Countertransference

When I started this blog, one of the first things I did was tell my parents about it. I knew I’d be writing about parts of my childhood that reflected on them, and I wanted them to know the information was out there and not hear about it from others; and to be honest, I wanted the sense of accountability that would come from knowing my parents knew about my blog, so that I was never tempted to say anything here that would reflect badly on them.

(Not that I’d have anything like that to say! Hi, parents!)

I also post the link to this blog on my personal facebook page, which means that all kinds of people, from my church friends to my sixth-grade crush to my former coworkers to my extended family, have access to what I write here.

(Hi, friends and acquaintances!)

Still, even though I know they know about this website, it’s thoroughly surreal to me when I’m talking to a family member and they refer to something specific I’ve written here — there’s still a disconnect for me between my blog life and my family life, even though I know that Venn diagram overlaps quite a bit.

Why, they’re out there, reading this, right now. (Hi, family!)

But what do I write about when what I have to contribute to the fatosphere is about my family? What do I say about the baggage I’m carrying after ten days visiting my extended family, baggage I wasn’t carrying before I left home? How do I write about the disorder and disconnect I feel when my body, my fat body, marks me as different from them in a way we’ve been trained from childhood to recognize as bad – that for all I know, they still think of as bad? Knowing that they’re listening, how can I authentically deconstruct the sick feeling of wondering if they think something’s wrong with me, that they’re reading these words right now and nodding their heads yes?

When I’m with my family, there are biscuits and sausage gravy and a half-dozen kinds of homemade jam; there are eggs and grits and coffee and so much laughter. When they’re thinking Uncle Jaime’s big breakfast, hurrah! I am thinking about getting to the table before all the armless chairs are gone so I don’t have to spend the meal wedged into a too-narrow seat. When they are laughing and making conversation I am trying to do the same thing while watching to see how many biscuits my thin cousins are eating and not taking more than them, and going easier than I’d like to on the gravy, because I don’t want them to see me eating and think, glutton. When I’m with my family I am conscious, so conscious of being the only fat person there, and I am trying desperately not to stand out.

Not to be the elephant in the room.

Later, we go camping, and I am careful to sit in one of the Premium Camp Chairs that’s designed to hold up to 325 pounds, not the regular ones that hold up to 200; if one’s not available, I make an excuse to stand. I am famished from hiking and pitching tents and chasing kids on the playground, but I eat only as many hot dogs as I think I should be seen eating, not as many as I’m hungry for. When we rent paddle boats for an hour, the boat tilts dramatically when I sit down in it, and I try to cover my mortification with false cheerfulness when I say I’d rather stay on shore and read my book with my toes in the lake.

I spend the week trying not to draw attention to the difference between my body and theirs, and trying not to reinforce the stereotypes I’m still afraid they believe: glutton, lazy, no self-control. When my size does become a limitation, I am filled with shame, certain I am fulfilling their expectations.

All the ways I feel healthy and confident at home disappear when I’m with my family. When I’m with them, all my hard-won sanity evaporates.

My therapist defined a new word for me today: countertransference, when a psychoanalyst takes on the client’s issues and experiences an emotional reaction to them, rather than remaining in an objective, diagnostic role. It’s revealed by the therapist’s personal, emotional response — when a therapist feels self-conscious about her own lack of makeup in the presence of a client who is obsessed with physical beauty, for a very simple example. In a nonclinical setting, countertransference is essentially: letting someone else’s disordered worldview infect your own healthy one. Personally taking on the other person’s emotional baggage instead of setting a boundary that says, no, I won’t carry that.

And in this case, I’ve taken one family member’s obsession with absolute control of one’s physical body – an idolization of the state of being in Perfect Physical Health and a desperation to control one’s biology – and put it onto myself, like a smelly, rotten coat over my clean clothes. I’ve held myself up to one person’s disordered, impossible standard, and then in my insecurity assumed that everyone else was measuring me by the same ridiculous norm. I made another person’s sickness my own instead of rejecting it for what it is: sickness, idolatry.

In my mind, I let another person’s disorder make me into the elephant in the room, instead of being what I am: cousin, niece, sister, daughter, granddaughter, mother. Healthy. Sane. Cheerfully imperfect.

Beloved.

(Hi, family!)

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2 thoughts on “Countertransference

  1. Countertransference = New Word of the Day! This is so relevant to me, and many others too. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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