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Holding Hate in the Counter-transference

In our book A Womb of HerOwn (Routledge, 2017) author Meredith Darcy writes as follows:

I believe that my way of dealing (or actually not dealing) with Abby’s aggression and my lack of awareness of the anger I held towards her, veiled in the “mother ideal,” stood in the way of a genuine connection.  Abby may have been managing her own feelings of vulnerability, by attacking or withdrawing, presumably feeling hopeless to ever have her needs met. But I was lost in the depth of my unmanaged hate, of my anger, so an honest exploration of what was really happening in the room was impossible.  Impossible because unless I recognized my own hate, I could not recognize the existence of the part of Abby I was hating—so the rage felt by that part of Abby would increase in proportion to the extent I was invalidating her right to exist.   One could surely see this as an enactment of Abby’s relational trauma with her mother.  It would have been wonderful if I had recognized it at the time, but I did not.  I was too wounded, blinded by shame and self-doubt.  I was injured and reeling from Abby’s words: I felt I was too feminine, too passive, not tough enough, too inexperienced and supportive.  Was I a “good” therapist?  Do “good” therapists hate their patients?  Could I actually be a good mother?  Was I selfish to want both a substantive career AND motherhood?  I was so ashamed of all my ill-perceived mistakes of practice (“was I too warm, too soft, too maternal?”) and fertility (“had I waited too long to have a child?”)!    The therapist is in a terrible bind when bearings and boundaries are unwittingly lost, and in the end get caught in the patient’s intense shame dynamic (Bromberg, 2006).

A Spiral of Shame

An unbearable shame spiral was overtaking us both—causing the pain and experiencing the pain had merged.  Abby was overwhelmed by her intense feelings of need and shame; she was feeling misunderstood, angry, adrift and alone—reminiscent of how she had felt during childhood. Bromberg describes how (2006, p.140) the child’s own need for loving recognition becomes despised and shame ridden.  This need becomes dissociated, and when triggered, releases not only the unmet hunger for authentic responsiveness, but a flood of shame.  This perceived failure in who one is leads to shame. Someone feeling guilt is saying “I did something bad” while someone feeling shame is saying, “I am bad.”  There is a big difference.

The Idealized Maternal

In retrospect, I believe that my longing to create a loving family was very strong, but this longing to love, this mothering fantasy, was hobbling me.   My “all-generous, all-giving” maternal ideal was an unrealistic expectation of myself—I was acting like the fantasized mother I wanted to be and wish I’d had.  This blanket, overt “acceptance,” this idealized form of empathy, on one hand may have helped Abby to connect with me and express her own rageful and unacceptable feelings.  But on the other hand, the abundance of contempt and her intense negative affect, created an avalanche of shame and need within her, with no berm or safe containing function. Her feelings were accepted, but were they “held” and felt by me?

When a therapist cannot tolerate a patient’s pain and does not have enough distance from it to notice its magnitude, this will be experienced by the patient as further emotional abandonment—it will trigger shame rather than providing recognition.  In this dynamic of failure each person feels shame: the patient feels that her pain is unbearable and toxic and the analyst feels that her “help” is toxic to the patient (Benjamin, 2007).  Historically, all attempts by analysis to cure patients through the technical stance of trying to be good objects have failed. A patient needs a human being as a partner, a human being who can accept her own limitations and failings (Bromberg 2006).  Beneath the quilt of Abby’s assailments were cries of, “See me—my hate, rage, need, self-hatred—feel that!” I was NOT.  I had left the room.

For Abby, her only protection against losing genuine mothering was to never experience herself as the baby who needed it. I had not been paying attention to the part of her that protected her against the betrayal that was “sure” to follow any hope or trust that I was different from her own mother. I was not acknowledging the existence of the part of her dissociative mental structure that I didn’t want to see —her protective use of mistrust that would forever keep alive the trauma of the past as if it was a here-and-now inevitability.

Holding “Hate” in Patient and Therapist

At the time, I believed that I was trying to “hold” her—hold her hurt about feeling close to me, threatened by my changing self, and fearful of my imminent leave—her rage and her contempt for my “femininity” and separateness.  I felt I was accepting, rather than interpreting, her emotional state and perception of me. Slochower (2014) writes that holding a hostile denigrating patient means trying to accept her dismissiveness and belief of my incompetence, without challenging it.  At the time I felt I was communicating my resilience, that her need and rage would not destroy or obliterate me, that I could survive her attacks without retaliation.  But I was not holding.   It is essential that the analyst be in touch with her own hate toward the patient, and “use it” in a partial way via the tone and background affect with which she communicates.  “Holding hate,” means being alive and forceful in a way that enacts one’s latent hate, rather than interpreting (Sclochower, personal communication).



Benjamin, Jessica, 2007.  A Review of Awakening the Dreamer: Clinical Journeys by Philip M.Bromberg. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 43: 666-680.

Bromberg, Philip, 2006.  Awakening the Dreamer. Mahwah, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Slochower, Joyce, 2014.  Holding and Psychoanalysis.  NY, NY Routledge.



Holding Hate in the Counter-transference

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). Holding Hate in the Counter-transference. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 16, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Aug 2019
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