Dallas Group Analytic Practice

Bob Bennett, MD,CGP,FAPA ·   Melissa Black, PhD,CGP
Dale C. Godby, PhD,CGP,ABPP
  ·   Myrna Little, PhD,CGP
Scott Nelson, PhD, CGP

  6330 LBJ Fwy, Suite 150, Dallas, TX 75240

Published in the DSPP Bulletin, Vol 17, No 3, November, 2000. 



Dale C. Godby, Ph.D.

Margaret Mahler, who helped us understand how we develop an internal sense of security, tells us in her memoirs about her sense of security. “On arriving in England in 1938 and seeing the British Union Jack, she felt a sense of security she had long lost in Vienna. On arriving in the United States six months later and seeing the Stars and Stripes, she felt a greater sense of security. But one evening, years later, when she was driving a car in Manhattan and saw a lit synagogue, she felt the greatest sense of security of all. It is perhaps fitting that in 1985, the year of her death, Margaret Mahler attended Rosh Hashanah services at New York’s Temple Emanu-El. It was the first time…that she had set foot in a synagogue in almost half a century…” Stepansky tells us that Mahler’s lifelong affirmation of her Jewishness coexisted with her nonobservance, (Stepansky, 1988, pp. 158-159).

So how do you listen to this brief vignette from Mahler’s life? What does it say about her faith, her sense of security? And what of her life long practice of religious non-observance? If she were a patient telling you this, where would you start? Would you wonder how the light from the synagogue could bring security? How is it that this symbol of Judaism could bring security after losing her mother in the Holocaust? Or would you wonder with her why she kept her self from a more mindful observance of her faith. What blocked her from an intentional practice of Judaism, which may have led to a deeper, more intimate, and fulfilling sense of her Jewish identity? In short, do you analyze her belief or unbelief? If we answer both, where do we start and why?

Freud placed his focus on the analysis of immature belief. He failed to see belief as a developmental line from the immature to the mature and neglected to analyze his own unbelief or doubt. Why Did Freud Reject God? A Psychodynamic Interpretation, a new book by Rizzuto (1998), reviewed by Halpern (2000), places Freud on the couch to develop a psychoanalytic formulation of his atheism through an unfolding of his deep disillusion and compulsive self-reliance. This book points clearly to the fact that the psychoanalytic community has frequently failed to analyze unbelief. Our task is to understand both faith and doubt.

So when patients present us with narratives of their life of faith and doubt, we should be alert to what we choose to analyze. A therapist with a Buddhist meditation practice listens to his Jewish patient tell about having taken up a Vipassana meditation practice. As he listens to her tell of the joys and sorrows of meditation, should he analyze what has made it possible for her to incorporate some healthy discipline into her life? Or should he wonder what keeps her form mining the depths of her Judaism. Knowing she has recently fallen in love with an orthodox man at the same time she is taking up a Vipassana practice further complicates the psychodynamic understanding of her new religious practice. The complexity of an analysis of her belief and unbelief rapidly becomes apparent. Fortunately, we have more than Freud to make sense of these complexities. James Jones offers an excellent example of the depth that is being offered by psychoanalytic writers in his Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Religion: Transference and Transcendence, (1991).

Therapists frequently feel stymied by their lack of knowledge about a particular patient’s faith. This can be an advantage. A good place to begin when the patient presents belief as an organizing issue is to ask them to explain who in their faith tradition they particularly admire. Who are the heroes of their faith? Try to develop with them a developmental line of faith and practice that ranges from the immature to the mature. One listens to these hero stories with the sense of the ironic that is reflected in Scott Fitzgerald’s, “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.” There is a fine line between listening with an ironic sense and listening with a skeptical or cynical sense. The believing patient will often notice the difference between therapists who analyze faith with an eye toward maturing their faith versus eliminating it.

The type of belief or unbelief the patient presents can often be placed in a useful context by understanding the practices of their parents or grandparents. Frequently, one discovers a variety of practices and intensities of belief and unbelief. The patient who wants to know what you believe as a therapist can sometimes be helped by looking at the practice of his ancestors. As the patient explores the faith and doubt of his relatives it will usually become clear that his decision about what to believe or practice won’t be solved by getting the therapist’s confession of faith. When parents and grandparents are seen to have a range of faith and doubt the patient is confronted with the need to make an existential choice. As their therapist you can help them look at the psychological meaning of their choice, but you can be of little help in deciding the truth claims of one over the other. In spite of this limit, the therapist can often be useful in helping the patient find an authentic balance between his faith and doubt. The therapist need not practice the patient’s particular faith to do this. Moses led the Israelites to the Promised Land but didn’t enter in himself. If as therapists we are willing to struggle with the dynamics of our own belief and unbelief, we will be in a better position to help our patients with theirs.


Godby, D. C. (2000). Spirituality in psychodynamic group psychotherapy. (www.dgapractice.com/papers/SpiritBib.htm) provides further reading and references on the topic discussed here.)

Halpern, J. (2000). Review of Rizzuto’s Why did Freud reject God? A Psychodynamic interpretation. In Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48, 1009-1013.

Jones, J. (1991). Contemporary psychoanalysis and religion: Transference and transcendence. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Rizzuto, A.M. (1998). Why did Freud reject God? A Psychodynamic interpretation. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Stepansky, P.E., (Ed). (1988). The memoirs of Magaret S. Mahler. New York: The Free Press, pp 158-159.

© DSPP Bulletin, November 2000


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