Here’s an interview with Patricia Coughlin. In September this year, the Swedish society for ISTDP will have the great pleasure to welcome Patricia to Malmö – if all goes according to plan. We sat down with her to talk about learning ISTDP, about sexual conflict, about psychoanalysis and more.
How do you feel about coming back to Sweden to present?
I am delighted to return to Sweden and welcome the opportunity!
How did you end up becoming a therapist and later on specializing in ISTDP?
I knew from an early age that I was meant to be a psychologist. I pursued this goal with great focus and determination, obtaining my PhD at the age of 25. I was always interested in depth – in understanding the patient (and myself) in a profound way. I was most interested in what was happening beneath the surface, in the unconscious. All of my early education and training was in psychoanalytic/psychodynamic theory and practice. Like Davanloo, I became frustrated and guilty about erratic results with interpretive methods. Many patients came to understand their difficulties, but only some transferred that learning into change. Meeting Davanloo in 1988 and watching tapes of the Machine Gun Woman, the German Architect, and others, was a life altering experience. I saw the unconscious crack open in the most unmistakable way, when the therapist actively intervened to identify and intensify the patient’s core conflicts. I needed to learn that!
How did you experience training with Davanloo?
I had good experiences with Dr. Davanloo. He was always respectful and very helpful. I learned more from him than anyone about how to intervene rapidly and effectively. I was in a core group in Montreal for three years. Most of the time, I was the only woman in the group. Many in the group had been training with Davanloo for decades, yet very few seemed to be able to master the technique. Why was that?
In my own estimation, supervision, without teaching, gets limited results. There was little reference to the theory upon which ISTDP was built. He just assumed we already knew analytic theory. Luckily, I did, so I could employ the techniques in order to gain rapid access to the unconscious. Then, all my former knowledge, skill and training, aided me in helping the patient resolve the unconscious conflicts responsible for his symptoms and suffering.
Davanloo was very impersonal in his interaction with trainees. The lack of focus on the person of the therapist was the other factor that I thought contributed to problems in learning and growing. I have tried to include a good deal of teaching, as well as a focus on dynamic case formulation and personal development of each trainee in my groups, in order to enhance the learning experience. My trainees learn the method and the theory it is based upon, and develop as people, as well as clinicians.
My experiences with Davanloo were good while I was training with him, but he cut me off, as he has everyone who goes off on their own. I haven’t heard from him since I left training, but have heard that he denies knowing me. He has done this with everyone he has ever trained, so I don’t take it personally. At the same time, this way of treating people gives ISTDP a bad name and has undermined the method expanding more widely and rapidly.
What’s your perspective on the relationship between psychoanalysis and ISTDP?
ISTDP is a psychoanalytic method. In many ways, this technique is similar to Freud’s early work, in which he was quite active and confrontational. Over time he got more passive and pessimistic, not in the least part due to being a Jew who was driven out of his country. For many reasons, he became increasingly pessimistic about human nature all together.
Davanloo felt Freud took a wrong turn when he decided to “bow to the superego’s resistance, which sees our efforts come to nothing”. Instead, he took up resistance as soon as it was apparent, inviting the patient to face and experience the feelings he has been avoiding, in order to heal. He also put pressure on the patient to decide whether to continue hiding and avoiding painful realities and feelings or to face them courageously in order to heal. By identifying and intensifying inner conflict and ambivalence, he was able to unlock the unconscious.
His methods are all used pre-interpretively. It’s for those patients who are locked in by defenses and unavailable for a therapeutic alliance. Once the defenses break down, and the feelings break through into consciousness, dynamic therapy ensues. Many confuse the part with the whole, and the means for the end, but his method is used to open the unconscious. Once the unconscious is open and fluid, working through previously unconscious conflicts, to a new and healthy end is the order of the day. I think this whole mid phase of therapy has been neglected in ISTDP. My colleague Jonathan Entis and I are writing a book about this presently.
Sexuality used to be a central theme in psychotherapy education and writing. This seems to have changed and psychotherapy training nowadays hardly deals with the topic at all. Or that’s at least my impression. Maybe that’s different if you’re trying to become an analyst. Are we past the time when sexuality was a central aspect of psychotherapy?
In my experience, many patients struggle with conflicts regarding sexual feelings and impulses, as well as those regarding rivalry and competition. The idea that we only have one kind of conflict – guilt over rage toward loved ones – is dangerously narrow. When we develop a set idea about the origin of the patient’s difficulties before meeting and assessing him, we will be prone to confirmation bias. It is essential to keep an open and curious mind and to evaluate the nature, intensity and history of the patient’s problems, in order to ascertain the nature of conflicts responsible for them The neglect of these other conflicts and our narrow focus contributes to poor outcomes. I have seen many patients who suffer from jealousy and rivalry conflicts get no help from other clinicians. It is important that we take all the data into consideration.
So does ISTDP offer unique insights about sexuality and sexual conflict?
The insight about the origins of conflicts regarding sexuality, rivalry and competition are not unique to ISTDP, but confirm psychoanalytic notions of the Oedipal conflict and sibling rivalry. The rage toward the competitor, along with forbidden sexual desires for family members, generates anxiety and defenses that undermine sexual pleasure and performance and can also contribute to a pattern of staying in the position of the loser. Inhibitions about “winning” and “beating” rivals are common and can be traced to Oedipal and sibling rivalry. Understanding these conflicts and the analytic ideas associated with them are important in helping clinicians identify and resolve them, both within themselves, and in their patients.
What are some of the aspects of ISTDP that still are in need of development?
ISTDP, like many therapeutic models developed over the last 50 years, focuses almost exclusively on conflicts around attachment. The need to attach in a secure fashion to others is only one of two primary drives in operation from birth to death. The other is the innate tendency to be a separate, unique individual. The need for autonomy, self definition, and self determination is just as important as the need for attachment. If we focus exclusively on attachment, we can support the patient’s problem, which is often an excessive reliance on support and validation from others.
Attending to the patient’s sense of self, so that he can feel solid and secure within himself, is capable of self regulation, self definition, self mastery, and intimacy with self, as well as other, is often neglected. Getting these two drives in balance, such that the more solid one’s self of self and the better able to stand on one’s own two feet, the better able we are to attach in a secure manner.
The more secure our attachments, the freer we are to separate. Attending to what Blatt called “The Polarities of Experience” are needed to facilitate health and optimal functioning. In contrast, relying excessively on other validation, while being unable to self validate, sets patients up for enhanced anxiety and sub optimal functioning. If we only focus on reactive feelings toward others, and neglect how the patient feels about himself (proud and capable, for example), we keep them at effect, rather than cause. When we take over the process and dictate what the patient should do (face feelings) and must stop doing (rationalizing, avoiding, etc) we reinforce passivity and a tendency to sacrifice self for other. Supporting and encouraging differentiation, as well as attachment, is often required.
In what ways have your way of doing therapy changed over the past five or ten years, and why?
My work is smoother and more integrated. And I am more myself in the process.
What are you struggling to learn as a teacher and therapist right now?
I am always learning, and hopefully, improving in my ability to teach, supervise and support the development of the person of the therapists. The fact that so many of my current and former trainees have gone on to become real contributors in the field – writing, teaching and presenting at conferences – is a great source of satisfaction and optimism for the future.
Where do you see ISTDP going in the coming five or ten years?
I have no idea where ISTDP will go from here and look forward to seeing how it all evolves. My greatest concern is that the method is being taught in a highly technical fashion, with little, if any reference to theory or case conceptualization. There are no short cuts and this complex method can’t be learned and practicing by rote. Of course we are all eager to pass on our knowledge, but training and expertise take time. It is a life long journey. It’s important to remember that the best therapists have superior meta-cognitive skills. They have superior working memory, are able to spot patterns as they happen, and tolerate complexity and uncertainty. Containing these polarities – being systematic but flexible, courageous and enthusiastic but humble and open to feedback – is a challenge for us all.
Would you like to say something directly to the Swedish audience ahead of the event?
I want to wish my Swedish colleagues all the best. These are scary times. Remember to focus on what you can do rather than worrying about things we can’t control. Just three 10 minute periods of meditations on gratitude each day will significantly boost your immune system. I have just returned home from Norway and am incredibly grateful to have arrived safely and in a healthy state. I am extremely grateful that we have the internet and secure sites so we can see our patient’s remotely. I am also grateful for some down time to rest and reflect. We all tend to work a great deal. Slowing down is a good thing. I hope the virus will die down and our plans to get together in late summer will materialize.
Patricia is coming to present in Malmö, Sweden, on the 10th of September, 2020. Make sure to make a reservation now, as seating is limited. Depending on the CoVid-19 situation, the date might be subject to change.
If you liked this Patricia Coughlin interview, you might find our other interviews interesting. For example, we have done interviews with several of Patricia’s former students, such as Kristy Lamb and Jon Frederickson. Here’s a list of our recent interviews:
- Malin Ljungdahl: “ISTDP hjälper oss att inte fastna i dualismen mellan psyke och soma”
- Sandra Ringarp: “Även välmenande kommentarer kan vara mikroaggressioner”
- The limitations of ISTDP. Part 2: Patricia Coughlin
- The limitations of ISTDP. Part 1: Jon Frederickson
- Howard Schubiner: “We created a simpler version of ISTDP”