by John Suler, Ph.D.

You as Parent, Computer as You

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

Some type of transferences (called "selfobject" transferences) involve a bolstering and enhancing of one's sense of self. When the parent admires the child's painting, acknowledges her thoughts about a TV program, or empathizes with her feelings of anger, sadness, and delight, the child's identity is fortified through this "mirroring." When a boy imitates his father mowing the lawn, or a girl plays with Mommy's briefcase, this identifying with the parent in an "idealizing" relationship augments their self-esteem and sense of self. So too in a "twinship" relationship when siblings play and work with each other. The feeling that "we are doing this together" satisfies their thirst for knowing who they are by what they do with others. In these forms of transference, there is a blending of oneself with the other, so that the other person is not necessarily experienced as a separate person, but as part of oneself.

Users may rely on their computers to clarify and strengthen their sense of identity. The computer is attentive and accommodating to their needs. It mirrors them. As users customize its hardware and software, the computer becomes more and more like a responsive reflection of their needs, feelings, and ambitions. It is part of them, a reflection of who they are, a world created from within themselves. By idealizing it, by participating in all the amazing, powerful things a computer can do, users strengthen their own confidence and feelings of success. By spending time together with their computer, it becomes a reassuring extension of their motivations, personality, and inner psychological life - like a good buddy, a sibling.... a twin.

But there is a danger in relying too heavily on the computer as a support to one's identity. Placing all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea. The system may crash at exactly the wrong moment. The hard-drive may fail. For any of a wide variety of reasons, your treasured machine may be taken from you. The rug has been pulled out from under your feet. You feel betrayed, abandoned, lost..... resulting in anger and depression.

Perhaps all computer transferences involve a blending of the user's mind with the "cyberspace" created by the machine. Cyberspace indeed is a psychological space, an extension of the user's intrapsychic world. Using psychoanalytic terms, we would say that computers create a transitional space - an intermediate zone between self and other - where identifications, partial identifications, internalizations, and introjects interact with each other. In more plain language, we would say that cyberspace is a zone where the big and little bits of our parents and siblings that we've taken into our own minds and personalities become free to express themselves, to play, work, fight, and, ideally, make peace with each other.

How Do You Know It's Transference?

Psychological reactions to one's computer (and any significant "other") may be a complex combination of some or all of the types of transference described above. Mother, father, and sibling transferences can interact and change over time. It's often difficult detecting the interpersonal origin of one's thoughts or feelings towards the silicone-other. When thinking about transferences in real life, clinicians often ask themselves, "Who is doing what to whom?"

So how do you know when you're having one of these transference reactions to your computer? .... There are some tell-tale signs. When you want to throw the damn thing against the wall. When it "makes you" feel betrayed and disappointed. When you feel lonely and empty because you have not had enough time to spend with it. When you often want to be at your keyboard more than you want to be with family and friends, or when those people comment on how attached or emotional you get towards it. Any seemingly exaggerated or "inappropriately" strong feelings towards your machine probably means you think of it as more than just a machine.

Transference also may be rearing its head whenever one feels addicted (see "Why is This Thing Eating My Life"). Computer addictions often mean that the user is attempting to use the cyberworld to satisfy some strong internal need, but the strategy never quite works. One never feels fully satisfied or complete because the frustrated need arises from something that was or is missing from one's relationship to real world people. The computer has become an inadequate substitute target for that unfulfilled need.

Adult and Machine

Growing up into a mature adult is a gradual process of realizing how the mental models from our childhood have shaped our relationships and our lives. Sometimes these models steer us in the right direction - towards the right people and activities - and thereby enrich our lives. Sometimes not. We may need to challenge, develop, or outright abandon some of them. In all cases, the enlightening path is to see these models for what they are - simply models. After all, the computer is not Mom, Dad, Sister, or Brother. It's just a computer. Once you fully realize that, you become free to enjoy cyberspace in the ways that you wish, without any unconscious strings attached.

Back To Part I


See also:

Why is This Thing Eating My Life?: Computer and Cyberspace Addiction at the Palace

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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