch during therapy may reveal the transitional space of language, the special words with transitional object qualities and, finally, the symbolic functions of language.


Language is the medium in which therapists work and the main pathway for the mind to express itself. It is through language that the therapist and patient touch each other's mind. For the patient, language brings conscious and unconscious material to life.

It gives this material emotional nuance and power, elaborates content and conflict, holds, withdraws, separates, selects, and presents for the therapist to understand and appreciate.

For the therapist, language provides form for the patient's material, creates a space for it to be held, appreciated, manipulated, and played with in associated tangents. Language also provides a medium to supply support and interpretation to the patient.

When the patient has two languages and the therapist only understands one of them, interesting dynamics are created (1, 2). The language unknown to the therapist, often the patient's language of childhood, holds great treasures, but needs translation to the second, common language to enter the work (3). Conversely, important details of communication may be lost or hidden. How the patient and the therapist negotiate the translation or switch process is an additional dimension in the work that is worthy of specific attention (1).

Words convey information in the everyday cognitive sense of communication. The "transitional" functions of words are more subtle and complex than the common-sense communication of everyday life. These involve the exploitation of transitional space and the use of transitional objects, concepts developed by Winnicott (4, 5) and explained in some depth in this paper.

The transitional space of words is independent of the number of languages the patient uses in therapy. Language switches only make the transitional quality of childhood words more apparent to the therapist. The assumption in this article is that cognitive understanding in everyday communication may impair clear and direct appreciation of the transitional qualities of words. The transitional qualities of words are discrete and delicate, demanding careful appreciation by the therapist, who should hear those words beyond the common cognitive sense.

Paying close attention to the moment the patient switches to the use of the childhood language enhances a meaningful appreciation of the transitional quality of words. Essential elements of transference analysis (explored in the first three cases presented in this paper) and dream analysis (explored in the fourth case) may come to light by looking into how and when the patient switches languages (6) and employs transitional words.


The Revealing and Concealing Nature of Language Switches

In analytic psychotherapy, attention is paid to several different realms of reality. What is said, how it is said, and what is not said, all may serve the functions of revealing and concealing the patient, both to him or herself and in relationship to the therapist. As mentioned above, words may enter the realm of transitional phenomena and may exist in transitional space, a concept originally applied to special "transitional objects" by Winnicott (4, 5). By existing in a transitional space, we mean that words may create an intermediate area between reality and fantasy, public and private meaning, secondary- and primary-process thinking. …

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