From time to time I like to write about the different healing aspects of psychotherapy. Today I’d like to focus on what is called “transference.” What is meant by this technical term? Basically, transference applies to the belief that we learn patterns of relating to others and ways of seeing ourselves and others from our early relationships. And then we repeat these patterns as we journey through life. If these interactions with parents and early caregivers were positive, we learn to trust others and view ourselves and the world in a positive light. However, often early interactions do not go so positively.
As an example, let’s take someone who has had a critical father when growing up. From those repeated interactions of feeling criticized, that person will come to expect criticism from others and probably see himself as at fault or unworthy. As that person develops, he tends to re-experience this pattern of relating: others are critical and he is to blame. Transference, then, means that that pattern will emerge at some point in the therapeutic relationship with me. That’s the good news! By focusing on the patterns of relating that occur between myself and my client, we can learn more about these patterns and beliefs and make fundamental changes.
That same person described above will inevitably come to experience me as harsh or critical and have familiar feelings of self-blame and lack of self-worth. When that happens, I encourage my client to talk about it. First we want to focus on the experience the client is having and, most importantly, on the feelings. I encourage my clients to let me know when they feel some negative feelings in relation to me. In this way, our relationship deepens and clients have the opportunity to change a fundamental aspect of this pattern of relating: they no longer have to remain silent about their hurt feelings nor direct their feelings of anger against themselves.
The next step is for us to look at the pattern that is reemerging here and make the historical links. In this way the client can come to see that his expectation of me is similar to that of his critical father. And we look at how to break this pattern and expectation. There are now more options available to the client; he may see that I am, on the whole, not that critical parent and he is not the person at fault or unworthy of support.
Of course, this work sometimes gets quite difficult. Sometimes the patterns that emerge can be very strong and very scary. At such times, a client may want to avoid these feelings altogether or want to leave therapy. I encourage my clients during these times to stay and together for us to investigate what is happening and what change can occur.
There are many different therapists out there and many practice in different ways. Working with the transference is a cornerstone of the way that I work. I believe, as I hope I’ve illustrated above, that powerful healing can come from this recognition of ongoing patterns of behavior and seeing oneself and world. Real change occurs right there in the room with me.