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The “Maternal Capacity” of Therapists

Our understanding of the early mother/child relationship has been greatly expanded by the explosion of research which has revolutionized our view of the infant. Observational research from many quarters has taught us that from the moment of birth the intelligent infant is an engaging, hard-working being, striving within the limits of its physical capabilities to interact with the caregiver and thereby influence its human environment. With this knowledge, we have come to realize that the infant is never a blank slate. Rather she comes into this world ready and eager to participate in human relationships. We need only observe a tiny infant in order to realize that he is gazing fervently at his mother in his efforts to engage with her.

With this new knowledge comes the understanding that important development occurs at a non-verbal level and that developmental arrests that occur during this period can affect and compromise the core structure of the self. These pathologies, involving such developmental arrests,  have necessitated a revision or certainly an extension of classical theory and technique. We have come to recognize that crucial reparative work must frequently be done and that this work must take place within the context of a relationship that provides the kind of empathic attunement that was missing in the original mother/infant experience. The psychoanalytic therapist, like the good mother, must furnish a safe space, a holding environment, in which the patient’s maturational needs can unfold. For those patients who evidence these early developmental deficits, the traditional tools of psychoanalysis, i.e., free association and verbal or representational exploration of the transference relationship, are not readily available.

The article explores the maternal capacity of therapists in working with patients for whom developmental deficits render the traditional verbal tools of psychoanalytic treatment ineffective, particularly in the early phases of treatment. Viewed from the perspective of a mother in relation to an infant, the therapist’s role is seen as providing a safe holding environment, often in non-verbal ways, for the patient. These patients must first experience the “being,” the holding, the confirmation of their continuous existence, much of which must be communicated nonverbally before the symbolic conflict-based work can proceed. The capacity of male therapists to access their maternal capabilities is considered. The manifestation of preverbal transference and counter-transference is explored through the presentation of relevant clinical material.


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

The “Maternal Capacity” of Therapists

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). The “Maternal Capacity” of Therapists. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 May 2020
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