How your childhood shapes your adult life

If you suspect your childhood might be playing a part in what’s going on for you now, you’d almost certainly be right. And whilst this’ll be far from being the whole story, most current thinking accepts that our early experiences can significantly affect the way we come to feel, react, and behave, the relationships we have, and the choices we make.

There are many approaches to dealing with our here-and-now difficulties, and just as many labels used to talk about how our childhoods – for better and for worse – might be having a say in the present.  Because it  can be useful to have a label as a shorthand for complex concepts, I’m going to use one here – transference. The word is translated from the German übertragung, the language used the pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud when he discovered the phenomenon in 1895. Whilst therapy and psychology have changed and grown in many ways since then (though the squabbles about Freud and some of his more outlandish ideas continue with great enthusiasm), this key concept remains very much the same even now.

A definition

Transference tends to make itself most obvious with those who, like our main caregivers – usually a parent, parents or whoever did that job – have power to direct our actions or look after us. It can appear for us with people in defined positions of authority or power (managers and supervisors, teachers and lecturers, faith leaders, coaches, policemen, parking wardens, doormen etc) or whose job it is to take care of us and our needs in some way (the doctor, therapists, social workers, other medical and caring professionals, even your hairdresser, the garage or the late night shop).  Some of these and similar roles will fall into both categories.

‘Transference’ describes the phenomenon in which our reactions to our parents’ behaviour in childhood are transferred to people and events in the present day. Transference is like a kind of virtual reality that we automatically lay on top of whatever’s really out there, and it’s about both about how we were looked after and the ways we responded to that, given our individual characters and circumstances. I’m going to help you understand the mechanics and manifestations of transference and provide some tips on how to spot it. Because if you can get a better grip on what it looks like, how it feels, and what to do with it, you can start to exercise some power over it instead of it being the boss of you – which it can often be in ways we are not always aware of.

You, the boss and your childhood ghosts

To give you an example, and talking of bosses, these are an absolute classic in evoking ‘negative’ transference responses in us – because no matter how nice they try to be, nothing changes the unpleasant reality of their power in our lives. Potentially they have huge influence over our happiness, self-esteem and whether we can afford lunch.

Even if your parents were caring and fair authority figures who supported realistic self-esteem and taught you when to toe the line and when to politely stand up for yourself, bosses can be tricky. But if you’ve had a critical or interfering parent, you may be super-compliant (or sneakily rebellious) and may experience even the mildest instruction or feedback as a source of anxiety or shame (or intrusion and annoyance); and if they’re tough or unreasonable, they can make you feel like you’re five years old all over again, ranging from a sense of total powerlessness to a full-scale full-size tantrum.

Care-type relationships, your doctor, therapist, coach or hairdresser are likely to affect people in quite different ways to the boss. With someone whose power is in helping you to feel better in yourself or about yourself, their care and support can be exactly what you need to get to where you want to be. But it can also bring up more complicated feelings about what it’s like to have had too little attention, too much, or the wrong kind.

Partners, postmen and politicians: it’s everywhere

Transference can also come out in perhaps more subtle ways or when the power relationship is less apparent: in couple relationships; between friends; with other people’s families; in teams and other groups; between colleagues; even with the postman (yep, he’s got your parcel), or at the corner shop when you’re desperate for something they haven’t got, and what’s more nobody seems to care. We can even find it with politicians and celebrities we don’t even know, or entire organisations, such as our university or place of worship, the company that employs us, or the government.  Sometimes there is little or no power relationship but we can be reminded of when there was, such as with people with passing similarities in appearance, voice or manner to our caregivers or in places or circumstances that evoke the flavours of our youth.

Transference responses can even apply to things that matter to us…misplaced your phone recently? It’s also (still) there with our own parents, even once we’re running our own lives and taking care of ourselves. Personal examples can become evermore specific and even seem quite bizarre, though they undoubtedly always have their own peculiar logic. Transference can also turn itself upside down and inside out when we become parents ourselves, or are otherwise placed in positions of authority or care – how you feel and act once in a position of power or care is a whole story in itself.

Power and vulnerability

Transference isn’t really about ‘their’ power over you – it’s about how you’re impacted by the other party. The basic premise is, in fact, one of your relative vulnerability.  Even now, the more you need or want something important from or in relation to another person or supplier – love, approval, recognition, victory, chocolate, wine, a plaster for your three year old’s scraped knee –  the more their failings or recalcitrance are likely to cause hurt, disappointment or grief, or be frightening, enraging or shaming, in the same sort of ways as your caregivers’ errors and omissions. And someone who has suffered more serious abuse or neglect is likely to have more marked or distressing reactions when triggered. The greater your vulnerability in the circumstances, the more transference is likely to be an issue.

Transference v ‘real life’

Of course this is no simple matter – problems and unhappiness happen, painful feelings arise, and relationships can be difficult whether there’s transference around or not – that’s life (unfortunately). And just to confuse matters further, there’s always a grain of truth in what’s winding you up – perhaps the traffic warden is being just as unreasonable as your dad was when you broke the rules – you both know he could see you trotting towards him apologetically, so did you really deserve what you got? And isn’t it simply human to be annoyed? Of course it is – so it can be complicated working out what’s what.

How can I tell if it’s transference?

A useful clue can be in whether your response (or someone else’s) seems out of kilter with what seems to have happened on the surface – either by virtue of the intensity of the feelings or behaviour which has arisen, or because the reaction appears frankly a bit leftfield, or even completely baffling. If someone or something prompts rage, fear, sadness, need, shame, or preoccupation, or instils especially high hopes for transformation, healing, or a deeper relationship, there may be clear justification for it in the here and now.  But it may be instead have much more to do with the historical script we’re all carrying with us, and you could be right in the middle of a transference enactment, perhaps unknowingly replaying the scenes of your youth yet again, like a stage play being performed night after night. If we can learn to tell what’s what, we know which set of skills to use, to reduce the aggravation and start healing childhood wounds.

What can I do to change things?

You might already be well aware of how transference is playing out in your life in negative ways and be taking steps to change things. Perhaps you’re  looking for a new job, learning how to spot the signs of conflict before it escalates, moving out of your parents’ house, or taking a closer look at your relationship. If you haven’t been getting enough care or attention, you might be thinking about dating, trying to see friends more, reminding yourself to be kinder to yourself if your inner critic starts kicking off, or working on eating better or spending five minutes a day meditating. But if you’re stuck, unhappy with something but can’t quite understand what’s going on, or know what you want to change and want some support in doing it, therapy might be part of the solution. In a way, parts of us can get stuck in the past, and sometimes we need a different sort of help to the kind our caregivers offered to bring them home to the present.

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