Who Do You See . . . Really?
The Power of Transference
I have been writing about the consequences of our staying on the surface in the outer world and not doing the deep work in the inner world from which what occurs in the outer world springs.
From the responses I’ve received, it seems to be such a difficult thing for people to look at, take in, acknowledge, and commit to working with. As a result, starting last month I began teaching in relation to a few arenas in our world where the interplay between the inner and outer is more obvious than others. This month’s theme is about transference.
Chance, the gardener, becomes Chauncey Gardener in one moment of . . . misunderstanding? Inaccurate interpretation? Gross idealization? Transference.
A woman comes into the amphitheater . . . she is glowing . . . there is soft music playing. The wind is blowing. She doesn’t say a word. All she does is walk up and down the rows and around the banks of seats in the huge amphitheater. According to what everyone says, her very presence heals everyone she passes, near and far. All stand silently, smiles on their faces.
A man walks on stage. He’s tan and handsome, well dressed. He holds his hands up, each hand with the first two fingers in a ‘v.’ He’s running for the country’s leadership position. His party just selected him as its candidate. The crowd roars with cheering and applause.
An elderly man, dressed in all white robes, comes out on a balcony overlooking throngs of people. He’s attended by other older men, also in robes, their robes covered with orange-red garments. He holds up his hands as if to bless those below. The crowds of people all bow their heads to receive his blessings.
Who are these people who have taken center stage, so to speak? Who are they actually? And who do we think they are?
Chauncey Gardener is a character from the movie Being There. The simple gardener of a wealthy man, he spent his life on the estate, tending the gardens and watching television. When his employer died, he was seen by a wealthy woman as a wise man . . . soon became advisor to the President, and then was considered as a replacement for the President in the next term. How could this be? How could people, supposedly intelligent, savvy people, mistake a simple gardener so completely?
The woman who supposedly heals people by walking in the rows past them is a scam artist from a little village in a country across the seas. She grew up in an area where public relations people vacation, and one, spotting her, decided to give it a try. Together they are making millions, raking in the money. She speaks no English, and he’s a fast talker. How could so many people be so deceived by her? So many people – commoners, people in the healing professions, and famous people, as well.
The tan, handsome, well-dressed man is the leading contender for the country’s leadership position – groomed for decades, since childhood, by his party’s leaders. Taught how to look, stand, sit, talk, walk . . . and how to think, feel, be. Everyone thinks they know who he is and what he will do as leader of the country, even though nobody really knows who he would have become if he hadn’t been groomed and programmed.
The elderly man is the new pope. The public doesn’t really know him yet. We know what we are being told about him. We know how we take his actions and words, but how much of that is through the filter of what we’re being shown? Most of all, we don’t really know who he is or what kind of pope he will truly be. We just know that he is “Papa” . . . the pope, the father.*
Why do we respond to these people and others like them as we do, without even really knowing who they are? Respecting them as more than the human beings they are? Trusting them with our well-being, health and healing? Celebrating and cheering them as our leaders-to-be? Honoring and deferring to them as our religious and spiritual leaders, who also hold sway over things very physical and earthly in our lives?
It’s because of a very simple mechanism call transference. Commonly known but not well enough understood and taught in the world of psychotherapy. Hardly known at all in the mainstream world. And the damage and suffering that are caused by our not knowing, understanding, and being able to utilize this mechanism for good … is staggering.
So let’s begin with a basic understanding of transference. When someone transfers onto a person, a thing, an event, the Divine, or even life itself in the present day, someone or some experience from his or her childhood . . . that is transference. The person from the past is usually someone experienced as an authority figure: mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, adult friends of the family, adults in the neighborhood, teachers, clergy, doctors, or older siblings, babysitters, etc. The event from the past is usually something unpleasant or painful, even traumatic. But it could have been something pleasurable or seemingly pleasurable, a guise for something that was actually damaging – like the seductive, pseudo-playful lead up to sexual abuse. Or it could have been a rare sweet moment in the midst of a lot of painful experiences. And whoever or whatever the transference is put onto in the current day could be a private figure – personal to the individual’s life, like a boyfriend or girlfriend – or a public figure – like a candidate or leader in an organization, a country, a world.
Transference is a complex process with many levels to understand and work with and through. For today, I’m going to talk basic and general, so you can begin to get a sense of the power of this mechanism. And so you can begin to get a sense of just how powerful it is when we are so completely unaware of its existence buried beneath the surface.
Here are some examples of transference related to the situations I described above:
Let’s say a woman’s father was mean and cruel, but her great grandfather, though distant, was quiet and seemingly wise and kind. That woman might grow up and transfer her cruel father onto most men, especially those she gets close to. With or without her even realizing it, she might draw mean, abusive men to her; and with or without realizing it, she might expect even the kind men that come close to be abusive to her. But she may also – without her awareness – transfer her seemingly kind great grandfather onto men who come toward her but stay at a distance. And from her little girl place, she might imagine what a wonderful, wise, loving man he would be . . . without even knowing him, or anything about him. With this transference in place, unless he actually did or said something cruel to her, she would continue to imagine his wonderful, virtuous qualities. And look to him for his goodness. Perhaps this is how someone like an Eve Rand in the movie Being There, might be drawn into her transference onto a Chance, the gardener.
Let’s say a man’s mother was a doctor in the slums of a major city abroad, a doctor committed to making the lives of the people in the slum better. The man loved his mama, all the more because he so rarely got to see her. But he did see photos of her in the papers and magazines, and stories about her on television . . . always surrounded by people who loved and were grateful to her. Let’s say this man’s mother died when he was a teenager, leaving him with a heart full of grief and an unfulfilled experience of mothering. In his early 20’s, a woman healer came to his part of the country, and he was drawn to her beyond explanation. He became a follower. He even became a promoter for her. He had transferred mama onto her, without any idea what he was doing. Nothing anyone could have said would have dissuaded him from his devotion to her . . . especially not telling him she was carrying out a hoax. “How could they say that of her – his mama?” He couldn’t have said that. It wouldn’t have been conscious. But it would have lived inside him, very alive within him, since he had unconsciously transferred his mother onto this fake healer.
Now imagine the party’s political candidate for national leader was saying all the “right” things, doing all the “right” things . . . not only enough to get him chosen as the party’s candidate, but also to seduce people, like you, who ordinarily might see through a programmed candidate. But this candidate has been programmed since childhood.
And, he just happens to remind you of your uncle . . . your mother’s brother who was your hero when you were a child. Your mother’s brother who was always there for you when you needed someone. Your mother’s brother who always talked with you, always took you places you needed to go, always helped you when you needed help.
Maybe he was even the brother of the mother who worked as a heroic doctor abroad, while you stayed home and lived with your aunt and uncle. Anyway . . . such a background with your uncle could easily be transferred onto this political candidate, without your being at all aware of the transference. In this case, it would be an example of idealized transference. So you end up utilizing your good experience of your uncle, who was not only good to you but also whom you, as a little child, probably idealized along with your mother . . . and you end up transferring that idealized uncle onto this political candidate. Again, you are not aware this is happening. You think, even believe, you have a very good understanding of who this political candidate is.
One more person to imagine for now – the new pope. You’ve never heard of him before. You are not a student of the papacy. He presents a pleasant enough presence. He is silent for a while. He says and does unique and perhaps touching things when he speaks . . . like staying on the same level with the cardinals instead of being on a raised platform, and asking to be blessed before he blesses the crowds. The media says he is humble, so you see his actions through that filter. They say he is a man of the people, so you let his riding the bus, cooking his own meals, and not living in the Archbishop’s Palace elevate his standing in your eyes and your heart. Whether you’re a Catholic or non-Catholic, you have been gravely concerned with what has gone on in the Catholic Church. You really want to believe this new pope can be trusted to do good in the church and in the world. Just like you really wanted to believe, when your mother remarried after she divorced your abusive father, that your new step father could be trusted to do good in your family. And because you were a little child, with your life in this new father’s hands, you wanted to believe so much . . . that you let yourself believe. The desire, and need, of a little child to believe, plus transference, leads a grown person – with child still alive within – to be vulnerable, seducible, and too easily seduced. In your case, your new step father turned out to be a decent man, to you. But maybe the step father of your next door neighbor wasn’t such a decent man – either to your playmate, or to his own children, now living with their mother; or maybe he wasn’t such a decent man to the children he taught in the nursery school. Nevertheless both you and your neighbor transfer onto the new pope – you transfer onto him your good experience with your step father, and your neighbor transfers onto him an idealized hope of a this-time-decent papa. And both of you will be somewhat blinded to who the pope really is by your early experiences and your transferences.
Of course, we can transfer anyone and anything. And just like we can idealize someone with our transference, so also can we demonize someone with our transference. So, for example, instead of transferring your new step father onto the pope, you could also transfer onto the pope your abusive father – the father you always wished would be kind and loving to you, but who, in the end, battered and abused you. And you then would anticipate, even expect the pope to be abusive and mean-spirited, and look for proof of that as his papacy unfolds. In the negative transference, too, you are blinded to who the pope really is by your early experiences and your transference.
And unless in each of these possibilities, you all investigate who the current day object of your transference is – the person onto whom you are transferring someone from the past – and also do your own deep inner work with the original source of the transference . . . you will not know who the other person in today’s world actually is. And you will not know who and what you are actually seeing, hearing, and experiencing in the current day. In other words, you will not know when your experience is a here-and-now experience, and when it’s an experience from long ago transferred and imposed onto today’s circumstances.
This is true as we relate to public figures like the ones I have used as examples, and it is also true in our private lives. With our friends, our bosses, our employees, our romantic partners, and even our own children. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with were wounded because their mother or father were jealous of their own siblings and transferred that sibling onto their son or daughter!
“This is staggering,” you say? “How do we get anything straight in our lives – private or public?”
Yes, this is staggering. In terms of our personal relationships and our public discourse and choices as citizens. And yes! This shows us clearly that we cannot just stay on the surface and believe working on the surface level will resolve the suffering – any suffering, any suffering completely. It may bring some temporary relief, but not lasting resolution.
Yes, this understanding of transference is staggering. But it is not a cause to become overwhelmed. Not a cause to collapse. Not a cause to give up. This is staggering . . . it is a very powerful revelation. It is a cause for celebration. It is filled with great potential and possibility. It is a solid reason for true and justified hope.
It is something to open your mind and your heart to . . . and to want to learn about. I hope you will want to learn about it conceptually, but even more . . . I hope you will want to learn about your very own transference experientially and emotionally. I hope you will want to learn about your very own transference and how it affects your life. And the lives of those you touch. I hope you will want to discover it and utilize it for healing. The potential for healing here is enormous.
Will you reach for this healing? Will you follow through on it for your individual healing and for the part your own healing will contribute to our communal healing?
© Judith Barr, 2013.
*This is not a critique of the new pope. I was actually planning on writing this article for my May newsletter. But with the unexpected changing of the guard at the Vatican, it helped to provide a perfect background from which to teach about transference.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
TO HELP MAKE YOUR AND OUR WORLD SAFE . . .
FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Transference is something we all experience . . . each of us, every day.
As you go about your day, notice your reactions to the people around you, people you hear about in the news, in the media, from others. Are your feelings and reactions too intense for the situation or news? Do you find yourself idealizing or demonizing people – people in your daily life or in the public eye? What do you feel when someone you idealize “lets you down”? And what do you feel when someone you’ve demonized does something unselfish or kind?
Explore the experience you have of others, situations, and things in your life, on a deeper than surface level. Who else from your past have you felt this way about? Trace those feelings back as early as you possibly can.
Usually, we are blind to our own transference and need a healing arts professional who can be objective to help us uncover it. And often, even when we are aware of it, we cannot resolve and dissolve the transference on our own, but need the compassionate, wise, skilled, and integritous real help of a therapist to go through the process.
As a depth psychotherapist, I welcome the opportunity to help people with their exploration of transference. I would gladly do consultations with anyone who would like an individual consultation. If enough people here in my area would like to do a workshop on this, I would gladly arrange it. If enough people here in my area would like to do a short term weekly group on this, I would gladly arrange that. If enough people outside my geographical area would like to do a teleconference on this, I would gladly arrange that.
If you would like to request any of these ways of exploring your transference, I welcome your emails.