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
April 26, 2009
Every now and then, Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne) from HBO’s series, “In Treatment” comes out with a good line, full of depth, and accurate to the therapy process.
In one of the episodes I saw this week, Dr. Weston says, “Is it easier to be angry with me than to look at your own pain?” His client was throwing all kinds of angry jabs at him when clearly she was angry, upset, and miserable about her own life.
Even though it was said on television, that line has a lot of truth in it.
Is it easier to be angry with me than to look at your own pain?
I realize that most of you reading this blog are not connected enough with me — Kathy — to make me a likely target for your anger. Frankly, I appreciate that. Believe me, I’m not “volunteering” to be the target.
But, have a think about the people that are closer to you — the people that are more visible in your life.
Is it easier to be angry with your therapist than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with your spouse than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with your friend than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with your boss than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with a stranger than to look at your own pain?
Is it easier to be angry with yourself than to look at your own pain?
So many people want to deflect their pain by pointing at other people, blaming other people, and being angry with other people. It’s often too hard to sit with your own pain without doing that.
What makes anger easier to express than pain?
How many times have you argued with or fussed at your therapist when you were in deep pain?
What makes your therapist a safe enough person to be the target of your anger?
For people with DID (dissociative identity disorder), it is even more complicated because there are often insiders with memories of pain that they want to talk about, and the host / front alter part may not want to hear about it. Host parts can get angry and upset with their therapists for listening to the inside ones. Why is this so often the case?
Are you getting angry at your therapist instead of looking at your own pain?
Listening to all that a person says is an important part of therapy. Would you rather your therapist not listen to your inner parts? Isn’t that the same as asking your therapist to not listen to you as a whole person? Why should your therapist talk to some of you, but not all of you, especially if those others want to talk about the pain that they are feeling? Why should they be ignored, neglected, shunned?
What if your therapist listened and talked to them, but not to you? It probably wouldn’t go over so well if the shoe were on the other foot.
See, even though you are switching, and you feel very much like different people, your therapist will still see you as the same basic person. While there may be some parts of your system that are more involved with the current day / outside world than others, everyone in your system is still important, and everyone can have their say.
Of course, part of the difficulty here is that some of the insiders speak about things that the host is very very uncomfortable with. Sometimes the insiders speak of trauma memories that the host doesn’t want to hear about. Sometimes the insiders speak of ongoing abuse, or abuse by a loved one. Sometimes the very speaking about abuse at all is more than the host wants to hear.
Another common reason that dissociative trauma survivors express anger at their therapist is because expressing anger at their perpetrators is too complicated. Displacing and projecting anger at your therapists instead of your perpetrators may help to find some version of release of anger, but it isn’t really going to get to the root of the problem, so it’s not going to get the kind of resolution that you might be looking for.
Expressing anger at the people that hurt you — while one might think that should be easy — is actually very difficult for survivors with dissociative disorders. There are a number of different reasons for this:
- The violent, sadistic abuser is still alive and still poses a threat. If you are overwhelmed by your fear of this person, it is harder to feel safe enough to be angry with them.
- You may have been threatened with great harm and more violence if you expressed anger or irritation with your perpetrators. This “rule” is hard to overcome.
- You may be too dissociated from your trauma memories to really know who your perpetrators are. When this is the case, you are at risk of expressing your anger at the wrong people.
- Due to the complications of your family dynamics and trauma memories, you might feel too trapped by your own guilt, or shame, or humiliation to feel able to be angry at anyone else.
Emotions can be very complex and finding a way to safely and honestly express your pain and your anger may take a lot of work and practice.
The next time you are angry at your therapist, think about what Dr. Weston words, “Is it easier to be angry with me than to look at your own pain?”
Kathy Broady LCSW