The American Journal of Psychoanalysis

, Volume 76, Issue 1, pp 1–17 | Cite as


  • Axel Hoffer
  • Dan H Buie


In our view helplessness is a primal, often intolerable feeling. It underlies and intensifies other feelings that are also hard to bear. Both analyst and patients face helplessness, and both resort to defenses, often intensely, in order to avoid it. The intensity of this battle can merit calling it a war. The analyst’s war is conducted using distancing, anger, blaming and disparaging as well as by intellectualizing the patient’s struggles. Patients then find themselves abandoned and helplessly alone. We analysts, of course, want not to fall into the trap of war, and we try to free ourselves from waging it. A major way we accomplish this is through continuously working, often with the help of analysis and self-analysis, to increase our capacity to maintain our emotional stability in the face of these intensities. We learn to find new forms of awareness, beyond words and ideas. It requires a new understanding of what is threatening to us, which fosters a deeper capacity to empathize with the patient. This helps us to find the psychic, physical and emotional space within ourselves in which to hold our helplessness and other profound affective experiences. In this way we become an increasingly steady resource for our patients as well as for ourselves.


helplessness in the analyst analyst’s defenses against helplessness helplessness in patients vulnerability countertransference 



We would like to thank Dr. Alan Pollack and Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin for their contributions to the paper and Drs. Anton O. Kris, Fred Busch, Jane V. Kite, Anita P. Hoffer, and Neal S. Kass for their careful readings and helpful suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Axel Hoffer
    • 1
  • Dan H Buie
  1. 1.Brookline

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