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A Safe Space for Emotional Growth

In previous posts, I have been discussing the ways in which psychoanalytic therapists function in ways that a mother would as she endeavors to foster the emotional growth of her child.  As psychoanalysis has evolved, many clinicians have come to acknowledge emotion or affect as the central motivating factor. So in addition to our recognition of the “intelligent infant”, we have become aware of the significance of the emotional attunement of the therapist in providing a safe space for the growth of the client.  Affective development is clearly not a product of isolated intrapsychic mechanisms, but a property of the child/caregiver system of mutual regulation. Viewed from this perspective, the effectiveness of the therapist/analyst becomes heavily dependent upon the ability to resonate with the patient’s affective states and respond, often cross-modally, with affective states of the therapist’s own. In this type of emotional environment, again reminiscent of the original mother-infant bond, the patient may experience the kind of emotional connection that generates a felt connection and, ultimately, a cohesive sense of self.

A third obviously related and highly influential line of thought and one which has the potential to increase abundantly our understanding of the therapist’s “mothering” function is the relatively recent acknowledgment that the original mother is herself a subjective being with a perspective of her own. We have come to realize that the context in which the child matures, i.e., the “facilitating environment,” is indeed occupied by a person, a woman with needs and desires which may or may not match those of the infant. As we shift our outlook to emphasize the relationship between mother and child, we recognize the interactive synchrony between two engaged individuals in alternating roles of subject and object, observer, and observed. It is an interconnection which, at its best, becomes the prototype of mutuality, spontaneity, and authenticity in all relationships to come. The analytic engagement then, insofar as it partakes of that primal bond, becomes a living, interactive drama in which two participants, therapist, and patient, strive to co-create those experiences of reciprocity, mutual recognition, and intimacy which facilitate change.

The convergence of these three lines of discourse, that is, our new understanding of the intelligent infant, the importance of affect in the development of the self, and the perspective on mothering as a subjective experience, has both widened the scope of pathology amenable to analytic treatment and altered our view of the analytic process itself. Work with those patients whose pathology involves developmental arrests and deficits in the core structure of the self becomes heavily dependent on the capacity of the psychoanalytic therapist to remain affectively attuned in ways that the original caregiver could not. The therapist is, in short, functioning in many respects as would a mother in providing a nurturing, sustaining relational medium in which her child may grow.


Toronto, E.L. (1999). The Application of Therapists’ Maternal Capacity in Prerepresentational Body-Based Transference and Countertransference. Psychoanal. Soc. W., 6(2):37-59


A Safe Space for Emotional Growth

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. (2020). A Safe Space for Emotional Growth. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 May 2020
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