You arrive in a new relationship or a new situation and find yourself reacting unusually. It feels out of character, not how you ordinarily respond in such situations. It feels uncomfortable, disorientating. You struggle to contain it, ignore it, behave normally but it persists, gnawing at you inside. You feel anxious, prickly, agitated and it’s hard to keep things in perspective. You know something is wrong but you don’t know what and you can’t understand why. What could this be about? Is it simply a strange, inexplicable intuition? Is it just about you?
Some psychological theories, e.g. transference or pattern matching, suggest that aspects of a new situation may resonate deeply and subconsciously with personal experiences from the past. It’s as if something seems familiar and we transpose feelings from the past onto that situation. This ability enables us to approach new scenarios with an element of experience, rather than trying to navigate every new experience from a blank sheet. Problems arise, however, when similarities are only superficial or the feelings are inappropriate or unhelpful.
If we find recurring patterns in our responses, one way to address this is to notice the feeling and to reflect back on, ‘When was the first time I remember feeling like this?’ Often, this takes us back to a specific childhood experience. We could vividly re-imagine that situation, (a) as if knowing then what we know now, (b) as an alternative scenario in which what we would have liked to have happened did happen or (c) if another person was involved, with what we would have liked to have said and the response we would like to have received.
This process takes concentration, allowing ourselves really to visualise and feel the revised situation as if it had actually happened. It can have the effect of desensitising our memories and, if they were painful, taking some of the sting out of them. At the point of imagination, we may choose a colour that captures the feeling of the revised scenario, as if painting it in that colour. This anchors the positive feeling in the colour and enables us to recall that colour when facing new situations, thereby associating the new feeling with them.
But what if it isn’t about resonance with a past experience? What else could explain our feelings and responses? Some psychological theories, e.g. countertransference or parallel process, locate the source of the feeling outside of ourselves. It’s as if we receive a subconscious stimulus from a person or our wider environment that causes us to feel what the other is feeling. It’s one step beyond empathy, an actual experiencing of another’s experience. Coaches and therapists may use this kind of awareness to identify unspoken issues in a client or system.
Some ways to recognise this internalising phenomenon are if we find ourselves (a) feeling very alien to how we normally feel in a relationship or situation, (b) reacting out of proportion to what a situation appears to call for or (c) experiencing the same each time we encounter a particular person or environment. We can test this tentatively with others to check it out, e.g. ‘I’m aware of feeling X…is that how you are feeling?’, ‘Each time we meet I feel quite ‘parental’…is that how you see me?’, ‘I feel X when I visit…is that how it feels to work here?’
It could be that we’re experiencing a combination of various internal and external dynamics. After all, it’s sometimes hard to unravel what we’re experiencing and why. Perhaps the boundaries between our present and past experiences, our internal and external worlds, are more permeable than we realise. As a coach or therapist, what do you attribute experience to? How do you discern and differentiate between your own experience and that of the client or system? What do you do practically to help clients handle their experiences differently?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.