What is Transference?

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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 therapy, 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 therapy, transference is an important concept to pay close attention to, as it can result in potentially damaging types of thinking and behaviors. These thoughts and behaviors can impact a person’s ability to experience a positive outcome.

One of the biggest issues occurs for a person who establishes a relationship with a therapist — but who is merely a projection of their feelings and emotions toward someone else — will not be able to develop a more authentic and sustaining relationship with their therapist.

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

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 the transference of your emotions 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 seep into your therapy session, try to actively separate feelings for your therapist from the figure from whom you’re transferring emotions. You can make a list of the ways your therapist is different than your template 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 him or her to project unresolved conflicts onto their clients.
  • Objective
    Here, a therapist’s reaction to a clients’ anxiety or emotions result 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 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, for instance, 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.

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. When you explore the reasons behind transference, you can help understand why it occurs and how to prevent its recurrence in the future.

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