The cocoon transference: An intrapsychic trap of ambivalence

Arnold Modell (1976) describes a unique kind of transference – the cocoon. The cocoon is a multifaceted intrapsychic space created in response to early narcissistic injuries. It is created when the natural tendency to affiliate and attach is experienced as painful and, in effect, encases the inner self in a protective barrier. The cocoon transference as an unconscious defense is triggered by anxiety-provoking or threatening interpersonal settings (see Rudden, 2011) and maintained in anticipation of further injury. The cocoon transference is therefore the recreation, or transference, of old patterns of non-attachment that were set in motion early in life as a means of protecting the self.

The workplace, which is full of dyadic and group interactions, presents people with many psychological and emotional “dangers” that can trigger a defensive cocoon transference. Such dangers are brought into full view during times of stress and change. As such, change agents (i.e. internal and external consultants and senior leaders) should anticipate the possibility that a defensive cocoon transference will emerge at either the individual or group levels (or maybe both) as a barrier to change – a defensive disruption in the engagement, problem-solving, and creativity needed to effectively implement and sustain change.

The cocoon transference as an unconscious defense often arises in response to the anxieties, and subsequent intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics, sparked by stress. These anxieties enliven dormant fears (e.g. rejection, intrusion) and the trauma of loss that trigger a retreat into the cocoon. For example, change often brings fears of being fired, or close examination and criticism of one’s work, roles, and responsibilities. And, there is sometimes a real threat of losing connectedness to co-workers if budgets must be cut. There is a reawakening of the possibility that trying to connect with others is a hopeless endeavor and the effort to develop a shared understanding of interpersonal and organizational realities may be abandoned. The retreat from relating is also a retreat from making connections between ideas in the processes of brainstorming, scenario planning, and strategy formation. In a sense it is the appeal to freedom (Horney, 1950), which shields individuals and groups from acknowledging and feeling their old narcissistic injuries, developmental failures, and ambivalences. As Allcorn (2008) puts it, “it amounts to shrinking down on one’s self and withdrawing from others” (p. 176).

Indeed, some cocoons are a generative “place from which to construct alternative visions of reality” (Rudden, 2011, p. 359), leading to innovation, entrepreneurship, and “out-of-the-box” solutions to problems. On the contrary, within a defensive cocoon the space for dreaming becomes a space for defense, walling off the world and disconnecting from a seemingly dangerous external reality. Primitive fantasies of destruction (“take this job and shove it”) and magical wishes for safety predominate as the individual or group vacillates between taking up a fight and simply taking flight (Bion, 1961). In this form the cocoon is an intrapsychic trap of ambivalence. The ambivalence lies in the inability to resolve the dilemmas of symbiosis versus individuation, of the need for attachment versus the pain of attachment, and of vulnerability versus isolation. That is, while the person yearns for attachment, understanding, and involvement and connection, they simultaneously reject it in anticipation of the associated feelings of loss, confusion, and disconfirmation. And yet, they cannot move forward in either direction (Horney, 1950).

Regression into the defensive cocoon is one way that resistance to change in organizations may manifest. “Seeing” cocoon transferences is a critical aspect of anticipating barriers to implementing change in groups and organizations. The cocoon transference “appears” as defiant self-reliance, what Modell (1976, p. 294) calls “an illusion of self-sufficiency.” Such defiance may be observable, for example, as some individuals or groups reject the proposed change and try to implement their own solutions. The defiance, in effect, sabotages the change effort. In extreme situations, if the workplace dynamic is toxic or abusive, people may go beyond circumventing the team and actually leave the organization.

Another observable feature of the cocoon transference is “nonrelatedness”, which involves individuals or teams cutting themselves off from others and the change process both intellectually and emotionally. Interacting with someone who has withdrawn into a defensive cocoon sparks a number of subjective experiences – a sense that the other person isn’t really “with you”, a feeling of being ignored or dismissed, or even a feeling of sleepiness.

Consider, for example, trying to lead a meeting where the people in the room never have anything to say, read and answer emails during the meeting, or talk at length about trivial or unrelated matters (flight). In other situations, a change agent attempting to convince a senior leader that change is needed may feel that their suggestions fall on deaf ears. The situational analysis is vaguely acknowledged, or even praised, but action never follows. Instead, the executive retreats further into their cocoon because they feel threatened by accurate reality testing, which holds the possibility of narcissistic injury. As part of this regression they may also be predisposed to attack the change agent. This experience may create a sense of fear, shame, and anger on the part of the change agent, who could themselves retreat into a cocoon, setting up a dyadic stalemate and reinforcing loop.

Given the predictable nature of the dynamic (and unconscious) exchange in interpersonal relationships and group dynamics characterized by cocoon transferences, awareness of one’s own self-experience as a change agent provides a way forward for intervening in this mode of defensive resistance to change. This unique set of transferences and psychological defenses can be shifted from defensive to generative when the change agent is able to ‘contain’ anxieties for the individual or group by enacting a particular kind of “holding environment” (Modell, 1976).

The particular kind of holding environment that promotes a shift, and eventual emergence from the cocoon, is one where the focus of the change agent is not on demanding compliance or attempting to induce cooperation, rather, the focus is on watchful support and a steady presence – unconditional positive regard. In this way the person or group held fast in the defensive cocoon transference can begin to feel that it may be safe enough to emerge. Thus, if possible there is not a demand for two-way communication (i.e. engagement). In fact, there is permission for disengagement on the part of members while the change agent focuses entirely on supporting the environment around the cocoon by calmly listening. The ideal environment is created by restraint – restraint from interpretation (e.g. “you’re in denial”), inducements for cooperation (e.g. “you need to get on board”), and protection or shielding the group from the potential dangers (e.g. solving the problem on their behalf). Allowance is made for non-participation, rejection of ideas, and even anger – until the time is right for facilitating a transition from the defensive cocoon to creative problem solving in response to stressful events.

Determining the “right time” is a matter of managerial wisdom, environmental demands, and organizational context. Organizations often have a sense of urgency, timelines, and “pain points” that necessitate quick action. As such it may be up to a team to wrangle with here-and-now problems in a day, or even an hour. The change agent, in this case, must facilitate emergence from the cocoon quickly. So in these instances we might see the change agent listen to everyone speak of the pressing problem, try to confirm with the group that immediate action is needed and “we” have to leave the room with a response, then ensure that everyone leaves the room with a task, deliverables and due dates.

When the problem is not pressing, the process may unfold over weeks or months. Developmental opportunities are offered, coaching is given, and listening is always available, but it is up to the individual, or team, to eventually make the choice that resolves their ambivalence about change.

In sum, the cocoon transference is one way of thinking about resistance to change – how and why it manifests and the particular kinds of interventions that may successfully in reduce defensiveness. Here, resistance is viewed as defensive non-relatedness, and intervention is viewed as reflective restraint.