Why is that person driving you SO crazy?
The phenomenon of transference and how to work with it
Transference is one of those ideas lots of us hear bandied about without ever properly understanding it.
It can be a big “aha moment” though, and a powerful tool in your emotional self-regulation toolbox.
What is transference?
Transference is a phenomenon where a set of thoughts, feelings and reactions that have been developed about one person are transferred into a completely different relationship with someone else.
When staff meetings begin to feel like some nightmare Christmas lunch, with the boss banging the table like an angry father and co-workers squabbling and competing for attention like unruly siblings, this work place is probably suffering from transference.
The feelings transferred can just as easily be positive as negative, though. Someone falls into an emotional affair in cyberspace: ‘They really know me,’ they confess to their partner.
However in reality, it is extremely difficult to know someone through online chat, and therefore very easy to project desired qualities from our past relationships onto them.
Transference in therapy
Freud found that some of his patients in psychoanalysis would behave in ways that bore no relation to what had just happened in his consulting room.
In fact the patients would respond as if someone else - normally a parental figure - had just said something. Almost as if they had been sent in a biological time machine back to re-experience some old emotional wound.
A classic example would be the therapist reminding the client of a pre-agreed holiday but the client hearing it as abandonment because of their parent’s divorce.
Freud dubbed this term transference. Although it was originally considered a problem, by 1912 he decided it was a vital part of the healing process.
The therapist could become a safe stand-in for the client to explore, unconsciously, a difficult past or ongoing relationship.
However if the therapist is not alert, he or she can suffer from counter-transference. This is where the therapist has not kept an appropriate emotional distance and his or her reactions to the client become based on conflicts / needs from his or her own childhood.
In extreme cases this can become an erotic transference and the therapist and client fall in love. In fact the first case of transference reported to Freud was from a colleague who had fallen for his female patient.
If consummated, this is an abusive relationship and the therapist would be struck off his or her professional register.
How do you tell if it’s transference?
Look out for occasions where you know little about someone but have a strong emotional reaction - especially if other people think it’s not justified.
Jeremy, a thirty five year old research assistant, felt that his male boss was always picking at him- especially over his clothes and whether they fitted the company’s image. It was no surprise to discover that his father was critical about his clothing choices as a teenager.
If you fear you might be treating your boss as your mother or father, write down five scenarios where you have felt upset or angry. Was your response appropriate, or a defence mechanism learnt twenty plus years ago?
Identify your personal trigger points so you can separate your boss being critical from just pointing out how the company likes things done.
Another example would be cosseting a now not-so-new trainee as if he were your baby brother. In this case, try making the connection even more vivid by conjuring up a mental picture of your brother beside the work colleague. By reminding yourself that these are two different people, you are becoming consciously aware of the connection and thereby less in its thrall.
When the transference is aimed at you
What if someone is reacting out of all proportion to your behaviour and you suspect transference? The key is not to be hooked into acting like their surrogate parent or whatever role they have cast you into - in other words not falling into the counter-transference trap.
Once again, you need to find a certain amount of distance. Buy time:‘I’ll get back to you on that’,‘ I’ll need to consult.’
This will provide thinking space and the opportunity to pick a better time to talk, when your colleague or partner is not stressed and trapped in an old role.
It is not all that surprising that our first relationships provide such an imprint for future relationships. It’s maybe more surprising (to me, anyways!) how little we refer to them when we run into difficulties as adults.
In other news, I recently spoke to psychotherapist Charlotte Fox Weber about how to find out what it is you REALLY want in life, and why that’s valuable even if you can’t actually achieve it. Listen here.
And as always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (email@example.com) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.