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  • Writer's pictureMarian Wiener-Margulies

Out of the Box and Into the Working Parties: A Journey Well Worth the Risk!

An article from The Candidate Connection Newsletter - June 2014 / Volume 16, Issue 2

One Sunday afternoon in the twilight of winter, Holly, Navah and I were brain- storming ideas for the theme of this issue of the Candidate Connection. Each of us threw into the pot this and that idea. We knew we nailed it down when we came up with the idea of candidates’ risk-taking and greater involvement in analytic activities beyond their institutes’ walls. Among the ideas, one especially intrigued me. Navah, having attended several sessions of “Working Parties” said, “there’s one coming up in a few weeks. Try it; you won’t be disappointed,” How right she was!

Having already taken the risk of journeying into my own unconscious with my analyst as guide, I was eager to take this next voyage—this time with fellow travelers. I participated in The Working Party on the Specificity of Psychoanalytic Treatment Today (WPSPTT)1, one of four types of IPA working party groups held at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute this past March. The Working Parties were formed nearly a decade ago to look at different aspects of psychoanalytic work in different regions around the world. There are different types of Working Parties, each one with a different research question and methodology.

One essential question the founders of the WPSPTT asked was, ‘What is specific about psychoanalytic treatment in various regions around the globe?’ The group decided to study psycho- analysis with a psychoanalytic methodology. And what method did they come up with? You guessed it!—Free association. They also wanted to study group work. In particular, they asked, ‘What happens when you put a dozen or so psychoanalysts in a room together to free associate to clinical material for many hours?’ What they found was striking: the group sharing their associations to the clinical material illuminated unconscious elements related to the transference and counter-transference between patient and analyst in the case material.

They also found that as the group associates freely to the case material and to each other’s thoughts, participants draw on the reservoir of their own unconscious. The joke, ‘How many therapists do you need to change a light bulb?’ comes to mind. My own thinking is there are many ways to see and change a light bulb—and that process of inquiry is most illuminating—whereby the group members, working together, shed more light than one individual alone.

My own Working Parties Group (WPG) was comprised of five candidates and two co-moderators. We came from different institutes, different regions of the country, and I might add—different walks of life. We met over the weekend, walled off in a room, all of us associating freely to the clinical case material one candidate presented. It felt risky sharing my thoughts about the case and my own counter-transferential feelings to the material. Some of my thoughts and associations felt to me very primal and rooted in primary process thinking. What might this say about me and my own vulnerabilities? And with total strangers, no less!

Before joining my particular group, the various groups met together in a room for an orientation where the format and structure of the weekend was out- lined. We were told that we’d meet for six sessions to hear and discuss process notes with long breaks to absorb the material and discussions and to allow time to refuel from the intensity of the work. After this introduction, I joined the four other candidates (one, the presenter) and my two co-moderators taking a seat in the circle of chairs set out before us. The presenter handed each of us a copy of his typewritten case material of a clinical session and read it aloud as we followed along. We were pretty much left in the dark without knowing the analysand’s gender or the history of the case or the analysis. All we had was the clinical material to work with. It turned out to be plenty! After the presenter read his session notes, we were asked to associate freely to his material, saying whatever came to our minds. In an early paper, ‘Weaving Thoughts’ 2, which describes earlier work in another project, the authors describe participants’ comments as “threads in the weave.” They note that as the weaving continues, patterns begin to emerge. The ideas of Haydee Faimberg about listening to listening were also important to the original thinking in this project. 3

Our presenter remained silent as we shared our thoughts and raised our questions. After the last session of work, our presenter joined in, finally sharing his own thoughts and feelings about his case and how they intersected with our own. He told me later that he felt inspired by the discussions we had and was astounded to find how closely our associations and interpretations fit the central issues and conflicts of both his analysand and his own struggles to make sense of them. We were equally amazed to see how our own threads in the weave set in bold relief his patient’s character, conflicts and struggles.

In the day and a half we spent together, we worked our analytic muscles hard, delving deeply into our minds to make sense of what we heard. In the process, things got stirred, unconscious thoughts bubbled up, and dream images emerged. We put our heads together, our minds met each other and we expanded our thinking and understanding of this case. We felt inspired.

What many of us found so intriguing—seemingly related to unconscious process—was our experience of the “uncanny.” After one morning session, we, the four candidates, went for lunch at a nearby Turkish restaurant. The waiter asked us how many we were. One of us replied, “five!” We looked at her in disbelief. How did she come to five? We were, after all, four women. A moment later, we realized, she must have felt the “missing” fifth was the presenter candidate who was sequestered in body—but not in mind or spirit. Equally intriguing was the emergence of the day’s residue in one participant’s dreams during the night after day one. She had unwittingly absorbed the contents of the sessions and blended them with her more personal dream content. In fact, the case seemed to follow us everywhere, even seeping into our thoughts as we walked along Second Avenue during one break. It’s as if our minds work overtime and behind the scenes, absorbing, processing, filtering, connecting and layering images as if to look for meaning—some- thing akin to Bion’s idea that thoughts are in search of a thinker. It seems as though we are always looking for containers and containment, for greater clarity and coherence.

But no matter how much we look for and find meaning, it seems that ambiguity and uncertainty is ubiquitous, constant, and unavoidable. Sitting comfortably with ambiguity and uncertainty is certainly not easy. We human beings are wired to look for certainty and constancy, and want to know what to expect. As candidates and analysts, we deal with uncertainty so regularly; you’d think it would get easier. The temptation to tie the loose threads of our thinking more tightly and to fill in the gaps between theory and practice can be great. The WPG experience has shown me ever more the value in letting things settle and sitting with uncertainty. As we dipped our toes into the waters of the unconscious and tracked our transference and counter-transference feelings related to the case material and between ourselves and others in the room, the analysand began to take shape in our minds. We began to flesh out his virtual bones. At the end, the presenter shared his amazement at “watching the group work.”

When the groups reconvened in the post-meeting, the question arose as to whether it would be better for candidates to be in a candidate-only group or in a combined group with analysts.

I wanted a mixed group setting at the start, thinking it would be more interesting. I figured I’d stretch more with fully-fledged analysts in the room. However, after taking stock, I believe that being among candidates like myself, allowed me to take more risks in sharing my thoughts, feelings and images related to the case. However, that being said, I’d like to try a mixed group of analysts and candidates next time, which feels riskier, but would allow me to compare the two groups.

Was the weekend worth the risk taken? I’d say the gains outweighed the risks, hands-down. What risks did we take? Not knowing the group members, making oneself vulnerable, tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity, sitting in uncomfortable silence to name just a few. The benefits? The process widened our scope of practice and gave us fresh eyes to see a case. We saw that, cross cultural and cross institutional differences, not- withstanding, we shared more in common than otherwise. We experienced first- hand how our unconscious finds its way to the surface and helps us understand difficult clinical material. Blind spots became more visible with fresh pairs of eyes. The group, working both individually and collectively, helped move a difficult case forward and the candidate- presenter felt less stuck after our sessions. In short, I found the group work revitalizing and I’m sure it will enhance my own work with patients.

Not to be underestimated, the social, creative, playful aspects inherent in group work provides further motivation to become involved in the WPG. In fact, what made participating in the WPG so special to me was that it offered an opportunity to play. With play comes pleasure and that thread was woven throughout our meetings as we explored new terrain, attempted to solve problems, discovered hidden meanings and saw things in a new light, especially illuminated by our unconscious process as we gave it freer reign. The playground and play space we entered was magical. My playmates—the other analysts and candidates—turned out to be wonderful companions. We sat in this sandbox, sifting through the sand of our thoughts— some conscious, some less so—and building much more than sandcastles in the air. We played hide-and-go-seek, at first hiding our thoughts, then with some trepidation, shared our associations in search of meaning, wanting to find and be found, first in the patient’s material and then in our own evoked thoughts and images.

Taking risks during candidacy and becoming more involved in the analytic community invariably yields rich and abundant rewards. While analytic training, itself, offers the potential for much risk-taking—be it on or behind the couch, with one’s supervisor, or in the class- room—we as candidates benefit most when we step out of our box and comfort zone and onto less familiar ground. Get- ting involved in activities with other candidates and analysts—be it the WPGs4, participating on a panel at APsaA, or writing up a case for an analytic journal—we stretch ourselves and grow. With each risk we take, we strengthen our analytic muscles and we deepen our connections, leading to greater expansion of ourselves and, ultimately, our patients. Whatever way we get involved, we are sure to strengthen our analytic identity during our years of training and beyond.


1Frisch, S, Bleger, L. & Sechaud, E. (2010). The specificity of psychoanalytic treatment today. European Psychoanalytical Federation Bulletin, Vol. 64 (supplement). La spécificité du traitement psychanalytique aujourd'hui. (French)

2Norman, J & Salomonsson, B., “Weaving Thoughts: A method for presenting and com- menting psychoanalytic case material in a peer group,” International J. of Psychoanalysis, p.1-13, 2005.

3Faimberg, H. (1981). “Listening to listening’: An approach to the study of narcissistic resis- tances. In The Telescoping of Generations new library of psychoanalysis. Danda Buksted- Breen Ed. Routledge 2005).

4If you are interested in participating in one of the Working Parties groups, check the websites of the following organizations for information: International Psychoanalyti- cal Association (IPA), European Psychoana- lytic Federation (EPF), North American Working Parties (NAWP), and the Latin American (FEPAL).v

Out of the Box and Into the Working Part
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