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Some Thoughts on the Role of the Supervisor

In the late Nineties, psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan decided to stop seeing clients and focus solely on supervision. From this vantage point, he found himself paying particular attention to the impact of working in foreign countries, and the importance of attending to the ‘deep currents of history’ in clients’ material. Drawing on the case detailed in his forthcoming book, Ghosts in the Human Psyche, he explains why supervisors need to attend to historical, cultural, and political issues.

How can we describe a psychoanalytic supervisor’s professional identity? What kind of thoughts and feelings are induced in a supervisor’s mind when he or she hears the story of the supervised therapist’s patient? When should the supervisor share, and, of equal importance, not share these thoughts and feelings with the supervised therapist? How does a supervisor hold on to ‘therapeutic neutrality’? We do not find many answers to these questions in the literature.  

For decades, besides my clinical work and teaching, I have been involved in psychopolitical studies in many conflicted areas of the world. When traveling to other countries started to keep me away from my office for longer periods of time, I retired from conducting psychoanalysis and, since then, functioned as a supervisor only. I have decades-long experience in supervising young colleagues from the United States, Germany, Turkey, and Canada, and listening to the case presentations of other therapists from Finland and Russia as a consultant. This led me to realise that psychoanalytic teachers and case supervisors working in foreign countries need to become familiar with local historical, cultural, and political issues. Paying the necessary attention to the intertwining of internal and external worlds improves therapeutic technique and the outcome of the therapeutic process.

My new book includes an interesting case where I was supervisor. It details the story of the psychoanalytic treatment of a businessman who called himself a ‘Muslim Armenian’. His erectile difficulty was linked to traumas he had experienced as a baby and during his childhood. Soon after his treatment started, however, the therapist, who was still in training to become a psychoanalyst, and I realised that it would be impossible to understand fully the patient’s symptoms and personality characteristics without knowing the deep currents of history and the culture of his ethnic group.

Hearing the influence of ancestral historical events on an individual’s psychology and paying the necessary attention to such events during the treatment process provided a rare insight into the function and inner workings of the supervisor role. Personal memories and emotions were induced in me during the supervisory hours while listening to the businessman’s history and large-group identity confusion, and I was led to examine my own ethnic issues. I took the decision not to share my thoughts and feelings with the therapist in order to avoid complicating the therapist’s countertransference responses. As a supervisor, what you do not share can be as important as what you do.

By presenting this case, I hope to give the reader useful information about the role of the supervisor and the importance of examining the intertwining of internal and external worlds while holding on to ‘therapeutic neutrality’. As psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy continue to spread worldwide, and therapists begin more and more to work across countries that are not their own, this will be an area that continues to grow.

Ghosts in the Human Psyche: The Story of a Muslim Armenian by Vamik Volkan is published on Feb 4 2019 by Phoenix Publishing.


Vamik Volkan

Vamik Volkan is an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia and an Emeritus Training and Supervising Analyst at the Washington-Baltimore Psychoanalytic Institute. He is the Emeritus President of the International Dialogue Initiative and a former President of the Turkish-American Neuropsychiatric Society, the International Society of Political Psychology, the Virginia Psychoanalytic Society, and the American College of Psychoanalysts. He is the author or editor over fifty psychoanalytic and psychopolitical books. He has served on the editorial boards of sixteen national or international professional journals.

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