Understanding Transference

Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who has proven themselves trustworthy but somehow you can’t get it out of your mind that they’re cheating on you? Even though it’s going great, maybe you’re jealous for no reason and you feel like you’re just waiting for that other shoe to inevitably drop?

Or you’re out with friends and you have to leave early and the second you walk away you’re SURE they must be talking about you behind your back (even though you have no evidence to back this up)?

Or maybe you’re confused by an irrationally angry or super emotional response you have to a virtual stranger or acquaintance…like…what is actually going on here?

If you’ve ever had an experience where you feel like your emotions are not lining up to what is actually going on, this week’s episode is for you. 

I’m going to teach you how to be able to identify when you might be having a transference response or reaction to something in the present that is really based on your experiences of the past. 

NOW is not THEN and understanding what’s going on under the surface of your interactions is crucial. Why? Put simply, “We repeat what we do not repair”.

There are definitely steps you can take to raise your awareness and decide to do something different so that this behavior no longer negatively impacts your life and relationships!

So What is Transference?

It’s having an emotional reaction or response in the present that is driven by unresolved feelings from your past. When you’re experiencing transference, you can become unconsciously triggered by a person or situation, and your reaction is fueled by an earlier experience that is in some way similar to the current situation or person. 

Freud originated the theory of “repetition compulsion,” and taught us that as human beings we have a compulsion to repeat dramatic or traumatic experiences. 

While you might be saying to yourself, “Um…yeah…no thanks,” what I can tell you is that after being in the trenches with clients for the past two decades, this behavior, which I call, “Repeating Realities” is extremely common and often an unconscious process.

Unless you’re willing to do the work necessary to become self-aware enough to bring unconscious material up into your conscious mind to address and understand past experiences, you run the risk of continuing to find yourself in the same undesirable situations over and over again. 

How do you know if you’re having a transference experience? 

> Look at your response in the moment. You might feel more strongly than the circumstance of the situation calls for and have an over-the-top hostile, angry or hurt response. It could happen instantly like a button just got pushed or it could feel like a slow burn that you keep ruminating on. If your reaction is extreme in relation to what is happening in the present moment, you could be experiencing a transference. 

> Take stock of your relationships. Have you ever stayed in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) that’s far past its expiration date? If you stay in unhealthy relationships for too long, take a look at your history. If you grew up in a chaotic, dysfunctional or addictive family system particularly, you might experience a transference of the love you felt for a parent or caregiver who was unwell or psychologically injured. As a child, you didn’t have the option of leaving, and if you’re having this kind of transference in adulthood, you might feel paralyzed or unable to move away from an unhealthy relationship dynamic, because the emotions (love, responsibility, guilt, fear) you feel aren’t just tied to this person in the present, they are layered with deeply rooted emotions from your past as well. 

> Being obsessed with another person or having an unexplained attraction or repulsion to someone. If you’re having these kinds of intense feelings about someone for what seems like no reason, these things can indicate that this person in your life now is reminding you of an earlier situation or of someone else that had a big impact on your emotional landscape in the past. 

> Do you take things very personally when it comes to certain people or situations? If you’re having a transference to someone, you’ll make up a script of why they’re doing what they’re doing, just like when you were a child. For example, you might have a story that your father hated you or rejected you and if someone in your adult life unconsciously reminds you of your dad, you could be thinking something like: “I don’t know why but I don’t think he likes me.” That could be a transference based on old, unresolved feelings not on anything that’s happening now in the moment. 

So how can you stop repeating these painful experiences of transference? To help you gain clarity and find the root of the original injury, ask yourself these questions: 

  • Who does this person remind me of?
  • Where have I felt like this before?
  • Why is this behavioral dynamic familiar to me?

I call these “The 3 Q’s” and though they might seem simple if practiced in the right moment, they can be an incredibly powerful tool for self-inquiry that will help shed light on what you might be repeating and where you might be experiencing transference. 

Here’s a bonus follow up question to help you go even deeper. Ask yourself:

When I am interacting with this person in this way, who do I become and who do they become? For example, in that interaction, you might become your young self and they might become your parent.

Practice Staying in the Present 

Another relevant action to take – is to flex your present awareness muscle. You can practice simple breathing and grounding exercises to help you build your ability to stay in the here and the now. 

If you are really prioritizing getting clarity around transference, I want to challenge you to commit to a daily meditation practice – even 5-10 minutes each morning can make a big difference in your internal space and increase your response time! Meditation is such a game-changer – it has transformed my life and so many of my clients’ lives and that’s why I include it in everything I teach. I created a little cheat sheet for you with all of this in one place and included one of my guided meditations. Try it for 7 days in a row and see what shifts for you! You can grab it right here. 

If you are experiencing negative transference, the unresolved pain or the charged emotions from the past are dragging you backwards in time. That does not help you build the life or the relationships that you want NOW. 

I want you to come from a place of strength and presence so that you can feel empowered to handle whatever life throws at you and create relationships that thrill you. 

I would love to hear what you have to say about this episode and if it added any value, so drop me a comment! If this inspired you, please share it on your social media platforms. I super appreciate you being a part of my crew. I hope you have an amazing week and as always, take care of you.

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  1. Super helpful and I still believe this boss does not like me. If feel like the child and her the disapproving parent. I try to stand my ground and stay in my present adult self and have looked at it from every angle even that she’s teaching me how to handle stress better. Sometimes I react but sometimes I say things to my younger inner child “I’m here with you” but it’s exhausting and I’ve even thought about quitting.
    Terri, You are wonderful to offer all this free content and help me look deeper. Thanks for this gift.

  2. One situation that I recall was being over the top angry over a stove. My husband decided to give his mother our new stove from the basement suite instead of an older stove that was more basic and suited to her needs. It made no sense to me, she was at the point in her life that she wasn’t cooking for herself’, there was no discussion about this decision, no taking into account my feelings or opinion. I stomped my feet, shouted, cried like a crazy person, so not me. Transference I guess. I look to my past but can’t pinpoint where it is from. Unless it is from the beginning of my marriage?? Or is transference from childhood years? Very enlightening concept.

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