Transferring trauma

Transferring trauma

Perceptions of others can be skewed by too much emotional baggage from childhood

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 08/26/2013

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Dear Patti,
My name is Camila, I’m 17 and in love for the first time. Jayden and I have dated for a year, spent time together all summer and had so much fun that I’ll never forget it. He’s wonderful and romantic and spends too much on presents for me. (I’ve insisted he stop since we’re both saving for college.) Even when he doesn’t spend money, he finds beautiful ways to let me know I’m loved. 

Jayden is very close to his family, especially his 16-year-old sister, Alyssa. She’s beautiful, blond, blue-eyed and works at the same restaurant with us. I can’t help it but I resent her and don’t like her hanging around with us. 

Jayden told me Alyssa is sad because she thinks I don’t like her. He wants us to get to know each other better, but I keep thinking she’s interfering with our relationship. When I’m away from the situation, I can see that she’s not selfish or conceited or doing anything wrong. She also works hard and gives her mother money. At times it seems like she looks up to me, almost like a big sister.

My parents divorced when I was young. I lived with my mother and visited my father every other weekend. He lived with his girlfriend, Felicia, who was beautiful and it seemed like she was more important to my dad than me. I felt like I had to compete for his attention and it didn’t seem fair because she had him all the rest of the time when I wasn’t there. 
I’m pretty sure I’m reacting to Allyssa as if she’s Felicia and I don’t want to do that. I want to move on, leave my lonely childhood memories behind, and not alienate Jayden or any of his family because they’ve all been very nice to me, even Alyssa.  
— Camila 

Dear Camila,
This is a very exciting time in your life with adulthood just beginning. As is often the case when one moves forward to grow up and individualize as an independent person, the awkward weight of emotional baggage from childhood can really get in the way. 

It sounds like you want to heal from the pain and insecurity of past traumas so they won’t interfere with your life today; that’s an excellent goal. You have already taken the first critical step by recognizing that Alyssa is treating you fine but that you’re emotionally reacting as if her behavior were a cruel carbon copy of what you previously experienced with your father’s girlfriend. This is called transference. The more you acknowledge and experience your repressed feelings toward Felicia and your father, the less power those historic feelings will be able to exert on what you’re doing and feeling in the present.

To accomplish this objective and reduce the tendency to transfer your feelings onto others, I would strongly recommend professional counseling. Find a therapist whom you trust and feel connected to. Keep in mind, however, there’s a good possibility you’ll eventually transfer feelings onto your therapist as well. That is often part of the therapeutic process which your therapist will guide you through. The goal is for the two of you to create a safe, private space in which you carefully examine and heal these painful memories.

Until then, try this exercise. Write down all of the traits — both good and bad — that characterized your father’s girlfriend. On a separate piece of paper, write down all of the traits that Alyssa exhibits. After reviewing both lists, write down the behaviors from your first list that you’re currently transferring onto Jayden’s sister. Look clearly at the difference.

The next step is to choose a negative trait from your Felicia list and remember a specific time when she exhibited that trait and you felt mistreated as a result. See the experience in your mind’s eye and feel your anger and hurt. Do that with each negative trait and you’ll begin to understand where all of this is rooted.

Share this experience with your new therapist. You may find that therapeutic work will help your relationship with your father and you’ll definitely experience improvement in your current contacts. I really appreciate that you want to do your best to not allow the past to interfere with your new relationships and other relationships to come. n 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her Web site,


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