Thinking About Transference in a New Way

Transference — erotic and otherwise — is worth an unconventional look.

What past events push one toward an unconscious like or dislike of his therapist? What previous learning does the patient now misapply to a stranger who offers help?

A child reacts to his parents based on reiterated experience. If the adults are pleasant and welcoming, his sentiments tend toward the benign. If the guardian’s proximity signals rash criticism, irrational outbursts, or inappropriate physical contact, he associates them with troubled, private states of mind and feeling.

The young one’s mood changes even in anticipation of adult attention. Looking forward to mom or dad’s return home from work can trigger joy or fear. Repeated signals of happiness or trouble will be learned. When an alcoholic overseer opens a beer can, the internal stir tells the child what might soon happen.

The scene or place connected to a wound matters. The familiar location informs a sensitive offspring of potential discomfort. A bedroom, for example, causes alarm if sexual abuse tends to occur there. The boy or girl’s emotional alteration becomes automatic. Conscious thought isn’t necessary.

We are thus conditioned by neglectful or abusive parents. The brain is a predictor, foreseeing danger. Our time at home trained us to notice subtle warning signs of mistreatment. High alert occurs in proximity to anyone resembling those who inflicted the injury, as if we are wearing glasses enlarging false positive features of menace. The distorting lenses sometimes govern how we see employers, friends, and lovers. Youthful coping mechanisms kick into gear.

A trauma survivor’s life is one of constant reliving.

What characteristics of the therapist contribute to this? First, counselors are most often older than the patient, just as the mom and dad were senior to him. The treating professional has an advantage of authority and power in the relationship, as guardians do. He also sets rules and requires their fulfillment. Payment is expected, rather like the home stipulation to do your chores, or else.

The doctor creates the schedule and determines the length of the session. If you wanted more intimacy with your parent, you might be frustrated by your provider’s boundaries. If you never felt special in the family, the doctor’s full caseload reminds you of growing up without status. You are one of a crowd, not first in line.

A clinician needn’t do anything remarkable to provoke a facsimile recreation of a historical script he never read. As if by magic, he arranges the set for the client’s long-running drama. The latter’s well of resentment, love, sadness, and yearning reveal themselves act by act.

A considerate and wise healer gives all his attention, looks in your eyes, and accepts you without judging. You know little about his life. His imputed resemblance to the rejecting sire allows you a mirage-like new chance at the love you never won. He assumes the form of the imagined caretaker you didn’t have, now come to life.

Transference is a kind of disguise, a costume the unknowing client applies to his doctor, who is taken for someone else. The apparel designer’s imagination fills him with qualities belonging elsewhere.

A risk exists here: the mistaken identity can overwhelm the therapist’s capacity to interpret it and refer it back to the initial source.

If this sounds like a guarantee of a bad outcome, however, it isn’t.

Once you accept the idea of transference, you may begin to actively catch the triggered emotions as they develop (or soon after) and work on their underlying cause: the ancient shadow of old relationships and the need to grieve them.

An erotic transference must be more tactfully managed. Tender feelings, romantic or not, are problematic even when unmentioned. While their connection to the past is identical to more common transferential moments, the universal hope for a sainted parent or perfect mate adds a layer of complexity to emotional resolution.

In each case, if your counselor does not overreact to your unhappiness, resentments, or thirst for unique closeness, your imbedded responses should lessen: they will be extinguished or unlearned with time. Likewise, the ability to recognize the difference between your doctor and early custodians is a first step toward doing the same with bosses, companions, and suitors.

People will be recognized more as they are, less similar to Halloween characters. Improved life choices and increasing ease of intimacy becomes possible.

Life and therapy offer us endless challenges. Muhammad Ali, a man who knew a bit about contests inside and outside the ring, offered this advice:

I hated every minute of training, but I said,
‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’

——

The first and last images above are both untitled painting by V.S. Gaitonde, the last from 1953. The middle work is called Painting No. 1, 1962, by the same artist.

How Well Do You Know Yourself? An Answer in Ten Minutes or Less

self-reflection

We spend more time trying to understand the motivations of others than our own. Not that we aren’t focused on ourselves, but our internal machinery is more likely to ask “How shall I handle this problem?” than why you did or didn’t do something.

“What caused me to do what I just did?” is not at the top of our self-examination question list.

If we are already sure of our motives, as most of us are, self-analysis doesn’t occur. The reasons for our actions seem obvious.

For example, Donald Trump recently said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. And they’re bringing those problems with us (sic). They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

In response to criticism over his remarks, Trump countered, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”  Mr. Trump is certain of his motives without even a bone scan to prove it, but I am much less confident than he is. Is his belief about himself correct? We might ask the same question of ourselves. Ergo, my title: How Well Do You Know Yourself?

I will give you a chance to find out shortly.

I raise the topic because we aren’t as insightful about ourselves as we might be. For example, in matters like politics and religion, we arrive at our opinions intuitively, but think we reasoned them out. In fact, according to Jonathan Haidt, our attitudes are driven by instinct and bubble up from our unconscious. Only later does our logical brain kick-in and generate reasons for those predetermined opinions. The thinking cerebral cortex therefore takes the job of defense lawyer or public relations advocate to justify attitudes and make them palatable to ourselves.

Haidt says we are like monkeys riding elephants. The emotional elephant is 90% in charge of leading the way, but the monkey logician on his back thinks he is in control. I imagine you believe this about some of the people you know — the ones who fool themselves. Perhaps not yourself, however.

You might consider Mr. Trump to be like a friend who doesn’t understand himself — isn’t honest with himself. “The Donald” denies any kind of dominant, irrational, and instinctive prejudice, despite his recent comments disparaging Mexican immigrants. If you believe you are more self-aware than Mr. Trump, his example won’t cause you to question your own psychological self-rationalizing process.

Nearly everyone believes himself to be thoughtful — careful not to jump to conclusions. Indeed, you might believe the two of us are like the majority of those who answered the following Gallup telephone survey with a “yes,” saying they’d vote for a woman, a black, or a Hispanic for President.

The Gallop poll results are below. The question asked of participants comes first, then their responses:

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I don’t believe the data, at least in the top few categories. Why?

First, most of us recognize the political incorrectness of saying we wouldn’t vote for a woman, black, or Hispanic. Even to someone on the phone who promised not to share the information. Second, we are hesitant to admit our bigotry to ourselves.

Finally, look at the question again. The second sentence reads (with my italics): “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be ____, would you vote for that person?” If you are prejudiced, you could well rule out most any woman, black, or Hispanic instinctively. At the same time, however, you might say to yourself, “but if (hypothetically) he has the right stuff, then he’d get my vote.” It wouldn’t take long before you pat yourself on the back for being enlightened. In effect, you have persuaded yourself, “the person’s gender, race, or nationality isn’t important, but only the ability to do the job.” The poll, in the example just described, would produce an inaccurate result.

Now is your chance to find out who you are. The good folks at Harvard developed something called The Implicit Association Test.  Their creation is not like Gallup’s poll. They don’t ask only about your beliefs, but measure your reactions to pictures and words to uncover what your implicit (unconscious) attitude is.

You might be sure you lack bias, but the test is capable of surprising you. No guarantees either way. Perhaps you are as color blind as you think you are.

Take the 10-minute measurement: Implicit Association Test. Click on “Social Attitudes.” Then you will have at least a partial answer to the question: how well do I know myself?

There are a great many tests on the site. They deal with our imbedded reactions to race, age, overweight, sexual preference, mental illness, etc. Don’t expect, if, say, you are black, to automatically have a more favorable implicit association to blacks than to whites on the test particular to such responses.

Another point. You are likely to ask yourself whether a connection exists between preferring “white” over “black” (for example) and your chance of discriminating against someone who triggers an implicit prejudice. Not necessarily. You will find a more detailed answer imbedded within the site after you decide to take a test.

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, as Dostoevsky wrote, a hostage to those “things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?