Madness of the mind: Growing the self in the mind of the other, and in the psychotherapeutic relationship

Friday 16 March 11.00-12.30

Madness of the mind: Growing the self in the mind of the other, and in the psychotherapeutic relationship

by John O’Connor


“O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!” (Robbie Burns, 1890, p. 199)

“… the act of having oneself given back by the other is not a returning of oneself to an original state; rather, it is a creation of oneself as a (transformed, more fully human, self-reflective) subject for the first time.” (Ogden, T. 2004, p. 189)

The art of psychotherapy has been defined as the capacity of the psychotherapist’s mind to receive the psyche of the patient, particularly its unconscious contents.  This deceptively simple definition implies the enormously complex art of receiving the most disturbed, dissociated, maddening, often young and primitive, frightening, and fragmented aspects of the patient’s multiple ages and selves, in the hope perhaps that we might make available to our own mind, to the patient’s mind, and within the therapeutic relationship, whatever it is that we discover together, perhaps with the possibility that this may allow that these dissociated, fragmented, lost, and potentially transformative aspects of self might become more accessible to both therapist and patient. The complexity of this process is further intensified when cultural difference is a central aspect of the therapeutic engagement.

This paper will explore this rich and complex art. It will include exploration of psychoanalytic, relational, indigenous and transpersonal psychotherapeutic perspectives as they inform the potentials and mysteries of this deeply receptive process. The paper will consider the potential this receiving of the other might have for the growth of both the therapist and patient within the life span of clinical engagement.

Psychotherapy literature is rich with writings about this often deeply disturbing, and potentially transformative process. Bion (1962) offers us the containing mind, providing the possibility of a receptive home for thoughts without a thinker. Ogden (2004) develops the potential that containing offers. Winnicott (1965) and later Slochower (2014) offer us the rich metaphor of holding that might enable the birth and rebirth of lost aspects of self. More recently, Donna Orange (2011), drawing on the philosophy of Gadamer (1976), invites us to make a hospitable place in our minds for the suffering of the other, whilst the relational psychoanalyst Donnel Stern (2010) articulates the inherently receptive inter-subjectivity of psychotherapeutic experience as he suggests that enactments between therapist and patient are dissociation interpersonalised. Jung and the post-Jungians (Hillman, 1978; Clark, 2006), in developing Jung’s alchemical metaphor involving the mixing of both the therapist’s and patient’s unconscious and the recycling of madness this involves, gesture towards the transformative and transpersonal potentials such a deep engagement might offer. Similarly from an indigenous perspective the Māori concepts of mauri and wairua gesture towards the inherently spiritual engagement involved in the receptiveness with which the therapist is invited to receive the patient, and the patient to receive the therapist.

Clinical vignettes illustrating and informing the ideas explored in this paper will be woven throughout the paper.


John O’Connor has worked as a counsellor and psychotherapist for over 29 years, and has a wide range of clinical experience, particularly in working with clients with severe trauma histories, in providing group psychotherapy, and in working cross-culturally. He is a former Director of Youthline Counselling Service (Auckland) and the Human Development and Training Institute. He also formerly worked at Segar House (part of ADHB Mental Health Services), and was a founding member of the therapeutic team at Segar which developed a residential treatment service (currently operating as a day programme) for clients with personality disorder diagnoses. He has worked as a lecturer at the Auckland University of Technology within the Discipline of Psychotherapy since 1999, and was formerly Programme Leader of the Master of Psychotherapy (adult programme) at AUT. John also conducts a private practice in Mangere Bridge. John is currently a candidate in training as a Jungian Analyst with the Australia New Zealand Society of Jungian Analysts, and is undertaking his PhD exploring the discourses underpinning bicultural clinical encounters in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Correspondence concerning this paper can be addressed to John O’Connor by email: or, or phone: 021 899 261.