MOM, DAD, COMPUTER
TRANSFERENCE REACTIONS TO COMPUTERS

by John Suler, Ph.D.

You as You, Computer as Parent

You as Parent, Computer as You

In this type of transference, a person's mind reverses the roles played by the child and parent. A clearly visible, and pathological, example of this is when the abused child grows up to become a child abuser. This is a process of "turning the passive into the active" where the child's feelings of helplessness and anxiety in the face of being controlled, manipulated, and used is warded off in adulthood by assuming the role of one who is powerful and in command.

It's possible that some users might abuse their computers just as they might have been abused, to a greater or lesser extent, within their family of origin. But computers are expensive. For most people, the possibility of damaging them would not be very satisfying in the long run. On a more subtle level, people who once were controlled, dominated, and manipulated within their family - as if they were not really people at all, but just objects to be used - may very well as adults treat their computers in the same manner. Anger and outright rage at the computer, when it doesn't behave the way YOU want it to, may be a symptom of this kind of transference. This may have been the same emotional reaction of the disappointed, "betrayed" parent.

The computer also can be perceived, almost lovingly, as one's baby. You attend to it's needs, nurture it, help it develop and grow (by adding software and hardware). Not unlike Jenny, who assumed a parental role towards her father, you feel protective and responsible for the computer's well-being. You become invested in it's strivings and achievements, even taking pride in the new things it can do. With delight and wonder, you take part in the creation of a new individual with it's own unique abilities and personality. It is a reflection of you, YOUR abilities and personality, but you also realize that much of what you have done is to direct and shape the raw qualities and potentials that already existed inherently in your "baby." And quite unlike real life babies, this silicone substitute will never become independent and leave you. For some people, that may be a very attractive proposition.

You as You, Computer as Wished-For Parent

Many people wish, consciously or unconsciously, that their parents could have been different in some way. That wish may shape their perception of the computer as possessing those desired characteristics.

Sam's mother was, to use a less than technical term, "crazy." Her behavior and emotions were unpredictable. One moment she would be caring and loving, and the next harsh, critical, and punishing. Never being able to tell what was coming his way next, Sam became a hypervigilant, paranoid child. He needed always to be on the lookout for subtle cues indicating how his mother would behave. He tried to anticipate her moves, but often was not successful.

Feeling helpless and angry (in some ways similar to Leonard), he experienced life as unpredictable, dangerous, and beyond his control.

As an adult, Sam takes comfort in his computers. They possess the qualities he wished his mother had - predictable, reliable, non-judgmental, and no unexplained emotional outbursts. If he applies his hard-earned skills at analyzing the subtle details of how it behaves, almost all of the time he CAN predict and control how it will behave. There is very little intimacy and "loving" feelings towards his computer. But that's quite OK by him. Those things only got him entangled in trouble with his mother. In fact, he takes some pleasure in his cold dominance over the submissive machine.

Lorna experiences her computer quite differently. She sees it as a benign presence. It is always there, waiting for her. It pays attention to what she wants and gives immediate feedback. It allows her to express her thoughts, her feelings, her creativity. It takes and accompanies her wherever she wants to go on the internet. She almost sees it as a very responsive, compassionate companion who recognizes her value and individuality as a person. It even HELPS her develop her individuality.... How unlike her parents who were so busy and preoccupied that they often neglected to show an interest in her life.

You as Wished-For Parent, Computer as You

In this last type of transference, a reversal once again occurs - only this time the user acquires the wished-for parental qualities and the computer becomes like the child. Often people strive for the benign qualities that were missing in their parents - which is often a matter of reversing some characteristic of the parent. Sometimes that reversal may go too far. If your parents were too strict, you may become too liberal with your child. If your parents were uninvolved in your life, you may become too intrusive in your child's life.

Becoming the wished-for parent of one's computer may follow the same pattern. Users strive to be "good" to their computer in ways that their own parents were not "good" to them. In some cases they carry that effort too far. One user is careful about making sure her computer is safe and healthy. Another becomes so worried about viruses and possible damage to his machine that he refuses to explore the internet, is wary of installing new software, and rarely lets anyone else use it. One user takes interest in what goes on "inside" his computer and so tries to learn about its hardware and software. Another becomes so invested in the technology of her machine that it becomes an obsession that rules her life.

You are Me, I am You, We are All Together

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.

 

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