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.
At the core of transference is an unconscious reaction to someone who has activated a feeling inside of us that has some familiarity. But the feeling is typically a more intense reaction to the person than the situation would call for. It is the unconscious reaction.
When this happens in a group, the work of the facilitator is to hold the situation stable while allowing the person having the transference to assimilate the projection. In other words, the goal of the facilitation is to make the unconscious, conscious, and in the process start to reveal the source of the reaction from a previous relationship.
"Dan, can you say how you feel right now about your reaction to Elaine. Can you describe it?"
"Can you say more?"
"It feels like if I don't stop her she'll ruin the whole group. I feel torn. I want to speak up—but I know if I do I'll be punished for it, hurt by it. That somehow either way I am going to lose. I just had to say something. It was like she was ruining everything."
"What will you lose?"
"I know this sounds stupid. But I feel I am going to lose myself."
"So you are saying that if you speak up, if you say how you are feeling, that you will be lost."
"Yeah. Something like that."
This had become more interesting than I initially thought it would. How did this happen? Somehow, this wasn't so much about Elaine any more; this was about me, about a reaction of mine to her. I became intrigued and started to describe my feelings.
"Everything goes dead inside of me, and then I get completely enraged. It feels like I want to destroy her—but then…"
"But then…I don't understand this…I look like a nut case. She will be there looking all innocent and I will look like the a raving lunatic. She won't understand what I am yelling at and I'll be the maniac."
The facilitator caught me off guard with her question; I didn't see the relevance, "…er, yeah, I guess, THE maniac."
"So let me make sure I've got all this, When Elaine breathes it bothers you…"
"…its more than just her breathing. It's like she is drawing attention to herself." (Here I turned to Elaine and spoke to her with more sincerity than last time) … "and Elaine I really do get that you are just an activator for me—I'm just trying to figure this out."
"Figure away," said Elaine.
"…so it is more than just her breathing. It is like she attacks me, robs me of being who I am when she jangles her bracelets and breathes funny. When she draws attention to herself, it's like I don't exist. Everything is about her, she doesn't really know or care about me or anyone else in the group, it's only about her."
"So around Elaine…"
"I feel invisible, yet I am unbelievably angry. It is like I am split between having to shut down and keep quiet and depressed, or get crazy and act out all over the place."
"You feel helpless around her?"
"Yes. That's a good word; I feel helpless around her."
"And the helplessness makes you feel angry or depressed…?"
"I feel like I am right out of someone's textbook."
"You said this was familiar."
"I feel trapped. If I don't speak up, I'm nobody; if I get crazy, she'll just say she doesn't know what I'm talking about—then I'll be the maniac."
I was caught off guard again. I decided to find out what was so important about 'THE'.
"…yeah, that's how it feels, like I become THE maniac. How come that word is so important?"
"Because it implies there could only be one maniac between you."
"Between Elaine and me?"
"Between you and Elaine now, here in the group—but this is a reaction that you most likely learned elsewhere. Who else in your life seemed to cause this reaction in you?"
I had witnessed this dozens of times before. Somehow the reaction towards someone in the group gets traced back to one's family of origin. It was fascinating when I watched it happening to others. It was torture to feel it happening to me. I seriously couldn't think. It was as if my brain cells had been changed into oatmeal, and my neurotransmitters into molasses. I tried to speak. "…ah.…er…I…er…"
The facilitator stepped in. "You said, if you didn't speak up, that you were nobody, and that if you get crazy, she'll just say she doesn't know what you are talking about—then you'll be the maniac."
"So if you lose control and yell, you become like her. Instead of her being the maniac, you've become the one out of control."
"OK, I'm with you so far."
"…and when you lose control she says she doesn't know why you are so angry…" A light bulb went on. I completed the sentence. "…then she seems as stunned as I was when my mother yelled at me for things that didn't make sense."
The facilitator nodded. "So you're trapped. You feel powerless if you don't speak up, and you'll become like your mother, 'the maniac', if you do. You'd be putting her into the role you knew as a child. You didn't know what was going on. It didn't seem justified."