When I was eleven, my mother went back to work at sea. She was
away for nine months of the year. She used to bring me presents,
and tell me how much she had missed me, but when she went each
time, I was still frightened that she might never come back. At
times, I felt totally miserable, rejected and abandoned. If she
loved me more, maybe she would not have gone away? Perhaps I had
done something wrong. I would go to the docks or to the airport
when she was flying out to meet the ship, and stand choking back
the tears, waving until she finally disappeared from sight.
It took me about twenty years to realise why, whenever I drove
by the docks, or took someone to the airport, I would feel so
desolate and lonely. Maybe it surprised my friends, that I would
hang around with them in the check-in queue for ages, trying
to put off the moment of saying goodbye, and then bolt away
quickly with tears in my eyes. I thought I was simply upset
at them leaving. But it was not really much to do with them
at all, because at that moment I was a little kid crying for
her mother. I just didn’t know that then.
I didn’t know it because I had repressed the pain I felt
as a child when my mum used to go. I had forgotten the child-logic
which said, ‘She is gone so she can’t really love
you. If she doesn’t love you, you are not lovable.’
I did not realise that, unbelievably, as an adult, I still believed
it. I could not see that friends leaving brought back the feelings
I had experienced when she had left.
This is the essence of transference, one of Freud’s greatest
concepts. It shows how we are prisoners of the past. And, it
shows how the energy of old emotions stays with us, ready to
be triggered at any moment by somebody or something vaguely
similar in the present.
Any of those times at the airport with friends, I could have
asked myself simple questions about my own feelings.
‘Why am I so upset? Is this all about them?’ No,
it’s about me. ‘Is this all about now?’ No,
it’s about the past. ‘When did I feel like this
before?’ When my mum used to go away. ‘How did I
feel then?’ Lonely, frightened, rejected, unloved. Allowing
myself to acknowledge and truly feel the pain of those repressed
feelings, I could have given myself a chance to release and
Our unconscious mind knows what we need to heal, because it
knows what has hurt us in the past. It wants us to admit that
we feel bad, find out what really hurts, and do something about
that. It keeps giving us opportunities to do this, and we keep
choosing not to take them. I missed the opportunity, time and
time again, of healing that old pain.
Transference affects all of our relationships. We think that
what we are feeling is about this person, now, in this situation.
In fact, this person is just the trigger that brings up the
pain we have felt in the past, in similar situations, about
other people: often our parents, but not necessarily.
We forget that as children there were many things we just could
not handle. Children feel small, powerless and vulnerable -
because they are. They are sensitive to the emotions of the
people around them, they often feel them - but they do not understand
them. They have experienced so little; their frame of reference
is so small. Everything that happens in their world has enormous
significance, and they are bound to take everything personally.
Mum says, ‘Don’t do that!’
Junior wants to do it. When he can’t, he gets angry.
He is furious with Mum.
‘I am angry’ becomes ‘I am angry with you.’
We learn to project all our feelings onto others. I am upset
because he said something nasty. I am angry because you will
not do what I want. Feelings become seen as a response to someone
or something external to us, rather than as an internal response
to our own changing world, a way of registering what is going
on inside ourselves.
We attach feelings to others, but really, they are ours. They
are not caused by other people. They are a whole range of inner
experiences that we have never learned to properly interpret
or manage; that we have never learned to take responsibility
Each person is capable of feeling every single human emotion,
from joy and love, to grief and hatred. We each have to find
a way of experiencing feelings without being overwhelmed by
them. To understand how they drive us, but not to be driven
by them. Each of us has to find his or her own way of dealing
with the sadness, jealousy, insecurity, fear, anger, loss, loneliness
and disappointment that is part of being human, part of living
in this world. Emotions are not unique to any individual; yet,
each individual, eventually, has to learn to face them. We take
everything so personally, yet these emotions are in a sense
impersonal, they act within us all.
Deep within us, in our unconscious mind, our intuitive wisdom,
we know that this is so. Our unconscious mind keeps engineering
situations that will bring those yet unresolved emotions to
our conscious awareness again. It keeps giving us a chance to
re-experience the pain that we have suffered, so that we can
acknowledge it, heal it and let it go.
We are drawn to situations in which these basic emotions and
conflicts will be re-experienced. We are drawn to relationships
that will bring up our unresolved issues repeatedly. At an unconscious
level, we pick people who are going to trigger those emotions
we have not yet learned to deal with. For instance, if I am
a bully, I will keep being drawn to those who are unassertive.
If I am insecure, I will attract those who are afraid of commitment.
If I am afraid of expressing my feelings, I will seek out those
who are also afraid. Until, finally, I overcome my fears and
start doing the things I need to learn how to do.
Of course, when these emotions re-surface, if we do not consciously
decide to work on them, then we will just push them back down
again, and pretend they do not exist. With no more conscious
insight than previously, the unconscious mind has to deal with
it in the only way it can, by compelling us to repeat the behaviour
of the past, and by bringing out the pain again later, unchanged
and still unhealed. This is Freud’s idea of the repetition
This cycle can only be stopped by a combination of the conscious
and the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind brings painful
emotions to the surface, and then the conscious mind makes the
decision to stay with them and do something about them. Together,
the conscious and the unconscious mind can then work on them.
In this way, the emotions are released and transformed, and
through this process, we are able to change and grow. It is
wonderful, really; because knowing this gives us a choice.
If we are not aware that this is what is happening, we probably
will not learn as much as we could from relationships. We merely
repeat old roles and behaviour patterns from the past; we experience
the same pain and feelings of rejection, which then further
reinforce our core beliefs about our own lack of worth. The
painful feelings trigger the same old negative beliefs about
ourselves— however, we do not try to explore the pain,
and we do not challenge the beliefs. Feeling bad, and believing
ourselves unlovable, we then behave in a way that makes it hard
for other people to react positively towards us. We do not say
how we feel, we withdraw and sulk or get angry and bully them
into rejecting us again so we can say to ourselves, ‘Told
you so,’ and feel even worse.
So, what is the alternative?
The alternative is to make a conscious choice just not to repeat
blindly the past but to change and take control of our present
This means —admitting our past and present pain (that
will be upsetting); telling people how we feel (that can be
uncomfortable); challenging our beliefs about our unworthiness
(that is painful) and learning to like ourselves (that is hard
work). If we can take responsibility for our own feelings rather
than merely acting them out, then we are not so vulnerable to
feelings of rejection, and other people are likely to react
to us in a more positive and supportive way.