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
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