Transference

Updated January 26, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Understanding the psychology of transference can be a difficult concept to grasp. Transference is described as a psychological situation that occurs when an individual’s emotions and expectations toward one person are unconsciously transferred toward another person. Freud first developed this concept in his book Studies on Hysteria(1895)

Therapy Is A Dynamic Process

In his book, he described the psychological intensity of the feelings that developed during his own experiences with patients. Freud explained that patient-to-therapist psychological transference occurs unconsciously when the patient transfers their emotions to the therapist they are seeking psychological treatment from.

Freud asserted that the psychology of transference is often related to unresolved issues occurring in the client’s past. Freud found that psychological transference can be destructive or helpful during therapy, depending on how the patient and the therapist interact. The client will often unconsciously continue the behavior even when it is pointed out to them.

Since Freud, there have been other psychologists who have attempted to describe the psychology of transference. In The Psychotherapy Relationship, Gelso defines psychological transference as “the client’s experience of the therapist that is shaped by his or her structures and past, and involves displacement onto the therapist, of feelings, attitudes, and behaviors belonging rightfully in earlier significant relationships”.

Both definitions concur that the psychology of transference involves experiences from an individual’s past. Psychological transference most often occurs in therapy situations, but there are other types as well. Experts have classified several subdivisions of transference based on how it manifests in an individual’s psychological relationships with others.

Common Relationship Types Affected

Non-Familial 

This type of psychological 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.

Maternal 

This kind of psychological transference occurs when an individual treats another person the same way they would treat their mother or other maternal figure. 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 a lack of comfort and nurturing.

Paternal 

Paternal psychological transference is much like maternal psychological transference, except the individual looks at another person in a fatherly role. The individual may expect more than is reasonable of an authority figure or someone who takes on a powerful role. Negative paternal transference, as is the case with negative maternal transference, could bring about strong feelings of rejection and inadequacy. Or, they could create an unhealthy reliance on this person.

Sibling 

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

Therapist 

In a patient-therapist relationship, transference can be complex. Transference can include the patient’s expectations about how they will behave and feel as well as their expectations of the therapist. The client’s expectations may include love, disapproval, or an entire range of emotions. Clients might even subconsciously behave in a way that produces the reactions they are expecting from the therapist, as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. It is important to realize that this concept is not an exact distortion or a repetition of the past. It is the client’s interpretation of interactions with the present.

For instance, say a patient develops romantic feelings toward their therapist, and the therapist does not return those feelings but reinforces the acceptable boundaries between client and therapist. The client may experience the same feelings of hurt, abandonment, or anger as they experienced in past relationships. If the patient never comes to understand what is happening, progress will not be made.

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

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

Common Communication Patterns

There are several ways clients may communicate the transference occurring toward their therapist. The first method is when the client communicates their feelings directly with the therapist. In this case, the client is aware of the transference.

The second method is symbolic. The client may communicate through their experiences or stories, which may portray their perception of the relationship with the therapist. 

The third method occurs through the communication of dreams and fantasies experienced by the client. The patient may have dreams about the therapist, where the therapist is present, or about the current relationship with the therapist. 

The fourth method is enactment, where the client takes on a particular role with the therapist. A patient may take on the role of a child treating the therapist as though the therapist is their mother. The client may expect the therapist to fulfill maternal needs that were not fulfilled as a child. 

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. The major concern is that the patient is not seeking to build a relationship with an actual person, but rather a projected image of one. 

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. Change can only occur through the patient’s re-experiencing and understanding of these processes. Major techniques in dealing with transference involve intervention to interpret occurrences and develop explanations for the transference. Interpretation helps the client understand the meaning of the transference that is occurring.

It may be 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 just 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 client must be made aware of what is occurring. The therapist may need to work to help the client identify the cause of  the transference. The therapist may recommend certain techniques such as the patient keeping a journal, for instance. This will help the patient identify triggering occurrences causing the transference. Through identifying such occurrences, reoccurrences of transference can be prevented or minimized.

A therapist might also educate a patient on the identification of situations in which transference may be taking place. This process usually requires the repetition of events and interpretations of those events over an extended period. This can lead to an understanding followed by a transformation as the patient’s issues are worked through. That requires exploring and then resolving current issues such as the client’s current relationships, work, or family of origin. This process of applying what is learned in therapy to other situations is referred to as generalization.

Finding Help With Therapy

Therapy Is A Dynamic Process

If you think that transference or other mental and emotional health challenges are negatively impacting your quality of life, it may be time to seek professional help.

It’s ironic, but sometimes the very issues that you need treatment for are the same ones that keep you from seeking help. For example, social withdrawal is a symptom of many mental health conditions, and it could prevent you from seeing a therapist in person. 

In cases like this, online therapy could be an option for you. This type of remote treatment can be accessed from home or anywhere you have an internet connection. It’s also more convenient since appointments can be made day or night. 

Online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy in treating a large variety of mental health conditions such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, trauma, and relationship issues, among others. A meta-analysis of studies confirmed that there is no significant difference between online therapy and traditional office-based therapy in terms of outcomes. 

Continue reading to find some reviews of our board-certified therapists from people seeking help with similar issues:

Therapist Reviews

“Lauren has helped me out with my anxiety and stress around relationship issues. She’s super easy to talk to and I enjoyed that she keeps the conversation going with great feedback.”

“I was in a bad headspace before connecting with Amanda. She has been so helpful! I have started my journey into mindfulness with her and have gained a variety of CBT tools with her help. I am now better able to control my emotions of anxiety and stress, cope with my past, and start to live my life with peace. I feel like she helped me get back not only to my old self but help me start to grow into the best version of myself. She is there for you with tools if you need them or just to listen if you tell her that’s what you need. In these times of chaos, it’s wonderful to feel like you have someone in your corner and on your side. If you suffer from anxiety or self-esteem issues, I highly recommend her!”

Takeaway

Transference is like many other thought patterns— it isn’t inherently good or bad. However, it can have positive or negative consequences based on the situation, our awareness of it, and our ability to control it. Therapy is personal, and not everyone will go into it seeking the same things. If you’ve decided that therapy is right for you, answer a few brief questions to get started.  

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