Let’s blow the cover off of another taboo topic in our culture, one that causes my clients to barely be able to whisper their experience loud enough to share it with me: “falling in love” with people other than your partner, including bosses, celebrities, religious figures, and even your therapist.
I’ll start by reiterating something I often express on this blog, which is that I deeply wish that we, as a culture, were more educated about the normal thoughts and feelings that the vast majority of people experience. It saddens me that there are still so many aspects of our inner terrain that remain hidden. I’m not sure where these kinds of conversation need to be happening – perhaps in school or university – but I know that the vast majority of the shame that people feel about their normal thoughts and feelings would be eradicated if they simply knew that they were shared by millions of other people. So when a client comes to me and shares that the “feelings” they’re having for their therapist, for example, is causing them to sink into a cesspool of shame, I want to reach out across space and infuse a huge dose of normal into their veins. If they only knew how textbook this is they could bypass the shame and cut directly to harvesting the gemstones of the experience.
There’s a term in psychology called transference, which essential means the tendency for a client to project their unmet feelings and needs onto their therapist. This can apply to almost anyone in your life, especially those in a position of power. For the next few paragraphs I’ll use the example of falling in love with your therapist, but if that hasn’t been your experience please apply the information to any time you’ve had a “crush”. In the case of the therapy room, this often looks like a client who wishes that her therapist was her father, mother, or lover. Transference, like projection, can manifest in both positive and negative form, meaning that we can transfer “positive Daddy” or “negative Daddy” onto a male therapist and positive Mommy” or “negative Mommy” onto a female therapist. Regardless of the nature of the experience for the client, those of us steeped in the world of psychology always regard the emergence of transference as positive for it means that the client feels safe enough with the therapist to begin to address their deeply-seated blueprints around their early relationships and is being led to take back their gold.
We “fall in love” all the time, which really means that we can project our mother-longing or father-longing onto almost anyone: a therapist, celebrity, sports hero, professor or teacher, boss. Transference doesn’t always take the form of sexual longing, but when it does it’s important to understand that it’s the psyche’s way of trying to “have” someone else completely, the way we do when we make love, and also the way a baby, in the ideal scenario, has his or her mother completely. It’s our way of trying to fuse with someone who carries the qualities that we’re longing to receive from another and, ultimately, trying to grow inside ourselves. We long to be seen, held, loved, carried, validated, mirrored – all experiences that ideally would have occurred early on with mother or father but likely didn’t to the degree we needed, so we transfer them onto others as a way to see them externally first then integrate them internally. It’s what Jungian analyst Robert Johnson refers to as “taking back our gold.”
“The alchemical gold has been processed differently in other cultures and other era. In the medieval period, people had a local saint or hero or at least a relic to hang onto. If you couldn’t have the saint around to hold your projection of the divine, at least you could have a bone or a piece of his or her clothing.
“In today’s secular societies, while we are channeling the religious impulse and projection of the highest value onto romantic love on the individual level, we are at the same time channeling it into celebrities at the collective level. We worship not only the would-be gurus but also the Sunday afternoon sports heroes, the movie stars, and the latest rock ‘n’ roll bands. We create Hollywood and Disneyland to carry our projections of greatness. But as a society we are putting ourselves at risk in this process, for a celebrity may not be a true hero. As the great mythologist Joseph Campbell once pointed out, the celebrity lives only for his or her own ego, while the hero acts to redeem society. We have many celebrities but few true heroes these days. Modern Westerners have evolved psychologically to the point where we are placing our gold on living beings rather then dead bones, as was done in medieval times, but it remains to be seen whether we can learn to carry our own gold and find heaven within instead of without.” (pp. 66-7)
When you find yourself “falling in love”, it’s an opportunity to introject and integrate the next layer of your inner masculine or feminine and carry your own gold. Longing for a male therapist, for example, when worked with consciously, can be understood as a longing for one’s own animus (inner masculine) and often initiates a grieving process around the unmet needs in one’s relationship with one’s biological father before introjecting the inner masculine/loving father into psyche. The more you develop this aspect of yourself, the less you will long for your therapist (or whoever the subject of your projection may be).
And of course it’s the therapist’s job to maintain an ironclad boundary with the client at all times and especially when transference is present. It’s the watertight seal of the therapeutic relationship that allows for the alchemical process of healing to occur. If the therapist pokes even the tiniest hole in the seal, not only is the possibility of healing shattered but the safety also collapses, which means that the client will feel violated.
Transference can happen just as easily with a same-sex crush, and here it’s essential to understand that transference has nothing to do with sexuality or sexual orientation and everything to do with the psyche’s push to integrate the next layer of Selfhood. At its core, our unconscious or soul has one guiding principle: to move toward wholeness. From a Jungian perspective, this means integrating our feminine and masculine aspects into the next layer of healing and growth. So when transference becomes sexualized, we see it like a dream image: it’s our psyche’s way to try to introject another’s qualities at the deepest level. Just like we don’t take dreams about having sex with someone else at face value, so we understand that the feeling of being “in love” or having sexual longing indicates that we’re in the realm of gathering our gold.
What I know from my Jungian studies, my work with clients, and my own life is that there’s only one thing that meets that place of longing: our relationship to spirit, source, God, or whatever you want to call it. Our parents weren’t meant to fill our Well to completion and meet our every need; they were only imperfect humans doing their best to love us in the only way they knew how. Despite what Hollywood and Disney say, our partners aren’t meant to complete us or rescue us or make us feel like life is worth living; they, too, are only imperfect people doing their best to find their way on this tricky and challenging planet. Therapists and professors and religious figures can fill in a piece of the puzzle, but it’s certainly not their job to lead us into wholeness. Over and over again and through a variety of sources we’re lured into believing that the antidote to our emptiness and longing comes from out there, yet the more we seek completion through anything external – including and perhaps mostly these days spending time on the internet – the emptier we feel.
Here are some basic guidelines to follow when you feel consumed by a crush:
- Notice the longing and name it for what it is: normal and healthy transference. Remind yourself that it’s not literal but that, like intrusive thoughts and other manifestations of anxiety, it’s a clue that there’s something inside that needs your attention and that, when approached consciously, will reveal gems.
- Remove the shame by reminding yourself that this is normal and healthy human experience designed to invite you into the next layer of healing.
- Become curious about the longing: What does it feel like? What does it remind you of? Is your psyche ready to integrate your own inner masculine Great Father or feminine Great Mother at a deeper level? Is there some aspect of yourself that you’re not seeing that you’re imagining will be seen by this external other?
The unassailable truth that needs to be placed forefront in the excavation process is that a crush stirs up longing like dust that has settled at the bottom of the soul, and that contained in this dust is an invitation to turn toward ourselves, to pull back the projections and seek an experience of wholeness in the company of our own being. When we become adept in the language of longing, we may even begin to find rapture in the longing itself. This, in itself, allows us to taste our own wholeness, if only for a moment. And that’s what we’re all seeking: to bathe body and soul in the gold-dust that carries the whispers of our own awakening.