What is Transference?

Published on: 20 Jul 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
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Updated 12/20/2021

Originated by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, transference is the experience of a person’s expectations, feelings, and desires unconsciously transferring and being applied to another person. Often this term refers to a person’s experience in therapy, wherein the person who is in a therapy session begins redirecting certain unresolved conflicts and emotions toward the therapist. 

While it may be surprising, this experience is a normal part of psychotherapy, and it can happen both on the part of a person seeking treatment, as well as on the part of the therapist.

Types of Transference

The process of transference happens unconsciously from one person to another. In therapy, it happens when a person receiving treatment applies emotions and expectations toward a therapist. When it occurs, a person may start to interact with their therapist as if he or she is the individual in their past experiences. 

Generally, it takes shape when recounting certain childhood relationships. This is a common experience and does not necessarily mean anything is wrong. Even so, understanding the common types of transference can be beneficial to spotting it when it occurs.

  • Paternal transference. This form of transference occurs when a person views another person as a father figure. This takes shape as the belief that another person is in a position of power, has authority, and can give sound advice and protection.
  • Maternal transference. Similar to the paternal example, in this instance, an individual treats another person as an idealized mother figure. They likely view this person as caring and expect them to be nurturing and comforting.
  • Sibling transference. Often this can be experienced when parental relationships are not super strong and take shape as more peer-based interactions rather than a leader/follower relationship.
  • Non familial transference. This form of transference takes shape when a person treats others as idealized versions of what they are expected to be rather than their authentic selves.

How Transference Impacts Therapy

In psychotherapy, transference is an important concept to pay close attention to, as it can potentially cause a wedge between a client/therapist relationship. However, transference can also have a positive impact when guided by an experienced therapist to help their client recognize their emotions. 

“It would be unwise to be the amateur therapist for a friend or family member because transference can endanger the relationship. As wounds begin to surface, the role that you play can morph into something that can be unintended.”

Dr. Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD 

Transference can have a positive impact on therapy when used correctly. This happens when the client is able to recognize the projection they are demonstrating when the therapist addresses it. The client is then able to make the connection that they exercise this kind of projection with other people in their life. Once the client has this insight they can work on addressing issues in their interpersonal relationships that may have been caused by this kind of projection in the past. This leads to healing in the therapy relationship and with others as well. One study found that benefits of transference as it pertains to psychotherapy include improved insight and affect expression. 

Some believe transference feelings signify a deeper issue or lingering feelings in your life. When you experience a strong reaction to something the therapist says or does, therefore, it may help hint at that suppressed feeling that is at the root of that reaction. In these instances, a therapist can take time to better understand a person’s projected feelings and help identify the cause of the experienced emotions.

Recognizing Transference in the Moment

Fortunately, there are also some ways to identify and normalize these types of attachments with your therapist. Start by recognizing that developing a close attachment with your therapist through transference feelings happens all the time. 

Because many therapists are interested in relational issues, they are able to openly discuss why the projections might be occurring. If you are made uncomfortable by your feelings, you can simply detail them to your therapist, and they’ll help address the situation.

When projected feelings of transference start to show up in the therapy relationship, try to step back and remind yourself that this is your therapist and not the person you have these suppressed feelings for. You can make a list of the ways your therapist is different from the person you have these feelings about to help distinguish the two, while taking time to clear your mind before a session begins. If you feel your emotions will greatly impact your ability to receive a positive outcome, it is always possible to seek out support from another therapist and practice.

Reverse Transference

In a therapy setting, countertransference occurs when a therapist begins to project his or her own unresolved conflicts onto their clients. While transference between a client and a therapist is a well-known possibility, it is important for a therapist to be able to identify countertransference when it happens and try to remain neutral. This form of transference takes shape in the following common ways:

  • Subjective
    In this instance, a therapist’s own unresolved issues causes them to project unresolved conflicts onto their clients.
  • Objective
    Here, a therapist’s reaction to a clients’ anxiety or intense emotion results in them using those feelings in the therapeutic relationship.
  • Positive
    Possibly damaging to the therapeutic relationship, this results in the therapist over-supporting or trying to befriend the client.
  • Negative
    This occurs when a therapist acts out against uncomfortable or negative feelings negatively by being overly critical and rejecting the client.

While therapists generally try to avoid feelings of countertransference during sessions with clients, it can have some positive benefits. One study found that in certain instances of positive countertransference, it can help strengthen the bond between a therapist and client and eventually lead to positive outcomes and improvements for the client.

Better Understand Yourself

Transference and countertransference are relationship issues, albeit the relationship with your therapist, and — although they can be uncomfortable experiences — they provide you an opportunity to better understand your thoughts, feelings, fantasies, and relationships.

“When transference or countertransference occurs it can be an enlightening experience because you become aware of your triggers and can more easily trace the origin or cause. It can be used as a therapeutic tool to explore feelings and topics that could stay hidden.”

Dr. Karmen Smith, LCSW, DD 

Additionally, by arming yourself with the knowledge to identify and address transference and countertransference in a therapeutic setting, you are better equipped to tackle any potential negative impacts. Understanding the process of  transference will help guide individuals to recognize and work through complex dynamics and feelings. 

Sources:

  1.  Sohtorik İlkmen Y, Halfon S. Transference interpretations as predictors of increased insight and affect expression in a single case of long-term psychoanalysis. Res Psychother. 2019;22(3):408. Published 2019 Dec 20. doi:10.4081/ripppo.2019.408. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7451340/.  Accessed December 13, 2021.
  2. Transference. http://changingminds.org/disciplines/psychoanalysis/concepts/transference.htm. Accessed November 30, 2021. 

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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