Boundaries & Frames: Non-Transference in Teaching

Robert Langs, M.D. | September 1989

Robert Langs, M.D.

Beyond the parent-child relationship, that between student and teacher is one of the most powerful shaping forces in the evolving emotional life of each person; so I was deeply moved by Eric Torgersen's article, "Loving (Hating) the Messenger: Transference in Teaching," which appeared in the November 1988 AWP Newsletter. Professor Torgersen navigated through relatively uncharted waters with remarkable sensitivity, but more needs to be said on the issues he raised. Much is at stake for students and teachers alike.

I write as a teacher of professional psychotherapists and lay students; I have written extensively on psychotherapy and the nature of patient-therapist communication. Much to my own surprise, and perhaps to yours as well, I have discovered that the teaching situation shares much in common with parenting, on the one hand, and with the psychotherapeutic situation on the other. Both in the classroom and in the psychotherapist's office, relationships are powered by comparable universal and individual forces and needs, whatever their ultimate differences. And each, as we will see, requires a broadly similar frame or context to protect the well being of those involved.

With this in mind, it becomes necessary to challenge the use of the concept transference to define the basic psychological dynamic between student and teacher, a dynamic that exists in every such relationship regardless of the gender of those involved and without regard for the existence of conscious awareness and interest in either student or teacher-a dynamic that is present unconsciously, like it-or know it-or not. As- you may know, Freud and his followers define transference as a constellation of inappropriate perceptions of-and reactions to-an authority figure: perceptions and reactions that are said to derive from childhood relationships with parental figures and are subsequently imposed upon a present-day relationship such as that with a teacher.

In place of transference, I will emphasize the role of what might be loosely called non-transference, or valid unconscious perceptions in the teaching relationship. By this I mean the existence-outside of awareness-of a sound, non-distorted, and appropriate view of the authority figure, a view selectively influenced by past is presented in disguised or encoded fashion. And even though-or largely because-the experience occurs outside of conscious awareness, it exerts an especially strong emotional influence. Though the constellation is unconscious, its effects are quite real. In plain language, you and I, as teachers, play a significant role in the consciously and especially unconsciously determined reactions of our students as an inevitable aspect of our role as authority or parental-substitute figures. And this proposition holds regardless of your particular beliefs on the matter; it is an unseen law of nature.

In order to explain my position and define some of its practical implications, I would like to introduce you to the realm of unconscious communication and to the means by which it is possible to decode transformed or encoded-essentially unconscious-messages in a way that can deeply inform you as teacher in your relationships with your students. Indeed, by using several actual vignettes available to me, I hope to convince you that this realm of unconscious experience, never known or articulated directly, is an extraordinarily powerful factor in every teaching situation.

To complete my argument, I will show how, in the domain of deep unconscious experience, issues of ground rules, frames, and boundaries are overridingly important. I will offer the results of several classroom "frame exercises" which I believe convincingly demonstrate the truth of this insight for the teaching situation. That is, the means by which you create and handle the conditions of your teaching situation and relationships is the single most important context and &or in how your students experience their work with you-and how it affects them emotionally as well.

In my own work as a teacher, I have found that the well-selected example is often prototypical. With this in mind, and with the permission of all concerned, I will begin with a candid story to which I am a party.

Some months ago, I taught a class based on my book, Decoding Your Dreams (N.Y., Holt, 1988) at a local college. As the semester neared its end, several students asked to continue working with me, and I agreed to hold a series of seminars at the hospital where I did research into unconscious communication. Thus, there was a shift in the basic teaching contract- alterations in the fee, to whom it was directly paid, locale, etc.

On the first day of the new class, a woman who had elected to come to the seminars walked with me to the bus stop and told me that her husband was a publicist who was interested in my work. She said that he had offered to help me make contact with the media and to develop funding for the research I am doing. I told her that I was definitely interested in her husband's offer. A few days later, he called me and we initiated discussions on how we might work together on the projects he had in mind.

Some weeks later, in one of our dream seminars, we were discussing how to decode dreams in light of emotionally powerful stimuli. I was making the point that ground rule or boundary issues play a special role in prompting dreams, particularly when one is in a psychotherapeutic relationship. Since we were not discussing clinical cases, I used as an example of a frame break my ongoing discussions with that woman's husband. Although it seemed to me at the time (I have since learned differently) that such issues were not as significant outside the therapeutic dyad as they are within its confines, I made clear that it seemed odd to me to be working with the spouse of a student. At that very moment, the woman suddenly recalled a dream of a rat devouring her father.

This dream contains an encoded perception of me in light of the frame issue just discussed. The image is not unrealistic or inappropriate; it is not a transference derived almost exclusively from her past, but an accurate symbolic portrayal of the truly devouring and greedy nature of my behavior in this situation-a portrayal that is secondarily influenced by her own life history.

Granted, this is frightening business. To understand a student's communication as an encoded but valid indictment of a teacher's behavior (the teacher is held responsible), rather than a distorted and unfounded or unprovoked view (the teacher is free of blame), is clearly discomforting. But if this be the truth of the situation, then let the truth be known.

A few weeks later, with the negotiations with her husband still active, but stalling (1 too, as is typically the case in these matters, was learning all too slowly and reluctantly that it would be best for everyone if I were to renounce my exploitative but well rationalized hopes), it was this same student's turn to present in the seminar. She reported a dream about a very attractive black man whom she kept touching and wanting to take to bed. She was willing to share him with another woman who also wanted him sexually.

In free(1y) associating to the dream (i.e., in allowing her mind to wander unencumbered with thoughts, feelings, and images evoked by the various elements of her dream), this woman candidly told us that she had recently picked up a corporate executive who had greatly flattered her by wanting to seduce her. She had nearly complied, but at the last moment, had changed her mind. In the course of associating to the dream, my contact with her husband appeared quite unexpectedly- again, much to the surprise of all concerned.

To anticipate the substance of my discussion, I would propose that as a teacher I had unwittingly behaved seductively toward this woman despite my conscious wish to be conscientious about classroom ground rules and boundaries. What I mean by this is that the very act of moving a student from a college classroom to one's own private setting is unconsciously experienced- quite correctly-as seductive. Beyond that, however, as if to add insult to injury, I became involved with the woman's husband in a promotional venture. This, too, is seductive, as are all departures from the ideal frame of a teaching relationship.

Indeed, by simply decoding this woman's two dreams and her few associations, it can be said in all fairness that, apart from the devouring, aggressive, and greedy qualities of my behaviors, I was, in a sense, offering myself to this student as a powerful sexual person to be admired and seduced in turn. Further, if we look at the story of her encounter with the executive and treat this, too, as an encoded perception of my behaviors-one that was lived out instead of dreamt- we can see that my frame infringements were unconsciously perceived as cavalier, sexist, exploitative, and adulterous. There is no direct awareness of any of this, but the unconscious meaning is quite powerful. The consequences of this unconscious load of meaning were nearly disastrous for my student-as witnessed by her uncharacteristic inclination to get involved with someone other than her husband.

Though many aspects of these experiences are beyond awareness and quite unconscious, the effects are very real and directly observable. What we generally do to protect ourselves from the awful truth is fail to recognize the connection between the stimulus-our frame deviant behavior as teacher-and the response-the student's errant action (or symptom).

Please notice that it was not necessary in this discussion for me to invoke the term transference or to suggest the presence of distortion; instead, I am acknowledging that this woman correctly-and selectively- perceived some powerful unconscious meanings in my behavior. Oddly enough, had she been my patient, I would have expected such reactions and not become involved in the first place. In my thirty years of practice, I had never been a party to an incident of this kind. It was through this experience that I myself realized with some pain, that the same principles-a need for boundaries and restraint-pertains to the student-teacher relationship as those that apply to the relationship between patient and therapist.

One other point needs to be acknowledged. Students are not always entirely unwitting victims to the teacher's "frame" breaks. In this instance, for example, my student promoted the contact between me and her husband. Her encoded images therefore also-though secondarily- pertain to herself, as well as to me. Nonetheless, I; as teacher, must bear the greater responsibility for this incident; nor should I-or any teacher-use a student's invitation to deviate as a way of denying my own powerful role in what transpired.

We experience the world in two ways-one is direct and conscious, and the other is indirect and unconscious, known to us only through disguised (encoded or transformed) messages. In the emotional domain, the conscious system (conscious thinking and sorting out) is relatively inept, while the deep unconscious system, as I call it (unconscious reasoning as revealed in displaced messages), shows great intelligence. It is there, beyond our immediate grasp, that we process all emotionally charged information and meaning that we cannot bear in awareness. And it is there that our most painful perceptions of ourselves and others are worked over based on unconscious or subliminal perceptions. Whenever we wish to report out the workings of this deep unconscious system, we must do so through displaced and disguised narratives and images-stories told about one group of people and in a particular setting that actually encode perceptions about an entirely different group of people and a very different setting (the two are connected by themes shared in common).

As we saw with my student, she did not dream of me directly in either of her two dreams, but of her father and of a black man. Both of these men were disguised portrayals of myself, as was her image of the rat (we are all subjected to multiple representations in our own dreams and those of others), and their attributes and actions were encoded expressions of the implications of what I had done.

The process I am speaking of begins with an emotionally charged stimulus or trigger that leads to a limited measure of conscious response, and to an extended measure of deep unconscious reaction. These latter responses are then encoded in our stories and dreams, which can be decoded by reversing the process-by undoing the displacement and disguise, guided by the nature and implications of the triggers that set the process off in the first place. To decode, you simply lift the themes from the direct or surface (manifest) story and relocate them in the missing (latent) context. For us, the surface story may be about almost anything, but the latent story will encode unconscious perceptions of our ways of structuring our relationship with the student who tells the tale.

To return again to the anecdote I alluded to a moment ago, one specific trigger for my student's dreams was my conversations with her husband. They were unconsciously perceived as adulterous, inappropriate, and seductive-among other attributes. These perceptions were then encoded in both the dream of the black man and in the patient's tryst with the corporate executive (I cannot stress enough the real consequences of unconscious perceptions). Faced with my student's dream and behavior, we can reverse the creative process and decode these images by recognizing their trigger in my contact with her husband and thereby undoing her use of displacement. In substance, we realize that the situation with the executive, for example, was used to convey perceptions about the situation with myself. It is this type of trigger decoding which reveals remarkable new insights into unconscious experience and the very structure of our emotional lives-and the unconsciously prescribed requisites of a student-teacher relationship.

It turns out that when we consistently apply this decoding process in light of the prevailing triggers, both the psychoanalyst and the teacher do a great deal to evoke unconscious reactions in his or her patients/students. Actually, the more we know of the implications of our behaviors and communications, the more we realize that the deep unconscious system is exquisitely in tune with many such implications-including those that are actually beyond our own awareness. The behavior of our students, then, is powerfully but unconsciously motivated by these perceptions as they are selectively dealt with in terms of the students' early life, current situation, emotional difficulties, and the like. If Freud had used the term unconscious selection rather than unconscious distortion, he would have been much closer to the mark. Still, Freud was quite correct in one sense: there is a powerful interpersonal and unconscious dynamic between student and teacher (again, regardless of their sex), and this dynamic is influenced by the early life experiences of the student (and of the teacher, as well). I am simply stressing here the extent to which the teacher is accountable for the consequent behavior of the student because we typically and defensively fail to recognize many ramifications of our own inputs.

The conscious system tends to be quite cavalier and inconsistent when it comes to ground rules and boundaries, while the deep unconscious system is both exquisitely sensitive and consistent in its attitude: boundaries should be kept, frames maintained, and ground rules adhered to-no exceptions. We fight these constraints consciously because we abhor renunciation and are, as well, intensely though inappropriately gratified by deviant actions (at bottom, they help us to deny the ultimate ground rule and frame: that life is followed by and framed by death).

As I said, I have of late been carrying out frame exercises which might make for interesting creative writing classes as well. The class attempts to define the ideal frame for a particular relationship (e.g., child-parent, employer-employee, spouse-mate, student-teacher, etc.). They then present dreams or stories that come freely to mind now that the frame has been tentatively delineated (or the students are asked to bring dreams and such to the next class). We can rely on the deep unconscious system to work over the frame issue and have its say through a displaced narrative; and we can expect a remarkable level of agreement among these encoded images since we all share a fundamentally similar set of framework needs and viewpoints. Still, we let the evoked imagery speak for itself, always prepared to discover something new and unforeseen. The results in respect to the framework of the teaching situation may surprise you. In the main the ideal and unconsciously sought for teaching frame includes:

  1. A fixed time and setting, with a single teacher and consistent, unchanging group of students. This would include set office hours if need be.
  2. Total privacy for the class, without observers or other intruders.
  3. A measure of confidentiality, in that a student's problems are discussed privately and not in front of the class.
  4. A clear set of ground rules that define requirements for attendance, grades, tests and reports, class participation, advancement, and the like.
  5. A defined fee paid either to the school or, in the case of private teaching, to the instructor.
  6. 6. A clear definition of the domain of the class, its range of topics, and its rules of business, so to speak. While appropriate topics may be far reaching, extraneous topics are excluded.
  7. A clear definition of the role requirements of teacher and student, without role reversal (e.g., the teacher does not explicitly ask to learn from the class, but allows such benefits to occur inevitably as part of the teaching experience).
  8. The student-teacher relationship and interaction is confined to the work of the class; there are no outside contacts and no other type of exchanges (e.g., of a business or sexual nature).
  9. Similarly, student-student contact is restricted to the work of the class.
  10. The teacher maintains relative anonymity and is not personally revealing, nor does the teacher respond to a student personally or with bias, but solely in terms of the work at hand.
  11. The teacher is suitably compensated and seeks no other remuneration or personal gain from the class.
  12. There is no physical contact between all concerned.

These are the main ground rules; some are explicitly stated, others are implied. And even though no one among us is capable or inclined to adhere to these tenets in toto, and even though there are mighty protests against their enforcement by many consciously motivated voices, it is only when a teacher adheres to them as closely as humanly possible (too rigid a position is usually a sign of difficulties in the teacher, even though frame breaks also signal problems as well) that a teacher is unconsciously experienced as having integrity, warmth, genuine concern, strength, wisdom, and the like. And of course, all too often this picture is dramatically different from conscious experience where the quest for deviations is seemingly endless despite the underlying havoc they create.

A woman teacher spoke at length to her class of another school at which she taught. During a frame exercise a woman student recalled a dream of a woman exposing her naked body at her apartment window (this, of course, is an encoded perception of the teacher's self-revelation- and an accurate one at that). A male teacher had his class to his home at holiday time. The encoded response came from a young woman who dreamt of a bald man, much like the instructor, who tried to push her into his bedroom in order to forcibly seduce her. (The repeated encoded allusions to sex and aggression are by no means a reflection of my Freudian bias, but are instead an indication of the extent to which frame deviations are instinctually charged communications.)

Though all of this may run counter to your accustomed thinking, encoded images of this kind are repeated in the face of frame deviations to the point of utmost predictability. The deep unconscious system of our students asks for a strong, inherently supportive, "holding" relationship which forms an ideal and neutral matrix for exploration, creativity, and growth. Frame breaks tend to be exploitative of the student, or confusing and unconsciously disruptive-whatever conscious satisfactions they may afford. Once you have tuned in on the world of unconscious experience, your view of the emotional universe will change in remarkable ways. Besides, there's no cheating nature; if you depart from the ideal frame both you and the student will pay a price, even though you are likely not to notice the cost.

On the other hand, if you maintain the ideal frame, especially in face of pressures to deviate, you will be rewarded with positive encoded images and salutary unconsciously founded response from the student or class. Thus, a teacher who used some indirect clues from his male student to turn down the student's request that he be excused from his final exam because of a recent illness was rewarded with a sensitive short story about the young man's grandfather who could be firm when needed, and loving and supportive when others backed away at times of crisis. The so-called introject-the internalization of this experience-derived from the teacher's ability to hold to the ideal frame, will significantly and unconsciously support this student's creativity and character make-up. Indeed, secure frames are essential to creative teaching spaces within which a student can safely exercise and develop his or her imagination and writing skills. Deviant frames compromise these functions to some degree; though paradoxically, a great deal of creative writing deals unconsciously with deviant frame issues-in family, school, or wherever; this helps to account for much of the creative outpouring from students who have experienced major frame alterations in their relationships with their teachers.

If I may, I will conclude my remarks with two final vignettes which I hope will help to resolve your remaining resistances to these ideas. The first involves one of my friends, a woman creative writing teacher, who invited a male student from a class she taught to attend a private seminar she was conducting in her home. Her student was consciously pleased by the invitation, but then began coming late to his regular class. The story he wrote after this incident involved a woman who was a thief and suspiciously seductive, and who entrapped in her home innocent wayward young men new to the city. Encoded in this story was the student's unconscious perception of the teacher's well-meaning hut seductive break in the teaching frame. Another woman teacher called a young woman student into her office to let her know that her repeated absences would be met by a failing grade. The student explained that she was experiencing a great dread of having her work read in class, and the teacher assured her that she would not be required to do such readings if she was so terrified-there was no requisite to present in class in order to pass the course. The student was also advised to generate fiction that had a greater distance from her personal life- i.e., to use more imagination and play (remember, a well-defined classroom situation is an ideal creative and play space)-so that she would be less personally involved in her own work and able to share it with her peers. While the student's short story before this meeting had to do with a violent and psychotic mother, the story she wrote afterwards had to do with a troubled, but loving grandmother who was revered even as she was dying (this particular story was the last of the semester). Here, then, we have an instance of securing the classroom frame (the warning about lateness), and a consequent positively toned (encoded) story.

I suspect that it will be many years before we carry out indisputable research to show the powerful and sometimes devastating consequences of framework and boundary breaks between students and teachers- everything from flirtations to sexual contact to visits to the teacher's home, and whatever. Many well-meaning but unconsciously destructive practices prevail in today's educational climate mainly because first, we are deeply ignorant of unconscious experience, and second, because we all share deep and abiding needs for frame breaks. Death, as I said, is the ultimate boundary for life itself, and denial of the restrictions imposed on us by rules and frames is very much a way of denying personal mortality. To some extent, psychological health requires this denial; all too often, however, the denial is overdone and leads to self- aggrandizement and abuse of others. As an added perk, most frame deviations are "wickedly" gratifying for all involved. It requires considerable character and emotional health to see and believe in the ultimate wisdom and helpful powers of the secure frame.

As a psychoanalyst and teacher who has decoded thousands of images and investigated thousands of triggers, the great majority of them frame-deviant, I can share with you a strong sense that the consequences of frame alterations are far more hurtful to all concerned than anyone imagines. The only saving grace is the discovery that human beings often react paradoxically to hurtful interventions from their therapists (and teachers), and somehow discover a means of feeling better (or being more creative) in the face of the most disruptive therapist (teacher) behaviors imaginable- though probably always with an unnoticed and hurtful price tag attached. Rarely, it must be acknowledged, the positive aspects of a truly innovative and imaginative frame break may give more to a student (and teacher) than it takes away or harms. Still, we as yet have no established means of identifying these exceptions that prove the rule; until we do, it seems best to adopt a cautious attitude informed by the likelihood that all of our needs to deviate have a notable dose of our own emotional difficulties embedded in their expression.

The realm of unconscious communication is weighty. Beyond psychotherapists, those who teach creative writing have a most optimal opportunity to appreciate unconscious expressions. Indeed, on one level, every story written by a student encodes not a few telling unconscious perceptions of the work of his or her entirely new world of insight and can only enhance the teaching process and the personal development of student and teacher alike. But the disturbing side of these perceptions-the ways in which they embody virtually all perceivable aspects of our human failings; the ways in which they capture our own most awful communications to others-have led most of us, whether therapists or teachers, to simply avoid the decoding process. Yet those who are fortunate enough to have the strength to carry out such decoding-and the choice is not ours consciously, but fundamentally based on unconscious need and capacity-can gain access to a wisdom far more consistent and telling than anything we have managed through conscious experience alone. I very much hope that this article will stimulate more teachers to learn more about this critical domain. There is both knowledge and beauty there, for if conscious expression is the prose of human communication, unconscious expression is its poetry.


Robert Langs, M.D. is the Visiting Clinical Investigator for the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Studies. He is the author of over twenty books on psychotherapy, including the forthcoming Rating Your Psychotherapist (Holt).

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