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The past is never ended; it isn’t even past. —William Faulkner
A poignant thing about us humans is that we seem hardwired to replay the past, especially when our past includes emotional pain or disappointment. As a psychotherapist, so much of my work involves joining people in noticing the ways in which the past is still very much alive in present-day relationships. Though most of us want to move on from the past,we tend to go through our lives simply casting new people in the roles of key people, such as our parents or any significant person with whom there is still unfinished business. Freud called this phenomenon transference.
In transference, feelings and beliefs from the past reemerge in our present relationships. Transference is unconscious; we do not realize we are essentially involved in a case of mistaken identity, mistaking someone in the present for someone from the past. The term transference is usually used in the context of psychotherapy to refer to the client’s tendency to see a parent, a sibling, or any significant person in the therapist and to feel and act in accord with that confusion. (There is also a phenomenon called countertransference, which refers to the therapist’s reactions to a client, especially when she appears to be a simulacrum of someone from his own past.)
Yet transference and countertransference are not restricted to therapy. Transferences from us and onto us happen in our lives every day. Unbeknownst to us, we are glimpsing important figures from our past in our partners, friends, associates, enemies, and even strangers.What we transfer are feelings, needs, expectations, biases, fantasies, beliefs, and attitudes. Transference is a crude way of seeing what is invisible, the untold drama inside us, or to use Ernst Becker’s compelling phrase, “a miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality.”
One example of transference is a patient falling in love with her physician. He is kind, understanding, reliable, and genuinely concerned about her. These are all the qualities she wished her father would have had. The patient might later marry this doctor and find out, as time goes by, that he is not what she imagined. Her conscious mind and heart believed she had found a replacement for her father. Her deep psyche, her unconscious, was quite adept at finding instead a substitute for her father. The doctor-husband turned out later in the relationship to be like dad after all, unavailable, unable to listen. The bond began with a transferred hope but became a transferred replay.
The enduring impression made upon us by significant relationships sets up a template that we apply to others throughout life. Our life is a theme and then variations that are never far off from the original tune. What chance do people have to be just who they are to us when we are comparing them to others while neither we nor they realize it is happening? What chance do we have to be seen as we are by others when they are transferring onto us?
Because of our natural tendency to twist our vision of others in accord with outmoded blueprints, it is only in rare moments that we see one another “as we in-ly are,”as Emerson said. Most of the time,we are looking at one another through the lenses of our own history. There are two ways in which this can happen: (1) we might project onto each other our own beliefs, judgments, fears, desires, or expectations; (2) we might transfer onto each other the traits or expectations that actually belong to someone else.
This book is about our natural inclination, and at times our compulsion, to transfer and about how we can learn to see one another without obstructions or elaborations from our own story, even if only for a moment. Such clarity is a triumph of mindfulness, pure attention to the purely here. Unconscious transference gives power to then. Awareness of our transference gives the power to now.
Mindfulness is attention to the moment.Yet the moment is transitory by definition. So mindfulness is actually attentiveness to a flow. To live mindfully is not about a way of seeing reality as if it had stopped for us but flowing with reality that never ceases to shift and move. In transference we stop ourselves from flowing with present possibilities and instead stop to stare at a poster with a face from the past.We can catch ourselves in the act of placing our mother’s face on a spouse or our former spouse’s face on a new partner. We can also notice how others transfer onto us and we can find ways to handle their mistaking us for someone else.
When we engage in transference, we are attracted, repelled, excited, or upset by others. Our strong reactions of approach or avoidance may give us a clue to something still unsettled, still unfinished in us. Perhaps this person to whom we react so vehemently has reminded us of someone else, by physical resemblance or by personality. Perhaps he has released a feeling not fully expressed, a desire not yet satisfied, an expectation not yet met, a longing still shyly in hiding. It is called “transference” because we carry over onto someone now what belongs to the world back then. Indeed, as we look carefully into any present reactions, we inevitably notice a hookup to the past. “Introspection is always retrospection,”wrote Jean- Paul Sartre. As we interpret our transferences in the light of our past, we understand our behavior in relationships.
Anyone who becomes deeply important to us is, by that very fact, replaying a crucial role from our own past. In fact, this is how people become important to us. They come from central casting and they pass the audition for us, their casting directors.We then make them the stars of our dramas.We don’t call them “stars.” We might instead call them “soulmates”or “archenemies.” We are often sure “we were together in a former life.” That is not so far off; we were together indeed, except it may not have been centuries ago, only decades or years ago. Synchronicity, meaningful coincidence makes just the right actors come along for the audition. Our partners are then put under contract as performers, who gradually memorize the scripts of our lifelong needs or fears, and we may be busily doing the same for them. Do I live in my own home or on a movie set?
We might say, “We are working out our karma together.” Yes, our bond in intimate relationships is often fashioned from the ancient and twisted consequences of our childhood or of former relationships. How ironic that those who matter to us have become stand-ins for those who, we might falsely believe, no longer matter to us. In reality, once someone is no longer important to us, his face becomes flatlined on our emotional screen and we no longer include him in our transferences.
Transference does not have to be seen as pathology but rather as our psyche’s signal system, alerting us to what awaits an updating. Our work is to take notice of this and to face our tasks without the use of unwitting apprentices or surrogates. Unconscious transference is a hitching post to our past. As we make it conscious, it becomes a guidepost.
We engage in transference for some positive reasons. We are seeking healing for what is still an open wound. We are yearning for the sewing up of something that has long remained ripped and ragged. We try to complete our enigmatic history through our relationships with new partners, workmates, or colleagues. In this sense, transference can provide a useful shortcut to working on our past. This is healthy when transference is recognized, brought out of hiding, and used to identify what we then take responsibility to deal with. Finding out where our work is can be as important a purpose of relationship as personal happiness.
Transference is unhealthy for us when we remain unconscious of it and use others as fixit-persons for our troubled past relationships. We evolve when that past can find more direct and conscious ways to complete itself. Then others become prompters that help us move on in our story rather than actors who keep us caught in it.
Sometimes in our relationships we do step out of our old story with no need of a prompter. We approach someone not because she grants entry into our own unopened past or helps us forget it but because she is truly brand-new and only herself. This is the experience of an authentic you-and-I relationship.We approach a real person, not someone costumed in garments gathered from the trunks in our own attic.We then become more sincerely present with someone just as she is. This leads to the liberating possibility offered in authentic intimacy:mutual need-fulfillment and openness to each other’s feelings. Our definition in healthy adulthood widens and deepens from the adolescent version: an attachment that feels good.
Transference issues can be baggage—the Latin word for which is impedimenta—or they can be fertile possibilities for growth. How sad it is that what shaped us became a burden and a secret too. Bringing consciousness to our transferences makes everything lighter to bear. There is no way around the past, but there are ways of working with it so that it does not impinge upon us or others quite so much. Our psyche’s unrecognized operations can be exposed. The misreadings that are transference can become meaningful. Then the long longed-for restoration of our full selves can be consummated.