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 enlargingĀ 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.’

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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.