Focal Messages and Meta-Messages: a Road to the Dynamic Unconscious

Focal Messages and Meta-Messages: a Road to the Dynamic Unconscious

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  1. Focal messages and meta-messages are both conveyed by the therapist to the client, at the same time. Focal messages refer to the things which the therapist is intentionally trying to convey. Focal messages are the messages that are in the words on the surface of the content. Meta-messages are what is conveyed (mostly) unintentionally. Meta-messages are below the surface content and involve context, body language, timing, and tone.

        Paul L. Wachtel wrote a great book called Therapeutic Communication. In it, he quotes Warren Poland, a therapist who uses puns with his clients as an indirect way of asking questions, thus protecting their self esteem and allowing them to interpret the questions with whatever meta-messages they are ready to receive. My favorite two examples of this are “You wouldn’t even dream of such a thing” in response to a client denying he would ever commit his dream-self’s wild actions, and “You’re afraid of a penetrating remark” in response to a client revealing discomfort with sexual comments made from her coworker. Not only do these puns convey a reassuring focal message and a prompting meta-message, but, if the client is ready and receives the prompting meta-message, these puns also contain humor, which will soften the prompt and invite the client to open up and share.

    Wachtel believes that it is nearly impossible for a therapist to keep her true feelings about a client hidden over time if she does not pay attention to and control her meta-messages. Therapists are trained to pay attention to the meta-messages in their clients’ communication in order to derive glimpses of the content of their clients’ dynamic unconscious. If therapists pay attention to their own meta-messages, they will gain insight into their own dynamic unconscious, which will alert them to countertransference issues, among other useful information.

     Wachtel’s idea of focal and meta-messages are mirrored by conscious and unconscious thought. The focal messages are what one is consciously trying to convey, and these are readily accessible. Meta-messages, however, are what one is unconsciously trying to convey, and may require more attention and thought to access them. Once access is gained, however, insight into the dynamic unconscious will be revealed.

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