What is Transference?

At some point in your life you have either experienced transference or been the victim of its wrath.

Transference was coined by Sigmund Freud back in the 1890’s. Most of us know Mr. Freud as the founder of “it’s your mother’s fault.”

While some of Freud’s teachings may seem far fetched now, he did have some good points.

Transference Defined

Freud believed that our experiences as adults correlate strongly to our experiences as children. So if you grew up constantly being criticized by your parents or guardians then as an adult, if someone innocently criticizes you, you may find yourself flying off the handle in defense while the other person is left wondering why you had such an extreme reaction to them simply telling you that you have two different socks on.

This is transference.

If you are experiencing transference you may not know it. Unless you have done some pretty heavy self-work, you probably won’t.

Think about what makes you angry, defensive, sad, betrayed, hurt. You get the idea. Fill in the blank with the most prevalent uncomfortable emotion.

Now think back to what triggers you:

  • When you are criticized?
  • When someone interrupts you constantly?
  • When you don’t get immediate responses from text messages?
  • When your feelings are not validated?

Chances are, what triggers you can be linked back to historical messages that you received in childhood.

Those who were constantly criticized might become inappropriately defensive at any time of critique.

Those who felt emotionally abandoned might experience extreme hurt when their significant other does not text them back quickly.

If your feelings were not validated growing up, you may take it personally when you don’t get enough likes on your social media.

To be fair, you may have grown up with none of the things listed and still get irrationally upset when someone criticizes you. There is probably something else going on, even if it is not transference.

Inherited Transference

When we find ourselves overreacting to present-day situations it could be because we have traumatic memories or experiences that have not yet been processed.

These memories can be experiences that happened directly to us or traumatic events within our caretaker group that we just became aware of and have not dealt with. An example of this type of inherited transference (which is a term that I just made up. At least I think I did), would be learning that your father had multiple affairs on your mother during your entire childhood.

When we find ourselves overreacting to present-day situations it could be because we have traumatic memories or experiences that have not yet been processed.

If you have not dealt with your feelings around your father’s actions, you may irrationally overreact when your partner starts innocently engaging in conversation at a party with someone whom they once dated.

Before you know it, you are in a full-on rage. The more you process, the more rage you feel. Suddenly what began as an innocent act of conversation at a party became cause for a breakup.

You probably don’t know that you are experiencing transference. But it should be considered that you may not have dealt with all the emotions that you feel surrounding your father. Until you process these feelings, the rage you feel will continue to be misdirected.

So Now What?

Maybe by now you have identified yourself as experiencing transference. Maybe you have identified that you have been the victim of somebody elses transfering their unprocessed emotions to you.

Either way, there are strategies that can help.

If You are Transfering

As stated previously, you may not know you are experiencing transference. This is why Observing your own reaction to events by checking your physiological signs of distress is a great first way to begin to notice.

  • What is your body doing in reaction to this event?
  • Is your reaction equal to the offense?
  • Are you willing to hear other viewpoints or are you stuck in your own?
  • Remain curious about the event. Ask yourself what other times in your life you might have felt this way.

If You are the Recipient of a Transferer

So this one is tough because if someone is transferring emotion onto you, you may transfer right back to them if you are not careful.

This happened to me recently, and it was not pretty.

It wasn’t until after I was able to sit back and take in the entirety of the event that I was able to process my own reaction.

Once I noticed that the person was transferring unresolved feelings on to me, I was able to release anger I had toward them, recognizing that their misdirected anger had nothing to do with me.

If you find yourself in the crossfires of a transference tornado:

  • Recognize that this may not be about you.
  • Take accountability for your part in the situation, if there was one. If it is met with more anger, again, probably not about you.
  • If it is not about you, work toward releasing anger and ill-will toward this person. They are hurting.
  • If the person who is angry is unwilling to talk about any issues, they are probably transferring. Most people in a disagreement are willing to at least have a conversation if they are healthy individuals. Remember, Taking ownership is hard and the transferer may not be ready to deal with unprocessed emotions.
  • Practice acceptance. You may not be able to help the person understand your view. At this point, accepting that the situation is what it is and moving forward will be the best thing.

Transference is Common

Like I said in the opening sentence, you have have probably vicitimized someone with your own transference or you have been the victim of someone else’s transference.

We are human and we are flawed. As Maya Angelou once said

When people know better, they do better

Maya Angelou

The best thing we can do for personal growth is to simply remain curious.

  • Be curious about why you are feeling the way that you feel
  • Be curious about your reactions
  • Be curious as to why others may react the way that they do
  • Be curious about the story you are telling yourself about the event
  • Be curious about what that story says about you.

Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it waters the human. By remaining curious, we remain in a constant state of growth.

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