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The Clash of Gods: Changes in a Patient’s Use of God Representations Ryan LaMothe Abstract: In this article, I argue that manifest and latent intrapsychic and interpersonal clashes of god representations, which are inextricably yoked to transference and countertransference communications, signify the patient’s and therapist’s personal realities and histories. More specifically, the therapist’s conscious (relatively speaking) commitment to a god representation will not only shape his/her analytic attitude—as well as interpretations and noninterpretive interventions—it may also be implicated in a patient altering his/her use of god representations. I suggest further that one way to understand the process of psychoanalytic therapy is how both analyst and analysand tacitly face and answer the following questions: What God(s) orients my life and relationships? What God(s) represents subjugation, fear, and the loss of freedom? What God(s) have I repressed? What God(s) represents the possibility and experience of being alive and real with others? In the end, what God(s) will I choose to serve, to surrender to?

We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many…. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty. (Elie, 2003, p. 471)

Greek cosmology is rife with clashes between gods, which mirrors, in part, typical human dilemmas and struggles that range from violent aggression to erotic love. Clashes in the Greek pantheon portray, as well, the reality that our individual psyches are populated by gods. Indeed, we may profess monotheism, but we are polytheists all. Our

Ryan LaMothe, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Saint Meinrad School of Theology. Journal of The American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry, 37(1) 73–84, 2009 © 2009 The American Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry



psychic pantheons are bound to reflect intrapsychic and interpersonal clashes of god representations—clashes that need not always be seen or experienced as competition with winners and losers, or a conflict where one must overcome the other. Yet, there are, whether in our psychic or interpersonal pantheons, also routine interpersonal clashes that involve mutual encounters of real differences vis-à-vis values, beliefs, perspectives, etc. In psychoanalytic therapy, the transference-countertransference dance signifies, at times, interpersonal clashes between the patient’s and therapist’s god representations, as well as intrapsychic clashes between each participant’s conscious and unconscious god representations. These clashes were present from the day Karen, a strong and fragile woman, sat down in my office for the first time.1 In this brief article, I describe several of the interpersonal and intrapsychic clashes of god representations in my work with Karen.2 In general, I argue that my conscious and unconscious god representations shaped, in part, my analytic attitude, as well as my interpretive and noninterpretive interventions, which together had a mutative effect on Karen’s god representations. I suggest further that one way to understand the process of psychoanalytic therapy is how both analyst and analysand tacitly face and answer the following questions: What God(s) orients my life and relationships? What God(s) represents subjugation, fear, and the loss of freedom? What God(s) have I repressed? What God(s) represents the possibility and experience of being alive and real with others? In the end, what God(s) will I choose to serve, to surrender to?3 Before moving to a description of Karen and our work together, it is necessary to say a few words about how I understand and use the concepts of god representations and transference.

1. Names have been changed and personal clinical material in this paper has been disguised. 2. Rizutto (1979) claimed that all children develop god representations, thus all human beings possess god representations, though not everyone is religious. An analyst, then, who is an atheist, possesses conscious and unconscious god representations, though s/he does not perceive these in terms of religious experiences or belief in God. An analyst who believes in God will tend to view his/her god representations in terms of an experience of God. My point here is twofold. First, god representations are present in analytic encounters, whether they are explicitly addressed or not (LaMothe, Arnold, & Crane, 1998). Second, god representations may or may not be joined to a person’s belief that the god representation represents an experience of or belief in God. 3. Paul Tillich (1957) and James Fowler (1981) argued that to be human means possessing objects of ultimate concern. We may not view these objects as religious or divine; nevertheless we commit and bind ourselves to these objects.



In brief, there are four interrelated aspects of god representations. First, Winnicott (1971), Loewald (1978), and Mitchell (2000) argued that primary and secondary process thinking are not independent cognitive processes but rather intertwined. In other words, in adult life there is omnipotent thinking in what appears to be our most reasoned discourse and reason in our omnipotent fantasies. God representations are comprised of both processes and, thus, are not merely or necessarily illusions—mistaken beliefs. Second, god representations are linked to emotional experiences in relation to significant others (Rizutto, 1979, 1998). These god representations, then, frequently signify a person’s core beliefs, values, and expectations about self-and-world (Fowler, 1981; Meissner, 1987). Put differently, god representations may manifest a person’s way of being in the world. Related to this is a third feature. Since god representations signify a person’s emotional experiences and sense of self and other, we can expect, given a postmodern view of the self (Aron, 1996), that each god representation may stand for a different self-state. Multiple god representations, then, signify manifold selfstates, which may or may not be loosely integrated. Some of these selfstates and corresponding god representations may be repressed, dissociated, or simply lie outside a person’s awareness until an emotional event triggers the god representation. Finally, god representations cannot be divorced from the beliefs and routine practices and ceremonies of the culture, society, and, if applicable, the religious group in which a child and adult live (see Miller, 1983). A child, for instance, assimilates and accommodates his/her family’s, group’s, and culture’s god representations that are given expression and life in routine discourse, behavior, and ceremonies. Since god representations comprise emotional experiences, as well as core beliefs, values, and expectations about self-and-world, we anticipate that they are inextricably part of the transference-countertransference dance. The concept of transference is variously defined, depending on the psychoanalytic theory one adopts (Tansey & Burke, 1989). Rather than delve into a lengthy excursus on the concept and its diverse references, I provide a brief depiction of how I understand and use transference vis-à-vis god representations. Loewald (1968) remarked that transference “is the patient’s love life—the source and crux of his psychic development—as relived in relation to a potentially new love object” (p. 311). The patient’s (and analyst’s) love life includes experiences of being loved as well as fantasies and failures of love, all of which may be manifested in the patient’s speaking in the voice of the parent or perhaps taking the role of the disappointed child (cf. Heimann, 1956). I would add that a patient’s love life includes his/her personal reality, by which I mean a) the patient’s past and present patterns



and experiences of being recognized and treated as a person—unique, inviolable, valued, agentic subject—and (b) the patient’s capacity to recognize and treat others as persons. Personal reality includes the various ways a patient may use objects and rituals to confer and maintain her sense of personhood.4 In brief, transference is understood as the patient’s history of personalizing, impersonalizing, and/or depersonalizing interactions as well as his/her desire for and fear of personalization and fellowship (LaMothe, 2007). God representations, then, signify a person’s diverse wishes to be and experiences of being recognized and treated as a person. Case Discussion Allow me to offer a few preliminary comments that will set the context for the discussion. I work at a clinical training center which operates under the auspices of a religious denomination. This religious group provides affordable mental health services to the poor and working poor, believing it is an important social justice ministry. Those who staff the center are primarily interns who come from two local universities. Supervisors, therapists, and interns may be religious or not, though all are expected to treat patients’ religious beliefs or perspectives with respect. I mention this for two reasons. First, it is not uncommon for patients to speak about their religious views or experiences, at times fearing they will be evangelized or perhaps assuming therapists hold the same or similar religious views as theirs. Second, there is no expectation that a patient’s religious or nonreligious perspectives be addressed in therapy. When I first met Karen, she was sitting in a crowded waiting room, wearing her nondescript, baggy scrubs. After guardedly taking a chair in my office, she declared that the reason she came to the center was 4. This large claim cannot be fully discussed here. However, there are numerous illustrations of people unconsciously using and retaining various objects that support and confer a sense of being a person. If these objects are forcibly removed, the person experiences depersonalization and a corresponding sense of emptiness. An illustration of this is Primo Levi’s (1960) experience at the hands of the Nazis. He wrote, “But consider what value, what meaning is enclosed even in the smallest of our daily habits, in the hundred possessions which even the poorest beggar owns: a handkerchief, an old letter, the photo of a cherished person. These things are part of us, almost like limbs of our body . . . Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man . . . for he who loses all often easily loses himself” (p. 27: emphasis added).



that she had no insurance and could not afford even the reduced fee some therapists offer in the city. Single and working as a nurse’s aide, Karen (28 years old) struggled to pay her bills. A couple of months prior to our first meeting, Karen had been taking a shower when she was flooded with a nameless anxiety and horror, followed by a dark depression. She was confused because she could not identify the cause—no conscious memories were connected to the flashback. Over the next few weeks, she continued to have flashbacks and was having more difficulty functioning at work. In the first session, I also learned that Karen had three older brothers about whom she spoke in matter-of-fact terms. After high school, Karen moved to a city far away, having only sporadic contact with her family. She stated that her father was an alcoholic and her mother was a “mean bitch” who beat Karen for even the smallest infractions. Family alienation and economic struggles paralleled her poverty of friends. Karen had no close friends, though she was friendly with a woman at work. After the second session, given the severity of her emotional life and lack of social resources, I invited Karen to consider meeting three times a week, which she readily agreed to do. Recognizing that any case description cannot capture the richness and depth of an individual session, let alone the patient and therapist’s journey, I will focus on three different periods in Karen’s therapy that correspond to the presence of differing god representations and concomitant personal realities. The first clash of god representations occurred during the first month of our work. Karen plopped down in the chair and declared, with some disgust and anger, that Christian people were “clueless.” While in the waiting room, she had overheard a conversation between two other patients. One person, who was trying to encourage the other woman, remarked that God helped her get through the death of her husband and child. Karen went on to dismiss this view of God as “bumper sticker theology,” lacking depth or reality. Eventually, I learned that when Karen was 9 or 10 years old, she had prayed to God to make her mom stop hurting her. When the abuse continued, Karen directed her rage at God, believing God to be indifferent, at best, and sadistic, at worse. It is no surprise that this god representation was connected to profound experiences of parental indifference to her needs and desires, as well as deeply painful experiences of physical and emotional abuse. I would learn weeks later that another unconscious layer to this god representation included sexual abuse by an older brother. At the time, I also wondered, while Karen was talking, if her disappointment and hurt about not being heard or understood by a “clueless” other included me and any failure(s) I made during the previous session.



Several clashes of god representations were evident in that session. Though Karen never made any direct remark to the other woman, there was a clash of god representations between Karen and the other person in the waiting room. Karen did not believe that God is comforting, attentive, and loving, while the other woman apparently did. This clash mirrored an intrapsychic clash. Karen’s anger and rage at an indifferent God (and parents) clashed with her repressed desire for a God who would listen and appropriately respond to her cries. This intrapsychic clash of gods was revealed in Karen’s transference, both in the waiting room and the session. Karen’s transference, manifested in her discourse about God, reflected two personal realities, namely, her emotional experiences at the hands of indifferent and depersonalizing parents and her longing for (and fear of) someone who would love her. That is, her dismissive response about the woman in the waiting room was a manifestation of her experiences (personal reality) of being dismissed by her parents and God, which was joined to and clashed with her wish to be recognized and loved. Her transference, in my view, can be understood as two god representations vying for dominance in her relationship with me and others. Would the dismissive god continue to dominate her psychic life and interpersonal relationships, or would this god give way to her desire for a god of love and devotion? I add here that, because of the traumatic depersonalization that Karen suffered at the hands of family members, she had difficulty making constructive use of others and objects to support and confer a sense of being a person—an inviolable, unique, responsive subject. Karen’s transference was also connected to her experience of any failure on my part to understand the depth of her pain during the previous session, which signaled an interpersonal clash. I, too, had been “clueless,” though there remained an unconscious hope (and anxiety) that I would “get it.” In my view, this unconscious hope was also joined to her repressed desire that God (and others) too would eventually respond; perhaps God would also give reasons for God’s previous silence. Nevertheless, she feared surrendering to God’s care or mine because it was linked to vulnerability and trauma. After revealing that she was also angry at me, I acknowledged my mistake and told Karen that I appreciated her telling me about my failure, wondering if this might be a sign of deepening trust. During the next couple of sessions, we explored how her past experiences of God and family were evoked by my mistake. Let me shift to the clash that was taking place in me as Karen spoke about an indifferent God. While I did not suffer physical or sexual abuse as a child, my mother was deeply depressed when I was growing up. While I have no conscious memories of praying to God for a



mother who would respond attentively to me, I nevertheless possess a god representation signifying absence—an absent or indifferent parent (see Capps, 1997; Rizutto, 1979). At the same time, I hold a god representation that signifies compassion and devotion, which is yoked to childhood and adult experiences (personal reality) of being attended to and understood by extended family members, friends, and other adults. At the time, I experienced this inner clash of god representations as the presence of real differences, rather than war, competition, or dominance. I believe that if this intrapsychic clash had mirrored Karen’s clash of dominance, we would undoubtedly have been caught in the vice of an enactment (Chused, 2003). In terms of my countertransference, I had several distinct thoughts and experiences while Karen spoke about her experience of the waiting room and eventually my failure. I first recall a twinge of sympathy for her anger at an indifferent God and her aversion to simplistic pietistic pronouncements about the efficacy of God’s love in the face of being depersonalized. I, too, encountered people in my life who I dismissively deemed to have a “bumper sticker theology.” This sympathy, however, was, I believe, in the shadows of empathic inquiry into Karen’s experiences of being harmed by her parents and ignored by God. Put another way, I felt able to contain and be curious about Karen’s hurt, anger, rage, and attacks on God (and others), instead of simply agreeing with her. I view this empathic containment and curiosity to be linked to a god representation signifying my personal reality of a compassionate and interested God, which was also part of the countertransference.5 When Karen complained about the woman in the waiting room and God’s failure, I also felt a small spike of anxiety, because I was expecting her to ask me if I believe that God answers prayers, and I was waiting for her to attack my “cluelessness.” This twinge of anxiety has several sources. First, my role in my family was that of peacemaker, and peacemakers “resolve” conflicts instead of creating or participating in them. Second, my mother’s absence and disinterest were experienced by me as dismissive. Put another way, I internalized this as an unconscious belief that my experience and beliefs are unimportant. So the anticipation of an attack and dismissal from Karen evoked anxiety in me. I distinctly recall being aware of my anxiety (3 on a scale of 10) and wondering how much of it was my personal reality and how much was Karen’s. In the session, I concluded that it was mostly me, yet I 5. I wish to stress that in speaking about personal reality vis-à-vis God, one need not make claims about God’s existence. Thus, one can view my belief in a God of compassion as representing my commitment, which shapes my analytic attitude and behavior. This is the God I choose to serve, to incarnate—to use a Christian theological concept—which shapes my analytic attitude and approach.



suspected that Karen’s defensiveness was joined to her anxiety that I would not take her seriously—that I would dismiss her experience, as God and others had in the past. Finally, I felt sadness as she spoke, which I later interpreted as her unconscious communication of sadness relating to her experiences of being bereft at the hands of indifferent and abusive parents. Reflecting on my countertransference in the midst of the session (and afterward) is not simply and solely linked to psychoanalytic precepts. On the one hand, I understand psychoanalytic psychotherapy as attending to the unstated, unconscious, and unformulated past in the transference as well as what is new in the present (Shane, Shane, & Gales, 1997). On the other hand, my “analytic attitude” is linked to and shaped by a dominant god representation. This god representation derives from my experiences of compassionate and devoted others, who in the past (and present) attended to and reflected on my experiences. I could just as easily frame all of this as my belief in a compassionate God or divine empathy (Farley, 1996). During that session, then, my empathic attention, interpretations, curiosity, and nonverbal containment vis-à-vis Karen’s hurt and anger reflected my beliefs not only in psychoanalytic tenets but also my belief in divine empathy—a representation of an empathic God. I would say that, in the intrapsychic clash of gods, I chose to opt for and make real the god representation that signified compassion and devotion. The presence of this god representation conflicted with Karen’s declared views about God, though was not far from her wish to be seen and understood. In short, the god representation (compassion) and concomitant analytic attitudes and behavior (verbal and nonverbal) invited her to experience something new. We would, at times, return to the topic of an indifferent, nonprotecting God, but there was a shift during the end of Karen’s second year of therapy. On occasion, Karen felt that coworkers and others were out to get her. Her paranoia, we eventually learned, was usually a prelude to a coming storm of memories of being sexually abused by her older brother. During a session, Karen told me about two people at work who were mean to her and spread gossip behind her back. With anger and hostility, Karen said, “They may not get in trouble now, but in the end God will punish them.” This god representation is associated with justice in a world split between good and evil, right and wrong, which I understood in several ways. First, it was an expression of Karen’s powerlessness and vulnerability, which was screened by a powerful God who allows people to sin, though holds them accountable at the end of their lives. Karen found this comforting, though it maintained a split between innocence (good) and guilt (bad)—she was innocent and her coworkers were guilty. Second, this god representation, on the mani-



fest level, may be said to signal aggression and revenge, though it also demonstrated aggression in the service of Karen’s agency. This is a God who acts, who cares about her, which enables her to continue to act in the midst of anxiety and hurt. Put another way, Karen made use of this god representation to confer a sense of personhood, which, in turn, was linked to her sense of hope and growing capacity for agency. Third, the transference associated with this god representation was linked to (a) numerous past injustices and associated experiences of powerlessness at the hands of people in her family, (b) her wish that I would side with her, and (c) new experiences of being treated with respect—being considered a person. We see here a shift from an indifferent God to a God who she experiences as keenly devoted to her. Though justice is delayed, God is nevertheless aware of her plight. Over time, I noticed that the indifferent God receded into the background, replaced by the just God who sees and takes note of all sin. There seemed to be no intrapsychic clash between these two god representations. I would go further and say that the presence of this new dominant god representation relegated other possible god representations to the psychic basement. For instance, any god representation associated with mercy, forgiveness, empathy, compassion, etc. seemed nonexistent. That is, when Karen made these declarations, the door was not open to exploration or other views, which was understandable given her sense of hurt, aloneness, and paranoia. This absence of a clash suggested to me that, while Karen felt a degree of self-worth (as represented by a God who cares enough about her to render justice), it was fragile. This fragility was screened by her splitting off anxiety and helplessness. During these moments, the clash of gods took place within me, which I now believe subtly shaped the interaction. In brief, my countertransference was manifested in my lack of analytic curiosity about this god representation. Part of this I rationalized as Karen’s categorical, emotionally intense statements, which suggested the door was closed to exploration. However, once these moments passed, I did not return to them. These inactions indicated, clearly, my countertransference, which can also be said to signify an internal clash of god representations. On the manifest level, I have an underlying distaste for a wrathful God (or person) who is without mercy, compassion, and love toward people who fail or who commit injustices. I also dislike a God who sits on the sidelines tabulating harms and waiting until the game is over to discipline players. These views are, in part, derived from my experiences of an intransigent and judgmental mother, as well as my disidentification with her and no doubt god representations I associate with intransigence. Put differently, my opting to choose to live toward an empathic



and compassionate God was not in play in relation to this internalized intransigent mother, which ironically indicated my own intransigence. Karen’s wrathful, just God evoked this intrapsychic clash and countertransference, which was manifested in my lack of curiosity vis-àvis Karen’s god representation and past experiences. An interpersonal clash was never manifestly apparent during this time. That is, I did not directly address or take note of the differences between us or possible differences between Karen’s indifferent God and wrathful God. A clash of differences can be present in the absence of conflict and in the presence of silence. A third god representation emerged during the fifth year of our work. When Karen was growing up, her parents were Presbyterians, though they attended church only on Easter and Christmas. As an adult, Karen had, on occasion, attended a church, but it was not until her fourth year in therapy that she joined and attended regularly. In this church, she had developed a few close relationships and had volunteered to babysit little children on Sunday while their parents attended services. She derived a great deal of confidence and pleasure in taking care of the children. Church became a sanctuary for her, and she spoke of these children and her friends in terms of a loving God. She saw herself as protecting and nurturing the children. One time she said that her pastor had preached about the limitless grace of God’s love for human beings. Karen stated that she believed the pastor, but God’s love did not mean that people would not be punished for hurting other people. This was a far cry from Karen’s early declaration about an indifferent, uncaring God and slightly different from the all-just, wrathful God. The God of justice was, for her, also a God of love. The clash here was not a conflict between stark differences, but instead the melding of distinct characteristics—love and justice. This said, there continued to be times when Karen was feeling fragile and badly treated by people at work where the wrathful God would make an appearance, and love was relegated to the sidelines. I would also add that the indifferent God no longer made any appearances during this period, though to my mind that meant that (a) this God no longer fit her current experiences and (b) she no longer interpreted her childhood experiences in terms of an absent, indifferent God. The presence of this god representation (loving) signifies Karen’s personal reality and transference. Her personal reality was comprised, in part, of relatively consistent experiences of a therapist who cared about her and who was devoted to her getting better. It was not only me, of course, who invited Karen into internalizing and claiming new experiences. New friends at church, her friend at work, and her experiences of caring for the children added to her sense of being lovable and



important—being a person. Also, in terms of the transference, Karen wished for a rescuing, all-powerful God (therapist) and a more realistic desire for devotion, respect, and love, as well as a realistic understanding of the necessity of vulnerability if she desired to love and be loved. Likewise, she was better able to make use of this god representation and other objects to confer and maintain a sense of personhood—unique, inviolable, responsive subject. In my view, the patient’s and therapist’s god representations shape the interaction and process of therapy, for good or ill. Put another way, manifest and latent intrapsychic and interpersonal clashes of god representations are inextricably yoked to the transference, signifying the patient’s and therapist’s personal realities and histories. The therapist’s conscious (relatively speaking) commitment to a god representation will not only shape his/her analytic attitude, as well as interpretations and noninterpretive interventions, it may also be implicated in a patient altering his/her use of god representations. With regard to Karen, my analytic stance was wedded to my belief in an empathic, compassionate, and devoted God, which, in general, served to contain Karen’s rage and hurt and my own curiosity and interest in her life and healing. Naturally, this god representation clashed with god representations I consciously and unconsciously held, as well as god representations Karen held. For the most part, these clashes did not result in significant or lasting stalemates, though there were errors on my part. Nevertheless, together we navigated through these clashes and errors and, in the end, Karen experienced a greater sense of being a person loved by God and others.

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The Clash of Gods:Changes in a Patient’s Use of God Representations  

In this article, I argue that manifest and latent intrapsychic and interpersonal clashes of god representations, which are inextricably yoke...