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In a recent NYTimes magazine article, therapist Lori Gottlieb discussed the concept of “transference,” a psychoanalytic term coined by Freud. In it, she noted that:

“Essentially, “transference” is a jargony way to describe what happens when a patient redirects unconscious feelings toward the therapist, who is often serving as a stand-in for someone else in his life. A patient might idealize or devalue his therapist; he might conflate him with a parent or spouse or the boss who fired him five years ago….these redirected feelings can then be effectively acknowledged and examined.”

As I read this, I couldn’t help thinking about how transference might play itself out in mentoring relationships. It would be easy to see how a mentee might redirect his or her feelings such as anger/disappointment with a parent, frustration with a teacher, ambivalence toward an older sibling, etc. onto a mentor. Mentors, who are typically unschooled in the nuances of transference, are likely to be bewildered by the intensity of their mentees’ reaction in certain instances. For example, a mentor’s cancellation of an outing might trigger in the mentee strong unconscious feelings, stemming, at least in part, from earlier disappointments with caregivers. A mentor might see this overreaction as manipulative or overwhelming, not knowing that the mentee is redirecting unresolved feelings from other relationships onto him or her. If mentors can remain aware of such situations, and interpret them as a measure of how safe the mentee feels in the mentoring relationship, the mentees overreactions can provide valuable insights and openings for helpful conversations.

Indeed, by serving as a sounding board and providing a model of effective adult relationships and communication, mentors can help their mentees to become better able to understand, express, and regulate their emotions (Pianta, 1999). Psychologist John Gottman (2001) has referred to “emotion coaching,” in which adults model and teach strategies for managing feelings. Mentors who can remain a calm and understanding presence, and openly display positive emotions, particularly under difficult circumstances, can actively model the process of using positive emotions constructively (Denham & Kochanoff, 2002). By sticking with youth, even when they seem inexplicably angry, withdrawn, or sensitive, mentors may facilitate coping and help mentees approach their reactions as opportunities for intimacy, growth, and learning. Close relationships with mentors, in turn, are thus thought to generalize, enabling youth to interact with others more effectively. In particular, by modeling caring and providing support, mentors can both challenge negative views that some youth may hold of themselves and others, and demonstrate that positive relationships with adults are possible. In this way, a mentoring relationship may become a “corrective experience” for youth who had experienced unsatisfactory relationships with parents or other caregivers.

So, despite its Freudian origins, transference is a relevant concept that can help mentors understand and navigate some of the complexities that might arise when they forge a meaningful connection with their mentees.

From the Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring By Jean Rhodes;  October 25, 2017