Hola mi Gente,
The big news today is the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, won the NBA championship after being down three games to one — the first team to overcome those odds. LeBron James is often the public’s fave player to hate, so I’m glad he won another championship. If he stays healthy, he will be considered one of the greatest players to play the game.
The Map is Not the Territory
A hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation which we bear in ourselves.
— Simone Weil
Yesterday, I briefly mentioned the concept of transference. Transference is one of the cornerstones of psychoanalytic theory. Literally whole libraries could be filled on what has been written on transference, so it would be hard to give a simple and straightforward definition without falling into the trap of oversimplification. But that’s never stopped me before right? The way I was taught transference is quite simple: transference is a map you create out of your experiences in order to understand and navigate your world. What happens is that sometimes we use old maps that haven’t adapted to the current reality. This, in turn, creates pain.
Transference is important when attempting to understand online behavior and relationships because the potential for transference is huge. One year, I was able to organize an online group for a weekend in NYC. Over 100 people participated. People came from as far as the Arctic Circle, California, Puerto Rico, Florida, Hawaii, and Texas, just to name a few places. We had a great time. However, there was a small group (that didn’t participate) that began accusing me of the most ridiculous things. I was shocked when it was brought to my attention that at least one or two people were spreading the rumor that I was hypnotizing people.
Simply put, transference is the tendency to recreate in our current relationships the patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that were formed early in our life, most importantly in the relationships with our parents and siblings when we were children.
Let’s do a quick exercise:
Think of your significant other, or your romantic relationship, or even a close friend. Think about some important personality characteristic of that individual — a characteristic or trait in that person to which you have a strong positive or negative emotional reaction. Now think about one of your parents, or perhaps a brother or sister. Do they have that very same characteristic, and are the reactions you have to that aspect of them similar to those concerning your current close relationship?
I don’t need an answer… it’s an exercise. I’m just trying to better illustrate a concept.
I’m no Freudian (who is?) and one of the more salient critiques of psychoanalytic theory is that it places too much emphasis on the effects of childhood and family dynamics on the evolution of one’s personality. I happen to agree with that critique. Certainly, one’s personality continues to develop and change throughout the lifespan as a result of our friends, lovers, and new life experiences. It is not solely determined by how our parents raised us as children.
While we are not simply the products of our families, it still stands that our parents (or other parental figures) and siblings did indeed spend a great deal of time with us during our formative years, when our minds were young, impressionable, and eager to learn about how we humans relate to each other. Based on our relationships with them, we created maps or templates in our mind (schemas) about what makes up the expected ways in which people will behave in relationships. Modern research seems to bolster this claim: Our neurology is like a feedback loop and there is a strong “neurological imprint” created in early childhood. In other words, how we are nurtured (or not) as children has a direct impact on how our brains are formed, which synaptic connections are created, and in that way we are literally created.
During childhood we formed basic impressions about the kinds of needs, wishes, fears, and hopes that shape relationships and our image of ourselves in those early relationships. Often we don’t realize these are our maps. They may be very different than the maps taking shape in the heads of other people. I had a good childhood friend of mine who was Irish-American and he was shocked and even surprised at how demonstrative my family was emotionally. He came from a family that rarely indulged in public shows of affection. I’m not pointing out this to say his was a better or lesser upbringing, but to articulate how his relationships expectations would be different from mine.
As we mature we carry these maps with us and, operating at an unconscious level, they influence the choices we make and the kinds of people we get involved with, as well as how we experience those people. For example, think of your first boyfriend or girlfriend, and how similar that person might have been to one of your parents (usually your opposite sex parent). This dynamic is often expressed in popular culture. For example, there was the song that claimed the man wanted to marry someone just like their mother. We often attach parental-like labels to our loved ones (“Who’s yo daddy, now?! — kidding!).
These maps also shape how people select and experience things in their lives that are inanimate, but are so integral to our needs and emotions that we want to instill them with human characteristics. As humans we can’t help but personify the objects of the world around us. It’s part of our neurobiology. We use our internal maps to humanize and shape our experience of cars, houses, pets, and yes, computers.
I mention computers because they can be a basic object for transference in that they are more likely to be perceived as human-like. Unlike TV, movies, or books, computers are highly interactive. We ask them to do something and they do it — at least, they usually do. With the new generation of highly visual, auditory, and customizable operating systems and software applications, we also have a machine that can be tailored to reflect what we expect in a companion.
Computers, especially when used to engage social networking sites, are especially enticing objects for transference because they are vaguely human in that we believe there are humans at the other end attached to the computer. We develop relationships with people, read their “text,” and then create an image of those individuals. However, without ever meeting these people, where do we fill in the gaps? We fill it in from our experiences — especially our early childhood experiences and subsequent important experiences. In short, we transfer our inner maps onto the text we’re reading.
One of the first things you discover as a therapist is that if you maintain a relatively neutral posture with your clients, the clients would begin to shape their perceptions of the analyst according to their internal models from childhood. When faced with an indistinct, seemingly malleable “other,” we automatically fall back on our familiar mental maps about relationships and use those maps to shape how we think, feel, and react to this new, somewhat unclear relationship. This whole process often is unconscious. We are so used to these old maps that they automatically start to mold our perceptions and actions without our really thinking about it.
If you don’t know me except for what I divulge here, then how can you attach any personality characteristic to me? Sure, there are actions that take place via cyber space: people meet, have sex and sometimes play out those confrontations in very ugly, humiliating, and public ways. But I am not one of those individuals. My personal life is mostly outside of my readers’ knowledge, so all that anyone knows about me is what I choose to write about. Anything else a reader might surmise is for the most part made up.
According to people I have never met, I am a hypnotist, a racist, a sexist, and a pedophile (there are more, it’s hard to keep track). But are any of these labels true? No one here can attest to the validity of any of these labels. In fact, these recriminations are actually projections — transferences — of the people attaching these characteristics. In effect, the individuals who go through these extremes are merely expressing their own experiences as filtered through their transference issues.
In this way, a woman suffering from low self-esteem who was physically or sexually abused by an alcoholic father may react disproportionately to something I might write about sex. To her, if I am advocating for more liberal means of sex education for young children, I am a pedophile. There are no corresponding facts to corroborate her hysteria, except for the action taking place in her mind. Furthermore, transference can be used to understand how persons play out there sexual lives in often humiliating and (online) public ways. How many of us have witnessed the consequences of a real life meeting gone awry and the subsequent social media posts detailing those meetings?
Or, if I write about racism, transference may compel a reader to call me a racist. The same can be said about anything any one of us write. When you attach a personality characteristic to someone you’ve never met, you’re actually saying more about your own experiences than anything else.
Those who demonstrate the most transference are the first to label it as “psychobabble.” However, I would submit that transference is important for understanding online relationships because the experience of the “other” person often is limited to text, there is a tendency for the user to project a variety of wishes, fantasies, and fears onto the figure at the other end.
Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. Our old maps may seem comfortable, but if we’re going to be happy, we must revise our maps in order to overcome pain or dysfunction.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…