May 24, 2010
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!
Kathy Broady, LCSW
Copyright © 2008-2010 Kathy Broady LCSW and Discussing Dissociation
May 9, 2010
It’s Mother’s Day 2010.
Mother’s Day – it’s a hard day for a lot of dissociative trauma survivors. It’s a day full of mixed emotions, painful longings, unhealed heartbreak. This day hurts the people who were hurt so much by their mothers.
Mothers are a complicated subject, to say the least, and the impact a mother can have on her children can and does change their lives. Abusive or neglectful mothers can teach some very damaging life lessons. Their children will carry those scars for decades of time.
I’ve seen this over and over with the DID survivors I work with. Years later, the ways their mother treated them affects so much of their life – maybe even more than they realize. People who were deeply wounded by their mothers often cannot view other maternal figures (Including other female authority figures) without getting confused in that relationship because of who their mother was. The crimes of the original mother spill over onto the relationship any children they might have, making it harder to be a good mother in their own life.
That original mother relationship affects how DID survivors see the world, how they experience people, what they believe about themselves, what they believe about the world around them, and how they interpret others. It is very central to the very core of their being.
Working with mother-transference issues is one of the hardest parts of being a DID therapist. It is the area where the therapeutic relationship is at its most tender. It is the most vulnerable place. It is the spot where issues and feelings can get messed with by people who wish harm upon that therapeutic relationship.
To explain this, let me start from further back.
For example, I was blessed to have a very good mother and she taught me a lot of valuable life lessons. She wasn’t perfect, but she was and is about as close to perfect as one could ever hope for in a mother. She is kind, loving, compassionate, caring, generous with her time, good with children, full of wisdom, patient, gentle, and self-less in so many incredible ways. She has been an example to me for how to interact with people, especially with children. My mother is non-judgmental, and she is willing to dig in and help anyone that she meets. She is a beautiful soul, and she leaves a positive impact wherever she goes.
Yes, my mother has taught me a lot. And almost all of what she has taught me has been good. I do much of what I do because I had an incredible mother who taught me to be kind to others.
Those that spend time with me will see this in my work with them. They will see that kindness, acceptance, gentleness, and generosity in what I do. They will reap the benefits of what my mother gave to me as I pass that on to those that I work with.
So what makes that so hard?
If I am pulling from a good place, what makes mother issues so complicated and difficult to work with?
It’s because not everyone can interpret today’s kindness as genuine kindness. The past wrinkles in and rolls up into the present, and the present becomes twisted into the past in an emotional kind of way.
Sometimes the damage done to trauma survivors confuses kindness with abuse. Sometimes the damage done by an abusive or neglectful mother is so pervasive that it colors all acts done by other females, and the perspective becomes so tainted that nothing is seen clearly. Female therapists are seen through the perspectives of “mother figures will abuse me”, “mother figures will hate me”, “mother figures will think I’m bad”, “mother figures will abandon me”, “mother figures are to be hated”, etc.
When trauma survivors truly believe, in their deepest selves, that women are there to abuse them, it is not an easy job to overcome that belief. The fear is too huge. The expectation of horrible doesn’t end. The fearful expectation of abuse can often overtake everything else.
Frequently the pain-anger-guilt-shame at not having a good mother can get thrown at the female therapist, and displaced and projected onto her as a safe place to express such deep heart-wrenching emotions. Therapeutically, this is expected to happen, and the goal is to work through that in a healing way. Most therapists and clients understand that, and will work through it as a team. It can be done, and when it is, very deep healing can occur.
However, sometimes trauma survivors get a little messed up along their journey. They truly get confused in this area, and understandably so. It’s an emotionally complex point, and trauma survivors are extremely vulnerable in this place. And because of those vulnerabilities, they can be easily misguided. They can get easily confused over who is the “good mother transference figure” and who is not. They listen to poor advice, or bad rumors, or are too unwilling to let go of their fears in order to heal. They stay convinced that women are out to get them, and they quickly join in with thinking that female therapists are abusive.
This breaks my heart.
I found it horrifically sad that some trauma survivors are willing to hold onto such beliefs that they would bring harm to themselves and to others. This only continues the cycle of abuse. It is not about healing. It is destructive.
(Yes, there are a few female therapists who are harmful to their clients, but those are few are far between, and those are not the people I am writing about in this particular article. That’s a completely different topic, to be discussed another day.)
This article is about genuinely good therapists who are mistaken as the “bad mother”. This article is about finding ways to heal from your abuse. It is about finding a woman of kindness, and not confusing her with your not-so-kind mother. It is about recognizing the differences, and not being pulled into old fears, old beliefs, and old ways, just because they are more familiar to you.
It is about learning to recognize someone that can be positive, helpful, and kind to you, and to your inner children. It is allowing that healing to occur. It is keeping clear on what happens in the present, and not distorting it or twisting it into something negative from your past.
It does not help your healing to project your “bad mother issues” onto a good therapist and then stay stuck in that spot. It only confuses you, and it prevents your healing. It brings harm to you and your system to stay stuck there.
Your female therapist can and will teach you something very different from what your mother taught you. Don’t assume the two women will be the same, because they will not be. Don’t project so much of your abusive past onto your current day therapist that you cannot see who she really is. Work hard at recognizing true kindness and gentleness for what it is.
Let yourself and your inner child parts have those corrective emotional experiences with a kind therapist and don’t let anyone mess with that. If you let someone distort those experiences – if you let someone convince you that something was abusive when it wasn’t — then you have brought emotional pain to your inner world that didn’t need to happen. If you weren’t abused, don’t let yourself believe that you were just because that is more familiar. Separate the past from the present.
Haven’t you been hurt enough? Why add to that?
It is important to try to believe that women are not out to get you. Female therapists are not here to harm you. What your mother taught you can apply to her, but it really and truly does not have to apply to everyone else. Your mother may have been cruel, cold, uncaring and abusive towards you. But not everyone will be. Not everyone wants to be.
Don’t assume the worst, and please don’t treat other women as if they did what your mother did.
It is very hard for trauma survivors to come to terms with these truths. But the sooner you do, the sooner you will find that place of genuine healing.
Don’t let the harmful lessons that your abusive or neglectful mother taught you ruin or destroy any more of your life. You truly can heal from the hurt and the trauma that you went through – I promise!
There are lots of good, helpful, kind, compassionate, caring women out here in the world. I encourage you to be one of them.
Kathy Broady LCSW
Copyright © 2008-2010 Kathy Broady LCSW and Discussing Dissociation