Betty Joseph


Betty Joseph (1917-2013) was a training and supervising analyst and child analyst in the British Psychoanalytical Society. She was one of the leading Kleinian thinkers of her generation along with Bion, Rosenfeld and Hanna Segal and an inspiring presence in the British Society for over 60 years.  She was very influenced by Bion whose originality and vision always impressed her.

Psychic equilibrium

What particularly distinguished Joseph’s work was her devotion to technique. She believed that only by paying the most rigorous attention to what the patient is not only saying but doing in the analytic session, together with the analyst’s own countertransference, can psychic reality emerge. This task is enormously difficult because of the way the patient’s structure and defenses will pull the analyst back to something which is more bearable, because psychic change and new insight always causes disturbance and creates a strong tendency to return to the old equilibrium.

Joseph emphasized the huge difficulty this poses for the analyst. A starting point for good technique demands of the analyst absolute personal honesty, not only because analysts want to believe that they are doing well and may be tempted to accept their patents’ reassuring agreement with their interpretations, but because of the way they are influenced by powerful and partly unconscious pressures by the patient to fit in with them in order to maintain the status quo. This countertransference needs to be rigorously scrutinized, however uncomfortable this may be.

Psychic change

Joseph gradually formulated her more detailed understanding of how patients change in analysis. One of the clinical problems that became very fruitful in these investigations was in the patient who seemed to be doing well in their analysis (apparently cooperating and giving the analyst satisfaction with his own work up to a point) but at the same time did not actually change. Joseph came to realise that in the session the patient induces (‘nudges’) the analyst into various kinds of enactments or collusions, often taking the form of making themselves too comfortable with the patient or sometimes being unnecessarily harsh. These pressures take the form of small projective identifications of aspects of the patient, or the patient’s objects, into the analyst. 

Joseph believed that analysts cannot avoid this and should not consciously try to do so. Instead, the analyst must examine himself as well as the patient by both observing his countertransference and his behavior in the sessions for information which can be linked with the patient’s overt material and build up an understanding of what is going on.



In Joseph’s view, interpretations must be short and simple. This is because one is always aiming to reach the more primitive areas of the patient’s mind where ideas need to be expressed in simple ways that can be grasped with full emotional resonance by the patient. Joseph’s technique can be thought of as is of a kind of microanalysis but this does not mean ignoring of the bigger picture and she was very astute at assessing the level that one should be approaching at any given moment. Often a successful piece of ‘microanalysis’ may lead to the emergence of a much more mature level. The analyst must be alert to this shift too, which means attending to several dimensions once or in quick succession, something Joseph herself was a master at.

Joseph was cautious about reconstruction in the classical sense, especially before the immediate transference situation has been analysed. For her the patient’s history and unconscious phantasy is inthe to and fro of the session  here is the inner world and perhaps the past being lived out in the immediacy of the session. This is what gives the patient a sense of conviction of who they are and were and this insight can help them to change.


Child analysis and teaching

Joseph had a passion for child analysis in which her technique developed in a similar way. It is likely that her long interest in child analysis, where action is an obvious feature, contributed to the way that her ideas about technique in adults as well as children developed.

Joseph was internationally known as a brilliant teacher whose capacity to see the patient through the supervisee was legendary. The famous ‘Betty Joseph Workshop’ lasted for 50 years. An experience of supervision from Betty Joseph was an unforgettable one. She was quite a hard task master; not so much expecting her students to be very clever but rather to be very honest with themselves. This came from her passion for understanding psychic reality and her wish to impart this knowledge, and contributed to one of the most enriching teaching experiences to be found anywhere in the world of psychoanalysis.


Robin Anderson


Key publications:


1999 Joseph, B. Psychic Equilibrium and Psychic Change: Selected papers of Betty Joseph. Routledge.

Listen to Betty Joseph talking about the use of toys and play in child analysis. Recorded for 'Psychoanalysis: The Unconscious in Everyday Life', an exhibition at London's Science Museum held during 2010/11

On April 4th of 2013, the object relations community lost another prominent psychoanalyst who was dedicated to psychoanalytic technique, neo-Kleinian ideas, and child analysis, Betty Joseph.

Below, is the obituary published in the Guardian:

Betty Joseph - obituary

by Michael Feldman and John Steiner, Sunday, June 23, 2013

Betty Joseph, psychoanalyst

Betty Joseph held a renowned postgraduate seminar for the British Psychoanalytical Society for nearly 50 years, helping analysts improve their clinical skills

Betty Joseph, who has died aged 96, was one of the most influential psychoanalysts of her generation. Her particular contribution lay in exploring how patients mobilize systems of defense to resist change that threatens them with anxiety.

For example, she described patients who could not face the painful recognition of feelings such as envy or hatred within themselves and dealt with such feelings by projection, attributing the feelings to people in their everyday lives. In the clinical situation the patient may experience the analyst as being filled with these unacceptable feelings, rather than themselves.

She was particularly skilled in following the projections in the analytic session, where they have a powerful impact on the analyst, who may find herself evading her own difficult and sometimes frightening thoughts and feelings, without always being fully aware of what is happening. She believed that the exploration and interpretation of these processes offered the most effective way of bringing about lasting psychic change. Working in this detailed way on what is immediate in the interaction between the patient and analyst requires a degree of courage and the capacity in the analyst to tolerate anxiety, doubt and uncertainty.

Joseph was a dynamic figure and widely admired as a supervisor and teacher. Her students recognized that she had a gift for understanding their patients – and themselves – in a new and deeper way.

The postgraduate seminar that she conducted for the British Psychoanalytical Society for nearly 50 years became renowned: many younger analysts were able to learn and to hone their theoretical understanding and clinical skills there. A selection of her papers was published as Psychic Equilibrium and Psychic Change (1989). Joseph served as chairman of the Melanie Klein Trust (1991-2006), and in 1995 received the Sigourney award.

Well into her 90s, she took delight in discovery. She loved books, travel, art, opera and gardening: best of all, she liked going to the theatre with friends, with a long and lively discussion over a meal afterwards.

The main focus of her interest remained people – working with adult and child patients, getting to know and understand them as well as she could, and engaging with a wide circle of friends and colleagues in many countries. She had a unique capacity to focus her attention, warmth and interest on another person, and to remember all the details of their lives. She was able to hold her own memories and opinions in such a way that they did not interfere with the fine quality of her attention.

Joseph was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, the second of three children in an Anglo-Jewish family. Her father's family had emigrated from Alsace in the early-18th century, and established themselves in the Midlands as manufacturing jewelers. Her father trained as an electrical engineer, and he and Betty's brother built up a successful electrical engineering firm shortly before the second world war.

Like Betty, her mother was a strong personality, on whom the rest of the family came to depend. She went to grammar school in Wolverhampton until the age of 16, when the family moved back to Birmingham. She trained in social work at Birmingham University, and later at the London School of Economics, where she qualified in the early 1940s. At this time, back in the Midlands, she became interested in psychoanalysis. She decided that if she was going to be working with people, she should have an analysis herself, and she began with Michael Balint, a recent refugee from Hungary who was to become a leading member of the Independent Group within the British Psychoanalytical Society. At Balint's suggestion, she undertook psychoanalytic training in London.

She was, however, characteristically doubtful about her talent for psychoanalytic work and saw herself as a late developer, contrasting herself with her close friends and colleagues, Hanna Segal, Wilfred Bion and Herbert Rosenfeld, whom she regarded as "born analysts". She went into private practice and the value of her particular approach became increasingly recognized. She was invited to teach at the Institute of Psychoanalysis in London as well as in many centers in Europe, North and South America.

Joseph was very close to her family, particularly her nephew Henry and his wife Katie, their children and their grandchildren, who survive her. She herself remained very vital, with a clear mind, attentive to the needs and feelings of others, to the end of her life.

Betty Joseph, psychoanalyst, born 7 March 1917; died 4 April 2013

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