In response to some questions asked about my previous blog article about Mother’s Day, I’ve decided to follow up with an additional post on the topic of transference.
Transference isn’t necessarily an exciting topic, but it is fundamentally important to understanding the dissociative therapy treatment process. Hopefully, this article will help to clarify more about the importance of these issues.
What is transference?
How do you recognize it?
How do “mother issues” become a common transference issue for female therapists? (And likewise, how do father issues become common transference issues for male therapists?)
Is transference healthy?
Is it important?
Yes, transference issues are a common part of the healing work done with every trauma therapist / dissociative client. The frequency of transference issues makes them very important topics to talk about and to understand. Transference issues surface all the time in the DID therapy process — in a variety of ways — often in simple and unexpected ways. It would probably be fair to say that some kind of mother transference can potentially show up every week in therapy.
Addressing transference issues appropriately are fundamental to healing, so if it seems I write about them a lot in this blog, it’s because they are important. Transference issues are when feelings about an important person in the past become “transferred” onto another person in the present. It can be as simple as a little reminder, or in the case of some dissociate trauma survivors, it can go as far as the client literally seeing someone else’s face put on to the other person in a flashback type fashion.
Transference happens when something connected to Person A significantly reminds clients of Person B, or to their relationship with Person B, to the point that Person A can be viewed as the same as Person B. Person A is not Person B, but clients deeply tangled in their transference issues may not be able to tell the difference. In essence, it becomes a type of relationship psychodrama where clients address their complicated, complex feelings about Person B by acting them out with Person A. At some point, clients need to recognize Person A is Person A, and that Person A is not Person B. Only Person B is Person B.
In the therapy process with survivors with dissociative identity disorder, the therapeutic goal of working with transference is to allow clients address emotionally painful material with Person A while having that safe distance from Person B (the alleged “bad guy” or traumatic figure). However, therapeutic progress will occur only as clients see that Person A is simply the “reminder” of their feelings and memories regarding Person B. By exploring the issues about Person B with Person A, clients can achieve deep healing on their genuine trauma and simultaneously successfully separate Person A from staying in that “bad guy” place.
If clients do not transfer the feelings back to Person B, but keep them stuck on Person A, they have prevented healing from occurring. Person A is only a temporary “substitute”. The real issues belong with Person B. Staying focused on Person A prevents and distracts the real healing from happening.
Understanding complex details of the actual relationship between clients and their mothers is important to recognizing specific instances of transference, but some common examples of how mother transference issues can be seen in regular DID therapy session situations are:
- The therapist cancels a session (or two or three) and the client fears the therapist will never come back, or that the therapist hates her, or that the therapist is abandoning her. (re: mother abandonment)
- The therapist doesn’t call or email a response quickly enough and the client feels like the therapist is ignoring her, or refusing to speak to her, or hates her, or is mad at her. (re: mother neglect)
- The therapist wears a green shirt that reminds the client of a traumatic situation when the mother was wearing a green shirt, and the client becomes fearful that the therapist will abuse her the same as the mother did. (re: mother trauma)
- The therapist hands a male co-worker a file containing conference information and reference materials but the client becomes convinced that the female therapist (mommy) is telling the male therapist (daddy) all kinds of bad information about her so that the client will end up getting in trouble and abused. (re: mother betrayal)
- The therapist shows genuine kindness, acceptance, and compassion with the client and the child parts. The child parts attach to the therapist and wish with their whole heart that the therapist could be the mommy they never had. The client clings excessively to the therapist and pretends the therapist is her mother. (re: mother fantasies)
Survivors struggle with transference issues all the time, and there are many survivors that find it “safer” to blame a therapist instead of really looking at their family dynamics / actual trauma issues. While it may feel safer or easier to displace the issue onto a therapist, those same survivors can spend a lot of time not actually addressing their real issues because they are obsessing about the wrong person. It can create a lot of wasted therapy, wasted time, wasted resources, ill feelings, etc.
However, it is important realize that some people really will not (or cannot? Or chose not to?) face their real issues, so they transfer and project their issues onto someone else instead for an extended period of time. There can be a number of motivating factors, and addressing why someone wants to (needs to) focus on the wrong target is a critically important part of the healing process too. Why are they stuck at this point? What else is going on for them? What are they avoiding? What secondary needs are they meeting by obsessing on the wrong person? What’s the rest of the story? There has to be more going on somewhere.
Obviously, one of the role of therapists is to help someone build the skills / ability to look at their real issues, and to weed out or steer away from the incorrect focus on distractions / displacements. For a therapist to encourage a client to stay focused on a surrogate target would be a disservice to the client. That would be like medically treating someone for a broken pinky finger when in reality, they had bone cancer. The diagnosis of the problem has to be correct, or it is not proper treatment. This is true in understanding the complexity of transference issues. Accurately recognizing what is being transferred from where to where is critical in resolving the issues.
If someone wants to address their healing, it typically is much more effective for the clients to genuinely address their mother (or father) issues directly instead taking it out on a therapist (or a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a friend, or a spouse, etc etc.). No one will find healing on Situation A if they are obsessed about Situation Q.
It is fair to say that female therapists are frequently put into that “mother role”, far more than the average person would be, especially with traumatized clients. This is even more true for DID survivors with child parts. (Most child parts have bunches of unresolved mother issues, and understandably so.) Yes, working on mother transference issues is a natural part of the therapeutic process, but it is only the starting place, not the ending place.
There is a very fine balance of working with the transference, and not getting caught in them, or stuck in them.
If your therapist is not your mother, but she reminds you of your mother, what can you do to sort out your deep painful feelings?
If your therapist is not your mother, but you wish she were your mother, what can you do to meet those unmet needs?
Do your feelings for your mother effect how you view your therapist?
Have you discussed these feelings openly with your therapist?
The very best remedy to keep from getting caught in a negative transference dilemma involves a lot of detailed, honest communication between you and your therapist. Talk about this. Talk LOTS about this. Sort out who is who and what is what. Don’t be afraid to approach this topic with your therapist, as it is fundamentally one of the most important areas of your healing work.
Good luck – and keep working at this. It’s important!
Copyright © 2008-2018 Kathy Broady MSW and Discussing Dissociation
stupid ex t used to blame everything on transference. any time i got mad or upset with her it got blamed on transference. Never mind that she, the t, was DOING stuff that would have made any person pissed off…too many things to write down.
but she could never take responsibility for anything she might have done, because after all, she was apparently perfect 🙄. she did not seem to get it that sometimes it was possible for someone to be mad at HER because SHE did something wrong. EVERYTHING was transference. 😡 God forbid it ever wasnt. That way, she didnt have to deal with it, she could just brush away all my feelings, and never have an actual damn discussion with me, 🙁
Hello Again Kathy,
In regards to this subject, well, I grew up in foster care (30 homes, residential schools, group homes and institutionalized) before age 18. I am working hard on my issues and like you mentioned above about transferring the feelings to your therapist versus the perpetrators. I am having an extremely difficult time doing this to get unstuck as I can’t find “the others” within myself to try and point my feelings towards them. For example, yes I can get angry and upset at my biological parents as I know who they are and sort of what they look like. But the rest are a batch of nameless sea of faces (non-defined). It seems I can only transfer my feelings to the “world” because I really cannot make the actual connection to “real” people in my past.
Is there something I am missing or any suggestions you may be able to make that may allow me to turn my feelings away from my therapist (yes I have told her about them)?
It is extremely hard for me to have the raw feelings and try and not blame her at this point, hence I am stuck. I want to be part of her life (she is retiring next year) and she will not allow it which of course has brought up some significant issues for me such as extreme fear, abandonment, worthlessness (I wouldn’t fit into her upscale lifestyle), etc. and in order for me to try and move forward, well I really need some creative ideas on getting past being stuck here as I am always panicking these days.
If you can offer anything at all to try, I cannot tell you how much I would appreciate it!!!!
Or possibly any books that may be of some help!
I just recently landed back in therapy after a 12 year break from DID therapy. I tried to go to a regular grief therapist and she decided she wouldn’t see me unless I saw a Trauma T. Long story short, I am now in therapy with the Trauma T for about 3-4 months I think. We have talked about transference issues, especially when I was struggling with her feeling like my mom. But, I don’t think she has any idea how badly I am struggling with it. I feel completely obsessed about my therapy and my T when I am not there. It seems like it is all I want to think about. Last week we talked about how therapy is very destabilizing for me. I am really afraid if my T found out how obsessed we are with her she will abandon us and say it isn’t healthy. I know it is not healthy, but I don’t want to give her up either. I don’t know what to do.
Therapist Vacation – I am asking for some assistance with coping yet again with my T starting to go away on vacations over the next several months. First let me say she usually only goes away no more than a 10 day period but for years & years I still experience the high intensity of emotion as if it where the first time she left. Yes I have talked about this issue over & over & over and have also self-talked, tried reassuring parts, etc. and still just want to die every single time this happens. Unfortunately we have tried objects, videos, storybook videos, relaxation tapes, etc. & again same thing. It always feels like someone is cutting my insides out. My T keeps reassuring me that due to lack of anything & I mean anything consistent in my life this lack of things not working is to be expected. In another words as a foster child “everything” changed in an instant (clothes, house, parents, schools, etc.) & at times I would literally just wake up in a T-shirt & pants in a totally different home for which I was moved too in the middle of the night. I logically understand pretty much everything & why but I cannot seem to find a way after 20 years with my T to not feel the same way each & every time they go away & was wondering if maybe, just maybe anyone has anything else that I could possibly try? I am getting tired, frustrated and frankly sick of feeling this much intense agony each & every time!! I have tried keeping busy, sitting with the feelings, self-talk, & all the “usual” recommendations over the years & yes I live through each time but I do not see any end to this madness within me!! DBT, CBT, Meditation, (exercise is off the table now due to neuro degenerative disease) so at age 54 I seem to be stuck in this particular mode & cannot find my way out!! I would really appreciate some input on this subject – thank you!!
Kathy Broady says
Wow, you have done a whole lot of work on a truly difficult issue that I’m sure many others can relate to. Here are five of my quick thoughts.
Write out encouraging, positive new thoughts that you want to tell yourself (and your brain) – all the ideas you want to learn / remember while your T is away. What new and positive messages do you need to give yourself and your insiders? Read these messages outloud to yourself repeatedly, as in dozens of times repeatedly, especially before, and during, any feelings of panic start to surface. Let your brain hear these new messages in your own voice. And… Let everyone in your system take turns reading these outloud to themselves too.
Look inside. Find the little ones that are feeling these feelings most intensely. Address their needs directly, one-on-one with those specific insiders. Sometimes the “global system” approach is too vague for specific insiders. They may very well need individualized attention / comfort / assistance doing all those things you mentioned, but tailored specifically for Jane or Julie, etc.
Keep exploring your system’s fears if what might happen next…. And then what could happen, and then what, and then what…. You might find some new reasons for why this situation is such a trigger for you and your people. Dig deep, with individual insiders, to understand why they are each feeling so very afraid.
Comfort! Self comfort! Self comfort, with all the nicest things you can do. NOT self injury or self harm. Gentle, soft, non-hurtful things. Pretty things. Nice smelling things. New adventures. Old favorite books and tv shows, etc.
You will get through the 10 days. You’ve survived it every time, and this one will be ok too. I have full confidence that you can do this.
Keep up the good work – it will make a difference!!
Thank you so very much Kathy as I greatly appreciate your input!! I printed the information out & I will keep trying!! To feel so overwhelmed like this each & every time (including in-between person to person sessions), well it seems like the feeling will never end!! My T will also be retiring in a year & a half, so now every time she goes away the anxiety really has amplified the feeling as that is “REALITY” is coming. At any rate, I do appreciate you taking the time to write back with some suggestions & positive reinforcement – 🙂 – Thank you again!! Betty
Jean Eisenhower says
Love your advice here, Kathy! Thank you for this, which I know will be useful to so many of us.
“If someone wants to address their healing, it typically is much more effective for the clients to genuinely address their mother (or father) issues directly instead taking it out on a therapist (or a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a friend, or a spouse, etc etc.). No one will find healing on Situation A if they are obsessed about Situation Q.”
This is good. This is the only way to healing. It’s central to the FOG dissociation too.
Kathy, I want to find you. You’re in DFW and I would like to speak with you. Is that possible?
I struggle with this whole issue around transference. I mean I get it in terms of therapists looking after themselves and protecting their lives. I get that in terms of their ability to separate their personal from their work… Many of us do that regardless of our occupation. BUT why does how I feel about someone have to be made into something that is unreal and transferred from something else….. Before anything else I am human and I, like others have the need for affection affirmation and positive relationships. I care very deeply for my therapist.. and no she doesnt talk much about herself… which i respect but it doesnt mean i dont relate and see her character… i have connected with the realness of that.The fact that I am dissociative, come from an institionalised background and was unloved and treated with abuse is…very secondary…. Surely there are some relationships built with therapists that are real.. Maybe it is just your profession that needs to box how I feel and make it our fault for feeling connected and cared about…your profession is really a confusing me about what’s real or not… Really this is no helpful in me growing me.
This is a really great explanation detailing the importance of identifying and working through the different parts of transference! Thank you!
Kathy Broady says
Thanks for your comment, and welcome to the Discussing Dissociation blog.
Transference…. it’s a very important thing to understand — I’m glad my article was helpful. That’s the whole point. 🙂
All the best to you —
This is so super hard. Especially when different parts have different types of transference and you don’t know everything they do and you don’t know where exactly it came from or why. It’s hard when you don’t have good communication or another part doesn’t get it. It’s hard when your parts are scared to talk so it’s not even talked about or it gets ignored and everyone shuts down even more. It’s super hard when you don’t have help and then that fact just makes it a double trigger. It’s super hard. 🙁 Please say more when you can.
and it’s hard when you’re really trying and things don’t seem like they’re getting better.
Sorry don’t mean to be such a downer.
My mother never fulfilled the normal (I guess) needs I had as a child.
I have connected to my T in session sometimes in a way which is beautiful. She has done a lot to aid our healing and really goes the extra mile. Clearly though she cannot ever completely fulfil those needs either though (since she can never actually become my mother – sad fact of life for those of us on the receiving end of therapy).
So my question is – despite it obviously being fine to grieve about what we missed out on from my mother, is it fair to our T to grieve openly over her never being able to fulfil that need either? Is it something a T would normally be able to separate themselves from? Or is it selfish? Would it hurt her to watch us grieve over this? Or, in self protection, make her resent us?
Thank you Ms. Kathy!
This post really got me thinking… I’m still thinking,
and I’ll do lots of talking about it with my T. too!
O.K. so I am one of the notes of Many Notes…..
I am having all sorts of transference issues in every area of my life….our lives. Besides having person A and B issues (see Kathy’s quote below) our new T agrees with us that there is no “core” person. No one person that was born with a whole personality. We are growing so much in the early stages of childhood that although the body may have tendencies towards being outgoing or shy these are by no means fully developed identities.
“Transference happens when something connected to Person A significantly reminds clients of Person B, or to their relationship with Person B, to the point that Person A can be viewed as the same as Person B. Person A is not Person B, but clients deeply tangled in their transference issues may not be able to tell the difference. In essence, it becomes a type of relationship psychodrama where clients address their complicated, complex feelings about Person B by acting them out with Person A. At some point, clients need to recognize Person A is Person A, and that Person A is not Person B. Only Person B is Person B.”
Well, we FIND SOMETHING connected to Person A that will MAKE us be able to view Person B as person A. We cannot untangle these complex needs to make Person A into another person no matter what. It seems like an endless parade that goes in a circle. Person A becomes Person B becomes Person C becomes Person D becomes Person A, etc. It is as if it is AGAINST THE RULES to ever see a person for who they really are. It is as if we NEED to try to find the closest mold of someone we know to fit everyone in so they make sense to us and to make it more complicated Person A can at times, to different alters, be either Persons B, C, D etc. depending on which alter is out.
I’m writing about this because these issues are coming up for me now. My beloved T (who happens to be in turns a beloved great Aunt, a Mother, a Grandmother, a Mentor) has cancer and is still seeing me as her illness came up very suddenly. We are still doing therapy. Meanwhile I have started working with a male T (for the first time successfully) who I am getting to know and recently has “looked like” to us a Father, a Teacher, a Perp, a goofy guy and I guess as a Therapist too. It gets even more convoluted but I guess what I am trying to say is this thing called transference is still beyond my/our comprehension.
…I wonder if anyone read this whole post…..?
My first time here! Great Blog!
I have defiantly found us doing this. I tend to do one of two things. Either I get too attached, wanting (crying inside) for my them to be my mommy or I keep an unnatural distance because I am scared of getting too attached and afraid of getting hurt.
Kathy Broady says
Welcome to Discussing Dissociation! 🙂 I’m glad you like it here – thank for your kind words.
Transference is such an important area of therapeutic work – keep exploring those feelings with your therapist and you’ll be able to make a lot of progress. It’s good that you are recognizing these dynamics and patterns already.
Thanks for your comment – I wish you the best in your healing journey –
This is so helpful to me today. I’ve reached a tough spot with my T, where he’s not been forthcoming on several occasions and it’s a bad idea to stay with a T who’s not fully professional. My consumer self is certain.
But, I’ve absolutely got to figure out how to separate from someone I have deep feelings for (T, parents, Person B) and feel positive about the choice.
Thanks for helping me reconnect with the other elements of my situation – I’m not just plain annoyed with my T’s work. It’s about expectations, disappointment, being failed by someone you love, the wished-for relationship.
heartofindigo said so well what I feel. I really have nothing to add except….ditto and it is hard to stay on track. It is so easy for my inner parts as well as myself (maybe I’m an inner part, who knows) tend to really use many tactics to distract both our system and our therapist from the work that is most valuable in the long run.
When I kept getting into semi-professional relationships with controlling women that I could not walk away from, even though I saw that they were unhealthy, my T explained to me the fundamentals of transference (although she did not call it that). The way she put it was that I was finding people who were somehow similar to my mom, and getting attached to them, in hopes that “this time” it would work out. But it never did.
So then when I learned about client-therapist transference from you (and also RockerGirl), it was not hard to understand that I would be doing that with my T. It was pretty scary to bring it up, but she was very good at helping me explore my feelings, and not taking it personally. I realized that I had projected the “good mommy” onto her, and was trying to be a “good patient” so that I would not evoke the “bad mommy” and experience the (real or imagined) rejection that I so fundamentally fear. I finally “got” how exhausting this was. I also got that I could not trust myself not to “make stuff up” that I felt would elicit acceptance and approval.
This was very important, because part of my history was to hide the abuse (from myself, let alone my parents) and create a false persona, meanwhile, splitting my real feelings off into other parts. So part of my healing is to be able to be honest with somebody about how I really feel, even if I don’t really understand the source of these incredibly painful feelings (yet).
One of the hardest parts is getting the littles to transfer their “good mommy” projection/need from my T back onto me. And basically, my current understanding is I need to earn it from them, by *being* a good mommy to them, which involves learning parenting skills (I don’t have outside kids of my own).
At the core of finding the balance between letting my T be a “stand in” and getting lost in the projection is understanding that *I* am responsible for my healing, not my T. It’s not an easy position to hold on to–I fall into feeling out of control and overwhelmed a lot. But after a LOT of painful struggle, I now realize that it is empowering for me to take this stand. I have committed to my self/selves that I would see this through, no matter who “believed me” or not, or whatever other curve balls that life might throw at me. Yes, I need support right now, but I have been creating a partnership with my T that is able to contain (so far, anyway) transference issues.
What you write reasonates so strongly. I want to have what you say pinned up so I can look at it! I’m a few steps behind you I think on the transference and managing that line between understanding it’s ok to see T as the good parent and learning how to parent myself. And also a few steps behind on realising how exhausting it is to be the ‘good child’ in therapy week in week out.
Thank you for sharing.
i think we do more transference with stuff related tu other therpists than mother transference
but we see it fer wat it is
Granted, I tend to not get as attached to my T’s as some, but I have experienced (and read about others) having T’s who are mixed up on this. You’d said: “The diagnosis of the problem has to be correct, or it is not proper treatment. This is true in understanding the complexity of transference issues. Accurately recognizing what is being transferred from where to where is critical in resolving the issues.”
Totally!! But how do therapists know that that is happening? I am begining to think that, even though I know therapists must ungo training on transference and dissociation, there is still not enough information on dissociatve clients and how to accurately diagnose transference (vs. seeing their client as clingy, stalking, acting out – I’ve read about these things).
For me, I knew when I was attached to my T and I was concerned about it – she looked at me like I was speaking a different language. When something came up where it was sort of transferrence, but I knew what it was and was trying to state “This is my experience, this is why i think you’ll leave me” (i think it was close to that), T said “I am not your mother.” That got me angry. NO JOKE! I KNOW you’re not my mother – you’re not even remotely close to her. I couldn’t get T to understand that i KNEW the what, why, and how. What I wanted help on was transforming it. But I couldn’t communicate that to her.
Sorry, I think i derailed myself on my own thoughts, and now can’t get them back. But I guess i just wish there were more info out there… or REQUIRED traning for Con. Ed. hours/units/credits that would help the therapists understand to not get frustrated with clients who are going through transferrence (haha counter transferrence on the Ts) and help to work through rather than blame/get angry at the client. There has to be open communication both ways or the theraputic relationship is doomed.
I think highly dissociative people get caught up in the imprint of the past, and it is almost like they have no conscious choice but to reinact it unless there is a highly skilled therapist present who can interrupt the reinactment in a way that does not cause guilt or shame on the person. There is already so much of that, that it is probably part of the reinactment and simply “proves” that this is how this process functions.
triger= transferrence = slipping into imprint of the past = reinactment = negative response from T (aka parent or abuser) = thought process of “this is how this works” being complete.
we dont wish enebody culd be are mom. or dad. its beter not to have a mom or dad .cos anebody we had w we wuld make them into a bad persin evn if we had sombody nise like the mom and dad from litol house on the prarie. theyh be nise on tv but if they had us for kids they wuld tern bad. are old T her ust to say somtims we must want her to be are mom. but we rilly dint. cos we dint want to ruin things.