Understanding Transference In Psychology

By: Nadia Khan

Updated May 04, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: 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 client's past. Freud found that transference can be destructive or helpful during therapy depending on how the patient and therapist interact. The client 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.

Types Of Transference

All transference is psychologically the same basic principle. However, in order to make it easier to talk about, experts have classified a number of subdivisions of transference based on how transference manifests in an individual’s relationships with others.

Non-Familial Transference

This type of 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 Transference

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

Paternal Transference

Paternal transference is much like maternal transference, except 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 paternal transference, as is the case with negative maternal transference, could bring about strong feelings of rejection, and feelings of being inadequate as a person, or could create an unhealthy reliance on this person who does not actually view themselves as a paternal figure to the individual.

Sibling Transference

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.

Patient-Therapist Transference

Transference also includes the patient's expectations about how they will behave and feel, and what their expectations are from the therapist.

The client's expectations may include love, disapproval, and an entire range of emotions. Clients might even subconsciously behave in a way that produces the reactions they are expecting from the therapist, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

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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 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 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 different 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.

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 client has a greater understanding of the transference, they 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 occurring toward their therapist. The first method is when the client communicates their feelings directly with the therapist. In this case, the client realizes what is occurring.

The second method of transference is symbolic. The client may communicate transference through their experiences or stories. The stories or experiences can resemble their perception of the relationship with the therapist. The client 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 client 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 the therapist is their mother. The client may expect the therapist to fulfill all maternal needs that were not fulfilled as a child. In this case, the client 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, but rather a projected image of one. The client is seeking a relationship with another individual whom 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. 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 client understand the meaning of the transference that is occurring.

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 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 needs to work to help the client 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 on the identification of 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 as the patient's issues are worked through. That requires exploring and then resolving issues that the client 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.

Finding Help With BetterHelp

If you think that transference or other mental and emotional health disorders are negatively impacting your quality of life, it may be time to seek professional help. Online therapy with BetterHelp could be an option for you.

Online therapy has been found to be 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. Additionally, 98% of BetterHelp users have made significant progress in their mental health journeys, 96% prefer it to in-person therapy, and 91% of users report that it’s there exactly when they need it. This is compared to ratings of in-person therapy of 74%, 60%, and 63%, respectively.

Finding mental health resources like those that we have discussed in this article can be difficult to find in some areas, or are difficult to afford for some people. BetterHelp has the added benefits of being accessible anytime and anywhere – you’ll just need an internet or data connection to get started. Additionally, it’s typically cheaper than in-person therapy since our therapists don’t have to pay to rent out office space and clients don’t have to commute to sessions! Sessions can be held via phone call, video chat, texting/instant messaging, live voice recording, or any combination thereof that works for you.

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