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Zeligs, M.A. (1961). The Psychology of Silence—Its Role in Transference, Countertransference and the Psychoanalytic Process. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 9:7-43.

(1961). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 9:7-43

The Psychology of Silence—Its Role in Transference, Countertransference and the Psychoanalytic Process

Meyer A. Zeligs, M.D.


Silence is a complex psychic state not easily classified or systematized. Though antithetical to speech on a verbal level, silence communicates nonverbally an existing mood, attitude, aggressive or libidinous thought or feeling.

The closely interrelated meaning and interchanging uses of silence, verbalization, and body posture, as observed during the analytic hour, have been emphasized and clinically illustrated as modes of verbal and nonverbal communication.

From the structural viewpoint of psychic function, silence may be conceived as emanating from any of the systems or intersystemic processes of the psychic apparatus. Silence may derive from id, ego, superego, or be interposed in the systems id-ego, id-superego, ego-superego. In the light of present-day knowledge of transference and countertransference, the role which the patient's silence and the analyst's silence play in the psychoanalytic process has been more closely investigated. I have tried to show how the quality of feelings emanating from the analyst, during silence as well as when he speaks, provides the matrix in which the analytic process is initiated. This may impede or promote the analytic process. As the analysis progresses and the infantile part of the patient's ego undergoes maturation, the initially fragile interpersonal relationship gradually becomes more structured, fortified, and objectivized. This early (preverbal) phase of object relations is progressively strengthened by the empathic content of the analyst's silences and verbalizations and ultimately made meaningful by his interpretations. Throughout the course of treatment this interpersonal relationship persists as a delicate, operational framework, at times gratifying and at times frustrating. The affective content immanent in the analytic situation, the empathic quality of which stems from pregenital levels and primary object relations, is a genetic determinant of the nonverbal and verbal nature of transference and countertransference.

During the course of analysis, patients re-enact all or many of

the original uses and meanings of silence which have accumulated or been synthesized from different developmental levels. Unless the analyst is aware of the many characteristic meanings and uses of the patient's and of his own silences, he too will unconsciously re-employ his original silences. With a broadened conceptualization of the metapsychology of silence and an increased technical awareness of its continuous role in transference and countertransference, this complex, sometimes vexing, but always-to-be-reckoned-with human attitude can be brought into clearer focus as a part of the psychoanalytic process.

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