Emotional Health

When the Past Interferes with the Present

Another very common way zombies influence us concerns body image. No matter what we may look like as an adult, many of us are profoundly impacted by the body image we carry from childhood. This can be especially difficult for kids who are “different” in some way. Often those who are overweight or deviate in some way from the accepted “norm” are teased or even shunned by their peers. They feel like they are second-class in some way, and because they are just children, they don’t understand why and feel powerless to fight it.

I have known many ugly ducklings who have grown into swans, but who retain an inner self-image of being physically unattractive, sometimes even hideous. Sometimes the divergence can be quite extreme, as in this example:

Chloe was a successful fashion model in New York. A stunning beauty, she was often the subject of unwanted attention because of her good looks. She was very uncomfortable with herself, and took no joy from her good fortune. When she wasn’t working, she dressed down, sometimes even sloppily, and made no effort to highlight her assets. Having been overweight in grammar school, she could not overcome her sense that she was actually unattractive. She said, “I know logically that I am not since people pay to take my picture. But I never feel that way inside.”

Another example of “the body zombie”:

Paul was an attractive looking man over six feet tall. Women often flirted with him, but he was oblivious. He had been a cute boy, but extremely small, and had been treated almost like a doll by his family. He was still just 5 feet tall when he graduated from high school, and grew almost 12 inches the following year. But inside he still felt like a little boy, and unconsciously expected others to see him that way too.

The prominent psychoanalyst and author Paul Wachtel uses what he calls the “woolly mammoth” metaphor to explain how our attitudes and feelings can get “frozen and buried” just as they were in the past, at the time they occurred. He is referring to the discovery of such creatures that were remarkably well preserved, frozen in ice, looking much they way they did when they died.

I added the zombie metaphor because it describes how old feelings can become “reanimated.” Freud, early in his work, began to see that his patients were directing feelings toward him that were really about figures from their past. At first, he thought of this tendency, which he called “transference,” as an impediment to therapy. But then he had the brilliant insight that transference was a way that people relive the past in the present, and by analyzing these real and present feelings much could be accomplished. Analyzing transference became one of the key tools in psychotherapy, and it remains so to this day.

Though we often recognize triggers, transferences, which can include whole sets of complex feelings, can operate undetected. Do you know someone who has a recurrent problem dealing with authority figures of a certain gender? This could be transference in action. Or when someone repeatedly engages with the (same) wrong kind of romantic partner, this is often a sign that transference may be influencing her.

I think that one reason that zombies are such a popular cultural idiom is that they strike a chord with our sense that powerful, painful emotions lurk within us. Like vampires, we fear them not only because of the harm they can cause us, but also because we fear becoming one of them. But unlike vampires, there is nothing glamorous about the zombie’s power—it is relentlessly destructive.

That is also true of old, buried feelings that cannot be acknowledged. We fear them, and fear their power. In this way, they are vampire-like in that the best way to defeat them is to expose them to the light. If you find yourself reacting too strongly, or too often, to something and are getting tripped up by it, consider looking to your past. Understanding history is the best way to move on and stop making the same mistakes over and over.



Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.