As an executive coach, one aspect of my work involves supporting workplace relationships to move from being dysfunctional to being healthier. Here, I’m guided by a key concept from psychotherapy called transference.
Put simply, transference is a way human beings unconsciously transfer old family patterns experienced as children into our current lives with other adults. We might see ourselves as unintelligent compared to our peers, or we believe we need to be a caretaker to others, or we get particularly upset by the feedback given to us by our manager. If we appreciate the power of transference, then when something really upsets us, we come to see that it is usually not just the thing we think is causing the problem, but actually, it’s about our past, and the beliefs we hold about ourselves with respect to others.
Transference suggests that we unconsciously recreate our pasts in the present. That’s true until we become acutely aware of our patterns and learn to make different choices. We don’t realize that our manager actually reminds us of our father, for instance, with whom we have a troubled relationship, and so we end up getting upset about when our manager asserts her authority when actually our unresolved family history with a domineering parent is the real source of our suffering.
We think we’re seeing the situation as it is, but in essence, we are projecting our past onto the present and we unwittingly co-create familiar dynamics that cause us pain.
All of this, of course, is a lot easier said than done. “Getting it” intellectually doesn’t yet mean we have more choice. But it’s an important first step.
Eckhart Tolle suggests that:
“When you make your unconscious motivations conscious, you immediately see how absurd they are. Awareness is the greatest agent for change.”
I want to offer ten questions to ask yourself: Are you bringing your past to work?
- Do you have strong negative feelings toward a co-worker or your manager?
- Do you become emotionally reactive at work – e.g. getting enraged, retreating, using a harsh tone, crying, etc.?
- Do you often compare yourself to others at work?
- Do you sometimes feel a sudden drop in your self-confidence?
- Do you feel at times fuzzy and unclear about making a decision?
- Do you find yourself gossiping about others at work?
- Do you recognize that at times you’re involved in some kind of drama on your team?
- Do you ever feel like a much younger version of yourself?
- Do you ever lose your sense of humor?
- Do you find yourself re-creating dynamics you recognize in other aspects of your life with friends or family? (e.g. caretaker, rescuer, good girl/boy, the problem, etc.)
Stay tuned for more information. I will discuss more of the dynamic of transference in the workplace in a series of follow-up articles. In the meantime, I encourage you to consider these questions and bring awareness to which of these might sometimes or often be true for you.