Last week, Brittany Deininger wrote about “places where we work out what it means to be human in relation to God, the earth, and others.” Here, D. Michael Louderback (MACP, ‘13), an analytic psychotherapist and ongoing contributor to this blog, writes about another way in which we work out (and work with) our humanity, particularly when our internal messages tell us that our humanity—or someone else’s humanity—is not worth loving well.
I remember when I opened the doors to my private practice back in the fall of 2013, secretly thinking that there would be no way the thing would ever fly. As a recent graduate, I was struggling to understand what the mind even is—what my mind even was—let alone the task of being able to help others build theirs. I was certain that even if I did acquire a handful of patients, they would inevitably leave upon discovering that I had no idea what I was doing. It’s fair to say that, in my opinion, I was doomed before I even sat with my first person.
Coincidentally, and unrelated in my young mind, this was a similar feeling I had towards other areas of my life—friends I would make, potential partners I would date, even towards my own therapist and cat! That, at the core of my heart, a serious, rooted belief existed that said nothing I would dare want in the world would find me valuable enough or lovable enough to stay. I had carried that inclination and psychic certainty around with me for 27 years—terrified of it, constantly looking for signs of it, keeping it hidden and smothered from notice through a charming disposition, the latest fashion, and the never-ending upkeep of being likable and funny and accommodating and easy and “straight” and gregarious and safe and attentive. Anything the situation called for, really, I would be.
In psychological life, what I’ve described from a page of my own life can be known as the transference. It is this odd and theoretical word that tries to sketch an experience and phenomenon that occurs in each and every one of our lives, much of the time.
Its make up? Transference is controversially and complicatedly known as all sorts of things—a fixed set of beliefs, a predetermined and projected attitude, a redirection of an experience onto something or someone completely new—or, quite simply, the feelings one has toward a therapist, lover, friend, pet, and on and on. It’s been described as an unresolved drama from early life, a medium through which internal psychic objects get located outside, and an obstacle of the ‘real.’
All of this is merely beginning the scratch the surface, of course.
Its purpose? Transference makes the brand new, the unknowable, more familiar. It makes the strange, the stranger, more recognizable so that the mind isn’t overwhelmed with a truly naked experience again and again, moment by moment, day after day. In many ways, we as humans couldn’t flow and move throughout our days and throughout the world without this essential function that the mind employs. Transference makes the world navigable and not entirely foreign.
Transference makes the world navigable and not entirely foreign.
However, as my story illuminated, it has its limitations and problems.
Transference is both real and not real at the same time. Within a person’s internal world, within this person’s experience and psychic reality—the transference feels entirely and unquestionably true. There were moments I would sit in a classroom as a boy, as a teenager, as a young man, and really feel that if people truly knew me, I would be abandoned. Those feelings about my early work weren’t inserted for the purpose of essay writing—they were real to me, they haunted me.
Yet, the transference is incomplete. It’s assumptive. It is often mistaken and arresting and limiting to the nourishment and growth of the mind, therefore, the person. Transference as possible tyranny. Transference as traumatic. Which can blot and suffocate an experience that actually is new and unknown, and needs to be known for the first time.
The truth is that we all need help to grow our capabilities of working-with our psychic equipment, our minds. We all need help with our projections, our mistaken beliefs, our transferences positive, negative or otherwise. Because when we don’t, we carry burdens around that needn’t be carried. Because when we don’t, we recreate the traumas that have been real to us again and again and again. Because when we don’t, we identify others—whether people of color, or women, or LGBTQ, or families, or churches, or Republicans, or Muslims, or Buddhists, or children or the vulnerable or pets—as the primary sources of pain and trouble and fear, instead of looking inside.
In September, my private practice will turn four years old and I will continue everyday going to work. My cat Jake is currently snoozing, twitching a bit from his dreams, as I write this essay. I’m in some of the best relationships I’ve ever had the privilege of participating in now; ones where I get to be exactly as I am—without all of the protective and exhausting facades. And? I think it’s fair to say that my therapist enjoys (dare I say loves me), as I wholeheartedly enjoy and love him.
My point? Transferences need worked-though, not transferred. Transferences need cared about and understood and, if we’re lucky, resolved and opened up and let go. And strange situations, strangers, need to be strange-enough so that they can be known uniquely and exactly as they are, rather than what we fabricate them to be.