Is your past holding you back from true intimacy?
Have you ever wondered why you attracted a certain type of people into your life?
Or, why do you keep coming across the same type of problems with authority figures or romantic partners?
Why do you seem to behave or react in ways that seem irrational?
The psychology concept of transference may help us understand these relationship phenomena.
When remaining unconscious, transference holds us back from true intimacy, from our best self, and from the emotional freedom that we need for growth and happiness. Thus, becoming aware of transference can be a significant growth point as it opens up the doorway into much more presence and joy in our lives.
What is ‘transference’?
Transference is a concept originated from Freud’s time, but it does not only happen in the therapy room. To ‘transfer’ means we carry what is in the past into the present, and most of the time it happens without us being consciously aware of it.
In fact, it is part of our natural defence mechanisms - our mind is trying to protect us from negative strong feelings that it thinks it cannot bear.
Sometimes, we catch ourselves displacing our feelings towards A onto B. For example, I may be angry at my boss, but I take it out on my partner. Transference is a type of displacement, where we displace the feelings we have towards people from our past, like our parents or ex-partner, on to people in the here and now. It can happen at work, in friendships, with institutions, cities, and even pets and objects. However, it is the most powerful and noticeable when we enter into a romantic or intimate relationship.
During the times when a new person enters our lives, we are the most vulnerable to experiencing both powerful positive transference and negative transference.
It is not uncommon that we both idealise and demonise our partner.
We are in love, but we also find ourselves getting triggered into the most intense anger and frustration.
We fantasise the best, and we assume the worst.
We may project a fairy tale onto the relationship, but when conflicts happen, or when our sensitivities are not taken care of, our new partner may suddenly become our worst enemy.
Positive transference may explain the intense attraction or infatuation we feel in the beginning of a relationship. When we first met someone, despite having limited factual information about them, we tend to ‘fill in the gaps’ with things that already exist in our mind. We may also exaggerate or diminish traits we see in others. For example, if my own father had been cold, ignorant and neglectful, I would be especially touched by the moments where my new partner shows signs of being attentive, insightful and loving. We may unconsciously create in our mind an idealised version of our new friend, just like the prince and princesses we have always dreamed of.
Unfortunately, this usually leads to disappointment. Coming from the place of the deprived child inside of us, we have the compulsion to fill the void with a child-like mentality. We may seek the immediate and unconditional love like a baby would with her caregiver. Unfortunately, the ‘perfect love’ that we seek cannot realistically be fulfilled by even the healthiest adult relationship. Ultimately, we will struggle to find lasting fulfilment from the outside world if we were not able to give that to ourselves. Thus, the trajectory for unrealistic positive transference almost always involves disappointment and rupture.
Whilst in the case of negative transference, we are triggered by qualities and events that remind us of our deepest wounds and what was missing in our childhood. This is maybe why some of us feel stuck in certain relationship patterns, such as continuing to attract the same type of people, overstaying in relationships, or becoming overly reactive and rageful.
Sudden, intense and unexplainable outrage is often a telling sign of transference. For example, if a boy had grown up being constantly criticised and controlled by his overpowering mother, he may have become extremely sensitive to the sense of others invading his space or depriving him of freedom. This may manifest itself in the present days in the form of extreme reactivity. For example, when he is stressed at work and his wife called him to check in, strong feelings of being intruded upon and controlled may be invoked. He finds himself getting outraged and blaming his wife for not giving him enough space.
All these may be unconscious: Looking back, he may wonder why he was reacting aggressively even when logically he knew that his wife was not his mother, and was not trying to control him. This is because when transference is at play, we are not reacting from our adult, rational mind, but from our emotional brain. These strong feelings may seem ‘out of proportion’ when we look at the present event but is entirely appropriate when seen in the context of a hurting child.
Is transference all bad?
Transference is essentially a compulsion to return to our past in order to clear up our old blockages. It has the potential to be destructive, but it is also a doorway to growth and awakening. It comes from a healthy desire to heal and to get closure.
Perhaps we are trying to work on issues that can no longer be worked out with the original characters. For instance, our parents might have passed away, they may deny or invalidate our version of the truth, or that they simply do not have the psychological capacity to work things through with us. By replaying these old narratives , we replicate the unfinished business in the hope that we can resolve it this time.
When the unconscious is made conscious, our transference provides very valuable information about our inner world, our original woundings, and it opens up a door to profound healing and integration.
How do we use this information to heal, so that we are not destroyed or held back by them?
When we are caught in transference, we cannot see reality clearly. We act out of fear, rather than from the judgement of our best self. The visceral sense of being caught up in transference is similar to what Buddhist teacher Tara Brach describes as the Trance of Fear:
“The emotion of fear often works overtime. Even when there is no immediate threat, our body may remain tight and on guard, our mind narrowed to focus on what might go wrong. When this happens, fear is no longer functioning to secure our survival. We are caught in the trance of fear and our moment-to-moment experience becomes bound in reactivity. We spend our time and energy defending our life rather than living it fully.”
In order to break free from the trance of transference, we can work on noticing them, addressing them and eventually working through them with kindness and gentleness. Whenever possible, we make our transference conscious and we call ourselves on it. When strong feelings arise, we may take a few deep breaths, and practise finding a space between the stimulus and our reactions. We can take a step back and we ask ourselves: ‘This feeling is familiar, what or who does it remind me of?’ Then we may find a cave inside our mind, in which we address the hurt, the sadness and the anger that are in the past and in the present.
Sometimes this involves deeper grief work and the lesson of self-care. In times of difficulties and sadness, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that we say the following to ourselves: “Darling, I am here for you. I will take good care of you. I know you suffer so much. I have been so busy. I have neglected you, and now I have learned a way to come back to you.”
When we are able to break through the trance of transference, we can relate to each other as who we really are, without the clouded judgement, without bringing the past into present, and without the stories and mental chatters that had hurt us, and burdened us.
True intimacy happens when two people relate to each other in an authentic way. In this form of real relationship, we are present. We appreciate each other with no hidden agenda or anticipation. We go into it with pure presence and participation. A couple engaged in this dimension are two people going on an exciting journey together, curious about each other, looking forward to finding out the unknown.
Here is another quote from Tara Brach, describing the process of breaking free from the trance of fear:
"... our sense of who we are begins to shift and enlarge. Instead of constructing a tense and embattled self, we can reconnect with our naturally spacious awareness. Instead of being trapped in and defined by our experiences, we can recognise them as a changing stream of thoughts and feelings. In these moments we have awakened from trance. We are inhabiting a wholeness of being that is peaceful and free."
With enough practice, we can find the courage to enter the here-and-now reality of ourselves and others, and not be haunted by shadows from the past. Only then we are open to the real intimacy, joy and beauty that are right in front of us.
“Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other… Secretly and bashfully he watches for a yes which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another.” - Martin Buber, I and Thou.
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About Imi Pui Yin Lo
Imi is an award-winning mental health professional, accredited clinical psychotherapist (UKCP), art therapist (HCPC, BAAT), supervisor and trainer. She specialises in emotional intensity, sensitivity, borderline personality traits, and unblocking creative potential in people. She is the founder of the Eggshell Therapy and Coaching Practice.