Achieving Good Governance for Psychoanalytic Societies

By Michael Maccoby

THE AMERICAN PSYCHOANALYST; Vol. 38, No. 1 Winter/Spring 2004 pp. 9, 13

What is the best way to govern a psychoanalytic society? To answer that question, we should first be clear about the society’s purpose, which is, above all, to further the professional development of its members and students. Members usually agree on other purposes, for example, to advance and promote the profession through research and perhaps outreach programs. To engage members in working to achieve these purposes, a society must be in tune with their needs and aspirations.

Psychoanalysis is lonely and emotionally stressful work. The stress has increased with attacks on the profession and, for many, a shortage of patients. Nor do analysts receive much gratitude from patients, especially when the analysis is done well and the transference has been dissolved. To gain the full allegiance of members, a society has to provide a supportive environment. It should offer opportunities to share learning from clinical experience in a spirit of collegiality. Members should feel respected and appreciated for their service to the society and its teaching institute.

Regrettably, this is not the situation in some societies that suffer from factional conflict and disrespectful disputes, which corrode morale. Many members withdraw, emotionally if not bodily. Distrust and backbiting drive away potential candidates. What causes this malaise? When I’ve asked this question to members of disputatious psychoanalytic societies, I am told stories about the fights that formed the feuding factions. These histories suggest some common dynamics.


Starting with Freud, psychoanalytic societies have often been founded and originally led by a charismatic figure. A group transference to this leader, who may have analyzed the original members, serves to contain normal competition, envy, and jealousy among the followers who want the leader to think well of them. They hope for preferment and fear the leader’s displeasure, which can result in being marginalized, even expelled from the society. (Think of Victor Trausk, Sandor Ferenczi).These leaders are benevolent mentors to the favored, but all too often they model a style of putdowns, humiliating disparagement of those whom they believe challenge their authority, or do not measure up intellectually.

In some societies, rather than a single charismatic leader, there is an oligarchy which shares power and sets the rules. These hierarchical societies can provide a great deal of satisfaction to favored members, but, as Otto Kernberg points out, they can be hurtful and harmful to candidates or members who feel shut out and devalued by the oligarchs and the in-group. When the charismatic leader or oligarchy departs, the culture of the society may start to deteriorate. In the struggle for power, members disparage their rivals. Sharp exchanges provoke what the sociologist Thomas J. Scheff describes as a vicious cycle of shaming and humiliation, anger that may be repressed leading to revenge.

This cycle rips the social fabric of any society. The factions that emerge in psychoanalytic societies tend to form around particular training analysts who compete for control of the society, including seats on committees and teaching positions in the institute. Rivals openly disparage each other’s theories, work, competence, and personalities, which not only pains those involved, but also threatens their livelihood. Who wants an incompetent or uncaring analyst or supervisor? At the extreme, which happens all too frequently, rivals are labeled paranoids, sociopaths, even psychotics. I have found these accusations to be, for the most part, unfounded or extreme exaggerations based on behavior provoked by the vicious cycle.


What can be done to stop the cycle and move the society in a positive direction? When I ask this question, I get different answers. Some members believe that only a charismatic leader can bring people together, but where do you find such leaders? And do members really want the negatives such a leader would bring? Other members take a contrary view, believing that more democracy and less hierarchy are the answer. But democracy does not cure factionalism and unless people share the same values and sense of purpose, democracy can result in the oppression of a minority by the majority.

To build a healthy society, it is essential that members become aware of and put a stop to corrosive behavior.They must catch themselves and each other in disrespectful outbursts and practice rational discourse.This does not mean avoiding disagreements about theory, technique, or candidates, but rather learning how to dialogue about differences. I recommend Daniel Yankelovich’s useful book, The Magic of Dialogue, (Simon & Schuster, 1999). He describes principles for good dialogue: equality among participants, listening to each other with empathy, clarifying assumptions. He writes: “Equality in dialogue means that status differences and coercive influences are suspended so that participants can weigh one another’s points of view on their intrinsic merits rather than on authority, power or prestige of the speaker.”

Good governance also requires people in positions of authority with leadership skills, to facilitate meetings and ensure that different viewpoints are heard. But good leadership alone is not enough. All members should take responsibility for maintaining the values of civility and mutual respect. Once a society stops the bleeding, it can begin the process of rehabilitation.

I suggest selecting a project team or task force representing all existing factions to design an ideal future for the society. This should be a systemic or holistic vision that clarifies purpose: How the society will be seen by others; the supporting structure and processes of governance; the roles, rules, and the “social contract” among members that define the obligations of members as well as the benefits they can expect to receive.

This vision should be discussed and developed in focus groups led by project team members. Then an elected board can work out the steps of implementation.The ideal psychoanalytic society is not a kingdom or oligarchy, and certainly not a soulless bureaucracy. Rather it should be a complex, self-organizing adaptive social system, what organizational theory is calling a “learning organization.” To achieve this ideal requires, above all, that members internalize the values and vision that support their common purpose, to create a society that meets their needs and aspirations.

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