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“Transference is that set of ways of perceiving and responding to the world which is developed in childhood and which is usually entirely appropriate to the childhood environment (indeed, often life-saving) but which is inappropriately transferred into the adult environment.”

— M. Scott Peck

Have you ever found yourself keeping something back in the fridge and completely forgotten about it? Think of transference to be the emotional equivalent. It is everything summed up as an old feeling you are holding onto and left it somewhere in the back of your head. It is until you do some shuffling and say hello to them again! So, what comes next when you open the kid of that container?

Generally, we barely recognize that we safe-keep everything unpleasant, and only pay attention to it when it starts to rot or stink. The metaphor of old food in the fridge fails because it’s far more difficult to identify when old emotions are old. It’s also more difficult to figure out what to do with them. Stale feelings can appear to be new. Even after they’ve beyond their expiration date, it’s not uncommon to keep them, chew on them, and try to get sustenance from them.

When these old, bitter feelings make you feel terrible, you end up blaming the person in front of you for serving them to you, even if the person who created them is long gone and even if you served them to yourself.

What is Transference?

Transference is a psychological phenomenon in which a person appears to direct sentiments toward someone who is not that person, such as a parent. When a person looks at another person or situation and connects it with the scenario he experienced in his past, and when he makes decisions based on those experiences, he somehow demonstrates transference through expressing his feelings.

In the 1890s, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic practice gave rise to the notion of transference. Childhood and past experiences, according to Freud, laid the groundwork for one’s adult growth and personality. Psychoanalysis seeks to reveal those hidden issues that may be causing present emotional and behavioural patterns. One approach for recognising and, hopefully, resolving those issues is through transference.

What are the different types of Transference?

Transference is an unconsciously occurring process that occurs from one person to another. It occurs when a person’s emotions and expectations are directed at the person in front of him. When this happens, a person may begin to interact with them as if they were the person from their previous experiences.

It usually manifests itself when reminiscing about certain past memories or connections. It is a common occurrence, and it does not always imply something is amiss. Even so, knowing the different types of transference can help you detect it when it happens.

1. Paternal Transference 

When a person sees another person as a father figure, this is referred to as transference. It manifests as a belief in another person’s power, authority, and ability to provide appropriate guidance and protection.

2. Maternal Transference 

In this case, similar to the paternal example, one individual views another person as an idealized mother figure. They are most likely expecting this person to be soothing and reassuring.

3. Sibling Transference

When parental relationships aren’t as strong as they should be, this can manifest as more peer-based interactions rather than a leader/follower relationship.

4. Non-familial Transference

When a person treats others as idealized copies of what they are expected to be rather than their real selves, this type of transference occurs.

It’s important to note that not all transference reactions are triggered by feelings you’ve inherited from your parents. If an intimate relationship, another familial relationship, or a friendship has had a significant impact on you, it can manifest as transferred feelings. And the feelings of fury, fear, and anguish might be just as strong as they were when the trauma occurred.

Impact of Transference on Work-Culture and Leadership

When particular people and situations in the workplace remind you of previous relationships and situations, this is known as transference. You could not recognise these sentiments or attitudes as being from the past, which poses a professional risk. Because you may not have learnt how to handle the original relationship or scenario, you are likely to repeat your response, regardless of whether it is acceptable or unsuitable. This puts you at risk of overreacting or underreacting, leaving you vulnerable.

You may be conjuring up a bad situation in your head, which informs all of your interactions with the current person. Your father could have been a strict dictator. Your boss or coworker can remind you of your father. This might lead to a lot of friction and passive hostile behaviour from you. On the other hand, you might bring up someone from your coworker’s or boss’s past whose behaviour they wouldn’t like. It is also quite harmful. You may lose your job.

The situation might also go the other way, with you being overly accommodating to someone because they remind you of a childhood friend or instructor who liked you. Your reactions to that person may make you appear inept and weak. It is also dangerous.

Don’t blame the other person if you’re facing unfavourable emotions or events at work. Make an effort to comprehend what is going on. Examine the person’s appearance and mannerisms for any resemblance. Consider whether they remind you of somebody from your past. If they do, you’ll have to take a good look to see if your reactions are suitable.

When it comes to leadership, it can mean various things at various times to various people. Let us share a short story that illustrates the concept of transference. Roosevelt was neither a healthy nor a strong man during his presidency. He had multiple health issues and was in a wheelchair. 

However, his country was in grave economic straits and was eventually drawn into a global military battle. And the basic fact is that the citizens needed to get their strength from someplace, and they needed to get it from someone. And that individual was the president of their country. The people wanted to see its leader’s strength and confidence, so they drew on it.

Eventually, as he grew physically weaker throughout his administration, the country grew stronger, and the theory is that he was transferring his strength to his leading country. 

Here are some of the attributes of a great leader:

  • Every leader should be mindful of the behaviours, things and characteristics required.
  • Leadership is when you do everything in your power to embody and exhibit the needful.
  • A leader should always see the new problems through a new lens, not from past experiences.
  • The entire organization follows the footsteps of a leader, so follow the trait you want your people to follow. 
  • If you want your customers to be treated in a certain way, make sure you treat others in the same way.
  • You have to convey the strength and confidence you want to see in your organization.

Transference of childhood images onto a leader, as Freud first described it, is the most strong unconscious reason to follow them. However, the transferential glue that held followers to organizational leaders in the past has moved to a more sibling-like, collaborative dynamic rather than a parental, autocratic one as a result of the changing social character. Leaders are confronted with multiple identities, cultural beliefs, and personalities as firms become more global.

If you experience someone else projecting their stuff onto you, then what will you do in that situation?

  • Will you welcome it?
  • Will you make people aware of it?
  • Do you confront them?
  • Do you talk it over?
  • Do you anchor the conversation as a big idea or mission?
  • Where is your memory lens?
  • Is this a projection of who you truly are?
  • Are you responding as/like someone you know?

How would you react to such a situation? Do let us know!

Image Source: https://www.elliottdavis.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/GettyImages-691143047.jpg

Written by: Jimmy Jain & Afreen Fatima
Society of Design Thinking Professionals