Home Sociology Infant Observation: Creating Transformative Relationships
An increased capacity for containing in the countertransference
The contribution of infant observation to adult and child analysis is above all acknowledged to help develop a capacity to contain anxieties better, both of self and other, particularly when clinical work is challenging. Infant observation deepens countertransferential awareness through this approach that is "uniquely suited for trying to understand what is as yet unthought or unthinkable" (Sowa, 2002-2003, p. 30). Harris (1975, 1987) viewed extending the capacity for observation as essential to the development of a psychotherapist to enable the therapist to work when exposed to uncertainty, confusion, and anxiety in an intense emotional experience with another person. She thought that infant observation assisted the therapist to wait in uncertainty without pre-empting the experience by explaining it to the patient, and to become increasingly receptive to the infant self of the patient. An observation facilitates a therapist taking less personally any aggression expressed after observing how infants need to express their aggression. Finally, it enables the therapist to bear the pain that is projected by the patient without acting precipitately. Margaret Rustin (1988) indicated that the observer would be exposed to some of their own personal problems as a consequence of the emotional impact of the observations, including anxiety that the observer's watching may invade the privacy of intimate relationships in a damaging way or that they may feel rivalrous or neglected. An increased capacity for containment links with maintaining the observation setting in ways that have a positive impact on training as a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist.
The process of infant observation may bring about change in a deep personal way. Observers may be very affected by memories of their own personal history, with sadness evoked about their own birth, nursing, and parenting experiences. Change comes about by reworking early infantile emotions in the presence of similar feelings in a baby. An observer may witness events that trigger a painful memory and the guideline to not act is helpful in reworking this, as for example when an observer was shocked to see an infant given more freedom to explore than she had had, which helped her over-protectiveness lessen. Observers frequently find that experiences that are concerning at the beginning of the year, look very different several months later as an infant's resilience strengthens.
The capacity to contain, to not act in response to worrying events (within the limits of common sense), has a maternal function of receptively containing primitive emotions in infant, mother, father, siblings and self, and increasing receptiveness of internal space without being too active or cut off; it also has a paternal function of being aware of boundaries, being able to differentiate when feelings originate in infant, mother or observer and coping with feeling excluded (Maiello, 2007). Most observers describe an increased capacity to wait without forcing a meaning on behaviour or being impelled to act, gaining an increased capacity not to rush in with interpretation, and to allow a situation to unfold (Bolton, 2002). Approaches that are relevant for clinical work are the slower rhythms of the observer, not privileging words, not intervening, recognising the functioning of defences and the need to give adequate notice about breaks (Miller et al., 1989).
Some observers report coping with their own family crises better and it has been suggested that infant observation protects against burnout at work because of the increased interest evoked in the observer (Miller, 2002). Other clinicians noted that after doing an observation they had become more sensitive to what could be gleaned from parents and baby even in a telephone consultation.
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