Understanding Transference In Psychology

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
The American Psychological Association defines transference in the following way: “in psychoanalysis, a patient’s displacement or projection onto the analyst of those unconscious feelings and wishes originally directed toward important individuals, such as parents, in the patient’s childhood.”

Freud first developed this concept as well as the opposite phenomenon of countertransference, which can occur when the therapist projects onto the client. Transference was a transformative concept in psychoanalysis and can still play a role in interactions between therapists and clients today.  

Below, we’ll explore the concept of transference in psychology, including the different types of transference and ways in which it can influence a person’s thought processes. 

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The psychology of transference

Freud described the psychological intensity of the feelings that developed during his own experiences with patients. Freud believed that patient-to-therapist psychological transference occurs unconsciously when the patient transfers their emotions to the therapist.

Freud asserted that the psychology of transference is often related to unresolved concerns occurring in the client’s past. Freud believed that psychological transference could be destructive or helpful during therapy, depending on how the client and the therapist interacted. The client may 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 can occur when individuals treat others according to what they have idealized another 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 another 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 it could create an unhealthy reliance on another person.

Therapist 

In a patient-therapist relationship, transference can be complex. Transference can involve the client’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. This is not considered an exact distortion or a repetition of the past. It is thought to be the client’s interpretation of interactions with the present.

For instance, suppose a client 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 client never comes to understand what is happening, they might not make progress.

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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 their 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 client 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 may begin addressing the concerns causing the transference and start the healing process. Freud used transference as a tool to understand the client’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 client may have dreams about the therapist or about their current relationship with the therapist. 

The fourth method is enactment, wherein the client takes on a particular role with the therapist. For example, the client may expect the therapist to fulfill maternal needs that were not fulfilled as a child. 

Concerns regarding transference

Several serious concerns can occur during transference, as the client’s mental health and relationships can be affected in various ways. One major concern is that the client might not be seeking to build a relationship with an actual person but rather a projected image of one. 

Addressing transference

Addressing transference in therapy typically involves more than just talking about events and feelings in the client’s past or current experiences. It is also considered a lived experience. Change can only occur through the client’s re-experiencing and understanding of these processes. Major techniques in addressing transference involve intervention to interpret occurrences and develop explanations for the transference. Interpretation may help the client understand the meaning of the transference that is occurring.

It may help to understand the definition of interpretation in therapy. In therapy, interpretation typically offers an alternative perspective to what is being perceived. The way the therapist interprets it can be just as important as the content of the interpretation. If a correct interpretation is made but conveyed in the wrong way, it may not be therapeutic to the client. 

To address transference, the client typically 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 client keeping a journal. This may help the client identify triggering occurrences causing the transference. Through this process of identifying instances of transference, reoccurrences of transference may be prevented or minimized.

A therapist might also educate the client on the identification of situations in which transference may be taking place. This process may require the repetition of events and interpretations of those events over an extended period. This may lead to an understanding followed by a transformation as the client works through their concerns. This process typically requires exploring and then resolving current concerns, such as problems with 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.

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Finding help with therapy

If you think that transference or other mental health challenges are negatively affecting your quality of life, it may help to speak with a licensed mental health professional. If you feel hesitant to sign up for traditional in-office therapy, you might benefit from online therapy. This type of remote treatment can be sought from home or anywhere you have an internet connection. You can connect with a therapist via audio, video, or live chat at a time that works for you.

Research shows that online therapy is effective in treating a variety of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, phobia, and substance use disorder. A meta-analysis of studies published in the Journal of Technology in Human Services confirmed that there is no significant difference between online therapy and traditional office-based therapy in terms of outcomes.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources. Support is available 24/7.

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Takeaway

Transference is a phenomenon that can occur between client and therapist, and it can have positive or negative consequences based on the situation, a person’s awareness of it, and the therapist’s ability to interpret it. If you would like to explore the concept of transference in greater detail, you may benefit from talking to a licensed therapist, whether in person or online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has knowledge of transference and experience treating whatever specific concerns you’re facing. Take the first step toward getting support and reach out to BetterHelp.
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