bust of ancient philosopher on grey background

Transference and being put on pedestals (2021)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

There is a rule at many of the events where I teach and co-create; that one may not abuse their position of power. Of course, the most obvious interpretation is; do not fuck your students. But there are many more layers to it, especially when working in the field of trauma and recovery. Transference is the psychological concept that I think describes it best.

transference noun
1: an act, process, or instance of transferring: CONVEYANCE, TRANSFER
2: the redirection of feelings and desires and especially of those unconsciously retained from childhood toward a new object (such as a psychoanalyst conducting therapy)

It describes a fundamental human behaviour, that when a hierarchy of power exists, one tends to transfer the values and ideas from the top to the bottom. This happens effortlessly and unconsciously. Creating the reversed flow seems an almost impossible challenge for any organization. That is my experience from my years as an organizational coach. Nevertheless, it’s a crucial part of any capitalistic system, where successful knowledge seeds down into the hierarchy. And it creates a feedback loop that reinforces the power dynamic to create stability. While this is maybe wanted in the marketplace, what happens when it takes place inside a workshop environment or therapeutic relationship? And how is it affected when the themes inside that hierarchy are power, abuse, and sexuality?

I first encountered transference long before I became a workshop leader. I was learning rope bondage, and I wanted to practice a lot. Say maybe three to five times a week, so I needed a lot of partners. In the beginning, the focus was on patterns and suspensions, but with my fascination for the older kinbaku teachers, like Yukimura (I wrote about him in my text about being bakushi), I slowly but surely turned towards sexuality and domination. So my rope bondage sessions became tragic but oh so beautiful love stories filled with seduction, suffering and longing. I sometimes say, half-joking, that I need to fall in love to tie someone. Or at least that strong emotional connection must be there.

But being in love with two handfuls of practice partners and having them emotionally dependent on me would be very unpractical. So I started to value stable partners with solid integrity and emotional intelligence. When tying someone for the first time, I learnt to keep an eye on our relating the days and weeks afterwards, to see if any dependency from the power dynamic was left between us. And if it was, to see if we could consciously talk about it. Building my rituals around my tying (read about them here) has been crucial to continue doing what I do. So many years later, when reading about trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, it put words and focused on something already familiar.

Basically what happens, is that people with a submissive tendency are looking for people in power to act out their submission. Preferably someone both flawless and totalitarian, where there are no questions marks. Of course, this person doesn’t exist, but a fantasy is created and projected. It’s commonly called putting people on pedestals. Being up there, one can either play along and reinforce the illusion or use that power for reconnecting with reality. That is climbing down from the pedestal if one is aware of what’s happening. I can enjoy staying on the pedestal in private play with someone I have a well-established relationship with because it feeds the hierarchy we are exploring. But in professional and therapeutic relationships, then I believe it to be super destructive.

I remember a story that I received in an email a few days after a festival. The woman had participated in one of my rituals on submission. She arrived with this deep craving to be dominated, as she was usually always in control. So when mingling with the other participants, she evaluated every man that she met. Could he be the one? Out of a hundred, she finally found one, and as the ritual started, she kept her gaze strictly focused on him. An hour passed until they finally met, standing in front of each other, feeling into the power dynamic between them. A buzzing feeling of excitement makes her body tremble; here we go, finally time to release control and surrender. But as that thought travels through her mind, the one thing that shouldn’t happen happens. He drops to his knees in submission, pleading with his eyes for her to dominate him. She does it; she is used to having power after all; she is the masculine woman in a masculine world. At the same time, she sees me in the corner of her eye. I look calm and in control, softly directing the ritual. For a moment, she feels seen by me, and then she knows I am the one that can dominate her. I’m the one at the top of the hierarchy, of her hierarchy. The festival goes on, and she sees me queuing for food, singing in the morning gatherings, and drinking coffee in the cafe. Maybe we have eye contact, and it makes her feel seen in her longing. She ends her email; Did you see me too? And I don’t know until she sends me a picture, and she is entirely unknown to me.

While this is a funny, almost charming story from a festival, it is deadly serious in a therapeutic relationship. Most people I meet come with a repetitive behaviour pattern concerning power and sexuality. Some have a history of being submissive, without consent or consciousness, so they are used to giving away their power without anything in return. While others have fought so hard to have control, so they ultimately lost the ability to let go. At the same time, the most complex is oscillating between the two extremes. They are usually aware of their behaviour, at the surface, because they have talked to someone recommending them to contact me or spent many hours googling. However, the behaviour is still in the subconscious, making them keep repeating it—often feeling hopeless and frustrated.

Most of my clients are female, and their trouble almost always includes a man in the position of power. So when meeting me, the key is to see that I represent one example of the possibility to explore domination and submission in a conscious and consensual way. While ultimately keeping the power within themselves, as I describe in this text about therapeutic rope bondage. But transference makes it tricky, as I will likely come off as the “good” man who understands them and is willing to work with them. And it works because they pay me, so I don’t need another hidden agenda, and our therapeutic relationship is clear. In a way, I can uphold this fantasy for them during the session because they never really need to see the whole me. That, of course, is just as complex and messed up like everyone else. So I think the least I can do is empower people to be conscious and consensual about transference and how it affects them in the spaces I create.