Transference 101

Someone reminds you of a person or persons from your past and you make assumptions based on those memories. Sigmund Freud was the first to give it a name. Carl Jung polished the idea and compared it to alchemy. Both applied the concept to the therapeutic relationship; it is a typical result of the initial encounters of psychoanalysts with patients. Making the transference conscious can provide inroads to assist in the patient’s progress. Transference is similar to projection, another defense mechanism; however, the latter refers to our tendency to displace our own qualities onto others, both negative and positive. Transference, on the other hand, requires at least three people, the client/patient, a person who is present in his or her life and a person from the client/patient’s past.

Whereas the most common examples of transference occur between patients/clients and professionals (psychologists, doctors, professors, etc.), the concept of reading patterns into things that aren’t there in an effort to make sense of incomplete data surrounds us. Most people we meet will nudge our memories of people from our past. We respond to voices, appearance, and behaviors that remind us of our ‘ghosts’; i.e., people on the other side of burnt bridges that continue to smolder, those who have died or moved away; essentially all people we remember fondly or otherwise. At times, the person present is a composite of more than one person from the past, which can be disorienting if the present person evokes positive memories and unpleasant ones simultaneously.

Transference is quite normal. Until we get to know someone, we project and transfer all sorts of things onto them. Some people, I call them ‘mystiques’, tend to attract projection as if they were hooks waiting for us to hang our past experiences onto them. They work at resisting being known well. Think Marilyn Monroe. Who was she, really? In reality, the mystique may not be a controlling monster like the domineering father or the end-all master of everything, superhero like cousin Bill. She might have a voice as sweet as Tupelo honey like your eighth grade teacher but sell you a used car that is a clunker. The confidence that he exudes may be a veneer covering a rotten core. She may not be such a shy and modest person while drinking alcohol in excess when you are not around. The present person’s kindness that catapults you into memories of your ex ‘performing’ to placate his religious mother may actually be generated out of genuine kindheartedness. The knee-jerk reaction that came when you suspected that the present person is untrustworthy could be very wrong.

What can you do when faced with transference? The person experiencing the transference usually will feel embarrassment or shame because he or she usually realizes that the person present is not necessarily like the person from the past. Just as you do when severing a projection, you sally forth and face it. When it is projection, you look into your psychic mirror to discover what shadow qualities you are casting onto the other that actually belong to you. This inflation can be either positive (your own psychic gold) or negative (bias or prejudice), but yes, it pertains to you. When wrestling with a transference, you first ask who the present person reminds you of. Is the discomfort so unbearable that you need to terminate the friendship/encounters or take a break while you get your bearings? (Example: When working as a child therapist, I assisted a teenaged boy who’d been sexually abused in transferring to a new school when his school hired a man to replace the predator (that they fired) with one who resembled him more than the boy could tolerate. The resemblance caused him excruciating pain He could not concentrate in his studies.)

The goal in recovery is to separate the present person from the template created by the past memories and to work on the unfinished business concerning the latter person/persons be it grief work, therapy, or mindful reflection.

And, what can be the response of the person onto whom a transference lands? A former friend taught me one way. We were dining out and I started to compliment him on something. He stopped me mid-way and said, “Katie, we don’t know each other very well yet. Please hold off on complimenting me until we know each other better. Your compliment, while well-meant, does not apply to me; I am not as you have described me.” Rather than being repulsed by the neediness that prompted my pleasing behavior and embarrassing me further, he merely provided a reality check. He was quite forthcoming in the future when sharing who he really was. That helped. He was not my deceased and beloved cousin whom I missed and who shared the name Stephen.

So, the bottom line is this: If you are plagued by a transference, do the hard work of spotting the optical/aural illusion, discover the unconscious original source of it and stare it down until you can get past it and experience the present person with a clean, fresh slate. Regardless of how the relationship/encounter pans out (hello or goodbye), present persons can best show respect to the transferring one by continuing to be themselves and to do what they can to help the other save face.

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