Once when I was a professor, I was speaking to a student who was dealing with a lot of emotional baggage. I’d been trying to help, and somewhere along the line, my attempts at help (initially well-received) became something different for this person. I was listening to this person describe their anger at me, watching as it flickered across this person’s face, trying to stay present and not take things personally as I heard accusations and blame.

It hit me as I was looking into this person’s eyes: “I’ve just been cast as another person who is ‘out to get’ [this person]. They have a story that everyone is ‘out to get’ them, and I’ve just been put into that role, even though nothing could be further from the truth and all I want to do, is help–but it doesn’t seem to matter what I say or do. Everything I do is being interpreted as ‘She’s out to get me.’ ”

It stayed with me that day, how absolute the person felt that I was out to get them, even as I was absolute that I sincerely, deeply, truly wanted to help. It’s easier to see when it’s someone else’s stuff–not so easy when it’s our own.

But of course, we all do it. We put our boss in the role of Villain, our favorite writers in the role of Guru, and friends in the role of Savior. And when they fail to meet our expectations, we begin categorizing them differently (the friend who can no longer be our Savior, for instance, becomes The One Who Disappointed Me).

We can be categorizing machines, run amok, not ever truly seeing ourselves or others for the complicated layers or humanity that we are.

But the thing is, when talking with this student, I understood that the student wasn’t really talking “to me.” The student was talking with someone else and projecting that stuff onto me.

There’s a name for this thing that we do, where we project things onto others in this particular way: transference.


Transference, when used in a relational context, is the phenomenon of someone transferring feelings that they experienced with an earlier person, onto someone else. In coaching (for instance), this can show up as a parenting model, where a client puts themselves into a child role, and the coach or therapist or helper into a parental role, with the client’s feelings about their parents “transferred” to that work.

Working with a coaching client, for instance, I’ve heard clients say that they were afraid that if they didn’t finish their practices for the week, I’d be unwilling to continue working with them (punishment) or would think they were lazy (judgement), completely in line with the model they experienced with their own parents. I’d done nothing to make them think that punishment or judgement would be in order.

When I was a college professor, it took me years to understand why some students seemed to assume that I was an jerk, from day one before I’d even managed to give the first assignment–then I read a bit more about transference and went, “Ohhhh. Authority issues with me could be unresolved issues with parental authority figures. Probably not personal. Got it.”

Why examine transference? Because it might be undermining your relationships. You might not actually be upset with Sally, your co-worker. You might actually be upset about something–someone–else.

Transference is easier to spot in those relationships where one person is holding the role of “helper” and another is in the role of “recipient.” Where it’s not as easy to spot is in those regular, seemingly ordinary, everyday interactions and relationships.

When we aren’t present to transference, we aren’t clued in to the fact that we are participating in a daily, ongoing performance in Transference Theatre.

Not being aware of your performance in Transference Theatre–and the performance roles that you’re assigning others–becomes a block. It blocks us from being present to what is. It puts us into a rigid default mode in our assessments of others. And finally, it becomes a block to change, because we’re so used to seeing ourselves as ThisWay and someone else as ThatWay that one might not even consider that there’s that OtherWay to choose.

How to Shift

We can shift this if we try a new practice: The practice of, “I don’t know.”

You try this practice by simply examining all the places and spaces where you just don’t know–where you can’t know–where nothing is certain–where maybe our assumptions don’t need to apply and we just don’t know.

Try it, sometime: Say it, to yourself, thinking of any block you’re currently facing. I don’t know. I just don’t know if my mother is this way or that way. I just don’t know if my parents really did the best they could. I just don’t know if working for myself would really make me happier. I just don’t know if this person is being a jerk on purpose. I just don’t know if the guy who cut me off in traffic is an idiot. I just don’t know if my life is good. I just don’t know if my life is bad.

This sort of practice derives from a Zen Buddhist idea of “don’t know mind” or “beginner’s mind.” You just…don’t know. You don’t attach.

When you’re a beginner, you don’t know yet how it is “supposed to” look, so you just go with it and have an openness to seeing things unfold.

There’s a spaciousness of “I don’t know.” There’s less pressure. There’s no need to figure it out.

There’s just not knowing, not having all of the answers. Looking at where you inadvertently get stuck in transference becomes the doorway to seeing where you might practice the spaciousness of “I don’t know.”

There’s a lot of fear, when we don’t know. That’s why we try so hard to find answers.

But there’s also freedom in that spaciousness of “I don’t know.” It’s a step towards dismantling old fear patterns, finding fresh solutions, and getting more conscious.