Shame and Transference — Part I
I got home on Monday and went straight to work. I spent most of the day in a sleep-deprived haze, having gotten up at 2 am the night before to catch a flight that was ultimately cancelled.
By evening, I was in a frantic text conversation with a friend who used to be a therapist. I confessed my feelings for my therapist. I recognized those feelings as transference. I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology after all. But those positive feelings were accompanied by overwhelming shame — shame as I had never experienced before.
There was simply something wrong with this feeling. I at once confused Steven with my father and had romantic feelings for him. It was wrong — incestuous. And horribly dysfunctional.
“I think a part of me really doesn’t want to get better,” I texted my friend. “It’s like, oh, so you finally found a therapist you can connect with, and he might actually be able to help you. Well, I’m going to fuck it all up by falling in love with him or confusing him with dad.”
My friend said that if my therapist is really good, he’ll be able to help me with these issues, but it required my honesty. In other words, I had to confess my feelings to Steven.
“I can’t. How could I? It’s so incredibly insane and embarrassing. It’s batshit crazy even for me.”
My friend insisted that I had to tell him, or else I should just not even bother to continue therapy and save my money. The funny thing is, I was never supposed to continue therapy. It was a two-session thing, and now it was over. But a part of me always knew that I’d ask him for phone sessions. How could I not? I was so hopelessly attached.
“Man, you want me to admit to a whole new level of insanity.”
“It’s the only sane option,” he texted back.
“The worst part is that I can’t even tell if I just confused him with dad or if I have romantic feelings for him. Both of those things shouldn’t be able to coexist.”
I posted to an online forum, asking other people how they dealt with feelings of shame. Shame is one of my least favorite feelings, and I rarely ever felt ashamed about my own feelings. I’d feel ashamed if I screwed something up at work, but I saw that as a healthy reaction and a good disincentive to repeat the same mistakes. But feeling ashamed about my own feelings was something new, and it was difficult to handle. A part of me wanted to run away and never talk to Steven again. It would have been so easy — we did not have any follow-up sessions scheduled. He asked me to write to him, and I said I would. But surely there weren’t any real, definitive expectations of further communication.
The whole, “write me and let me know how things go,” and the appropriate response of “I will,” were but social niceties, and it probably wouldn’t be horribly rude, or even unexpected, if I simply didn’t follow through.
People who responded to my forum post encouraged me to disclose my feelings to Steven. One person wrote that whenever she developed strong feelings for her therapist, she knew that she had come upon something important. Another advised that if I felt like I needed to run, I should put a treadmill next to my therapist.
I was nothing if not brave, and I wanted to see this thing through, this therapy thing. So I resolved to tell Steven everything, but every time I thought about it, I cringed in shame and horror. I wasn’t sure why I felt so ashamed — in some ways I felt that I had betrayed his trust by having these inappropriate feelings for him, and then there was the fact that he’s married. The first point didn’t really make sense to my rational mind, and the second point — well, I’ve been in love with married men before and never experienced this kind of shame — so that couldn’t be it. Finally, I settled on the theory that I felt ashamed because I both wished Steven was my father and had romantic, or romantic-like, feelings for him, and that was incestuous and therefore wrong and shameful.
Whatever the source of my feelings of shame, I had to tell Steven, but I couldn’t imagine doing so. I needed help getting to the point where I could get on the phone and disclose my shame to the last person I wanted to disclose it to. So I messaged a friend who had started a counseling practice fairly recently. He agreed to have a phone session with me the very next day.
During our phone session, my friend asked me to describe my feelings for Steven. I had to think for a moment before I was able to describe those feelings in words — for all the ruminating I had been doing, I had somehow managed to avoid thinking too much about the nature of my feelings. The shame had made it uncomfortable to think about.
But in the safety of that conversation with my friend (who is a very good counselor), I was able to push myself to examine my feelings. “They’re just really tender feelings,” I explained. “I really care about him, and I adore him.” I realized then that my feelings were not really romantic; I just thought they were because the only adult feelings I had ever experienced with such intensity were romantic. I had no other point of reference, no other word with which to describe such intense feelings.
That realization should have been a relief — I didn’t want to sleep with my father after all. But my newfound understanding did not negate my feeling of shame. It didn’t even lessen the shame, not even a little bit.
Standing in a Trader Joe’s parking lot on a Friday morning, I tried to role-play with my friend the conversation I’d have with Steven. Even though my friend already knew what I was going to say, I almost could not force the words out of my mouth. The level of difficulty was unbelievable. Shame threatened to choke me. I started and stopped several times until my friend asked me if I could pull up the text message I had sent him the night before, in which I had briefly explained the situation. “Oh yeah, I’ll just read it,” I said, relieved. So I did, and that was a start.
Later that afternoon, I emailed Steven. I told him that I felt like I was being derailed by something and asked if I could schedule a phone session with him soonish. He asked me for convenient times and a number to call and said he would call me over the weekend.
That night I decided that I still couldn’t imagine having the conversation with Steven so I texted the friend who used to be a therapist and asked him if he’d be willing to role-play the conversation with me. He said he would, and we agreed that he would call me the next morning and just pretend to be Steven when he calls.
The next morning, on the phone with my friend, I once again had trouble spitting out the words. “Okay, I can’t do this, let’s stop,” I finally said in exasperation. But my friend would not break character. After about an hour of starting and stopping, trying and failing, I finally managed to say it: “I have these feelings for you that are somewhat inappropriate. I think it’s transference. I’m feeling a lot of shame around these feelings so it’s hard for me to talk about.”
That afternoon, Steven emailed me to tell me that he’ll call me Sunday morning at 10. I woke up Sunday morning at 8 a.m. in a panic. I looked on Facebook — most of my friends were still asleep. I posted on Facebook, asking if anyone was awake and willing to role-play a conversation with me. Half an hour went by with no response, and I deleted the post out of a sense of ridiculousness and embarrassment. Finally, a bit after 9, I saw that a friend of mine was online so I messaged him and asked if he’d be willing to role-play a conversation with me. He agreed so I did the whole thing over again with him. I still had a hard time, but the conversation was noticeably easier this time. I finally felt somewhat ready to face the thing that had caused me so much dread. (Also, I have great friends, don’t I?)
To be continued…