It is a part of the human tendency to replay the past.
We often, albeit unconsciously, look to our current relationships to fulfil our deepest unfulfilled needs and longings, to plug the gaps in our psyches, and to heal where we have been wounded. In psychoanalysis, this is called ‘transference’.
We unconsciously want from our intimate others what we were deprived in the past, often by our family of origin. We repeat the story but are secretly hoping for a different outcome.
The Greek definition of Transference is ‘to carry across’. When we carry our past into the present, our deep motivation is to complete the unfinished story— though consciously, we want to move forward, unconsciously, we might seek a re-make of the old tale. Early materials cannot be remembered by our conscious mind, but, owing to dissociation, is repeated in what we do (in psychology, this is known as repetition compulsion). This is why some of us continue to be attracted to abusive, unavailable or emotionally stunted partners that repeat our childhood trauma.
However, this sets an impossible task for our partners. After all, the weight of our unmourned hopes and lost childhood are too huge to be carried by any one person, or any relationship.
Transference also makes us see the world through a distorted lens. According to Carl Jung, when we are in transference, we project what is in our inner world to the outer world. if we have low self-esteem, or if we carry toxic shame from childhood, we might project our harsh internal criticism onto our partner. For example, we ‘mind-read’, misinterpret their words and actions, and say things like: “I know what you think”, “I can tell- you must think I am a terrible person.’
Although unmanaged transference could bring problems in a relationship, transference is not in itself ‘bad’. Author David Richo calls Transference a ‘homing instinct’ in the psyche. Rather than criticising ourselves, we could look at our actions as a quest for love: It is our inner child trying to get their needs met, our innermost desire to heal and become whole are out searching for what might help. Our efforts and attempts might be clumsy, but the intention is virtuous. If anything, we ought to have deep admiration and respect for the creative strategies we have come up with to heal and to become whole.
“What if that was my role to fail you… just like everybody else has? What if that was our little drama together, written by your unconscious. But what if we could find a way out of that script— find a different way to end the play.”
– Donald Kalsched
THE THREE FORMS OF PSYCHIC HUNGER
From basic safety to healthy boundaries, our childhood needs and wounds are multi-fold. In this letter, we use the work of self-psychologist Heinz Kohut, to look at three types of our basic needs that, if unmet, became a form of emotional hunger in our close relationships.
In Kohut (1984)’s framework, there are three major types of early relational needs that influence the developing self: mirroring, idealising, and twinship. They make up the three types of transference that we experience in our present-day relationships.
OUR HUGER FOR “MIRRORING”
As babies, we cannot yet recognise our significance and our place in the world. Before we had any idea of who we were, we need others to ‘mirror’ our existence, to feel real, accepted and therefore valuable in the world. That is also the time in which we form a self- concept based on how we are treated. We see ourselves in terms of how we appear to others, and we are easily influenced. For example, if we had hypercritical parents, we are likely to internalise the idea that we were inadequate.
‘The gleam in the mother’s eye’ is a phrase used by Kohut to describe our first mirror experience- when our parents reflect joy in us and what we do. This feedback is how we know that our existence is celebrated and that we have a valuable place in this world. Mirroring is essential for the development of our self-esteem and sense of safety in the world. If we had distorted, or deprivation of mirroring in the past, we might have difficulties feeling welcome in the world. As author Mario Jacoby says“If nobody in the whole world is taking joy in the fact that I exist, if there is nobody who understands, appreciates and loves what I am, and what I do, then there is hardly any chance of keeping a healthy narcissistic balance, a realistic sense of self-esteem.”
You might remember watching the Still Face Experiment video in a previous letter (If not, here is a link). It demonstrates how a baby finds herself through her parents’ reflections, without which, she was lost, confused, and became stuck in a state of terror.
If we did not have an adequate mirroring experience as a child, we could end up becoming ‘mirror hungry’. As we feel closeness in an intimate relationship, and have a glimpse of the hope that there is someone to, at long last, see us, care for us, and love us as we are, our need for mirroring then get re-evoked, and regress into a child-like state to try and get our needs met in our adult relationship. As a result, we experience an insatiable compulsion to demand empathic resonance, reassurance and loving responses from our partner.
“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.”
― John Joseph Powell, The Secret of Staying in Love
Some manifestations of mirror hunger are: feeling that our partners are never doing enough, saying enough, celebrating us enough. If we hinge our self-value on our partner’s responses, when they are not around, we might feel like we have lost a piece of ourselves. We might become extremely sensitised to the slightest changes in their voice, utterance and actions, and see everything they say or do as either a warm welcome or a brutal rejection. We then seek more and more time, attention, and reassurance through clingy, demanding behaviours.
Researchers (Banai et al. 2005) found that hunger for mirroring is related to adult attachment anxiety, and mirror-hungry individuals tend to use ‘hyper-activating strategies to engage with others. These actions are unconscious efforts to garner the other’s attention and to reinforce the interaction in which one feels cared for. Psychologist Fosha (2000) also describes anxiously attached adults as having the capacity to feel but not deal with their emotions—When we don’t get our needs satiated, we may behave erratically and in ways that feel out of control.
“We are, in a sense, our own parents and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good.’
– Saint Gregory of Nyssa
OUR NEED TO IDEALISE
Our second significant childhood need is to have someone reliable to count on. To feel safe in the world, a child ought to be able to see someone- usually our early caregivers- as ‘all-powerful, omniscient and perfect’ (p.50, Jacoby, 1984).
Idealising transference develops when we see others as “perfect and wonderful”, and feel ourselves to be healthy and vital under our connection to them. It is through emulating and idealised other that we learn to internalise their strength and resilience as our own. In an optimal situation, we would first idealise our parents as the ‘Superman/ superwoman’ of our lives, and then through a process of gradual discovery, we find out that they are not perfect. In this process, we also realise our own strength. Though not painless, the dropping of our initial idealisation should be gradual, natural, and not traumatising.
While in reality, no parent is perfect and not a ‘superhero’, it is traumatising to see our parents’ limitations too much, too early, and too soon. If we had vulnerable parents, parents with physical or mental illnesses, or caregivers with limited resources, we might not get our idealising need met. And if our early idealising needs were met, we would have a healthy sense of ideas, not feel too big or too small in the world, be guided by a set of internal values, and can self-soothing and regulate emotions.
Idealising others is not all bad- Some degree of romanticising is natural, even necessary, at the beginning of any romantic partnership, and we often project the best version of ourselves onto an idealised other. Eventually, as the relationship mature, we could see our positive qualities in the other, and be able to reclaim some of them as our own. In other words, understanding the nature of our idealisation can help us become a more integrated person.
However, lacking someone reliable and consistent to lean on in childhood, we might have to idealise a romantic partner for an extended period. In the trench of idealising transference, we see ourselves as small and dependent and project our power outward. On the flip side, we seek perfection from our partner, and when we have a glimpse of their limitations, we become disproportionately disappointed, frustrated, and lost. We might also flip into ‘black and white thinking, and feel the relationship is, therefore ‘no good’, and experience the compulsion to be rid of them. Too much idealising also prevents us from seeing our partner as who they are, but as a set of projected images and ideas.
“Jung remarks that the sexual attraction is always used by the unconscious to represent the urge toward reconciliation with split-away parts of ourselves .it is their first direct experience of their strong longing to be reconnected to a missing part of themselves, to some aspect of their own souls.”
– Ann B. Ulanov
OUR HUNGER FOR TWINSHIP
Also known as ‘alter-ego’ transference, twinship transference concerns our belongingness and participation in the world. Twinship transference occurs when we need to “feel an essential likeness” (Togashi and Kottler, 2015, p.8). with others. Our need to feel connected to similar others could be met in an intimate relationship, friendship, or community, brought about by a similarity in interests and talents, and the sense of being understood by someone like oneself (White and Weiner, 1986, p.103). Kohut (1984) describes twinship transference as ‘a source of genuine joy’, and suggests that we experience psychological trauma when we feel so separated from the rest of humanity that we feel ourselves as ‘a non-human thing’ (Togashi and Kottler, 2015, p.21).
Scholars such as Stolorow (2009) posits that if earlier mirroring responses are flawed, we will intensify their search for twinship. He wrote: “When I have been traumatised, my only hope for being deeply understood is to form a connection with a brother or sister who knows the same darkness” (p.49).
“It would be too easy to say that I feel invisible. Instead, I feel painfully visible, and entirely ignored.”
― David Levithan, Every Day
Being neuro-atypical or innately different sets us up to be twinship-hungry adults. Emotionally intense people often differ from their peers in ways other than emotional capacity, but also intellectual, physical, artistic or sensory attributes. In developmental psychology and the study of giftedness, the term asynchrony describes the developmental characteristics of groups of children; where their mental, physical, emotional, and social abilities may all develop at different paces. From a young age, rarely finding someone with whom they can relate or who makes them feel understood leads to deeply internalised loneliness. Many intense adults spend their lives trying to find connections that have the intellectual, emotional and spiritual depth and breadth that meet them where they are at.
When we bring an overwhelming need for twinship into our intimate relationship, we may feel alone and sad even when we are engaged with another. We may feel disproportionately sensitive when our partner does not ‘get us’, or when they fail to match us in the intensity or rigour that we demand. We may set unrealistic expectations when it comes to closeness and distance, or too easily make individual differences and benign disagreement a source of conflict. It can be increasingly despairing if we struggle to find fulfilling connections in the world, or when again and again we realise “the One” is not what we had expected. Being disappointed enough, we might revert to isolation and counter-dependence to avoid future hurt.
“Where are the people?” resumed the little prince at last. “It’s a little lonely in the desert…” “It is lonely when you’re among people, too,” said the snake.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
GRIEVING AND ADULTING
Sometimes, in an intimate partnership, we could not help but act out of unrealistic demands, projections, and expectations, as if we are testing the limit of reality.
It looks as though we are illogical, unreasonable, and overly reactive.
Our adult self knows that our one person could not and should not be the only source of our nourishment and need fulfilment, yet the little children in us scream for more.
Our fears and reactivity make sense, because, to a child, having inconsistent or unavailable parents is threatening. To an infant, it can be a matter of life and death.
But these are old fears. We are now an adult who does not depend on others for our survival.
We now have the power to take conscious actions to stop looking outward for rescue but to make an honourable commitment to be our own best caretaker.
When our partner disappoints us, the situation provides valuable information that points to our deepest longings. Through awareness and reflections, we realise what we are deeply hungry for – someone to mirror our expressions, to celebrate our existence, for us to trust and occasionally rely on, or to share a sense of kinship and likeness.
But we must first be able to grieve.
The first loss to grieve is the loss of a fantasy: That our partner could fulfil all our longings.
If we manage to allow the conflicts and disappointments to burn through our unfulfilled dreams, childhood lack and fantasies, we will reach the joy of seeing reality. It is by being able to scream ‘I am so let down by you sometimes!’ that we can allow true love to flow. It is by knowing our anger and disappointment are real, and then we can trust that our love is also real. We are in a partnership with a full human being, based on an honest reality, rather than a child-like fantasy. Such is the foundation of a mature, authentic partnership.
We could finally meet our partner as they are, not under the filter or how well they could meet our needs, and without projections and false expectations.
We do not need them to be perfect, as they do not reflect on us, represent us, or limit us.
We might still like, or dislike certain things, but their limits cease to become a threat.
We can compassionately hold their good and bad together in our heart, without flipping into black-or-white thinking.
We would not be acting from a place of desperation, neediness and resentment, but out of love, and the pure joy of giving and relating.
We would be able to hop off the cycles of co-dependency and symbiotic relationships and move towards independence, self- containment, and freedom.
Then, we would have taken a giant leap towards a soul-fulfilling partnership with a fellow journeyman.
A life where you are truly alive would not be devoid of pain and grieve, but rainbow and roses too exist.
I hope you make the best of this journey we call love and life.
“True love always requires great daring. If we are not also willing to confront the darkness that this light reveals, our soul will never ripen or evolve”.
– John Welwood
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