Helplessness and the Analyst’s War against Feeling it.

by Axel Hoffer, MD & Dan H. Buie, MD



In our view helplessness is a primal, often intolerable feeling. It underlies and intensifies other feelings that are also hard to bear. Both analyst and patients face helplessness, and both resort to defenses, often intensely, in order to avoid it. The intensity of this battle can merit calling it a war. The analyst’s war is conducted using distancing, anger, blaming and disparaging as well as by intellectualizing the patient’s struggles. Patients then find themselves abandoned and helplessly alone. We analysts, of course, want not to fall into the trap of war, and we try to free ourselves from waging it. A major way we accomplish this is through continuously working, often with the help of analysis and self-analysis, to increase our capacity to maintain our emotional stability in the face of these intensities. We learn to find new forms of awareness, beyond words and ideas. It requires a new understanding of what is threatening to us, which fosters a deeper capacity to empathize with the patient. This helps us to find the psychic, physical and emotional space within ourselves in which to hold our helplessness and other profound affective experiences. In this way we become an increasingly steady resource for our patients as well as for ourselves.

Axel Hoffer, MD, is Training and Supervising Analyst, Boston Psychoanalytic Institute (BPSI), Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry (Part-Time), Harvard Medical School.

Dan H. Buie, MD, is Training and Supervising Analyst, Emeritus, Boston Psychoanalytic Institute (BPSI).

American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 76/1:1-17, March 2016.

Link to Online Publication (fulltext can be requested from the library).



Previous Posts:


Fred Busch, PhD. (2016). The Search for Psychic Truth. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 85/2: 339-360.

Daniel Jacobs, MD. (2016). Clinical supervision of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Edited by Jill Savege Scharff. London: Karnac Books, 2014, xvi + 176 pp., $39.95 paperback. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 64/2:431-437.

Judy L. Kantrowitz, PhD (2016). Appreciation of the Importance of the Patient–Analyst “Match”. Psychiatry, 79:1, 23-28.

Holly M. Blatman (2015). Three Analysts on Freud’s “Observations on Transference-Love”. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 63/5:977-990.

Judith A. Yanof (2015). L.I.E.: An Adolescent’s Rocky Road To Mourning. International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 96/4:1169–1181 (also posted under Film Series).

Fred Busch (2015). Our Vital Profession. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 96/3:553-568.

Rafael D. Ornstein (2015). Seeing Through the Fog: Learning to Work with Dissociation. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 35:257–270.

Nancy, J. Chodorow (2015). From the Glory of Hera to the Wrath of Achilles: Narratives of Second-Wave Masculinity and Beyond. Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 16: 261–270.

Click here to see the full archive of featured papers. All articles are available in the library.