Transference Depression

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Transference itself reveals transference depression. Transference depression, which is a repetition of an infantile depression marked by narcissistic elements that is expressed within the transference relationship, usually after several years of analysis. Its symptoms are atypical of the depressive series. The difficulties raised by narcissism, on the other hand, concern the considerable demands made by the ideal ego, in addition to feelings of powerlessness and dissatisfaction.

Basing himself on Winnicott's work, André Green describes some of the more striking causes of this infantile depression in "The Dead Mother" (1983/1999). It is often a consequence of the mother brutally withdrawing emotional investment in the child because of a state of mourning before or after the child's birth, often caused by the death of another child or a close relative, or some other major narcissistic wound.

The most serious case involves the death of a very young child. This produces a profound alteration in the maternal imago. The latter, which is constituted in the child's psyche, "brutally transforms the internal object, a source of vitality, into a distant, atonal quasi-inanimate figure that profoundly impregnates the cathexes of its subjects and weighs upon the fate of their object-libidinal and narcissistic development." (Green, 1983) This narcissistic trauma, which the child experiences as a catastrophe, brings with it not only the loss of love but also the loss of meaning, since the child has no explanation or understanding of what has taken place.

The consequences of this catastrophe are decathexis from the maternal object and the constitution within the psyche of a "dead" zone full of "holes" and, in addition, identification in the mirror with the "dead mother," which can lead the child to organize a pathology that aims to bring the mother back to life fantasmatically. Finally, the loss of meaning experienced by the child structures the early development of the ego's fantasmatic and intellectual capabilities; a development which does not take place in the context of freedom to imagine and create, but as compulsive thinking instead.

Sándor Ferenczi's ambivalent relationship to Sigmund Freud provides a particularly apt illustration of this notion. The "insatiable need for support" Ferenczi felt during his analysis with Freud can be considered as a manifestation of transference depressionthe repetition of a childhood depression that has not been psychically worked through.

Transference depression, expressed through the emergence of an eroticized appeal addressed to the analyst, reveals a deprived child in a state of helpless distress, marked by a primary depression that has not been psychically worked through (Bokanowski, 1994). Behind the exacerbated demand for love and reparation deficienciesevident in cases transference-love, there are often developmental deficiencies and failures in the primary environment. The transference is thus eroticized as a defense against the fear of collapse, linked to the primary depression experienced by these patients in the very earliest stages of their development. In their interactions with the analyst they relive their despair and distress, as well as their deficiencies in primary symbolization. The erotic demand is thus an attempt to reconnect in the face of the anguish of the void and a deficit in the function of symbolizing.

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Dead mother complex; Basic depression; Transference hatred.


Bokanowski, Thierry. (1994). Ensuite survient un trouble. In Collectif: Ferenczi, patient et psychanalyste. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Green, André. (2001). The dead mother. In Life narcissism, death narcissism (Andrew Weller, Trans.). London: Free Association Books. (Original work published 1983)