Transference is another one of those terms coined by Sigmund Freud that panned out to be true. It can be defined as the redirection of feelings and desires unconsciously retained from childhood and directed toward a new person in adult life. Basically what that means is that we go into a trance. We see something that isn’t there. We “transfer” our past childhood onto our present adult life. If violence happened when my parents got angry, I may avoid it at all costs in my adult life. I may become a “nice guy” who “never gets angry.” I’m caught in transference. I assume those in my adult life will act “just like” my parents did in my childhood. I internalize anger, avoid confrontation, go passive, sink into depression, become kind of a doormat.
Another way this transference could get acted out is if I become violent when I’m angry. I could could see danger where there is none and assume that this is powerful, just like my dad was when he expressed anger. In that both of these examples are neurotic, I can be sure there is some unresolved issue or transference going on. I’m in a trance.
Transferences can occur in a vast multitude of ways. If I grew up poor and felt less than others I may stay poor to be included in the family, or believe that I’m bad at making money “just like my parents.” I may believe that others will reject me if I make money since my parents believed, "money is the root of all evil." Alternatively I may assume others will never accept me if I don't make money. I may become a workaholic and become rich trying to prove my worth. Howard Hughes, Steve Jobs, and other “great successes” were plagued by deep insecurity.
If a a boy grows up shamed about sexuality he might transfer that to others in his adult life and assume they will shame him about sex. He could grow up to be a religious zealot who rails against promiscuity and takes a vow of celibacy. He may try to prove to others that he’s sexually pure by judging others and spouting religious texts. As a further consequence of his unresolved transference issue he may start secretly seeing prostitutes on the weekends.
So with Transferences with “transfer” our childhood onto the world we see as adults. We enter into a kind of trance. We might transfer "I’m not good enough" to other adults and cut off chances for advances. We could also kill ourselves working andrbecome a billionaire trying to prove that we are good enough. We might transfer that we are a sinner and work as a criminal or a guilty social worker. If our father cheated on our mother we might transfer that any partner we have is going to cheat on us and endlessly interrogate our lovers’ behaviors.
The odd thing about these transferences or trances we live is that they do tend to end up becoming our life experiences. The partner who is interrogated gets so worn out they do cheat on us. The belief in being less than does leave us in a life of poverty. The not good enough issue does leave us feeling depressed no matter how much money we make. The abandonment or trust issue that we push people away with does leave us isolated, driving us to drink or smoke or shoot up—leaving us even more alone. The judgment on others sexuality ends up becoming our own sexual perversion.
None of our childhoods were perfect. We all have transferences. Transferences either get worked out or acted out. If they are acted out we end up dismayed. “How did I let this happen? Its like I went into a trance.” Some people who are in the trance of pursuing money as a life goal to compensate for past trauma find out it doesn’t work in mid life crisis periods. “How did my life become so meaningless?”
So how do we work transferences out? In therapy we transfer our neurosis onto the therapeutic relationship. We might learn to tell the therapist when we are angry with him instead of repressing it or throwing the vase (hopefully!). We might admit our hopelessness and insecurity and find acceptance from the therapist, opening the door for self-acceptance. “If he can accept me with all these terrible issues maybe I’m ok.” We might have to risk failure in therapeutic goals and come back to find that we haven’t died, and that the therapist is ok with our failing and encourages we fail all we need to on our way to learning. We might risk shining in our efforts and find out they we are supported in our strengths, not diminished. We might learn that we are unconditionally accepted for who we are and even loved by the therapist without having to do anything.
Once transferences are worked out the trance is broken. We become more alive. We find a new life free from the past. We may regress into a transference / trance, but now we know the way out. We can go forward, feeling good about ourselves while we achieve goals. We are no longer holding ourselves back or trying to compensate for the past.
Below The School of Life takes a look at the trances we live: