If you suspect your experiences as a child could be impacting on your life now, you’d almost certainly be right. Most current thinking accepts that early experiences can significantly affect our mental health, our relationships, and the choices we make now. Most psychological perspectives used by counsellors and psychotherapists, including the impacts of trauma, developmental psychology, relational psychology, and neuroscience, encompass this idea. But the oldest of all is psychoanalytic – or psychodynamic – theory.
Psychoanalysis came up with the concept of transference to explain how childhood experiences continued to impact us after we grew up. The phenomenon was identified by Sigmund Freud in 1985, and is translated from the German übertragung. Freud and his ideas remain controversial, and our knowledge of the human psyche has changed and grown exponentially. But this key concept is still very much making its voice heard.
What is transference?
‘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 unconsciously lay on top of what’s really out there, and it can often be really unhelpful. But if you can understand the mechanics and manifestations of transference, you can start to exercise some power over it – instead of it being the boss of you.
Transference tends to become most apparent with those who, like our parents or other caregivers, have power over us in some way. This could be to control us – or to take care of us. We might experience it with managers, teachers, lecturers, faith leaders, coaches, policemen, parking wardens, or even a moderator on social media. Those whose job it is to take care of us, or our needs, in some way, can also raise transferential feelings, such as a doctor, nurse, therapist, social worker, or even your hairdresser, the garage or the late night shop.
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, even if they are genuinely the nicest people on earth. Because nothing changes the unpleasant reality of their power in our lives – potentially they have a huge influence over how hard you have to work, whether you feel rewarded and appreciated, and whether you get a bonus or a promotion.
In fact this is exactly the same reason some managers hate the job – they feel uncomfortable with the power. No matter how caring or reasonable they are, they can end up being isolated and disliked, purely by virtue of their role.
Even if your parents modelled fairness and gave you a chance to complain when you were unhappy, bosses can be tricky. But if you’ve had a critical or interfering parent, it becomes all the more complicated. You may have evolved a super-compliant side to avoid conflict, or be sneakily rebellious for the same reason.
If you grew up with criticism and control, you may experience feedback – even positive feedback – as a source of anxiety or shame, and instructions as an intrusion or annoyance. And if your manager is harsh 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-on feelings of rage.
Care relationships, such as with your doctor or hairdresser may seem quite different, but can be just as complicated. Whilst adult relationships with caregivers can be incredibly healing when things go well, these folks may be the gatekeeper to services or help, leaving you feeing frustrated and powerless, or may leave you wanting more attention or care than is on offer, which can feel shaming or or frustrating.
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. It can show up in couple relationships; between friends; with in-laws; in work teams and social groups; between colleagues; even with the delivery guy or online shop (yep, they’ve still got your stuff), 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 find it with politicians and celebrities we don’t even know, or entire organisations, such as our university or place of worship, our employer, or the government. Sometimes there is little or no power relationship in practice, but we it can feel like it, when passing similarities in appearance, voice or manner, remind us of someone from the past.
Transference responses can even apply to things that matter to us…misplaced your phone recently? It may seem odd but anything that meets your needs can be seen as a transference object. It’s also (still) there with our own parents, no matter how old we get or how independent we have become. Transference can also turn itself upside down when we become parents ourselves, or are otherwise find ourselves in positions of authority or care – we may be determined to do different to those who came before us, or find ourselves behaving just like our mothers, whether we mean to or not.
Power and vulnerability
Transference isn’t really about ‘their’ power over you – it’s about how you’re impacted by the other party. They may have real power, but it’s when you feel childlike in response that transference becomes the issue. The more you need or want something important – love, recognition, freedom, chocolate, wine, medical care – the more someone’s failings or control is likely to cause hurt, disappointment or grief, or be frightening, enraging or shaming. And if you have suffered abuse or neglect, these responses are likely to be all the 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.. And just to confuse matters further, there is inevitably 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. And isn’t it simply human to be annoyed? Of course it is – that’s why 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 signs of conflict quicker, 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, working on eating better, or spending five minutes a day meditating. You may already know what the problem is – and the solution.
But if you’re stuck, unhappy but can’t work out what’s going on, or know what you want to change but need help with it, therapy could be part of the solution. Sometimes parts of us simply get stuck in the past, and a different sort of help to the kind our caregivers gave us, can help us bring them home to the present.