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Projection and Transference

Posted on April 22nd, 2014

Ernst Becker, in The Denial of Death, observes we have a universal human need for heroic figures who are less helpless or broken than ourselves. We transfer our childlike feelings of dependency to celebrities, mega-church pastors, or other authority figures. (Freud called this transference). They appear to have triumphed over the hardships of life. They dazzle us with their self-confidence. We compare ourselves to them, feeling diminished in their presence. If we happen to get close to them and see their ugly side, we feel shocked and betrayed. We forget. They too feel frightened, inadequate, and vulnerable like the rest of us. Read the biographies of all spiritual, military, economic, intellectual, political, and artistic leaders through history. You will discover they each had their shadows and monsters. People will, at times, put you on a pedestal, idealizing you and projecting onto you qualities as if you were indistinguishable from the rest of humanity. But remember: they will probably despise you when they see all of you. We are all broken, human beings. As Becker says, we are all just a “homo sapien, standard vintage.”

The Desert Fathers, from the fourth century, offer us the antidote to these twin dangers of projection and transference: The brothers surrounded John the Short when he was sitting in front of the church, and each of them asked him about their thoughts. When he saw this, another hermit was jealous, and said, ‘John, your cup is full of poison.’  John answered, ‘Yes, abba, it is. But you said that when you could only see the outside; I wonder what you say if you saw the inside.”

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