(THE BOOK) Chapter 32: Mistaken identities

I’m six years old, and my father is a tall red-headed man with a deep voice who beats me with a belt every day.

Flash forward thirty years.  Dad’s dead and gone, I’m fully grown, and I have a job interview.  The interviewer is a tall red-headed man with a deep voice. 

Guess how I feel when I first shake his hand?

That’s transference.

Transference is what happens when one relationship feels like another.  Freud, who discovered transference in his patients’ emotional responses to him, never called it a defense, though clearly its main function is defensive.  It kicks in when the mind finds a danger signal in its vicinity, some red flag (like the interviewer’s red hair) that reminds it of some prior danger or trauma.   In that moment the person reacts emotionally as if the old danger has returned.

Transference can be puzzling (Why do I hate this man I just met?), but it’s not inherently pathological.  It becomes a problem only when it leads us into maladaptive thoughts, feeling or behavior (like punching redheaded interviewers in the mouth).

Transference comes up all the time in therapy, where clients commonly mistake therapists for their parents.  Some analytic therapists define the goal of therapy as working through this transference, getting  a patient to where he or she feels like an adult in the presence of this authority figure.  In my work this means helping clients get to where they no longer feel the need to control my reactions, where they feel safe enough to relax and be fully themselves.

Another popular form of defensive mistaken identity is summarized in a old joke:

Dad’s boss yells at him.  Dad comes home and yells at Mom.  Mom yells at Big Sister.  Big Sister yells at Little Brother.  Little Brother kicks the dog.  Dog pees on the rug.

This is displacement: the transfer of aggressive feelings from the person who hurt you to a safer target.

As a grad student I once interned at a day treatment program for patients who were severely mentally ill.  On my first day my supervisor showed me around.  When we walked into the cafeteria a young man stood up, overturned his table and tried to punch me.  Later my supervisor explained that I resembled the father who’d raped the young man when he was five.  How much of his reaction was transference, how much displacement?  I don’t know.  But it was clearly mistaken identity.  I’m not who the young man really wanted to punch.     

Finally, there’s a kind of displacement that occurs when the safer target we choose in ourselves.

In this case Dad doesn’t yell at Mom; instead he turns his anger against himself.  He feels guilty, inadequate, depressed, even suicidal.  Gestaltists call this mistaken identity retroflection – when you do to yourself what you want to do to someone else.

Retroflection is common among depressed clients, as well as those plagued by chronic anxiety or guilt.  They often don’t believe me when I suggest it’s not really themselves they’re angry at.  But once I get them to redirect some of their anger outward, the depression, anxiety and guilt begin to lift.

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