In the course of supervising mental health professionals, we have noted that a comprehensive psychodynamic formulation is seldom offered and almost never incorporated into the written record. Our experience is reflected in the psychiatric and psychoanalytic literature, where psychodynamics are often discussed but psychodynamic formulations are rarely presented. In this paper we discuss the purpose and structure of the psychodynamic formulation, provide three illustrations, and indicate how these formulations can help guide all treatments.
In many respects a dynamic formulation and a clinical diagnosis share a common purpose. Although both hold intellectual, didactic, and research interests, their primary function is to provide a succinct conceptualization of the case and thereby guide a treatment plan. Like a psychiatric diagnosis, a psychodynamic formulation is specific, brief, focused, and therefore limited in its intent, scope, and wisdom. It concisely and incisively clarifies the central issues and conflicts, differentiating what the therapist sees as essential from what is secondary. Also like the diagnosis, additional information and changes over time may lead to modifications of the patient’s dynamics and how they are formulated, with corresponding alterations in treatment. Again, like the diagnosis, the psychodynamic understanding of a patient serves as a stabilizing force in conducting any form of therapy; its general effect is conservative, discouraging a change in tack with every slight shift of the wind.
One common misconception is that a psychodynamic formulation is indicated only for those patients in a long-term, expressive psychotherapy. This belief ignores the fact that the success of any treatment may involve supporting, managing, or even modifying aspects of the patient’s personality. Therapeutic effectiveness or failure often hinges on how well or poorly the therapist understands the patient’s dynamics, predicts what resistances the patient will present, and designs an approach that will circumvent, undermine, or surmount these obstacles.
A second common misconception is that the construction of a psychodynamic formulation is primarily a training experience. For example, MacKinnon and Yudofsky (1), while agreeing with the importance of understanding a patient’s psychodynamics, state: "A written case formulation is principally for the education of the clinician or for clinical case conferences. The thought and preparation involved in this exercise constitute an important learning experience for the beginning student of psychiatry." These authors then later suggest, "Even an experienced therapist can benefit from this task in a confusing or difficult case." Although MacKinnon and Yudofsky are here referring to a complete case formulation (which includes the present illness, psychopathology, developmental data, diagnostic classification, and prognosis), one may erroneously conclude that a written psychodynamic formulation is a task reserved for special situations rather than a fundamental component of all treatments.
A third common misconception, related to the second, is that the construction of a psychodynamic formulation must be elaborate and time-consuming. This view derives in part from various reviews in the psychiatric literature that, in an attempt to be inclusive, describe in detail all the requirements of a thorough evaluation (1—4) or the multiple dynamic conflicts that may influence any aspect of human behavior (5, 6). The trainee may get the impression that anything short of an exhaustive dynamic explanation of each symptom or character trait is too simplified to be of value. This impression is often inadvertently reinforced when the supervisor points out some less essential aspects of the case that have been omitted in the condensed overview. A more helpful didactic approach accepts that the initial formulation is by necessity partial and tentative, but by describing the patient’s leading unconscious needs and incipient defenses, the formulation may be sufficient to predict initial transferences and guide supportive or directive interventions. In time, as the clinical impression deepens, the linkage of current behavior to formative experiences and intrapsychic conflicts will become more clear and substantiated.
A fourth misconception is the notion that the formulation need not be written, as though somehow a patient’s psychodynamics "go without saying." Our concern here is that if the formulation is never actually constructed and recorded, the patient’s psychodynamics will remain mysterious, ambiguous, and all encompassing. E.M. Forster allegedly said, "I never know what I think until I read what I write." His point—and ours—is that the process of writing helps one achieve a clearer point of view. The written psychodynamic formulation is therefore valuable, even if seen only by the therapist who wrote it. The therapist who has a clear formulation of the patient’s central conflicts is more capable of communicating that understanding to the patient in a consistent way. In addition, the dynamically prepared therapist is more likely to anticipate and recognize patterns of resistance or acting out than lag one step behind, using ad hoc (or even post hoc) formulations to respond to specific events.
A fifth and final misconception is that therapists will become so invested in their dynamic formulations that they will not be able to hear or accept material that does not fit a preconceived mold. On the contrary, constructing a dynamic formulation helps one to recognize its incompleteness, to inquire about pieces of the puzzle that are missing, to appreciate that not every piece fits neatly into place, and to accept the inevitable complexities and limited knowledge of every clinical situation. Furthermore, the formulation not only helps therapists accept their own limitations, it helps them accept the patient’s pathology as well. The patient’s behaviors in treatment—dependent, angry, avoidant, defiant, passive-aggressive, seductive, suspicious, noncompliant, and so on—are seen as manifestations of the patient’s dynamics, as characteristic problems that can be predicted and understood and for which therapeutic interventions have been planned. As a result, the patient is not put in the paradoxical and untenable position of having to overcome his or her psychopathology as a prerequisite for treatment.
As we conceive it, the psychodynamic formulation is relatively brief (500—750 words) and has four parts: 1) a summary of the case that describes the patient’s current problems and places them in the context of the patient’s current life situation and developmental history; 2) a description of nondynamic factors that may have contributed to the psychiatric disorder; 3) a psychodynamic explanation of the central conflicts, describing their role in the current situation and their genetic origins in the developmental history; and 4) a prediction of how these conflicts are likely to affect treatment and the therapeutic relationship.
Part 1: Summarizing statement
The opening paragraph outlines why this particular patient presents with this diagnosis and these particular problems at this particular time. By eliminating extraneous information, it succinctly identifies the patient, the precipitating events, the extent and quality of interpersonal relationships, the most salient predisposing features of the past history, and those prominent behaviors which the formulation will attempt to explain psychodynamically. This outline is not intended to summarize the entire case but rather to highlight the clinical situation that the psychodynamic formulation will address. By analogy, these first sentences are similar to the condensed admission note placed in the medical chart by the ward attending physician in contrast to the detailed history presented by the third-year medical student.
Part 2: Description of nondynamic factors
After the essential features of the case have been thoughtfully distilled, this second paragraph mentions the nondynamic factors that may have contributed to the psychiatric disorder, such as genetic predisposition, mental retardation, social deprivation, overwhelming trauma, and drugs or any physical illness affecting the brain. Noting other etiological factors sidesteps two potential pitfalls. First, it underscores that even if nondynamic factors have played a major role in causing the disorder, the psychodynamics of the patient cannot be ignored in the choice and implementation of the treatment (2). Second, mentioning other etiological factors serves as a. reminder that certain experiences of the patient may have psychodynamic meaning even though they do not stem from psychodynamic causes. Because meaning and cause are often confused, the clinical value of distinguishing the two is worth illustrating with the following brief vignettes.
A homemaker with a very strong personal and family history of bipolar affective illness develops another major depressive episode when her youngest child leaves for college. It would be an error to ignore the likely contribution of genetic factors in the etiology of her depression, to attribute it solely to conflicts precipitated by the child’s departure, and to fail to consider pharmacological interventions. However, even though the biological predisposition is essential for the occurrence of the illness, both the biology and the precipitating trigger must be understood psychosocially with their dynamic meanings. The feelings of unworthiness and guilt accompanying the depression may, for example, represent an unforgivable gap between a need to be a perfect mother and a self-image (conscious or unconscious) of being imperfect, bitter, angry, and uncaring. The therapist who understands these specific dynamics may therefore state, "Your youngest child’s leaving and this depression make you feel that you have failed as a mother, a role that is very important to you." Such dynamically informed empathic remarks may tighten the therapeutic alliance, be therapeutic in their effect, increase compliance with medication if that is indicated, and synergistically enhance a placebo response.
A young man with paranoid schizophrenia becomes disorganized under the stress of writing his senior college thesis. He becomes convinced that his previously admired political science professor is now using a KGB device to control the patient’s thoughts and prevent the unusually perceptive manuscript from being published. While recognizing the biological and environmental factors that have caused the psychotic episode, the dynamic formulation also helps explain the meaning of the delusion: the conscious wish for acclaim and the fear of being controlled; the preconscious recognition of being inadequate and of losing control; and the unconscious wish to be controlled, an intolerable wish that is associated with vulnerable dependency and therefore projected. Equipped with this dynamic understanding, the therapist can tailor his or her interventions accordingly. For example, in the neuroleptic management, the therapist will consider the patient’s fears of being controlled by explaining in detail the type, dosage, rationale, risks, benefits, and side effects of all medication. The therapeutic stance will be influenced by the meaning of the patient’s relationship with the college professor; the therapist will avoid a premature frightening intimacy as he or she remains a somewhat distant but friendly helper who is especially candid and honest yet does not expect or require the patient’s trust or submission. The psychotherapeutic interventions will address the conscious wishes and fears (e.g., "You wanted to write an outstanding thesis but felt the professor was controlling you") and in time the preconscious concern (e.g., "You were worried you weren’t doing well"), but because pointing out unconscious wishes (e.g., "You secretly would like to be cared for") would be perceived as intrusive and similar to the professor’s thought control, these interpretations would be avoided. The point here is not to describe the treatment of paranoid psychosis but to illustrate how an appreciation of a specific patient’s psychodynamics can be useful in guiding the clinical management even in the presence of situational and biological determinants of the disorder.
A woman is biologically predisposed to panic attacks that respond to imipramine maintenance; however, the psychodynamic formulation reveals that for this rigid Catholic patient the attacks represent both fears of and wishes for losing control, a state that is unconsciously perceived as an opportunity for the expansion of forbidden sexual wishes. In response to the fear, the patient at times overmedicates herself with the tricyclic or becomes agoraphobic; in response to the wish, she sometimes "forgets" her medication, has a panic attack, and then becomes disproportionately guilty and depressed for being "irresponsible" (and for unconsciously acting on forbidden impulses). Accordingly, in consideration of the psychodynamic meaning associated with this patient’s biological disorder, the therapist combines his or her pharmacological management with directive, exploratory, and expressive techniques, advising the patient to read appropriate materials that explain the nature of the disorder and diminish unwarranted concerns of acting irresponsibly during an attack, exploring and clarifying for the patient the developmental derivatives of her conflict, and encouraging the patient to recount her dreams and fantasies. This dynamically informed process enables the patient to understand her illness and its meaning, to express her sexual wishes more adaptively than by her intermittent noncompliance with medication, and over time to feel less guilty about her forbidden desires.
A fireman hospitalized for a severe burn develops a posttraumatic stress disorder. The psychodynamic formulation acknowledges the situational precipitants but also elucidates that for this man the intrusive thoughts and nightmares represent a conscious fear of going crazy and an unconscious fear of being a helpless dependent boy, a fear he has reacted against over the years by assuming a machismo style. In consideration of these dynamics, the psychiatric consultant addresses not only the conscious fear by reassuringly educating the patient about his acute posttraumatic stress disorder and its favorable prognosis, but also addresses the unconscious fear of passivity by supporting the patient’s manliness and the heroic nature of his injury. This permits the development of a transference relationship in which the terror of the trauma can be reworked.
An elderly retired executive with a mild dementia has become so rigid and demanding that his wife has lost her freedom and patience. The psychodynamic formulation accepts the organic determinants of his change in behavior, but also notes that the patient’s inflexibility is partly due to a long-standing conscious need to be in charge, a recent preconscious recognition of his cognitive decline, unconscious feelings of anxiety and shame related to loss of adult capacities, and reparative attempts to maintain a sense of security and control by regulating his own life and the lives of those around him. By explaining these dynamics to the wife the therapist increases her tolerance, and by suggesting more adaptive ways for the patient to feel secure (clocks in every room, limited demands and expectations, consistent environment, titrated stimuli, written schedule, and so forth) the therapist is able to channel his or her dynamic understanding into simple, practical interventions.
These highly condensed examples are not intended to illustrate all the subtleties, complexities, and applications of a psychodynamic formulation but merely to indicate that the presence of nondynamic factors—genetic, traumatic, organic, and so forth—does not preclude the clinical value of understanding a patient’s psychodynamics and, conversely, that a psychodynamic formulation does not ignore the effect of nondynamic factors on the patient’s mood, thoughts, and behavior. The dynamic formulation is consistent with the biopsychosocial model (7), is relevant to all forms of psychiatric treatment, and is not reserved only for those psychiatric conditions in which biological features are less well defined (e.g., personality disorders) and only for those treatments that are insight oriented (e.g., exploratory psychotherapy). Even for disorders that are more clearly nondynamic in their etiology (e.g., schizophrenia, dementia) and for treatments that are more biomedical in their approach (e.g., psychopharmacotherapy), the therapist who formulates not only the cause but also the specific meaning of the illness will be better prepared, when appropriate, to communicate this understanding empathically (8) and to intervene effectively rather than with stereotyped responses. A "pseudohumanitarian" approach, a form of verbal handholding that does not consider the character style of a particular patient, may be experienced by paranoid patients as intrusive, by histrionic patients as seductive, by obsessive patients as demeaning, by depressed patients as undeserved and therefore guilt provoking, and by dependent or phobic patients as a sanction for further regression or avoidance. To be effective, the therapist must recognize those capacities of the patient which are temporarily or permanently deficient and for which "an auxiliary ego" is indicated, the unconscious meanings of these defects to the patient, and the available strengths of the patient that will be encouraged and enhanced. As described later the psychodynamic formulation facilitates this task by helping the therapist to conceptualize the issues systematically rather than relying only on intuition.
Part 3: Psychodynamic explanation of central conflicts
If the first part of a psychodynamic formulation is similar to a clarification (a synthetic integration of the available data), this third part is more like an interpretation (an integrative inference based on psychoanalytic principles that considers unconscious fantasies and motives). As in the clinical situation, this interpretation is of necessity speculative, a hypothesis that will be tested and modified by additional data. Unlike the clinical situation, though, this interpretation is primarily a guide for the therapist; in most instances it does not directly represent what the patient will be told.
This section of the formulation is most useful clinically if it does not attempt to explain too much in too many ways but instead focuses on the central conflicts and then uses prototypic psychodynamic models to explain how these conflicts are being resolved. The danger of not focusing on the central conflicts and of not using standard psychodynamic models is that the formulation (and consequently perhaps the treatment itself) will lack an integrative coherence.
Identifying the central conflicts requires both inductive and deductive reasoning. The aim is to find a small number of pervasive issues that run through the course of the patient’s illness and can be traced back through his or her personal history, and then to explain how the patient’s attempts to resolve these central conflicts have been both maladaptive (producing symptoms and character pathology) and adaptive (characterizing his or her general style of pleasure, productivity, and personal relationships). Conflicts are opposing motives and wishes, both conscious and unconscious; central conflicts are repetitive, link and explain a number of important behaviors, and usually contain elements that are hidden from the patient’s awareness. For example, a man may consciously wish to be less depressed but unconsciously fear that recovery will both lead to an uncontrolled expression of his own rage and free others to express their resentment against him if he is not protected by illness.
Once the central conflicts and themes have been identified, they are formulated psychodynamically. At present, at least three models of mental functioning are being used by dynamic psychiatrists. These models are overlapping and differ in the emphasis they give to one or another aspect of development and psychopathology. In practice, most psychiatrists prefer one model, on the basis of prior training and personal predilection, but use other models as the clinical situation may require. If the original model does not seem to be conceptually useful, the therapist sees if the formulation of a given patient will be more fruitful when cast in terms of an alternative model. As with many other sciences, the absence of a meta-model to explain all data makes this trial and error unavoidable.
Even though an admixture of different models is often clinically necessary, it is useful theoretically and conceptually to understand the basic concepts, virtues, and limitations of prototypic psychodynamic models. Recognizing the oversimplification involved, we will describe the three most common: 1) ego-psychological (9); 2) self-psychological (10); and 3) object relations (11, 12). They all share the core concept of dynamic unconscious mental activity; that is, they assume that human behavior is constantly influenced by unconscious thoughts, wishes, and mental representations. These three models also assume that complex psychological functions pass through a regular sequence of epigenetic stages and phases (each of which carries its own particular vulnerabilities and opportunities and involves an interaction between nature and nurture) and that the distortions, fixations, and regressions occurring at different stages will leave their mark on later development. In short, these models assert that all individuals have an inner life that is important in understanding their outer life and that they are each the product of their personal history.
The ego-psychological model emphasizes the central role of the adaptive efforts of the ego both during development and in therapy. Behavior, mediated by the ego, is viewed as a defensive compromise among 1) wishes and impulses; 2) inner conscience, self-observation, and criticism; and 3) the potentialities and demands of reality. Effective ego functions allow an appropriate delay between peremptory wishes and actions and protect the individual from excessive anxiety or depression while providing for security, pleasure, and effectiveness. A dynamic formulation that uses this model will describe the nature of unconscious wishes, unconscious fears, characteristic defenses, and the resulting patterns of inhibition, symptoms, and character, tracing each of these through the individual’s life. The ego-psychological model gives special focus to derivatives of forbidden sexual and aggressive strivings, their resolution during the oedipal phase, and the ongoing residual intrapsychic conflicts and defensive compromises that determine character and symptoms. This model gives less attention to interpersonal issues and to very early, pre-oedipal influences on development.
The self-psychological model postulates a psychological structure, the self, that develops toward the realization of goals that are both innate and learned. Two broad classes of these goals can be identified: one consists of the individual’s ambitions, the other of his or her ideals. Normal development involves the child’s grandiose idealization of self and others, the exhibitionistic expression of strivings and ambitions, and the empathic responsiveness of parents and others to these needs. Under these conditions, the child’s unfolding skills, talents, and internalization of empathic objects will lead to the development of a sturdy self and capacities for creativity, joy, and continuing empathic relationships. In this model, genetic formulations will trace character problems to specific empathic failures in the child’s environment that distorted and inhibited the development of the self and the capacity to maintain object ties. The formulation will also describe how the individual has defensively compensated for these failures of self-development and will suggest the therapeutic strategy needed to support the resumption of self-development that had been arrested in the past, emphasizing the special transference needs of the patient. The self-psychological model is especially useful for formulating the narcissistic difficulties that are present in many types of patients (not just narcissistic personality disorder); however, the model lacks a clear conception of intrapsychic structure, and it is less useful for formulating fixed repetitive symptoms that arise from conflicts between one’s conscience and sexual-aggressive wishes.
The object relations model conceives of psychic structures as developing through the child’s construction of internal representations of self and others. These representations range from the primitive and fantastic to the relatively realistic; they are associated with widely varying affects (e.g., anger, sadness, feelings of safety, fear, pleasure) as well as with various wishes and fantasies (e.g., of sex, of control, or of devouring and being devoured). The growing child struggles with contradictory representations and feelings of self and others, tending to split the good and bad images into different representations. At this early level of development, one may feel that one has two different mothers, for example—a good, gratifying one and a bad, frustrating one. In the more mature individual, these images are integrated into coherent representations of a self and others with multiple complex qualities, selected and formed in part to help to maintain an optimal measure of self-esteem, tolerable affects, and satisfaction of wishes.
Using this model, the psychodynamic formulation focuses on the nature of the self and object representations and the prominent conflicts among them. A special emphasis is given to developmental failures in integrating the various partial and contradictory representations of self and others and to the displacement and defensive misattribution of aspects of self or others. The object relations model is especially useful for formulating the fragmented inner world of psychotic and borderline patients who experience themselves and others as unintegrated parts; however, the model may be less useful for relatively healthier patients in whom conflict may more easily be described in terms of ego psychology.
Part 4: Predicting responses to the therapeutic situation
This final section of the formulation is related to the prognosis, but rather than predicting the overall course of the patient’s disorder, it focuses on the meaning and use that the patient will make of treatment. Particular emphasis is placed on understanding the probable manifestations of transference (both positive and negative) and the forms and modes of resistance. The phrasing of this prediction will be linked to the psychodynamic model used in the preceding section. For example, the ego-psychological model may emphasize what specific ego strengths and deficits the patient brings to the therapeutic situation and what defense mechanisms are likely to predominate as the patient deals with central conflicts. The self-psychological model will emphasize the role of the therapist’s empathic responsiveness and the analysis of empathic failures in the process of forming new internal structures of the self—for example, the patients’ needs to idealize either themselves or the therapist or, at other times, to ignore the therapist except as a source of admiration for exhibitionistic strivings. Finally, the object relations model will emphasize which inner representations of self and of others are likely to be activated and potentially enacted in the therapeutic situation. All three models suggest possible patterns of transference and resistance, offering valuable guides for the therapist.
Although the following psychodynamic formulations lack the authenticity, specificity, and richness of a formulation that is accompanied by a fuller knowledge of the individual history, they are intended to convey something of the format of prototypic dynamic formulations. The same patient is used to illustrate each of the psychodynamic models described previously. These illustrations are admittedly somewhat artificial because, as we have indicated, in clinical practice therapists tend to use one primary model, introducing secondary models to explain features of the patient that do not easily fit the primary model. However, by presenting each of the models in its pure form, we hope to demonstrate the common utility of all the models as well as highlight the potential and unavoidable impact of theory on treatment.
The ego-psychological model
Part 1: Mr. A, a 52-year-old married businessman, presents on his own initiative with a depressive syndrome after being once again passed over for promotion. He himself does not understand this "rejection," but it is probably related to his lifelong tendencies to procrastinate and to annoy his superiors either by being obsequious or by challenging their authority. He has a history of two untreated depressive syndromes, one in his 30s that also followed a professional failure and one in his 40s that followed his son’s "defiant" marriage to a woman of another religion. Mr. A’s father was a sickly, professionally frustrated "type A personality" who died of a heart attack when Mr. A was in his teens. His mother has always been a "martyr" with smoldering despair characterized by chronic insomnia, self-doubt, obsessive ruminations, and social withdrawal. She never sought treatment.
Part 2: Mr. A has essential hypertension, for which he takes methyldopa, 250 mg t.i.d.; his mother’s history suggests a genetic predisposition to unipolar depression.
Part 3: Mr. A’s central conflict is between an unconscious wish to kill off his competitors and an unconscious fear that he will be killed if he acts on that wish. Whenever he expresses derivatives of his competitive wish directly, he becomes frightened of retaliation; he therefore resorts to expressing the wish indirectly by passive-aggressive maneuvers (e.g., procrastination). Conversely, whenever he responds to this fear of retaliation by being solicitous and obedient, he inwardly feels resentful and diminished. To contain this struggle, Mr. A has developed intellectual mechanisms that, although adaptive for certain aspects of his work, are mal-adaptive interpersonally in that they isolate him emotionally from others.
Mr. A’s tendency to view every situation as a competitive struggle can be traced to unresolved anal and oedipal conflicts. During early childhood, Mr. A’s depressed mother could not tolerate her son’s assertiveness and declarations of independence; instead she imposed her will on Mr. A and insisted that he eat, sleep, be toilet trained, and behave exactly the way she wanted so that her son would not be any trouble and add to her woes. As a result, Mr. A entered the oedipal period with a view that any endeavor was a power struggle, in essence asking himself, "Do I give in and bury the rage over being controlled, or do I assert myself and risk being punished either directly by my mother or internally by the guilt I feel by making her more depressed?"
This view of the world was then enhanced by competition from Mr. A’s perfectionistic and controlling father, who, frustrated by his own limitations and illness, would harshly reprimand Mr. A for any assertion within the family or failure outside of it. Fearing retaliation and struggling against his feelings of passivity, Mr. A identified with the aggressor—father and developed an even more punitive superego. Mr. A’s need to repress his competitive rage and envy was reinforced by his father’s chronic heart disease; Mr. A feared that if he were to act assertively, he would kill off his rival. When the father did die during Mr. A’s adolescence, the guilt over this unconscious oedipal victory made Mr. A even more wary of directly asserting himself in the future. All three of Mr. A’s depressive episodes were precipitated by failing to beat out competitors (colleagues or his son), unconsciously reminiscent of earlier defeats with his mother and father, but Mr. A is unaware that he is equally afraid to win and face the resultant retaliation and guilt.
Part 4: Unconsciously Mr. A is likely to view treatment as another competition. Fearful and dependent at first, when his depression begins to improve and he feels more like a "winner," he may respond with guilty fear for a triumph so undeserved in one who unconsciously is consumed with murderous wishes. In response to this guilt, he may sabotage his improvement by prematurely stopping treatment or, less destructively, by focusing on residual depressive symptoms, the side effects of antidepressant medication, or his hypertension (an affliction that unconsciously has become his punishment for killing his father). This behavior will alternate with Mr. A’s viewing the therapist as the winner (i.e., the authority figure to whom he is beholden). Frightened of challenging the victor directly, Mr. A may indirectly defy this authority by appearing compliant, apologetic, and grateful but passive-aggressively "forgetting" appointments or his medication and devaluing the treatment.
The self-psychological model
Parts 1 and 2 are as in the previous material.
Part 3: Mr. A’s central problem consists of his low self-esteem and consequent need for continual recognition and approval from others, along with his inability to accept any limitations either in himself (which lead to disapproval from others) or in others (which reduce the value of their approval when it occurs). Presumably, during childhood his depressed mother and sickly father were so self-absorbed with their problems that they were unable to respond empathically to his age-appropriate aspirations; at the same time, both parents narcissistically invested in their son the hopes that his achievements would make up for their failures. Throughout his life Mr. A has strived to earn the accolades he never received as a child, and although this pursuit has lead to some professional success, his self-doubt and instability of self-objects take their toll, leading to a lack of confidence, to inappropriate solicitous behavior, and to procrastination of challenging tasks. In addition, having internalized his parents’ grand expectations (in order to repair his sense of deficit as well as to compensate for theirs), he is unable to accept the limitations of others (e.g., his bosses’ or his son’s) or himself (e.g., physical illness, aging, his professional plateau). Being passed over for promotion was an injury to a sense of self that was already enfeebled; the rejection reawakened early empathic failures and unrealized ambitions. The resultant loss of self-esteem then contributed to the current depression.
Part 4: In treatment, Mr. A will attempt to elicit the therapist’s admiration and will have grand (though unconscious) expectations about what can be accomplished, idealizing both himself and the therapist. However, when the therapist fails to respond with just the right empathic quality, Mr. A will be hurt and secretly enraged, and when the real limitations of Mr. A or the therapist are exposed, Mr. A is likely to devalue the entire enterprise and become more discouraged. Potential countertransference problems may arise if the therapist prematurely limits Mr. A’s need to be admired and to idealize the therapist.
The object relations model
Parts 1 and 2 are as in the earlier material.
Part 3: Mr. A’s central problem is his failure to integrate the good and bad representations of himself and others. During childhood, his depressed mother could not respond to her son’s need and demands. Mr. A, unconsciously frightened that his resultant rage would destroy the very one on whom he depended, repressed his bad angry self and acted like the good obedient son. This splitting was reinforced by interactions with the controlling father who punitively viewed any of Mr. A’s independent assertions as acts of defiance. Mr. A, frightened that his competitive rage would either kill off the sickly father or lead to retaliation, again repressed his bad angry self. During adolescence, when the surge toward a more autonomous identity was most intense, Mr. A’s father died. Responding to unconscious guilt for a forbidden wish that had come true (i.e., killing off the father), Mr. A was even more compelled to keep the bad (assertive) self repressed and to maintain a tie to the lost object, both by an identification with the father’s perfectionism, and to punish himself for any success. Although this splitting has enabled Mr. A to be relatively successful and to seem basically well intentioned, the facade is fragile. The efforts with his superiors to appear "the good son" are exaggerated, leading to obsequious and subservient behavior. Furthermore, when the bad angry self breaks through the repression, procrastination and obstinacy are the result. These signals of the bad self lead to increased self-punitive and restrictive reactions in order to keep his rage contained.
Mr. A’s repression and splitting are compounded by his use of projection; that is, he projects onto others his unconscious bad self. This process only reinforces his experience of others as either unnurturing mothers or unsupportive, controlling fathers. This projection of the bad self contributed to Mr. A’s viewing his son’s marriage as an act of defiance. Similarly, when passed over for promotion, Mr. A not only experienced this rejection as reminiscent of enraging childhood rejections, devaluations, and abandonment but also viewed it as a retaliation for projected hostile wishes from his bad self. His depression is therefore in part the result of his punitive conscience condemning him for projected hostile wishes and for failing to meet the perfectionistic ideals of the good self.
Part 4: In treatment Mr. A will at first be quite ingratiating, the good son depressively condemning himself for past and present failures and wary that he will not meet the therapist’s expectations (Mr. A’s own projections). However, as Mr. A projects his resentful and defiant self, the therapist may be perceived as being both emotionally uncaring and as controlling, projections that will reinforce in the transference those early experiences with the mother and father, respectively. The therapist should be prepared for the likelihood that Mr. A’s rise in self-esteem will initially be accompanied by denigration of the therapist. The therapist must also anticipate that whenever Mr. A does express the resentful affects associated with the bad self, Mr. A’s conscience will clamp down punitively and cause Mr. A to become temporarily more depressed.
Although there are differences among the three formulations, it is important to point out the similarities in their clinical conclusions and applications. All three formulations alert the therapist that after an initial honeymoon period, difficulties are likely to develop in the therapeutic relationship. The ego-psychological model conceives of this falling out in terms of passive-aggressive defensive mechanisms, the self-psychological model predicts a devaluation of the therapist in response to inevitable empathic failures and limitations, and the object relations model anticipates that the patient’s angry and defiant self will be projected onto the therapist.
All three formulations also alert the therapist to similar countertransference problems: the ego-psychological model places these problems in terms of competitive struggles with the patient over issues of control, the self-psychological model considers problems of the therapist’s being initially idealized and then devalued, and the object relations model suggests that the therapist may at times feel compelled to identify with the patient’s projections and then assume the role of the uncaring and punitive figure the patient most fears and expects.
All three formulations indicate that the patient’s dynamics may directly affect his depressive symptoms and compliance with whatever treatment is prescribed. The ego-psychological model views this resistance in terms of guilty fear accompanying his improvement and a need to indirectly defy authority. The self-psychological model predicts a phase of discouragement and unwillingness to accept the disappointing therapy. The object relations model foresees that depressive feelings may recur if this patient retreats from the emergence of his angry bad self during recovery and that poor compliance will accompany the view of the therapist as punitive and uncaring.
Finally, all three formulations share many similarities in indicating what therapeutic interventions will be required to manage the anticipated transferences, countertransferences, and resistances. They all see that this patient in particular will need a nonjudgmental atmosphere where anger and resentment can be expressed spontaneously, he will need appropriate recognition and reinforcement of his strengths (such as his intellectual capacities), and he will need a modicum of control in his treatment (such as deciding within reason the time of day he takes his medication).
Despite these basic similarities, the different conceptual models will no doubt have some influence on the treatment’s emphasis and language. We suspect that these differences would be most apparent in the nature of interpretations used in an exploratory psychotherapy and less apparent in directive, behavioral, supportive, or psychopharmacological treatment. Using the ego-psychological model, the therapist is likely to focus on the relationship between the patient’s current difficulties and earlier competitive struggles with his parents. Using the self-psychological model, the therapist will direct interpretations toward helping the patient appreciate the doubts and yearnings that underlie his fragile grandiosity and will trace perceived empathic failures in the therapist to those failures that occurred in the patient’s childhood. Finally, using the object relations model, the therapist will attempt to intercept a destructive negative transference and acting out both by interpreting the patient’s misperceptions of the therapist as someone (like the father) wanting to control the patient and by encouraging the patient to express through fantasies, memories, and dreams those angry feelings associated with the bad self, thereby indicating a capacity (unlike the mother) to tolerate unpleasant affects.
However, in closing, it must be emphasized that the differences that may occur in an insight-oriented psychotherapy are relatively subtle compared to the more important value of the psychodynamic formulation in conceptualizing central conflicts and anticipating the transferences, countertransferences, and resistances that occur in all treatments.