Connect with Us Start a Live Chat below

Navigation Link

Changing Perspectives on the Past: Autobiography and Analysis of Transference

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

You can start your examination of your past by listing out the significant events that have occurred in your life. Note how each significant event changed your life and what it has come to mean to you that these events happened. For example, describe the quality of the relationships you have had with friends and lovers, and (going further back in time) with your family of origin (e.g., your mother and father, brothers and sisters, and extended family). On the whole were those relationships positive or negative for you? Were you abused? Did you feel abandoned or ill-treated? Did you feel manipulated or taken advantage of? If things were negative much of the time, do you have any positive memories? Take some time to explore the story of your life and feel the feelings, positive and negative that come up as you do so.

Having explored your life story, come back to the present and think about how that story continues to influence you today. Specifically, be on the lookout for relationship patterns; ways of relating to others that appear to repeat themselves. You may find, for example, that some of your romantic partners had characteristics in common with one of your parents, and that you related to those partners in ways that were similar to how you related to your parents. These sorts of repeating relationship patterns are normal and very common in life. They go by many names, including life scripts, role-relationship models, and transference relationships. That they occur is a testament to the main way that people learn; through assimilation (by making sense of new things by reusing what you already know about old things that are similar).

Though transference relationships are common and normal in many respects, they can also cause problems. Sometimes people end up "transferring" past relationship patterns onto present relationships, often with truly negative results. In the process of this transference, past events are allowed to define present ones, and one's identity and options become artificially limited by previous experience.

You might have been abused as a child and find yourself choosing adult partners who are similarly abusive. If you were abandoned as a child, you may find yourself fearing abandonment as an adult and placing great and unnecessary pressure on your existing relationships as a result. If you had strict parents as a child you may find yourself having a troubled relationship with authority today. If you had a hard time in math class as a child, you may still avoid math as an adult with potentially negative and unnecessary impacts for your career. If you were a shy person in high school and afraid to date, you may continue to feel unconfident with regard to dating as an adult even though your situation has changed dramatically.

Having identified the situations in which you seem to be repeating yourself, the next thing to do is to examine and reappraise those situations. Your goal is to become better able to see present relationships on their own terms and less through the lens of poorly-fitted past relationships.

If you are re-enacting abuse from past relationships in your present relationships as yourself why you are doing this? What is the payoff? Have you simply been asleep and not understood that it is not necessary for you to do this any longer? Do you somehow believe that you are a bad person who deserves to be abused? Are you afraid that you will be harmed if you try to leave? Write out the reasons you stay and then examine them closely to see if they continue to make sense to your mature adult self. Keep in mind the notion that many of these reasons you have for staying may have been formed when you were a child and may therefore reflect a child's lack of opportunities and options. You are an adult now and have many more options and opportunities than you once did. A child may believe an abuser that he or she is "no good" and "deserving of punishment", but an adult can see the situation more clearly and understand that the abuser is wrong. A child may come to believe that he or she deserves to be abused because that allows him or her to continue loving the abuser; this is important for a dependent child's survival. An adult, on the other hand, doesn't need to depend on an abuser for survival but rather can make their way independently. It is possible you may have formed some of your beliefs about your worth as a person (or lack thereof) when you were a child and have not reevaluated whether or not these beliefs continue to make sense since then. If this is the case for you, take some time to reevaluate these beliefs now.

Similarly, if you failed math as a kid, does that mean that you truly have no math capabilities or could your failure have been caused by some other factor out of your control at the time, such as a bad personality clash with a particular teacher? You might be okay at math and not know it because of a small trauma that occurred years ago and your subsequent avoidance of the topic since that trauma.

If you were shy and had little success with dating as a youth, does that mean that you are still undesirable as an adult? Or, might it mean instead that you just didn't really understand the 'rules of the game' as a youth, and might do just fine as an adult if you could only dealt with your social anxiety, and learn effective ways to approach potential partners for dating and relationships? Our guess is that the latter situation is more true than not.

If you had strict parents and felt very inadequate and criticized as a child, does that mean that you were a bad, inadequate child? Or, possibly does it mean that your parents may have been inadequate themselves, at least when it came to knowing how to be an effective parent? You may have been a perfectly reasonable child, and they may have been out of line. Even if you were an exceptionally energetic child who did require discipline, that still doesn't mean you were an inadequate person. Whatever the case may have been, the way your parents treated you as a child doesn't have to determine the way you think of yourself as an adult.

In general, what you need to do is to examine the conclusions you've made about yourself, your situations and your relationships and decide if those conclusions hold up under scrutiny. If they seem exaggerated or biased, then correct them as best you can using your adult knowledge and experience to restate them more accurately. The process is very similar to that characteristic of cognitive restructuring, and the goals are similar as well: to alter and reform institutionalized faulty conclusions and beliefs about self and others that keep you from making the most of your present and future situations.