May 27, 2020

Intense Reactions Regarding Self-Mutilation Part 1

Intense Reactions RegardingSelf-Mutilation: 
How to Identity and Resolve Transference & Counter-Transference via Art 

Part 1

by Ericha Scott, PhD, MEd, LPCC, ATR-BC, REAT

Self-Mutilation: Anonymous Client Art


Everyone knows about transference, even if they do not know the meaning of the word. 

Everyone has experienced it, especially those of us who have experienced childhood trauma, familial chaos, distress or mental health and addiction problems.

We might be conscious of transference, or not, or honest about it, or not. 

We might recognize it via a person we disliked instantly and intensely who upon reflection, reminds us of a bully in high school. 

Dory Previn, the ex-wife of Andre Previn, wrote song lyrics that illustrate the inherited legacy of trans-generational transference. Although her description is extreme, it embodies many elements of truth.


I tell you how I hate you in the voice my father used
You answer with your mother's worn clichés
And in another life, your father hears his wife
And I see his fury blazing in your gaze
An echo hears an echo and my mother's fist is raised
The hand I clench at you shows her distrust
The way one behaves is determined in the graves
Of all the great grandparents gone to dust
Our fathers fight through us
As they fought their father's war
And the same old scene's repeated
As before and before and before
And before and before
And when I tell you how I hate you
Before the birth of Jesus
Before the death of Caesar
Before Siddhartha
Before Ulysses
Before the Trojan war
I tell you how I hate you
And a long decaying anger
Comes alive inside a castle
And behind an ancient door
The empress of China
Tells her lover how she hates him
She tells him once more
And once more, and once more
And once more

Songwriter: Dory Langdon Previn 1974

The Empress of China lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC


Basically, transference means that we transfer unacknowledged, unexpressed or incomplete experiences from the past to those close to us in our lives today.

We might surprise ourselves by suddenly calling a spouse Mom – or Dad –  especially when we are particularly irritated or in the heat of an argument.  

Usually we dwell on the negative transferences because they can feel so unfair to the recipient. For example, imagine forgetting to take out the garbage to find your spouse responding with intense anger as if you had had a sexual liaison with a neighbor. Transference can feel justified and real to the one dishing it out and confusing and unfair to the recipient.

Yet, the action of transference can also include positive emotions. For example, there may have been a time we assumed someone’s moral code was much better than what it was in reality, because that woman or man reminded us of our decent and kind mother or father. 

Transference means we project our negative and positive experiences, as well as our emotions and desires from childhood, onto another person in adulthood such as a supervisor, colleague, romantic partner and sometimes even our own children. The more intense the childhood experiences, positive or negative, the more intense the emotional transferences. 

Transferences positive and negative can be triggered by a similar physical appearance to a caretaker in childhood, a tone of a voice, a certain critical expression, the scent of a perfume or cologne, as well as an age, power or gender differential. The triggers can be small, and seemingly insignificant, but powerful. 

In the case of the phenomenon of self-mutilation, the transference appears to capture something more than unexpressed emotions or experiences from childhood, but also, a primal revulsion to pain and blood.

This article explores the cognitive defenses of transference and countertransference. 

Counter-transference is the correct term for transference by people in a position of authority or power. Negative counter-transference is meted out onto a client, patient, student, or parishioner. Especially regarding clients or patients who self-mutilate, the counter-transference by a mental health professional involves a potential violation of power because of the likely vulnerability of a client, patient or research participant who self-harms.

I believe that it is important for the general public to understand the phenomenon of transference and how it can undermine relationships. It is also important to understand how it can be resolved with accountability. For example, around age 27, I attended Terry Kellogg’s Life Works Intensive with my family. A therapist there reminded me of my alcoholic mother. In advance, I told her of my potential transference. She responded with such loving care that the transference dissolved and she became a powerful support ally for me during the week long intensive. 

I believe it is also important for the general public, addicts and those who have mental illness to understand counter-transference. I say this because if you feel unfairly treated by a 1) health care practitioner, 2) teacher, 3) spiritual mentor, 4) sponsor or 5) supervisor then the construct of counter-transference might help empower you to speak and stand up for yourself. In other words, Pia Melody’s adage, “My feelings about you are more about me and my history, and your feelings about me are more about you and your history”. This simple phrase can be very helpful with regard to setting and keeping emotional boundaries.

Continue reading part 2 >>

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