I'm not angry, YOU'RE angry
We’ve probably all been in a situation where we find ourselves feeling irritated by someone for no apparent reason. That someone may well be a person we’ve met for the first time, or spotted across the canteen at work. You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s something about the way they…look? Act? Breathe? Chew? If this has ever happened to you, you might have experienced transference. Transference in psychology refers to the unconscious redirection of feelings from a person in one’s past onto a person in one’s present.
As such, transference can happen when someone we have never met before reminds us of someone close to us, or someone we knew in the past. The term was first coined by Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis). In Freudian terms, transference usually concerns relationships stemming from childhood, but it doesn’t always have to be so. The idea is that we have expectations about what other people are like based on our early, formative experiences. This can be unhelpful, if the conclusions and presumptions that we draw are untrue, or make us act in ways that can be confusing for other people.
For instance, say that you grew up with a very loving, caring, and competitive sister. You may then draw the unconscious conclusion when meeting some women that they will always make sure you wear a warm sweater when it’s cold out, but will also race you up the stairs whenever the opportunity presents itself. Time passes and you are now in your thirties starting a new job. One of your colleagues is in her mid-thirties. As you sit down by your new desk (which incidentally happens to be next to hers), she offers you a biscuit. For some reason you cannot quite explain, you just have this feeling that the two of you will get on. However, you also, inexplicably, want to invite her to arm-wrestle before lunch break. This could be an example of transference - you have projected feelings that you have towards, and about, your sister onto a new, present person without being aware of it.
The crux with transference is that we typically are not aware that it’s happening. We assume that we are merely reacting to events in the present when in fact, we could be drawing on feelings based on events and people from a long time ago. When we meet someone who reminds us of someone from our past, we can infer that they have similar traits to that person.
So how can we manage it? Remember transference is a normal experience. It could help to acknowledge the possibilities that recognising transference opens up. It allows you to examine reactions towards others, that may be difficult for yourself and those around you to understand, and to actively start taking steps towards new ways of relating. Once you have identified your feelings towards another person, see if you feel comfortable enough to discuss them with someone you trust.