Supervision's Difficulty with Itself: A Supervisee's View of the Process

Jungian analyst Gretchen Heyer explores the unique power dynamics of the supervisory relationship and suggests that subversion is an essential element in the success of supervision.

Supervision's Difficulty with Itself: A Supervisee's View of the Process

This paper began as a talk at the IRSJA spring conference a few years after I completed training and has grown from there. In addition to Jung, I draw from thinking of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. These theorists claim neither Jung nor psychoanalysis, yet they have peered into the analytical process with insight for how it works. My focus is on the particular type of supervision that a candidate experiences in the training process, the difficulties, the conflicts and missed connections.

Some of these more problematic elements are woven into the nature of supervision as the instrument of practice is the personality of the practitioner. Personal and professional mingle, at times merge. Boundaries are not clearly marked. Then there is the training institution with its hierarchy rather than collegiality, a hierarchy often perceived as much out of unresolved states from childhood as it exists in reality. There are the many facets of theory itself, on which we have projections, idealizations and denigrations. All these energies thrash about in the supervision consulting room with various degrees of consciousness and unconsciousness.

In order to flesh out some of the ambiguities, I want to offer a caricature, not a real person or situation, but an amalgamation of things I have heard, experienced and imagined. A candidate—I will name this character Simon Robbins—is working on cases for graduation. Simon is in his forties with no children and in the midst of marital difficulties that have risen, in part, out of time conflicts with training, and in part out of his analysis. His wife moves out.

For his primary supervisor, Simon has chosen Geena Verso, a prominent woman analyst in the city known for her Jungian approach to object relations. Geena is engaging and deeply invested in the work—as is he. For a time harmony exists as Simon learns some of the nuances of object relations, and Geena refers him to various books to facilitate his process.

Here it may be important to consider some characteristics of those of us interested in analytic professions. While we may be rebels in some way, even more than rebels, we want some blessing from the establishment. We are ‘good’ girls and boys. Whatever our parental relationships, to some degree we believe in the society and system of which we are a part, at least we believe enough to obtain various academic credentials indicating we know how to conform in an organization. A Foucaultian view of this would reveal the ways we consider such a process normative. We have absorbed the values of our larger society, our training society, and for the most part we perpetuate them. Or another way of saying this would be: a form of compliance is rewarded in supervision, compliance that increases in complexity as supervisees gain their analytical authority.

Our supervisory couple, Geena and Simon, have become increasingly collegial. She shares bits of her private life with him, and when she hits marriage difficulties she also mentions these. Simon feels responsible for her, as he does for all women in need. In a caring fashion, he asks her more about her difficulties. She tells him. To complicate matters, Simon’s long case requiring fifty hours with the same supervisor is that of a very dependant and hysterical woman named Belle. He is somewhat lost in his work with her, frequently investing long hours in the drama of Belle’s life with the sense that he is doing little good analytically. Geena is increasingly frustrated, telling Simon that he does not understand what is really happening in Belle’s case, that he is getting lost in superficialities and missing his patient’s underlying schizoid rage and alienation.

These dynamics come to a head when Geena’s office building floods. She asks Simon if they can use his office for their scheduled supervision session. He—always the nice guy to women in need—agrees.  It is in the midst of this session that Simon begins to have some idea that boundaries between himself and Geena no longer work for him. He is aware that he feels responsible for her, and she may even collude in making him responsible. He tries to speak about this, and about his sense of obligation that caused him to agree to the supervision session in his office. She becomes outraged and informs him that it is just supervision—that he has issues with women and gets too invested in their needs—just as he has done with his mother all his life—and in his case.

Because of where he is in his personal analysis, it is no longer OK with Simon to merely accept a blanket disclaimer of responsibility while he shoulders the blame. He tries to bring the conflict up again and again in months to follow. Each time Geena becomes irate, drawing analogies between Simon’s confusion in the analytic work, and in the supervision—pointing out the murkiness that is always there, and how it is his task to sort through the case he is working on with her, as well as his confusion about their relationship.

Simon is increasingly disillusioned. His previous idea of object relations was that the process of the case would be as much a part of supervision as the content. He had something of a parent/child idea of supervision, assuming the supervisor would be the one to interpret their relationship as it impacted the patient. He feels ripped off and used, even victimized. In an effort to claim his analytical authority, he confronts Geena on how she has allowed intricacies of their relationship to go unexamined, naming the way they had both colluded to overlook what was happening between them as it impacted the work with Belle. Geena maintains her parental role, telling him this is further indication of his difficulty with authority, particularly authority with a woman, and such issues will “hold him back” in his training.

Tensions escalate as Simon approaches his forty-first hour on the case.  Simon considers working with another supervisor, but to do so would be to forfeit all the time and money he has already invested, as well as abdicate his responsibility in the relationship. But if he continues with Geena, the dynamics have become so contorted that he no longer feels the necessary ground of trust to risk and learn.

Stepping back from Simon and Geena for a moment, it seems glaringly obvious that the process of supervision keeps the supervisor in an evaluative role with stated and unstated expectations. The supervisor is also under scrutiny by his or her peers who have opinions of both the work and the trainee. Supervision is not strictly confidential. This creates an additional burden on the supervisory couple to conform and be normative to the supervisor’s notions, perhaps even to his or her performance needs, as well as to the expectations of the larger training society with its crises of the moment, its agendas, its projections. The risk of any organization is that it can work to perpetuate itself and in some ways, it may exist to be perpetuated. Some degree of splitting inevitably occurs—a splitting personified in the supervisory couple: power from the lack of power, success from the lack of success, conformity from the lack of conformity, knowledge from ignorance. True, this is intrinsic to any system, and a training institution is a system. But in the vignette of Simon and Geena, Simon is faced with several choices.

He has already tried to address the supervisory relationship in a variety of ways. Now does he honor his own analytic work, which may mean leaving Geena as a supervisor to begin the case again at huge personal and professional cost to himself? Such a move will not only be financially expensive, it will delay graduation and perhaps even jeopardize graduation, depending on other conditions of his life such as health and family and the potential of disasters. Does he continue with Geena, and also continue trying to express what he perceives to her? It’s a tricky thing, even an inflated thing, to assume collegiality while still being evaluated. But there must be some assumption of equality or there would be no analytical authority to claim. What is more, that equality might be in the mind of the supervisor or the supervisee, but not both at the same time.

Simon might push down his growing resentment and the fact that he is getting so little at that point out of supervision, continuing with Geena as if all is well. This too has potential effects on his training. In some way he would betray himself. If he graduates, he might find that what he has matters little to him because of the way that he gained it. He could discuss the whole situation with his case committee, which is a risk dependent on complexes and theoretical stands of the committee. This again could potentially honor his individuation, but potentially sabotage his graduation.

In the midst of this is confusion about theory, an entity as vibrant in the supervisory consulting room as the persons of supervisor and supervise. So often theory is considered to be something static, a kind of technique, at times almost a gospel that one must have faith in, not a body of thinking to be challenged and questioned. What is more, the supervisee often wants theory to be this static unquestioned body of thinking. Training is a time of gathering up conceptual building blocks so that one can establish oneself and speak of what one knows with some assurance. The supervisor may also want theory to be static and easily articulated as this provides a sense of authority, a ground of knowledge that can be more easily communicated.

Simon’s relationship to theory is part of why he chose Geena Verso to begin with. He wanted to learn more about object relations. Geena’s relationship with theory caused her to facilitate transmission of various ideas through the books she recommended—recommendations that implied the firm theoretical understanding Simon projected on her, and believed he wanted. However, Simon’s particular idealization of object relations implicitly included his own perceived need for Geena’s parental insight. After his disillusioning experience with her in supervision, he also began to doubt much of object relations. The person of Geena and the theory of object relations merged.

Simon’s disillusionment may be a necessary experience of clinical maturity as we discard and picks up pieces of theory, often making choices about ideas due to the persons they are connected to. However, when a supervisee is in the midst of writing up cases for evaluation, such doubts and discarding of theory can be problematic, even dangerous to give voice to. Candidates are evaluated on work as an analyst, not rebellious doubts that might potentially undermine analysis. If Simon writes up Belle’s case, he may choose to leave out his questions rather than risk exposing what has become a vulnerable theoretical area in himself.

What becomes apparent is that for the supervisee, there are multiple loyalties and conflicts in supervision. There is commitment to one’s personal individuation process, commitment to the power structure of training, commitment to a relationship with a supervisor, to an exploration of theory, to one’s patients. These various ruling forces bring with them their own growth and opportunity. They bring with them their own pockets of darkness.

Let me offer another short vignette, again with Simon, our imagined supervisee, but now with another supervisor, Randolph Heyden, another case, and another set of conflicts and missings. Randolph Heyden is 20-odd years older than Simon with a classical approach colored by an intuitive rather charismatic flair. In this supervision, Simon focuses primarily on Lee, a female patient whose huge resistance to the unconscious has left her sleepwalking through her life.  Lee’s parents are both refugees from a country embroiled in war and refuse to speak of their past. The major problem with Lee is that Simon has difficulty staying awake in session. This is not a reverie with images that might give clues to the process, but a type of blankness. Simon knows this is in part his identification with Lee’s unconscious state. Then, as he presents his patient, he notices Randolph falling asleep and asks about it. Randolph says his sleepiness is a reaction to Lee’s process, something that prompted the presentation of Lee in the first place. Randolph discusses sleep as an archetype, a necessary unconsciousness in life. He underlines how there must be room for the mystery of what happens in analysis without our ability to name it. Simon still has no clue of how to deal with Lee in session, or even if he can avoid falling asleep. He has already reflected to her that she is blocked, and this block is reflected in the analysis.     

Randolph tells Simon the case will take a long time, a lot of boring hours with Lee. He amplifies with several fairy tales, including Sleeping Beauty and the more recent Rip Van Wrinkle. But Simon already knows it will take a long time. He has already imagined both he and his patient into the story of Rip van Wrinkle, which in itself is a problem. Every hour seems like a week. But now Randolph Heyden appears bored whenever Lee is brought up. Simon considers dropping any case write-up of Lee, and talking with Randolph about another case where the patient is more obviously seductive and emotionally invested in the work.

Randolph forgets the next session with Simon. That is, he has scheduled an attractive woman Simon trains with at the time that was to be Simon’s session. Simon knocks on the consulting room door, believing it to be his time. Randolph checks his calendar. No, Simon was not written down, in spite of this being the day he usually came. Would Simon please come back at a later hour and they would discuss this.

Simon uses the intervening hours to reflect, wondering if it was some anxiety on his part to perhaps arrive at the wrong time. But he had the appointment written down—Randolph did not. However Simon doesn’t want to push it too far because—as we have already established—he is a ‘nice’ guy and knows how to conform to the system—not to mention his parental issues that cause him to desire care in particular ways. Parental issues—I might add—that appear woven into the nature of training with its questions of what to push and how far and what is too far.

Simon decides not to push the forgotten hour. Rather than continue inducing sleepiness in Randolph, Simon shifts his major focus to the more emotionally available patient. After this, Randolph does not forget another hour. Lee—the patient who induces sleep—is more or less put to sleep.

While Simon clearly enacts parental dynamics in supervision, the supervisors he chooses operate in a way that does not involve examining the supervision relationship. This is one of the implicit difficulties of the process. The supervisory relationship does not have the clear container of the analytic relationship, yet it does have plenty of transferences and counter-transferences as the relationship is forged with the very material of our clinical work—our selves. In addition, we are the future colleagues of one another. What we say in supervision will not only be interpreted, but perhaps also repeated to others that are future colleagues. Our self-image is at stake in supervision in a way that it is protected in analysis.

Randolph Heyden, this second supervisor, is well-versed in the mystery of analysis, the fact that what is said is often not as important as the relationship in which it is said, that an accurate interpretation is one that the relationship can hold. However, Randolph does not apply this to supervision. And for reasons of his own psychology, Simon goes along with this omission without a murmur.

There seem to be stages to supervision, some of which we may take longer in than others, some of which we circle back to again and again. We all begin with some idea of what it is to be a Jungian analyst, an image colored by popular views of the profession; analyst as X ray vision, dream catcher, agitator, healer, even wizard or shaman. Our ideas of being a Jungian analyst shape our view of committees, supervisors and analysts. In addition, early on most of us are far from secure in our analytic identity. Our insecurity tugs us towards attachment styles that we feel comfortable with. It provides us with our defenses of choice. We may choose a supervisor to feed our own grandiosity and theirs, to take care of, to fight with. Some of us travel many miles to the supervisor of our choice because he or she is the one who will get us through, we are sure of it. No one else will work. We discuss others experiences of supervisors and imagine ourselves into them

“He doesn’t let me get away with anything,” someone will say.

“I need nurturing,” we respond. “I couldn’t take it.”

“If I can’t argue, I won’t learn,” another adds.

And yet another says, “I can’t take anyone too intellectual. That bores me.”

Hopefully our unconscious motivators begin to rise up and tarnish with exposure in the process of supervision. We may go into a type of rebellion, or seek to establish our ideals by a mimicry that entrenches narcissistic issues even further. We do what we believe the supervisor would do, in a way we believe they would be pleased with. This affects not only relationships with supervisors and ourselves, but perhaps most importantly it affects our patients. Many may have had the experience I once had after a supervision session when I returned to my office and implemented some of what I had learned. In the next session with that patient, she brought a dream in which I had invited another analyst to my office for her session, and I hid behind that analyst’s chair.

It is easy to think of supervision and the training institution as a kind of power pressing in on the supervisee, a power to which we are subordinate, power that regulates. This is part of it. But that power is also part of what forms us, a condition of our existence. In other words, in supervision what is at first part of the power structure becomes part of the supervisee, part of the ground on which we stand, part of how we define ourselves. This is more than internalizing what has pressed in on us. It becomes an identity.

Such self-formation is the subject of the analytical process. When a patient walks into our consulting rooms, we hold an implicit awareness of ways they are formed and shaped by families, cultures, friends, religions, traumas, governments and personal make-up. We also hold implicit that some of the ways they are shaped may change, that self-identity is not a static construct. While it is also implicit that the power structure of supervision will shape the supervisee, it is less clear how that power structure becomes woven into the supervisee as part of him or her.

The inevitability of our formation by power and the subtleties of change within that inevitability is the subject of both Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. Foucault argues that we are always in the process of being formed and shaped by power structures and discourses. He explores how the discourse of psychology has come into being with its normalizing force, beginning with the rounding-up and institutionalization of people who were not working. Lounging on the streets violated the work ethic, so the unemployed had to be made invisible. Foucault sees no possibility of existing outside power and discourse. With or without awareness of what we are in, we are formed by it. Thus any variation or change must take place within power structures. This makes us always vulnerable to repetition, to a renormalization of what has gone before. It also provides the possibility of subversion and change because our formation by power is ongoing, not static or finished. Or a more psychological way of saying this is, our self-identity is never complete.

We are never fully baked as analysts but always in the process of baking. Thus we have the chance to examine, to question, to change. It becomes a point of hope that being an analyst is not a final destination. Post-supervision we still have our questions, our learnings. We are still in process. As analysts we are colleagues, but for whatever reason we attached to our supervisors in training, we may also still be attached. And our supervisors may also be attached to the role they had, continuing that role in different forms in the analytic community. While there is no established container to process such issues, we may create our own container, initiating a conversation with a supervisor that partially resolves things. Leftover dynamics of supervision simmer below the work of the analytical community, the loves and hates, the abandonments, the resentments. While such churnings can be a source of distress, Foucault’s perspective on the simmering of post supervision conflicts provides an odd hope. We’re not done. This may keep us from existing simply to renormalize that which has come before.

Judith Butler has a different angle on the workings of power. While she agrees with Foucault that formation by discourses and power structures is inevitable, she does not see us all encompassed by this. For her, the possibility of change is where the normalizing effects of discourse and power fail or miss their mark, the subversive potential of unstable identities and misrecognition. In other words, some aspect of who we are is always in excess of what forms us.

Such an idea fits well with the workings of analytical psychology. We are more than the sum of our parts, more than what forms us. Whatever name we put to our excess—collective unconscious, melancholia, misfit—it offers a hope. We struggle to conform and normalize to power structures, and the more fully we succeed, the more we lose something of ourselves. The grief of cutting off what does not fit is huge, and the grief of keeping what does not fit often brings misunderstanding. Butler sees issues of grief visited on our bodies in ways we move, talk, and dress. For her this pervasive melancholia becomes evidence of ways we have not fully normalized, evidence of an excess in us that does not fit. 

The process of supervision is a contradictory endeavor. In it we are not free, subject not only to the work we do, but to the training organization of which we are a part, the culture, the norms, the ways psychology itself has emerged out of normalizing influences. A supervisee needs to learn how to do something as his or herself, but supervision has the odd task of feeling this out, as if it knows what that is. As early as 1928 Jung warned us that, “one is oneself the biggest of all one’s assumptions, and the one with the gravest consequences” (italics Jung’s). He then goes on to say, “the assumption that I myself am will determine my method: as I am, so will I proceed.” (The Practice of Psychotherapy, para 543). In other words, the practitioner is the method, but there are certain things that method needs to accomplish. Thus supervision needs to be about technique and about being spontaneously true to one’s own nature. Then it is about examining what we are spontaneously true to as it just might be a pit of unconsciousness we are swimming in with delight. Such unconsciousness can be the excess heralding hope and change. It can also simply perpetuate things as they are.

It behooves us to be aware of how we renormalize what has come before. Judith Butler reminds us: “To be dominated by a power external to oneself is a familiar and agonizing form power takes. To find, however, that what ‘one’ is, one’s very formation as a subject, is in some sense dependent upon the very power is quite another” (The Psychic Life of Power, 1-2).” While it can be glaringly obvious that our formation as an analyst depends on the power structure as it exists, we can live in excess of this. We can subvert it from within—two very Jungian ideas that don’t always fit too well with supervision.
Works Cited
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge: New York. 1999.

 —. The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford University Press: Stanford CA. 1997.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.
Random House: New York. 1965.

Jung, C.G. “The Realities of Practical Psychotherapy,” (1937) In CW 16: The Practice of
Psychotherapy, 1966 edition


Copyright 2008 Gretchen Heyer. All rights reserved.