The Healing Crowd

All about group therapy: what it is, why it works, and which group is right for you.

Manhattan Transference Part 3

The perceptual manacles of a transference keep us from seeing someone clearly.

This is a serialization of the chapter by the same name from  Confessions of a Former Child: A Therapist’s Memoir This series began here.

There is often a visceral reaction when we have a transference. We feel outside of ourselves and acting in a way that doesn’t quite meet the needs of the situation. We fail to accurately assess the other person. Transference is a one-way process where we cannot see the other for who they actually are. We disguise their authenticity with a borrowed mask from a previous relationship. There are activators for why and how this happens, but it the beginning, when you are first in the throws of it, it is common to be at a loss as to what is happening.

This new level of pathos startled me. I had considered myself a reasonably insightful person, but Elaine was straining my capacity for self-reflection. I measured every breath in its potential for dethroning the protagonist. Elaine was a master. She sighed, coughed, and cleared her throat during peak moments of an enactment. A stifled yawn, an exaggerated exhale, or a held breath were enough to boil my blood. Finally I couldn't take it anymore and in the middle of one of her patented sighs, I let her have it. In the middle of someone else's drama I stood up and faced Elaine and raised my voice. I could feel the blood vessels rise in my neck as my temples began to throb.

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"Elaine, what are you doing?" I heard myself shouting, "Do you realize how distracting it is to watch you? Every time someone is trying to work in the group you do some crazy little thing to distract us from the person and put the focus on you. Everything is about you and not about anybody else. Do you realize you are doing this? DO YOU REALIZE WHAT YOU ARE DOING?"

"What am I doing?"

"What are you doing? WHAT ARE YOU DOING? You're breathing Elaine. YOU'RE FREGGIN’ BREATHING. The protagonist is pouring out her heart over there and you are over here breathing, in and out, out and in. All different ways Elaine, You are breathing in such a way that it makes it impossible for the rest of us to concentrate."

Someone pointed out that it was I who actually just disrupted the group, but I didn't know how to respond. I felt what I was doing was essential to the group's survival, that I was in the middle of rescuing us from the ravages of Elaine. What I hadn't realized was that I failed to confirm my observations with others in the group prior to the use of the pronoun "us". The group was looking at me in the way my grandfather had looked at modern art. He hoped it would make sense, but it didn't. I tried to explain, but to my amazement not a single person thought of Elaine as a mythical sea creature. I was alone in my condemnation of her.

I sat down with my thoughts reeling. It was hard to get a grip on what had just happened. How could it be that Elaine went undetected by all these fine people? Couldn't they tell that a witch was among us? Slowly it occurred to me that there might be another explanation for this phenomenon. I thought for a moment and came up with the answer: Everyone else in the group was stupid. Elaine was there to ruin the group and it was my job to save them. They couldn't see it because she had cast some sort of a spell on them. I was alone in my vision of her diabolical ways. I squinted my eyes as if to aim my vaporizing laser towards Elaine. The facilitator noticed and asked me a question. "Dan, can you say what is bothering you about Elaine?"

Still in my squint-laser attack pose, I answered. "She breathes in a way that disrupts the group."

"So her breathing, which is the function that keeps her alive, takes away from your ability to function."

"Yes, I can function, but not as well as I could if she would stop."

"Breathing?" The group began to laugh. I had no idea where this was headed.

"No she doesn't have to stop breathing, I just wish she would do it elsewhere.” I turned to Elaine with a halfhearted plea that she understand this had nothing to do with her, that it had to do only with my perception of things. This was the standard retort in the group when one person had an issue with another: You expressed what was bothering you and couched it in terms that left responsibility for your feelings squarely with you. But even while I was saying this I didn't believe it. This wasn't about me, this was about her. This was about how I would have to inform Elaine of what a miserable human being she was. I would let her down as gently as I could. She would just have to take her self-absorption elsewhere. Why should I pay money to watch her breathe?

Elaine smiled and spoke. "I know this is your problem and I don't mind helping you with it." Now I was seething. Elaine really didn't get it. I might now have to shift my squint-laser from 'stun' to 'kill'. The facilitator stepped in.

Go to #4

Daniel J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, is a licensed psychologist specializing in group psychotherapy and psychodrama.

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