The notion of mutative interpretation was advanced by James Strachey in a lecture delivered to the British Psycho-Analytical Society in 1933. With remarkable clinical acumen, he described a privileged interpretative lever whose goal is to encourage, within the framework of the transference process itself, recognition of the archaic nature of certain instinctual impulses, especially aggressive ones, thus bringing about in-depth change in the patient's neurotic organization.
Through at least a slight degree of submission to the analyst's superego-like aspect, the patient necessarily becomes aware of the instinctual contents that motivate him or her, because the analyst, owing to the transference, is the object of the patient's unconscious instincts. If all goes well, the patient becomes aware of the gap between the aggressive nature of his or her feelings and the analyst's attitude; the patient will thus recognize that there is a difference between his or her original fantasmatic object and the real, external object.
The key point in Strachey's conception revolves around the "breach" thus created within the "neurotic vicious circle": realizing that the external object is not actually endowed with the aggressiveness attributed to it, the patient will reduce his or her own aggressiveness toward the object, enabling him or her to introject a less aggressive object. In consequence, his or her superego will become less aggressive, and the patient will gain increased access to his or her infantile material.
Of course, the analyst is a part of this movement. Strachey emphasized that the three classic phases of the interpretative dynamics—becoming aware of a state of tension within the ego, showing the means of repression, then uncovering the unconscious instinct responsible for the pressure from the superego—must in practice be carried out in conjunction, little by little, in order for the effects of "mutative interpretation" to develop in these three directions. In his view, mutative interpretation underscores the idea that change occurs on a "small scale": only small quantities of instinctual energy are displaced.
In contrast to the more recent hypotheses of the advocates of "self-exposure," Strachey emphasized another corollary: It is essential that the analyst's attitude remain based on analysis of the counter-transference and that it not veer off course and become a direct emotional response, even one that is positive. He reiterated that the ongoing risk of the analytic situation is that it will "degenerate" into a real-life situation; having become, without realizing it, a real object, the analyst would then become more difficult for the patient to distinguish from the seductive or persecutory object, thus hindering the interpretation's effectiveness in bringing about change.
See also: Interpretation; Strachey, James Beaumont.
Strachey, James. (1934). The nature of the therapeutic action of psycho-analysis. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 15, 127-159.