Idealizing transference and religion

Had some thoughts after church today, coming from worship and also from many experiences as a chaplain. As one who gravitates towards psychoanalysis (especially Kohut’s theory of Self Psychology) and spiritual direction (especially the tradition of the Christian mystic), there are some things that stand out to me differently from when I did my theological training in seminary. As one who has merely scratched the surface of Self Psychology, I may butcher the theory as I reflect on this, but I hope it provides some usefulness as we think about God, religion, and a deeper awareness of the Self.

Self Psychology breaks down the three basic self object needs into mirroring, idealizing, and twinship. Mirroring is hearing from caregivers that I am wonderful, special, and valuable. Idealizing is having someone I can rely on who is a image of “calmness, infallibility, and omnipotence.” Twinship is having those who I can feel similar to and be in like relationship to. When these needs are not met sufficiently, an individual suffers from self object need derailment and will seek to meet these needs in increasingly unconscious ways – self object need transference.

It is the Idealizing transference that I pick up on a lot with religion. It makes sense to me and it fits when it is minor. It can be helpful, good, and stabilizing to the self to give God

There is significant benefit in seeing the God who exists both in light and darkness, in presence and in absence.

the role of a perfect, stable, faithful foundation. After all, to make this transference with a human makes for a much quicker “frustration” as a human is soon to let us down at some point. But this frustration is what we need to form a health sense of self. In religion this idealizing transference can go overboard, with some potential life-shattering results.

Essentially, an idealized transference happens when there is a low sense of self worth, an ingrained feeling of not being able to do it on my own. Often fathers and elders meet this basic idealizing need, and in recent history of suppressed emotional expression, working away from home, and at times, narcissistic tendencies, many men and women suffer from a deep woundedness in this area. If we have not had good relationships with idealized figures who show their lack of perfection and therefore encourage us to hold ground in our self, we will constantly be looking for others (God/Jesus included) to be that foundation.

Sadly, and often, life happens for people and their faith is shattered because God doesn’t seem to pull through for them. This is very real and frankly, many of our worship songs don’t prepare us for this. I see this in the hospital, and it is one of the reasons I say to people, “I have come to learn that often the answers we easily come to in church, don’t really fit in the hospital.” There is significant benefit in seeing the God who cannot be so easily pinned down and understood, the God who is at times unexpected (the Wild Goose in the Celtic tradition), the God who exists both in light and darkness, in presence and in absence.

This is such a scratching of the surface, but it gets me thinking. Here’s a really good from a therapist/mother’s perspective: Demigods on Eggshells.

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