The Power of Psychological Transference

We could probably fill the Library of Congress with articles and books written about psychological transference. It was formally launched as a concept by our friend Freud, but undoubtedly some form of the concept was well-known back in history. Freud’s idea was that patients would project on him their own past relationships, particularly those of parents, much like projecting a movie on a blank screen, and his approach was to be that blank screen in order to draw out and understand the patient’s key issues and concerns. The therapeutic process was in part about unraveling all these past relationships and distortions and, in his model, usually required a long stint of therapy.

While Freud might have taken the notion of transference to a higher level, it is part and parcel of our everyday relationships, particularly at that critical first-impression / beginning-stages of a relationship. Our impressions of others are never neutral, but always filtered through the lens of our other relationships, both past and present, that have had an impact on our lives. Your new date reminds you of our ex in the way he seems to dominate the conversation; your new boss is easy to approach because she is such a welcome relief to your former one who always had that scolding tone, so reminiscent of your mother; your work colleague reminds you of your younger brother with his terribly funny sarcastic humor. Or these triggers may be even more subtle — the new date has eyes like your father or her tone of voice reminds you of your sister’s; the new team member has that same brisk walking-stride, or that arched-eyebrow-look as your high-school girlfriend. 

Often these impressions, the contrasts and comparisons are not fully conscious but they are powerful and form the basis for our initial attraction or lack of. Our history of relationships is a history of bouncing from one experience and relationship to another with psychological take-aways along the way.  

How does this help you? Three possibilities:

#1: Not at all

Great, it happens, let’s move on.

#2: It gives me a clue of where I get in trouble in my relationships

When you look back over your past relationships — personal, work — is there a pattern of attraction or avoidance? Are you finding yourself always attracted to the bad boys or turned off by those who seem too wishy-washy or passive? Or are you always intimidated by what seems to be drill-sergeant type bosses, but find that that assertive woman immediately becomes your new hero? Does your heart melt for the “sensitive guy,” or more subtly, do you get easily initially hooked by the guy or gal who has that “nice smile”?

By seeing and judging folks through the filter of transference, by being triggered both positively and negatively by our past relationships, we’re moving beyond sexual chemistry and emotionally making assumptions, overemphasizing and likely distorting one aspect of the other’s personality. This can blind us from seeing the real person beneath: Because he seems, for example, to be so non-judgmental and supportive compared to your ex you are emotionally seduced, only to realize later that this stance is a veneer for his being incredibly passive or a result of his being stoned most of the time. Similarly, her assertiveness, initially so attractive, blinds you seeing how controlling she actually can really be.

#3: It helps me understand where I’m wounded, what I need

Now we’re back to Freud. He wanted to help patients unravel their past relationships so they would be less triggered and seduced patients by them, and in turn, stop repeating their histories, But you don’t necessarily need 5 years of analysis to begin to change your patterns. If you find yourself always seduced by the bad boys and always wind up feeling hurt or abandoned, Freud would probably say you are being seduced by your past and falsely holding onto that little-kid magical thinking that it will turn out differently this time. But you are just re-injuring that old wound, rather than healing it. Similarly, that strong and automatic attraction to the laid-back guy or assertive woman tells you something that you may need.

This is important information. By seeing and understanding these patterns, you can do what Freud was trying to do: Through awareness you now can make conscious, rather than unconscious or semi-conscious choices. Here you decide to stay away from the bad boys; you try and see past the initial intimidation that you sense from the drill-sergeant to discover the person who may lie beneath. You learn to take your time with that laid-back guy or assertive woman so you don’t get blinded and seduced and immediately wrapped up in a relationship that is too difficult to get out of.

And / or you can actively and directly work on your past by getting some closure with your past relationships: Here you have an adult conversation with your ex or with a parent to say now what you couldn’t back then, or if this is not possible, try writing a letter to get these old feelings out on a page and out of your head. You can also consider doing some therapy, even short-term, to help you separate past from present and gain skills and support to help avoid getting some triggered by your transferences.

Freud was right, transferences abound. Learn from them. 

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