When I was in training to become a psychotherapist, I was taught about transference. Transference is like looking at the world through a filter, with the filter being unexamined emotions we experienced in childhood toward significant people in our lives (usually parents). When transference is happening, we may look like adults, but we think, feel, and behave as if we are five; that is, through the perspective of unresolved emotions and confused beliefs about ourselves and the world.
I once knew someone who was frequently ridiculed and criticized by her mother when she was a child. The best way she could figure out to cope was by trying to please her family members. She became extremely vigilant of the needs of those around her, agreeing with them, paying them compliments, and bringing them gifts. As a mother herself, she was reticent to set limits with her own children, who became demanding, petulant, and uncontrollable. Transference was at play: her childhood world view, including fears of criticism and need to protect herself by being passive and solicitous, was being projected on to her current family situation – and it clearly wasn’t working for her.
Examining the Filter
What is inspiring about understanding this process is that it offers us tremendous opportunities for freedom. And when we are free, even the sky isn’t the limit. Let’s face it: are we really happy when we’re angry at the boss for being too controlling, when we submerge our own desires out of fear, when we’re tired of a meager bank balance, when we are desperately waiting to be noticed? We are certainly free to continue these patterns if we want to. But if we look inside and honestly inquire about what we really want, we may find the motivation and courage to explore these patterns, even if we are uncomfortable with what we discover.
Freedom is about bringing everything out of the shadows. When our inner life is fully known to us, there is no confusion and no drama. Rather than denying or avoiding these reactions that bring turmoil and dissatisfaction to our lives, we can befriend them and welcome them in to be lovingly and compassionately received. When they are no longer hidden, we are conscious. We move from being a victim of our reactions, from being frustrated and inflexible, to being open, fluid, and available to things as they are. Take away the filter, and what remains is clarity and ease.
But let me clarify…I do not ascribe to the need for analyzing one’s childhood problems to the nth degree in order to be free of their impact. My orientation is always in the here and now. If an unproductive pattern can be released simply by seeing the futility of perpetuating it, it’s time for celebration, as nothing further needs to be done. However, some patterns are very sticky. We know they aren’t serving us, but they don’t seem to let go. Recognizing that an unresolved situation from the past is being projected onto the present can be the doorway to the release, finally allowing us to put down the heavy baggage we’ve been carrying around. And who doesn’t want to lighten their load?
Understanding Early Conditioning
Our conditioning begins very early on, and the filters through which we see the world are deeply embedded. I was recently reminded of some research performed decades ago by psychologist Mary Ainsworth that identified three types of relationships between children and parents, with the effect extending throughout the life span. These dynamics can help us identify hidden places within ourselves from which surprisingly strong emotions and sticky patterns spring forth.
In the research, securely attached children could tolerate brief absences by their mothers and are trusting and confident as adults. They remember their parents as warm and affectionate. Avoidant children did not interact much with their mothers and tend to be suspicious and self-doubting as adults. They perceive their mothers as rejecting and unavailable. Finally, anxiously attached children clung to their mothers and are more dependent and afraid of rejection as adults. They remember their fathers as biased and unjust.
This understanding invites us to look back to these tender times to experience the suppressed feelings in a new and safe way, to gain perspective, and to learn to take care of ourselves when these triggers erupt.
Healing the Hidden Aspects of Our Inner Life
Investigating these submerged aspects of ourselves asks us to be curious, open, loving, and nonjudgmental. After all, there was something frightening about allowing these experiences to stay alive in our awareness when they were originally felt, so much so that they went underground. In fact, people invariably find that actually meeting their experience is far less frightening and painful than they imagined.
Tip: it might be helpful to go through this process by writing down your responses to the questions.
Identify the Pattern
- See what situations trigger you and who presses your buttons. Look for anger, passivity, needing to control, sadness, fear, agitation, interpersonal problems of any kind. Does a difficult person in your life remind you of someone significant from your childhood?
- Take a look at how this tendency has played out in your life. How far back does it go? When you experience these emotions and bodily reactions, how old do you feel?
- If this process brings up sadness, fear, or anger in you, respond to it like you would to an upset child, with gentleness and compassion.
Allow your emotions to be seen in the light of conscious awareness
They may have been suppressed for a very long time, and the healing comes from welcoming them with your loving attention. This audio meditation can be a support for you.
- Find a place to sit quietly for a while.
- Let the feelings bubble up into the friendly, safe space you are offering.
- Don’t judge, reject, or pull away. Stay clear about your intention.
- Welcome the physical sensations, thoughts, energies, feelings just as they are.
- If you find your mind distracting you by its activity, take a breath and bring your attention back to your immediate experience.
Use your perspective as an adult
- Can you understand how you would feel the way you felt? Can you validate yourself for having these emotions?
- Take a look at the intentions of those around you. Can you see that they were scared, angry, confused, or stressed? They may not have been doing their job to give you what you needed, but they probably couldn’t do any better than they did.
- What beliefs about yourself, other people or the world did you develop as a result of your experiences?
- Can you follow the timeline back to the present and bring this understanding to the emotional reactions you currently have so you can see more clearly? Can you see that perpetuating this pattern from childhood is not serving you? Is it time to let it go?
- Let’s imagine for a moment that it is impossible for you to have an emotional reaction to the situation that triggers you. Feel the freedom. What new behaviors or responses might be possible?
Learn to self-soothe
- Self-soothing: even the phrase itself is calming.
- Take a few deep breaths to help yourself relax.
- Remember the clarity you discovered from the inquiry above.
- In the moments when you are in emotional reaction, bring your attention inside, validate the feeling, and surround it with love.
Ongoing acceptance and compassion for all of our experiences is living fully in the here and now – fresh and alive to every precious moment! No matter how many times it takes, each reaction is a gift on a silver platter, another opportunity to realize peace, clarity, and the deepest happiness.
I’d love to hear: Where do you get stuck? How have you made progress on freeing yourself?
image credit: pedrosimoes7