Basic Assumptions and the training analysis

The position of Training Analyst and the task of drawing up procedures for assessing, appointing and recertifying TA functioning, are matters to be faced one way or another in all Societies, and seems to engender passionate debate. One issue at the heart of the matter is the lack of clarity about what is being assessed. The interaction between analyst and analysand is intrinsically private, but more so in the case of analyst and candidate, where extra efforts are made to protect the analysis in non-reporting societies. This among other factors seems to create an aura of mystery and secrecy about the activity, and it is striking how little open discussion there is in the literature about just what needs to be assessed. What do we think is required of a TA as distinct from any other experienced analyst?

 In considering this issue, it   occurred to me that the atmosphere of anxiety, passion and mystery are indications that the Work Group aspect of the task is being invaded by a form of Basic Assumption functioning, in this case I would suggest BaP. I will explore this idea as I think it throws light on the fact that all members of an analytic society are affected by the activity of training in their midst.

Basic Assumption Pairing and the TA

In Bion’s formulation of BaP as it affects a group’s thinking and functioning,there is an unconscious phantasy of a couple engaged in the activity of breeding, the outcome of which is the birth of a Messiah. There are many significant details of this phantasy which I think are relevant to our attitudes to TA status and functioning.

Those concerned with the reproduction of the group are a form of Aristocracy. They are not simply a specialised work group, but in phantasy are an idealised subgroup whose qualities and entitlement to the task are inborn. Like an aristocracy, membership of the subgroup is natural, god-given,or genetic. It is not something to be assessed but rather to be sanctioned or recognised. As a result, any process of assessment risks catastrophic disillusionment and despair, since it would prove the lack of such intrinsic qualities and eternal exclusion from the group of the aristocracy.

The Messiah is the one who will lead us from our current  doubts, inadequacies  and pains of individual limitations, and into a Utopia of completeness and new selfhood. Shared anxieties about the limitations of psychoanalysis, and recurrent fears  for its future, also feed the unconscious longing for certainty.    This leads to  the embodiement,  in candidates and analysts, of deep-seated ideals about psychoanalysis and contributes to the intensity of all discussions to do with training and assessment.

The Messiah must remain unborn, and always be a promise. Any contact with reality brings disillusionment. This can come about in the analysis if these phantasies are interpreted , in supervision which reveals the candidate’s ordinary limited knowledge and experience , at the time of progress reports, and at the time of graduation. A particularly painful and difficult  work group task   is that of suspending a candidate from training. At the level of basic assumptions, this can be regarded as a psychic death, the expulsion from the promised land and the ideal family, and the end of the candidate’s career, It  can also be seen  evidence of  the analyst’s failure, since a properly endowed training analyst would have brought about the promised transformation.  This  is felt  as a blighted ovum and blighted womb.

The pressure to keep the Messiah unborn is manifest in the ever-present risk of a false analytic self being the outcome of the analysis. This is the birth of an imitation of an analyst, an identification with the idealised breeding couple and  its progeny which must never be exposed by interpretation. 

A particular   atmosphere can develop  in an analysis when the basic assumption is at work, which corresponds to Bion’s description of the atmosphere of lightness and hope in a group in the grip of BaP. This   assumption  underlies a seductive or erotic  transference-countertransference interaction, and can be quite subtle. In the following section I discuss several papers which describe variations of this basic assumption phantasy. In essence,  the child/analysand becomes a partner in the parental pair, thus eradicating the difference between the generations. Sibling rivalry can to be particularly intense in training candidates, for the same reason. The chosen sibling is the partner in the idealised pair, no longer just one of the children/candidates with infantile anxieties and painful individuation to grapple with.

This is merely an outline of the BaP and it’s effects.  These phantasies can develop in any analysis of course, but I suggest that they are greatly amplified in training analyses. The fact of being a candidate constitutes an enactment of the phantasy, and is thereby more resistant to exploration. Furthermore, all members of the analytic group are affected by the basic assumption, whatever their role in the training structure, by virtue of their identification with the idealised figure. This  offers  opportunities for acting-out with other candidates, with  supervisors and other members of the group.

Variations on a Theme

In what follows  I mention a few papers which have caught my eye, in that  they all try to capture the underlying phantasies involved, and thus represent differing formulations of the BaP as outlined above.

Charles Rycroft (Rycroft 1985)  addressed this issue from the point of view of  “Ablation of the Parental Images, or The Illusion of having created oneself”. He notes that at the time of first presenting  the paper in 1965 it was rejected for publication,  on the grounds that it was “considered impolitic to publish an essay which discussed some of the psychopathological reasons which may lead people to become psychoanalysts”. I find his paper helpful in that it shows that the illusion of having created oneself  is accompanied by the illusion of having chosen or created  new  parental objects. As Rycroft points out “if the natural parents are disowned, the patient acquires the illusion of choice about precisely those aspects of himself that are given and unalterable: his parentage, his identity, his physical and mental constitutional endowment.”  He goes on to outline some of the consequences for analytic societies if these phantasies are not adequately analysed. This   includes the risk of idealising training analysis , as outlined above. It can lead to  the creation of “apostolic succession” and the tendency to believe that an analyst’s competence derives solely from his personal analysis and his analytic forebears.  He also relates this basic assumption to the risk of creating an atmosphere of elitism in analytic groups and of isolation from other groups and other potentially valuable fields of knowledge.

Emanuel Berman  examines  the phantasy of the purified new person in his paper “The Utopian fantasy of a New Person and the danger of the creation of a false analytic self” (Berman 2000)., This is a wide ranging paper, discussing many aspects of analytic training. In particular, he shows how all players in the drama of training have their role to play, whether directly involved or as onlookers. He  examines the idealising that can distort our concepts of analysability, correct technique, being fully analysed, the psychoanalysis-psychotherapy differentiation, and the screening and evaluation of candidates. He also discusses the idealisation of the TA as a superior analyst. It would appear that this paper has grown out of Berman’s experience  of a series of Controversial Discussions in the Israel Psychoanalytic Society, where procedural issues to do with appointing Training Analysts among other things roused great passion and disagreement.

In a series of papers dealing with hysteria , Ron Britton  approaches the basic assumption from the point of view of the erotic transference and countertransference  ( Britton 2003). He indicates that much of his thinking along these lines comes out of his experience with candidates in training. He draws upon the stories of Anna O, of Jung and Sabina Spielrein, and of Freud and Anna Freud among others, much as we use parables from the Bible. They  have become a stock  of stories common to us all and can be used to  embody lasting truths. In the last paper cited he uses the myths of Athene and Antigone in a similar fashion and I think in this way captures the basic assumption  or Row C aspect  of the issue,  the illuminating power of myth and dream image.

The essential feature of the erotic transference and countertransference is the illusion that the analysand is a participant in the primal scene. Quoting Freud, Britton outlines the illusion as rescue phantasies. For a man rescuing a woman, this means rescuing his mother  and this “ takes on the significance of giving her a child. other words he is completely identifying himself with his father”.  In the case of a woman “rescuing someone else(a child) from the water  acknowledges herself in this way as the mother who bore him”. In both cases the rescuer , in phantasy, becomes his or her own parent. (Freud 1910)

In one example, Britton describes the patient’s experience of the interpretations as exciting and the experience of the therapist  as being creative, admired and a rescuer of women. She a new territory to be penetrated and explored,  he the hero, and they together creating an analytic messiah. 

In the case of Jung and Spielrein, there was a shared phantasy of the analysis producing a child called by both of them “Siegfried”. Britton discusses this in detail, but I will quote the following: “ Jung saw this mental child as some sort of internal, Christ-like ideal to be inwardly worshiped. Many years later, in 1919, when they were no longer on intimate terms, she wrote to Jung about ‘killing Siegfried’ for the sake of her real daughter. He reacted angrily :’it is to me a rationalistic and materialistic raising to the ground…this being produces a harmful effect only when it is not accepted as a divine being but just as a phantasy’ “  In this Jung would appear to express angry resistance to the interpretation of the phantasy and the disillusionment that follows.

In his discussion of the female castration complex (Britton 2003 Ch4) , Britton describes other variations of the basic assumption which can develop with a female analysand. “In this belief system it is the father who is presumed to be of importance, and his daughter derives her significance by being the reincarnation of his power, like Athene, or the guarantor of his posterity, like Antigone.”   He explains “Athene, the motherless, triumphant progeny of ‘a great father’, and Antigone, the motherless supporter of ‘a father in decline’,  Antigone.were personifications of a psychic attitude adopted by some women”, and suggests for example that Anna Freud was Freud’s Antigone.  It is particularly relevant to note that Britton clarifies that in both patterns, the mother is missing, and that “even with the father it is not really the  relationship of parent and child that idealised but that of  husband and surrogate wife, not the lost infantile relationship that is hungered for but the relationship of the primal parental couple that can never be had”. We can see how readily analytic training lends itself to  such phantasy  developments.

Work Group Procedures

There are many specialised work groups in a Society conducting training. They are concerned with initial assessment and admission, curriculum formulation, assessment of progress, supervision, conducting seminars, as well as the analysis itself. In the light of the preceding discussion, I suggest that basic assumption phantasies influence all these activities. No procedures of selecting training and supervising analysts will prevent this, no matter how exacting or laissez-faire. To borrow from Briton’s comment, the groups need insight, not efforts at procedural abstinence. 

Being able to carry out the functions of analysis with a candidate is something that ultimately is learned on the job , with the help of experienced colleagues.

Neverthelesss, given that working within the  gravitational field of the basic assumption is what is required of  such an analyst , we can enquire whether readiness for the task  can be assessed beforehand, and whether the necessary development can be facilitated. David Tuckett (2005) has proposed a set of criteria for assessing candidate development which aims to make this procedure a more explicit work group function, less vulnerable to the influence of personal and group phantasies and agendas. He suggests that it may also be useful in thinking about  the further development of analysts (2006 Personal Communication).

The primary achievement  to be expected of a graduating candidate is to create and maintain the setting, based on sustaining the participant-observation position. Tuckett lists several aspects of this capacity, including the capacity for self-reflection,  for maintaining a focus on the latent or internal levels of communication, and for being able to observe the effect of the analyst on the patient’s process. The conceptual and interpretive capacities are still quite formative, tending to be learned theory awaiting personal realisation. 

Further development involves a deepening capacity for conceptualising and interpreting  what is being experienced . For example,  we might think of this as involving the following competencies, as described in more detail by Tuckett:

  1. The increasing understanding of unconscious themes that link the process across a number of sessions, rather than functioning session by session.
  2.  The developing ability to picture the manifestation of these themes in the transference/countertransference, and to see the analyst’s place in the transference. A particular aspect of this capacity is to be able to observe the effects of the interpretations on the process and to be able to use this in the sessions.

  3. The development of the analyst’s ideas about how psychoanalysis works, or his transformational theory. In particular, this involves being able to conceptualise how psychoanalysis works with this patient  in the sessions presented.
  4. The development of these capacities becomes a personal achievment,  and has the quality of inner conviction. This deve,lops from the experience of losing understanding again and again, and of struggling to recover it  in a form that is felt to be one’s own. In the analysis of a candidate, this is particularly tested,  given the pressures of the basic assumption that can operate in the candidate, in the analyst’s countertransference and in various colleagues.


In the light of this brief discussion of the work group aspects of training as opposed to operation of BaP, we can see that the analysis of candidates is not different in kind from other analyses, but that it does have specific challenges that require adequate development of the analyst. The fact of being a candidate is a form of enactment of the phantasies discussed for the candidate, and awakening corresponding phantasies in the analyst and the analyst’s colleagues. This is therefore likely to be more of a challenge to analyse as compared to similar phantasies in other analysands.


John McClean

October 2006





BERMAN E. (200). “The Utopian Fantasy of a New Person and the Danger of a False Analytic Self” Psychoanalytic Psychology  17:38-60

BRITTON R  (2003) “Sex, Death and the Superego” Karnac Books  Chs 1-4

FREUD S. (1910) “A Special Type of Object Choice made by Men” S.E. 11 

RYCROFT C. (1985) “On Ablation of the Parental Images or The Illusion of Having Created Oneself” in “Psychoanalysis and Beyond”  pp214-232     Hogarth Press

TUCKETT D (2005) “Does Anything Go” IJP 86:31-50