We were in the second week of a five-month discipleship program when one of the participants casually said, “I can’t tell you how much you remind me of my mother.” I knew she was not giving me a compliment because moments before, she had shared in great detail how difficult her family of origin was.
As the group continued, it became clear Karen* still followed the same relational rules that guided her during childhood. Namely, if you want to be liked, work harder than everyone else and make yourself indispensable. In the context of our group, she showed up early, offered to make copies or set up the room, and was quick to ask clarifying questions for the sake of others. Having this type of person in your group can be a blessing. I began to notice, however, that if I did not verbally affirm and appreciate her for everything she did, she tended to become critical and contradictory toward me.
After witnessing this dynamic multiple times, I gently asked Karen if she was aware of what she was doing, and if there were any parallels between her current behavior and how she responded to her mom. Tears flowed as she recounted her mother’s favoritism of her brothers, and how she only received attention if she did above and beyond what was asked of her.
Karen didn’t know it at the time, but she was working out aspects of her unresolved mother-daughter relationship via a process called transference:
Transference is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual redirects emotions and feelings, often unconsciously, from one person to another. This process may occur in therapy, when a person receiving treatment applies feelings toward—or expectations of—another person onto the therapist and then begins to interact with the therapist as if the therapist were the other individual. Often, the patterns seen in transference will be representative of a relationship from childhood.
Transference can also happen in peer or romantic relationships, but tends to occur when there is a hierarchy of roles.
Women leaders are particularly vulnerable to being on the receiving end of transference because we are often seen as maternal figures for the people we serve. If individuals fail to receive sufficient nurturing, unconditional regard, and love from their mothers, they may unconsciously look to us to fill those needs. Though we might be inclined to try to meet their needs, we will most likely become frustrated and resentful unless we learn how to recognize transference, remain objective in the face of it, point the individuals to Christ, and finally, work with them to establish healthy patterns of relating.
It was easy to identify transference with Karen because she openly talked about her painful mother-daughter relationship, communicating that I triggered conflictual feelings. Unfortunately, recognizing transference is not always so obvious. Here are a few real-life scenarios when transference can occur to give you a bigger picture:
- Transference with an authority figure who elicits negative feelings connected to a parental wound.
Marc had an emotionally distant father who liberally used sarcasm. Decades later, when a male boss or leader makes a sarcastic comment, Marc experiences the same shame and defensiveness he did when he was an adolescent. He then either writes off the leader or boss, or transfers his historic anger onto present tense relationships.
- Transference with an authority figure who evokes unmet needs.
Nadia’s mother was an addict and seldom available to her or her siblings. Whenever Nadia is led by an older, nurturing woman, she begins to call and email on a daily basis. Nadia’s deep needs overwhelm many of the authority figures in her life, causing them to retreat—further amplifying her fears of rejection.
- Transference with a peer who triggers painful or traumatic memories.
Daniel is a leader, but his many scars prevent him from leading effectively. During his childhood, his older sister routinely bullied and beat him up. Now, when strong or physically large women disagree with him, he lashes out and becomes highly critical—leaving them scratching their heads and wondering what just happened.
Though it is often unpleasant to be on the receiving end of transference, it can be productive if we remain objective. This requires keen self-awareness. We need to quickly recognize when our buttons are being pushed so that we do not engage in negative countertransference. As Steven Reidbord wrote in an article for Psychology Today, “Countertransference can serve as a sensitive interpersonal barometer, a finely tuned instrument in the field of social interaction.”
When the person we are leading transfers unwarranted emotions or feelings onto us, it can trigger a whole host of reactions in us, including insecurity, ambivalence, and resentment. While it might be tempting to simply blame our irritation on a needy individual, it’s imperative we not dismiss or blame them. We may have done or said something insensitive that caused them to feel angry or act out.
Typically, I feel a great deal of affection and warmth toward those I lead. With Karen, my normal patience and empathy quickly gave way to impatience, annoyance, and other uncharitable feelings. That was a red flag for me. Obviously, some individuals will elicit such feelings because they resist being led, or are simply the complete opposite of us. In this case, however, Karen reminded me of my own critical mother.
Countertransference is not always bad—it can reveal areas in our own souls requiring attention or healing, and remind us of our need to depend on Jesus in order to serve others in an uncompromising and unconditional manner.
Once we recognize transference and respond objectively, the next step is pointing the individual to Jesus. This often involves helping them to forgive the ones who hurt them and repent of any sinful reactions. Before Karen was able to break free from transferring onto others, she had to grieve her losses, forgive her mother, and confess her bitterness. This is often a time consuming and slow process.
Present tense relationships—whether in the context of a small group or pastoral care—will provide not only insight, but opportunities to make different choices in the face of old patterns. The best place for the person we are serving or leading to work out their transference is one on one with us or in the context of a small group. Because of the power differential, the best place for us to process our countertransference is with a supervisor or therapist.
Though it may be complicated—and often messy—transference can actually help us and those we serve to process painful experiences and disengage from dysfunctional patterns of relating. As Karen became able to recognize and articulate her insecurities, she began to change how she related to women in authority. Rather than trying to earn affection and friendship, she presented her needs and gave others the freedom to meet them. My countertransference helped me to become more aware of my tendency to judge women who are emotionally needy. By helping individuals make connections between the past and the present, we all gain a new level of self-awareness and health in the process.
* Names have been changed.
Dorothy Littell Greco is an author and writer living outside Boston. She is a regular contributor to WomenLeaders.com and CT Women, and a member of Redbud Writers Guild. She is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful.