Understanding Transference In Psychology

By Nadia Khan

Updated April 30, 2020

Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

What Is Transference?

Understanding transference in psychology can be a difficult concept to grasp. In psychology, transference is described as a situation that occurs when an individual's emotions and expectations toward one person are unconsciously redirected toward another person.

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Sigmund Freud first developed the concept of transference in his book Studies on Hysteria (1895). In his book, he described the intensity of the feelings that developed during his own experiences in therapy with patients. Freud explained patient to therapist transference occurring unconsciously where the patient transfers his or her emotions toward the therapist he or she is seeking treatment with.

Freud asserted that transference is often related to unresolved issues occurring in the patient's past. Freud found that transference can be destructive or helpful during therapy depending on how the patient and therapist interact. The patient often unconsciously continues the behavior even if it is pointed out to them.

Since Freud, there have been other ways of describing transference. In The Psychotherapy Relationship, author Gelso defines transference as "the client's experience of the therapist that is shaped by his or her psychological structures and past, and involves displacement onto the therapist, of feelings, attitudes, and behaviors belonging rightfully in earlier significant relationships." Both definitions agree that transference involves experiences from an individual's past. As described above, transference most often occurs in therapy situations, but there are other types.

Other Types of Transference

Non-familial transference occurs when individuals treat others according to what they have idealized the person to be instead of who they are. This can happen with any individual who fulfills a role in the person's life. For example, the individual may treat a teacher or doctor as only their role is the factor for which the base their opinion on.

Maternal transference occurs when an individual treats another person the same way they would expect their mother or a maternal figure to be. If they have had a positive relationship with their mother, they may reach out to the individual for comfort and love. However, if the individual experienced a negative relationship with their mother, they may have deep feelings of rejection and lack of comfort and nurturing.

Paternal transference is much like maternal transference except when the individual looks at another person in a fatherly role. The individual may expect more of an authority figure or someone who takes on a protective or powerful role. Negative transference like maternal could bring about strong feelings of rejection, and feelings of being inadequate as a person.

Sibling transference is unlike maternal or paternal. In this case, it does not take on a leader and follower role. It occurs in more of a peer or colleague situation.

Patient-Therapist Transference

Transference also includes the patient's expectations about how he or she will behave and feel and what his or her expectations are from the therapist. The patient's expectations may include love, disapproval, and an entire range of emotions. The client may even expect to experience abuse or abandonment from the therapist. Clients might even subconsciously behave in a way that produces the reactions they are expecting from the therapist.

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It is important to realize that transference is not an exact distortion or a repetition of the past. It is the client's interpretation of interactions with the therapist.

For instance, a patient develops romantic feelings toward the therapist. Then the therapist does not return those feelings and reinforces the acceptable boundaries between patient and therapist. When the patient expected the therapist to return those feelings and they weren't, the patient again experienced the same feelings of hurt, abandonment, or anger experienced in other past relationships. If the patient never comes to understand what is happening, little or no progress toward dealing with the transference will be made.

Whether the transference is positive or negative, it can be beneficial to therapy in different ways. Positive transference may lead the patient to view the therapist as kind, caring and personally concerned about his or her well-being. Negative transference may cause the patient to re-direct anger, sadness, and other negative feelings toward the therapist.

However, the therapist may be able can help the patient use these projected emotions to create an understanding of why the transference is occurring. Once the patient has a greater understanding of the transference, the patient can begin dealing with the issues causing the transference and begin the healing process. Freud used transference as a tool crucial to understanding the patient's subconscious or repressed feelings.

Communicating Transference

There are several ways clients communicate the transference that is happening toward their therapist. The first method is when the patient communicates their feelings directly with the therapist. In this case, the patient realizes what is occurring.

The second method of transference is symbolic. The patient may communicate transference through his or her experiences or stories. The stories or experiences can resemble his or her perception of the relationship with the therapist. The patient may or may not realize transference is occurring.

The third method of transference occurs through communication of dreams and fantasies experienced by the client. The patient may have dreams or fantasies about the therapist, where the therapist is present, or about the current relationship with the therapist. The patient may or may not realize transference is occurring.

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The fourth method is enactment, where the patient takes on a particular role with the therapist. For instance, a patient may take on the role of a child treating the therapist as though he or she is his or her mother. The patient may expect the therapist to fulfill all maternal needs that were not fulfilled as a child. In this case, the patient usually does not realize transference is occurring.

Issues Regarding Transference

Several serious issues can occur during transference. The patient's mental health and relationships are affected and can be helped or harmed by transference. The major concern is that the patient is not seeking to build a relationship with an actual person. In reality, the patient is seeking a relationship with another individual who they have projected feelings and emotions toward.

Dealing with Transference

Dealing with transference in therapy involves more than just talking about events and feelings in the patient's past or current experiences. It is also a lived experience, where the therapist helps the patient reach the core transference issues within the therapy. Change can only come about through the patient's re-experiencing and understand these processes.

Major techniques in dealing with transference involve intervention to work on interpreting occurrences and developing explanations for the transference. Interpretation helps the patient understand the meaning of the transference that is occurring. Interpretations occur about many of the life issues of a client, but primarily address unconscious and conflicted aspects.

It is important to understand the definition of interpretation in therapy. In therapy, interpretation offers an alternative perspective to what is being perceived. The way the therapist interprets it is as important as the content of the interpretation. Even if a correct interpretation is made but conveyed in the wrong way, it may not be therapeutic to the patient at all.

To deal with transference, the patient must be made aware of what is occurring. The therapist needs to work to help the patient identify occurrences causing the transference. The therapist may recommend techniques such as the patient keeping a journal. This will help the patient identify triggering occurrences causing the transference. Through identifying such occurrences, reoccurrences of transference can be minimized.

A therapist might also educate a patient in treatment on the identification of various situations in which transference may be taking place. This process usually requires repetition of events and interpretations of those events over an extended period. This leads to an understanding followed by a transformation of the patient's issues are worked through. Working through the transference requires exploring and then resolving issues the patient has.

This might include current relationships, work, a family of origin and the transference. In therapy, this process of applying what is learned in therapy to other situations is referred to as generalization.

The therapist might suggest techniques such as journaling. Journaling can allow a person in therapy to identify possible patterns in both thought and behavior, through the review and comparison of past entries. When examples of problematic transference become more recognizable, a person in therapy may be able to explore reasons why the transference occurs and help prevent its recurrence.

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Freud, S. ([1911] 1958) Psycho-analytic notes upon an autobiographical account of a case of paranoia (Dementia Paranoias), in J. Strachey (ed.)The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 12. London: Hogarth.

Freud, S. ([1912] 1958) The dynamics of transference, in J. Strachey (ed.) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 12.London: Hogarth.

Freud, S. and Breuer, J. ([1895] 1955) Studies on hysteria, in J. Strachey (ed.)The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud,Vol. 2. London: Hogarth. (Grant & Crawley, 2002, p. 139)

Gelso, C.J. and Hayes, J.A. (1998) The Psychotherapy Relationship. New York: Wiley.

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